Making the stories of God accessible to Indigenous Australians

Susanna Baldwin, Kathy Dadd and Dave Glasgow were thrilled to launch the Plain English Version Mini Bible at the Katherine Christian Convention in the Northern Territory at the weekend.

Susanna and Kathy have taken over the bulk of the translation work from the revered “old man” Dave Glasgow, who launched the project to make the word of God more accessible to speakers of Aboriginal languages who learn English as a third or fourth language.

The Mini Bible contains most of the New Testament and parts of the Old Testament, including Genesis Chapters 1-21.

Susanna Baldwin, left, and Kathy Dadd proudly display the brand new PEV Mini Bible.

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Speaking to about 200 people at the Saturday night celebration event, Dave mentioned that the Plain English Version, or PEV, is being used by Aboriginal people not just in the Territory but all up the east coast as far as Cairns, as well as in the Pacific and Asia and even migrant communities in Australia.

It is also one of the most popular versions of the Bible downloaded on YouVersion – something that has come as a welcome surprise. 

In this article, Susanna Baldwin explains how her recent work in translating Genesis brings to life captivating stories that are good for sharing.

Let me tell you a short story from Genesis 30. To set the scene, arch-villain Uncle Laban has just pulled another shameless con trick on his nephew Jacob, who’s been working on his farm for a good 20 years. He’s promised Jacob a meagre share of the farm’s flocks – but none of the pure white sheep or black goats, only the animals with mottled black and white wool, and the odd completely black sheep.

Jacob barely has time to get his shepherd’s boots on and head to the fields before Laban scoots out ahead of him, rounds up all the multicoloured flocks, and sends them off with his sons to a place three days’ walk away. To add insult to injury, he then leaves Jacob in charge of the rest of his flock, knowing that he, Laban, will take all the profits from it. What a ratbag. Anyway, listen up to what happens next.

And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chestnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods.

Attendees at the Katherine Christian Convention listen to Bishop Greg Anderson preaching from the Letter to the Philippians about working together for the gospel.

And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink.

And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.

And Jacob did separate the lambs, and set the faces of the flocks toward the ringstraked, and all the brown in the flock of Laban; and he put his own flocks by themselves, and put them not unto Laban’s cattle.

And it came to pass, whensoever the stronger cattle did conceive, that Jacob laid the rods before the eyes of the cattle in the gutters, that they might conceive among the rods.

But when the cattle were feeble, he put them not in: so the feebler were Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s.

And the man increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels, and asses.

All clear as mud?

As you may have detected, that’s the tail end of Genesis 30 as translated in the much-beloved but somewhat outdated King James Version of the Bible (Genesis 30:37-43 KJV). Now my guess is, you probably understood 99 per cent of the words in that passage, and you could make a reasonable stab at the other 1 per cent. Like me, you may never have used ‘ringstraked’ in a sentence before, but you can get the idea pretty well from the context.

The sentences have a nice poetic feel but are pretty impossible to decipher unless you concentrate really, really hard.

But if this were the only translation of Genesis 30 that you had, do you think you could really grasp the sequence of events it describes or be able to talk about the theological truths behind it? How confident would you feel if someone put this in front of you and asked you to explain it to a friend or write a Bible study or a sermon on it?

It’s English, but not as we speak it. The vocabulary is archaic. The sentences have a nice poetic feel but are pretty impossible to decipher unless you concentrate really, really hard. And that’s before you get onto the bigger question of what on earth is going on with all these cattle and lambs and rods and troughs and speckles and spots, and how it could fit into the big picture of God’s creation and redemption story.

Kathy Dadd shows some girls how easy the story of Easter is to read in the Plain English Version.

Well, sit with that thought for a moment. I think it captures a little of what it feels like to read the Bible in English – any form of English – when you grew up speaking three or four or more Indigenous Australian languages and only added English later on – absorbing it over a period of time at school and in dealing with public services and through online media, while still living and breathing the traditional languages of your family and community.

For Indigenous language speakers, even so-called simple English Bibles … are as baffling and exhausting to read as the King James Version is for us.

Have a think about it. You might recognise several words on the page, but they don’t relate neatly to your everyday experiences or how you see the world. It sounds nice, but it’s not the way you talk. You can’t just read a sentence and translate it in your head because you can’t make sense of how the sentence is put together and what the different bits refer to. The architecture of the language is fundamentally different to yours. On top of that, the concepts and events being described belong to a foreign culture and a faraway era, and there may be no one around who can tell you what they meant then and what they mean now.

For Indigenous language speakers, even so-called simple English Bibles, such as the Good News or the CEV, are as baffling and exhausting to read as the King James Version is for us.

