David Barnett is a Bible translator for Bible Society Australia, who specialises in translating the First Nations Pitjantjatjara language. Here he shares how Bible translation is helping to preserve, and even resurrect parts of, this ancient language. 

Makinti Minurtjukur has recently been translating the Book of Proverbs into Pitjantjatjara. As I was keyboarding her handwritten draft of Proverbs 15:19, I came across a Pitjantjatjara word I hadn’t seen before. In English (NIV), Proverbs 15:19 reads, “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway.”

The English front translation that Makinti was translating from reads, “There are lots of prickles growing and covering a lazy person’s path …” For “sluggard” or “lazy person” Makinti had written “nyuuru-nyuuru”. Unfamiliar with this word, I looked it up in the Pitjantjatjara dictionary, only to find it wasn’t there. After a few phone calls to Makinti and other translators, I discovered the word means something like “sleepy”, “lethargic” or “lazy”. It can also have the sense of “apathetic”, “half-hearted” or “unmotivated”. In fact, the only other occurrence of this word in the Pitjantjatjara Shorter Bible occurs in Revelation 3 to describe the Laodicean Church as “lukewarm”.

If it weren’t for the fact that we have put it in the Pitjantjatjara Scriptures, it would probably be lost forever.

Nyuuru-nyuuru is one of many old Pitjantjatjara words that are no longer in common use among Pitjantjatjara speakers, and if it weren’t for the fact that we have put it in the Pitjantjatjara Scriptures, it would probably be lost forever. One of the by-products of translating the Bible has been the steady collection and preservation of old words that, with the passing of another generation, would otherwise soon be extinct.

In a checking workshop of 1 Samuel earlier in the year, I discovered “nyultju”, an adjective to describe the Israelites’ “blunt” instruments, and a word not currently in the Pitjantjatjara dictionary. “Kaltara” is another word missing from the dictionary, but present throughout the Pitjantjatjara Bible, meaning something like “clear” or “clean” – probably traditionally used to describe clear or clean water found in a rock-hole, but now used to describe anything from David’s “beautiful eyes” (1 Samuel 16:12), to the Apostle John’s vision of a “sea of glass” (Revelation 15:2).

Just as Samson unexpectedly stumbled across the jawbone of a donkey (Judges 15:15-17), so we rather fortuitously stumbled across “lakilpa” (“jawbone”) while translating this section of the Book of Judges. An initial draft of Judges 15:15 had Samson fighting the Philistines with a donkey’s tooth, but it was only later in a group check of this chapter – when the translators were discussing with each other and trying to picture Samson fighting off 1000 men with a tooth – that one of them remembered this older word for jawbone. Lakilpa was another word that was not previously in the Pitjantjatjara dictionary, until now.

At last count we have recorded 27 old Pitjantjatjara words over the last five or six years that are in the Pitjantjatjara Bible, but not in the Pitjantjatjara dictionary. We still have perhaps 40 per cent of the Old Testament to translate, so who knows how many more words we’ll come across?

The Bible not only preserves old words but creates new ones.

Of course, the Bible not only preserves old words but creates new ones. For example, “Loving-kindness” only came into the English language because Bible translators had to work out how to translate the Hebrew “ḥeseḏ”, and in certain contexts, the English terms “love”, “mercy” or “kindness” didn’t always do the Hebrew word justice.

As mentioned above, “laitji” is now commonly used by Pitjantjatjara people for “lazy”. And previously there was no single Pitjantjatjara word that corresponded to the English word “thanks” or “thank you”, but as this is such a common term in the Bible, Pitjantjatjara people are frequently heard transliterating this term with “tjantju” – especially in their prayers. And so now there is a Pitjantjatjara word for “thank you”!

We give thanks to God for the gift and variety of languages he has given us to make more sense of his world, and we look forward to that day when we will join with that “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lama-lama” (Revelation 7:9).