What I learned, and unlearned, in five days in Darwin

Socrates is quoted as saying – incorrectly according to Google: “I know only one thing: that I know nothing.” Whoever said that, it pretty much sums up how I approached a recent trip to Darwin, as Head of Publishing at Bible Society Australia, to learn more about our Indigenous Bible translation work. And while five days is not enough to learn a lot, it is perhaps enough to open your heart and mind and, at least, change direction, point somewhere else. Accompanying our head of Regional Indigenous Mission Support, I was there to listen and learn and, as it turned out, unlearn.

At the core of Bible translation is heart language, the language of our family, of our community, of our culture. God’s word, “living and active”, works on our hearts, and so is best read, it follows, in our heart language. As a native English speaker, I have almost an embarrassment of Bible riches in my heart language: I can choose from a long, long list of different translations and paraphrases, over 100, each carefully calibrated to a different English language culture and sensibility.

There are estimated to be somewhere between 120 and 150 Indigenous languages still spoken in Australia, of which 110 are considered endangered. There is only one fully-translated Indigenous Bible.

Sit in that for a while.

Many of the languages are sleeping, a benign expression that belies the horror of the fact that heart languages were literally beaten out of a Stolen Generation.

From left: Susannah McFarlane, Louise Sherman and Sam Freney in Darwin.

That generation is, however, now returning to their heart language, elders reclaiming it, gifting it forward to the next generation. But there’s no quick nor easy fix: the work of translation is the work of decades, as community elders work with translation consultants to choose and translate Scripture in and for their community. As it was explained to me, the elders know which turtles they want and where they are; the whitefella provides the boat. But the nuance and complexity of that turtle-hunting is amazing. Translation is not a word-for-word transposition but a linguistic transformation to ensure the sense, the meaning, will be true for the community and culture it is being translated for.

It is pointless, literally meaningless, to say “white as snow” to someone who has never seen snow.

Special care is given to where figurative language could be taken as literal with an acute awareness of the cultural meaning embedded in words. For example, it is pointless, literally meaningless, to say “white as snow” to someone who has never seen snow. And, at the other end of the climate spectrum and more complexly, is the meaning given to the word “desert”. In English, we can talk of a desert as a physical place, but it can also be used to describe a spiritual place of desolation, dryness, exile – none of these concepts will work for a person who lives in a desert and who sees that landscape as their life-giving home, not somewhere to get away from. Or, while we might long for, pray for, there to be a ‘burning’ in our hearts (as Cleopas and his companion experienced having encountered the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus) such a sensation would be a fearful one in many communities, an indication of a black magic curse.

For someone who works with words, a week filled with such stories was a mind feast, but the one that caught my heart as much as my head was the one told to me by Mally McLellan, a translation consultant who has worked in the Galinwin’ku community on Elcho Island for over 20 years. (You can read about Mally and her lifetime of helping indigenous Christians meet God in language here.)

To claim an object as so definitively yours – and by definition no one else’s – was, well, babyish.

Working with an Indigenous elder one day, she wanted clarification on how to say “my tape recorder.” She said the phrase the way she thought it would be said and, while the elder confirmed her translation was correct, her face told Mally something wasn’t quite right.

“What’s wrong with it?” she asked.

“Nothing’s wrong,” replied her friend, “but you wouldn’t really say it.”

“Why not?”

“Well, you sound like a two-year old.”

Why? Because only a toddler would claim an object as their own, a possession. You might say “my head” or “my leg” but to want to claim an object as so definitively yours – and by definition no one else’s – was, well, babyish.

A Bible translation in progress at the AuSIL office in Darwin.

Our language reflects who we are. It reflects the culture that speaks it and this was a language where ownership was held lightly, communally.

In that moment, in that small example, my white, Western heart was utterly convicted. Because we don’t just say “my” and “mine” about little things, like “tape recorders”; we say it about the big things – most shamefully, land, other’s people’s land, other people’s homes. Our language, like us, like me, is possessive.

No one is disconnected. A mother’s sisters are her children’s mothers, not her aunts.

It is also reductive. When we say “family” we mean, more often than not, the nuclear family – two parents, maybe one, and some kids, not so many. Family, however,  in Indigenous languages is much, much bigger: everyone is connected.  People coming into the community are “adopted in”, and made part of the community (read Rachel Herweynen’s beautiful story here). No one is disconnected. A mother’s sisters are her children’s mothers, not her aunts: it is near impossible for a child to be orphan in this community structure. What a security, what a safety net – and one that white invasion ripped to shreds as we orphaned the “unorphanable”, that Stolen Generation. That whitefellas are adopted in at all speaks to a generosity of heart, a grace in offering reconciliation to the white hand that snatched so much away.

This picture at the NT Museum and Art Gallery sums up the cultural shift Susannah experienced in Darwin.

Most Indigenous people, I also learned, will speak three or four languages. Not dialects, languages: the languages of their mother, their father, their partner, languages with linguistic complexity, beauty and nuance. Yet a lot of white people, me included I realised, judge them on their proficiency of their perhaps fourth language, English, the language of their dispossessor, their oppressor.

I need to unlearn my blinkered, anglo-centric approach to language to better serve my Indigenous sister and brother. I need not only to lift up other languages but at the same time, examine the language I use, especially the possessives, and, frankly, stop speaking like a two-year old.

Maybe five days is enough to learn something important after all.

Susannah McFarlane is Head of Publishing at Bible Society Australia.