Why the work of Indigenous Bible translation will never be finished

Of all the things that Indigenous culture is rich in, apart from the universally treasured area of visual art, language holds an honourable place. There are a veritable kaleidoscope of Indigenous languages – an estimated 250 at the time of colonisation – and they’re not always separated by area.

Northern Australia is a “hotspot” for language diversity. Members of St Matthews Anglican Church at Ngukurr, in southern Arnhem Land, speak seven different languages. The small community of Maningrida in northern Arnhem Land is one of the most linguistically diverse places on earth, with 10 languages spoken by about 3000 people.

One of the reasons for this diversity is that children tend to inherit two or more languages through the kinship system, not only from their parents but also from their grandparents and great-grandparents.

So as much as Indigenous Christians long to have the Bible in their own heart language, two questions have to be asked: How many languages are there? and How many have already been done?

Unfortunately, there’s no straightforward answer to those questions.

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christians may dream of all Indigenous languages having their own Bibles one day, the reality is that this may never be achieved. And the reasons are multi-dimensional.

Interestingly, not only is the work not finished but in some cases, it is just starting! There is a need for more workers to join a project started by Louise Macdonald, the Uniting Church’s Coordinate resource worker, and Rachel Shipp – an Australian Society for Indigenous Languages (AuSIL) worker based in Maningrida. They are collaborating on transcribing a language from Jabiru, a township in Kakadu National Park, that doesn’t even have a name yet!

But even if one could compile a Master List of languages and start ticking them off, these translations refuse to stay ticked. We know this is so from our own experience of modern English Bible translations, which need to be updated every few decades to make them accessible to the younger generations.

“Languages are living things and always changing. Sometimes the change (or loss) is rapid and by the time a translation is complete, the younger people are speaking a different form,” writes Melody Kube in an article called Standing Armies, published by AuSIL, for which she is the Darwin-based publicist.

One example she cites is Warlpiri, a Western Desert language of the Northern Territory, which is one of the largest in Australia by the number of speakers. A Shorter Bible (New Testament plus some Old Testament books) was published in 2001. But 20 years later, that translation is reportedly usable only by people over 50 years old. The younger folk struggle to understand it because they continually innovate in their use of Warlpiri, mixing it with other languages they also speak, forming what has been called light Warlpiri.

Similar stories are heard among Tiwi, Garrwa, Gurindji, and many other communities. In fact, it’s possible that their flexibility to change may have contributed to the survival of Australia’s ancient languages.

When I visited the library in Nungalinya College recently, I was blown away by how many Indigenous languages were represented – maybe 30 or so. But my enthusiasm was tempered when I realised that one of these – Meriam Mir, a Torres Strait Island language – had a single translation dating from 1905! Imagine the changes in usage in the intervening century!

My Bible Society colleague Louise Sherman took a folder from the shelf that contained Bible portions in the Yanyawa and Karrwa (Garrwa) language. As she gingerly peeled the pages apart, the typescript from one page left an imprint on the preceding page, and we realised that this binder hadn’t been opened for very many years. This Bible version urgently needs digitising but it’s a huge job – and who is there to do it?

“Sometimes God is strangely ‘unstrategic’ (in our view), lavishing his love and attention on people groups whose language may be labelled ‘unviable’.” – Melody Kube

But rather than panic that the box of Indigenous Bible translation can never be ticked, Melody contends that Bible translators must avoid trying to measure success in terms of what they leave behind – because it may not outlast them.

“Does that mean we’ve failed? Not at all! We should instead look for results in the fruit that is ready right now, and more importantly, focus on our obedience in the present. We should be willing to serve without understanding what God may do with the big picture. The boxes, and the Master List itself, are up to Him,” she writes.

“Sometimes God is strangely ‘unstrategic’ (in our view), lavishing his love and attention on people groups whose language may be labelled ‘unviable’, or whose population is shrinking, showing again that He is nearer to the broken-hearted, preserving the crushed reed. It is not ours to know what criteria God uses in assigning his servants to the tasks he deems worthy.”

The more fruitful way forward, she suggests, is considering updates and revisions as part of the perpetual process of Bible translation rather than a chore or a criticism of what has been accomplished. In fact, revisions should be welcomed because a Bible translator gets better over time.

(On this note, a revision of Gumatj New Testament – the first New Testament to be published in a Yolngu language in 1995 – is to be launched in a few weeks.)

Melody writes: “David Blackman, who has been working for many years on the Alyawarr Bible translation, comments that by the time someone has translated several books of the Bible, their translations improve, become more readable, and are a better communication of the originals.”

“By the time someone has translated several books of the Bible, their translations improve, become more readable, and are a better communication of the originals.”

In the absence of perfectionism, the best solution is to publish frequently, in small volumes.

“The mini-Bible is a homegrown AuSIL concept. It’s a publication of whatever books of the Bible have been translated, released and made usable to the community, even while translation continues,” writes Melody.

“We can also publish individual books or even smaller portions. What if just one chapter whets a community’s appetite for more? And we can consider more ways to distribute the word of God than only traditional print options.”

The book of Daniel is Pitjantjatjara is a good example. Translators completed this book as part of the Old Testament Translation Project, but rather than wait until the whole Old Testament was ready – which could be 10 to 15 years in the future – the translated book was published as a single volume and distributed across the APY Lands.

Interestingly, the Pitjantjatjara Shorter Bible which was completed in 2002, was revised and reprinted in 2019. Also, the published in 2007 Kriol Bible was significantly revised and published in 2018.

We know that it’s the norm in modern English translations for perpetual revision, with committees continually considering improvements to their versions as English changes along with better translation techniques and greater resources. These are matters to be grateful for as we seek to understand God’s big story from generation to generation.

The situation is obviously different for minority language groups, who may only dream of having the resources available to modern English translations.

“We hope that the Pitjantjatjara team will stay strong, and become the standing army that their translation will need.” – Melody Kube

With the Pitjantjatjara Bible Translation Project set to be the second Australian Aboriginal language group to have a translation of the whole Bible, supporters want to know when the project will reach its goal?

But despite this natural human desire for completion, maybe it’s more edifying to value the work of translation, and the discipleship that goes along with it, rather than just its completion.

“We hope that the Pitjantjatjara team will stay strong, and become the standing army that their translation will need, even after they complete the Old Testament project. In surprisingly little time the ongoing work of revision will begin, prompted by the certainty of language change and the fact that translations can almost always be improved on each pass through,” writes Melody.