When my editor heard that the small township of Maningrida in northern Arnhem Land was the most linguistically diverse place in Australia with 10 different languages in a community of just 3000 people, he had an idea.
How cool would it be, he said, to take a photo of people from each language group in Maningrida with a New Testament in their own language?
I readily agreed. The only problem, as revealed to me by Rachel Shipp, the Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL) worker in Maningrida, is that if I had gone last month, there would have been only one person in the photo.
Burarra – the biggest language group in Maningrida – was the only one to have any Bible resources. Thanks to the long-term work of Dave and Kathy Glasgow, as reported in Eternity recently, there is a Burarra New Testament and other Scripture books.
However, last week, Rachel brought from Darwin freshly minted copies of Christmas in Maningrida, a brand-new illustrated book containing seven verses from the Gospel of Luke – Luke 2:6-12 – telling the story of Jesus’ birth in seven languages of Maningrida!
These are the first published Scripture verses in five of the languages – Ndjebbana, Kuninjku, Nakara, Kunbarlang and Rembarrnga. (Burarra has a full NT and Djinang has portions, although this section has not been previously published.)
The book evolved from a five-day workshop held in Darwin last May, supported by Bible Society Australia, which was attended by six people from Maningrida out of the total of 11 from different parts of the Northern Territory and Queensland.
The workshop kicked off an ambitious plan by AuSIL to produce a Christmas book telling the story of Jesus’ birth in many Aboriginal languages – about 40 at the last count – including those that have very little or no Scripture and even some “sleeping” languages.
“We wanted to get something out to people for this Christmas … to keep the momentum going, to keep the excitement up.” – Rachel Shipp
However, with that book nowhere near completion, AuSIL decided to rush out a smaller book containing just the Maningrida languages because there are so many of them.
“We wanted to get something out to people for this Christmas, to get it into their hands and keep the momentum going, to keep the excitement up. We don’t didn’t want to leave people waiting around for so long,” says Rachel.
Accompanying the texts are Rachel’s photographs from around Maningrida, one from each homeland represented, overlaid with line drawings of the Bible characters.
Rachel says she hopes the book will show the translators what they can do and inspire them to do more. This has already happened with one of the language groups, Kuninjku. Its translators were so keen they went on to translate the whole Christmas story – about three chapters of the Bible. This booklet is now at the printers and is expected to arrive in Maningrida by mid-December.
Since Rachel, her husband Greg and two small daughters moved from Canberra to Maningrida in September 2020, she has been researching community’s the translation needs so that organisations involved in Bible translation such as SIL and Wycliffe know how to best allocate resources.
“Initially I did a sweeping look across all the languages in Maningrida and then narrowed it down to the two biggest languages [after Burarra] based on what I found,” she explained.
The first is Kuninjku a form of Bininj Kunwok, which is the biggest language in West Arnhem.
“There is a New Testament in a different Bininj Kunwok dialect – Kunwinjku – but Kuninjku speakers aren’t interested in using it. I have been investigating why not and what we can do to engage people – do they need their own translation, or just help with literacy or ‘Scripture engagement’ (that is, someone to run Bible Studies and promote the importance of the Bible in worship).
“I have concluded that Kuninjku does need its own translation, but that we can use the Kunwinjku as a front translation, which makes it way quicker and easier than a full translation project. This also opens up involvement in translation to people who do not speak English well.”
The other language Rachel has been working on is Ndjebbana, which is the third biggest language and the Traditional Owner language for Maningrida – meaning that Maningrida township is built on land owned by a Ndjebbana-speaking clan group.
“Ndjebbana people have been asking for Bible Translation for a long time, and even started a translation project a while back, but haven’t really got anywhere. I’ve been investigating what’s not been working there and how we can help get things moving. Do they need training, other practical support, a different approach to the translation program structure, or something else?”
In addition, Rachel has been collaborating with Uniting Church worker Louise Macdonald, based in Jabiru, on creating a version of the Christmas in Maningrida book in another form of Bininj Kunwok whose speakers live at Manabadurma.
Rachel says her workload has been “pretty hectic” because “the point of my job is to work out what the needs are, but we don’t really have the personnel to fulfil those needs at the moment.”
“I’m supposed to be doing research. So there’s so much that needs to be done!” – Rachel Shipp
She says all of the languages she’s working with would benefit greatly from having a dedicated literacy worker, a dedicated ‘Scripture engagement’ worker to facilitate and encourage the use of the Bible through Bible studies, as well as a full-time translation adviser.
“At the moment I’m juggling all those roles myself. So we produce this stuff, like these Christmas publications, but then you need someone else to take that forward – like, we’ve got these books now and my hope is to go around and not just hand them out, but sit down with people and read them and talk with them about it,” she says.
“Strictly speaking, that’s not really my job. I mean, I’m trying to do that, but then that’s time taken away from doing translating with the Kuninjku translators – and I’m not even supposed to be doing that. I’m supposed to be doing research. There’s just so much that needs to be done!”
But Rachel is not disheartened because she has come to appreciate the heartfelt emotion with which Aboriginal people respond to God’s word when it’s in their own language.
“I’ve come to realise that Bible translation is not just about comprehending God’s word, it’s about relating to God. The languages that people identify with, they are very important to them. Even if someone can understand the Bible in another language, they’re still relating to God in a foreign language.
“And so for that person to be able to instead have God speaking to them in that familiar voice, which is completely appropriate because he does want to relate to us closely like that – he does want to relate to us like they would relate to their family members, in that personal language; that’s super important.”
Kuninjku, for example, has a lot of different dialects, so from an efficiency perspective, she says, it would be better to try to get everyone to read the Bible in the dialect that has the Bible.
“ ‘You’ll understand it better than English’, but saying that is really not good enough, because that’s not really how God operates. He doesn’t make us adjust and work to access him and his word – he comes to us. And so I think bringing his word to people in their real own languages is really valuable, even though it’s not very efficient.”
“They practise and practise and practise so that they can read it out at fellowship.” – Rachel Shipp
Rachel said the biggest motivator for her has been the keenness of the Kuninjku translators she’s been working with.
“They are so enthusiastic to do translation and then to read it, like we translate it and then we read it over and over because their reading isn’t very good, but they want to be able to share it with people. So they practise and practise and practise so that they can read it out at fellowship.
“It’s not just an exercise on paper; it’s really meaningful to them. They’re the ones that are always asking me, ‘come back tomorrow, are you coming tomorrow?’
‘I’ve got things to do but yeah, sure, I’ll come tomorrow’ – because they’re so keen.
“And when we translate something you can see when we read it back, they’re just reacting to it, like, ‘Oh, it’s so good!’
“It’s so good to see them react like that. If I do Bible study with people in English, it’s very unlikely that people just read the Bible and are like ‘wow, isn’t that true? That’s so amazing!’ So to see those kinds of responses to reading the Bible, it challenges me that I should react like that when I read the Bible because it is amazing!”