Of course, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t solve this problem by creating yet another English translation of the Bible. Our vision at the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL) has always been for people to access the Scriptures in their heart language, not an acquired language. But there is no quick or easy way to meet this goal in the Indigenous Australian context. Christians in remote communities are hungry for translation work and keen to help. Still, they often lack the time, resources and skills to make significant progress by themselves, and there are never enough trained linguists to support them.

The Plain English Version (or PEV) is an attempt to meet this need halfway by translating the Bible into a form of English that Indigenous language speakers genuinely understand and identify with. It breaks down complex words and abstract concepts into simple and concrete terms, using vocabulary familiar from everyday usage and readily understood by those with varied literacy levels.

It pulls apart complex grammar structures and reworks them into simple past, present and future statements that readers can relate to from their own languages. It juggles sentences and verses around to help narratives and arguments flow in a logical sequence. And wherever possible, it fills out background and contextual information implied but not explicitly stated in the original text. Our goal is that our readers will hear and take away the same meaning from the passage as the original audience would have done so that God’s message is both preserved and made accessible in a new way.

Our goal is that our readers will hear and take away the same meaning from the passage as the original audience would have done.

We want to give our Indigenous brothers and sisters a Bible that they can understand in their personal reading, teach to others, and ultimately use as a basis for their translation work into their heart languages.

So to round off, read our working draft of Genesis 30 in the PEV, and you can play spot the difference. Strap yourselves in; it’s quite a bit longer than the King James.

Then Jacob cut off some young green branches from the trees that were in that place. He cut off some branches from a tree called a poplar tree, and some branches from a tree called an almond tree, and some branches from a tree called a plane tree. Then Jacob pulled off some of the wood that was on the outside of those branches, so that he could see white bits underneath. In that way, those branches looked like they had spots on them, a bit like those sheep and goats that Laban’s sons took away. Then Jacob put those branches in the place where the sheep and goats used to come to drink water. And whenever the sheep and goats came to that place to drink water, the males and females joined together to make young ones, and they looked at those branches that had spots on them. Later on, when those young ones were born, they had black and white spots on their wool, a bit like those branches. And Jacob kept those young ones for himself, because Laban said, “You can take all the sheep and goats that have black and white spots on their wool.”

Then Jacob thought, “I want my sheep and goats to be stronger than Laban’s sheep and goats.” So Jacob waited until the strong sheep and the strong goats came to that place to drink water. Then Jacob got those branches that had spots on them, and he put those branches in front of the strong sheep and goats, and the males and females joined together to make young ones in front of those branches. Later on, when those young ones were born, they were strong too, and they had black and white spots on their wool. So Jacob kept those strong young ones for himself, because Laban said, “You can take all the sheep and goats that have black and white spots on their wool.”

But when the weak sheep and weak goats came to that place to drink water, and when those weak sheep and goats joined together to make young ones, Jacob didn’t put those branches in front of them. Then those weak sheep and goats had young ones that were weak too, and those young ones didn’t have black and white spots on their wool. Those weak young sheep were white, and those weak young goats were black. So those weak young ones belonged to Laban, because Laban said, “All the white sheep and all the black goats will belong to me.” In that way, Jacob got lots of strong sheep and goats, and Laban got lots of weak sheep and goats.

Jacob did another thing too. He took the white sheep that belonged to Laban, and he got those sheep to look at the black goats that belonged to Laban. Later on, those sheep had young ones with black and white spots on their wool. And Jacob kept those young ones for himself, because Laban said, “You can take all the sheep and goats that have black and white spots on their wool.”

Every time Laban’s sheep and goats had young ones with black and white spots on their wool, Jacob kept those young ones for himself, just like he agreed with Laban. Later on, those young ones grew up, and they had more young ones with black and white spots on their wool, and Jacob kept those young ones for himself too. In that way, Jacob got lots and lots of sheep and goats, and he became very rich. He also had lots of men and women that worked for him, and lots of camels and donkeys.

The PEV project has been running for about 20 years now. I’ve been on the team for the past two of those years. Most of the translation work has been done by the legendary Dave Glasgow, who turns 90 in a couple of months and keeps telling us he is “about to retire”, which we’ll believe when it happens. At this point, about three-quarters of the New Testament has been completed, the Book of Genesis is at the checking stage (woo!) and we have some other small excerpts of the Old Testament out and published. But there is a stack of work still to do, and very few of us doing it. So please pray for us, pray for the right workers to join the team, and pray that the PEV will keep growing and being a blessing to many Indigenous churches and communities and a stepping-stone towards more and more Bible translations happening in Australian languages.

You can order PEV resources for Indigenous ministry for free online at bl.org.au/content/aboriginal-resources/gjs3y0 or by contacting Bible League on 1800 800 937 or at [email protected]

The PEV is also available on Aboriginal Bibles website, the Australian Bibles app, the YouVersion app and the PEV app for Android phones.