Opening the Bible together – an enduring friendship and lasting legacy

In 1990, on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in remote northwest South Australia, two women were introduced by the church in Ernabella. This introduction – and the openness of both women to the call of God on their lives – led to a deep and enduring friendship, and a lasting legacy, to the glory of God.

Ann Eckert and Kanytjupai Armstrong’s friendship began as they met to open the Bible together. Their goal was translation – to record the words of God in the Pitjantjatjara language. As they started out, Kanytjupai was shy; she hadn’t any experience in translation. “Over time I realised what a humble, teachable, patient and keen person God had provided,” says Ann. Kanytjupai invited her school friend Margaret to join them in the task of translation. “Margaret was a wonderful committed Christian,” Ann explains, “and was more bilingual and a good addition to the team.”

As a team, Ann, Kanytjupai and Margaret set to work on translating the Bible into Pitjantjatjara. “Kanytjupai’s strong ability and passion was insisting on naturalness in the Pitjantjatjara translation, without letting the form of English influence our work,” explains Ann. “I worked by pre-studying the text, with commentaries so I could help untangle and clarify meaning.” Kanytjupai’s embrace of natural language complemented Ann’s background in biblical languages and education. Kanytjupai went on to be one of the first to get her Certificate IV in Translating and grew proficient on-the-job. Ann remembers, “Kanytjupai wanted to be true to the text, even if it meant a potential clash with something of traditional culture. She said, ‘I don’t want God to accuse me of tampering with his word.’ Even if it meant misunderstanding or persecution, she remained resolute and faithful.”

“She never, till her dying day, got distracted from that task. It was God’s purpose for her.” – Ann Eckert

From the moment the church at Ernabella chose her to join the task of Bible translation, Kanytjupai “She realised some people couldn’t read; some people found her life’s purpose. “From that moment, she threw herself into that purpose,” Ann recalls. “She never, till her dying day, got distracted from that task. It was God’s purpose for her.”

When the Pitjantjatjara Shorter Bible was published (the New Testament and 15 per cent of the Old Testament) in 2002, Kanytjupai rejoiced, along with many others. “Kanytjupai wanted the text to be so readable and natural that once we published in 2002, we’d find her with her pencil, still wanting to edit ‘just little bits’!” says Ann.

When the team decided to push on with Old Testament translation in 2010, Kanytjupai “got busy again,” says Ann. “Even when a stroke robbed her ability of writing easily, she enlisted ‘scribes’ to continue; even a faithful friend who was with her in ICU once was asked to get to work alongside her!”

Kanytjupai also participated in the Pitjantjatjara New Testament multi-voice recording project in Alice Springs in early 2018. “She was an excellent reader,” recalls Ann. “We were so pleased she was able to record three chapters of Romans. She was also doing a written translation, helping with the audio, and she had diabetes, she was on dialysis, she had both legs amputated and in a wheelchair. She was tenacious.”

Her greatest desire was to have God’s word translated into her heart language, Pitjantjatjara, so that more people could know God’s love.

Kanytjupai could see the opportunity presented by having an audio version, including the chance younger children would have to hear it, and the opportunity to have the Bible on people’s phones.

“She realised some people couldn’t read; some people wouldn’t read,” says Ann.

Kanytjupai first-drafted more of the Old Testament than anyone else to date: Deuteronomy, half of I Samuel, Daniel, Proverbs, many Psalms and was more than halfway through the Song of Songs when she passed away in 2018. “The day before she passed away, she wasn’t ready to give up, as the translation was not finished,” Ann recalls. She kept singing the chorus He’ll Never Let Go of Me in Pitjanjtjatjara. The next day, she passed into God’s presence.”

Kanytjupai lived a life committed to God, leaving a lasting legacy in the lives she touched and the Scriptures she translated. Her greatest desire was to have God’s word translated into her heart language, Pitjantjatjara, so that more people could know God’s love.

Karen Mudge is Copywriter for Bible Society Australia.

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