According to Google, Socrates is quoted as saying – erroneously, “I only know one thing: that I know nothing.” Whoever said that 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 native Bible translation work. I was there with our head of Regional Support for Indigenous Missions to listen and learn and, as it turned out, unlearn. And while five days aren’t enough to learn much, it might be enough to open your heart and mind, change direction, and point somewhere else.
The core of Bible translation is the language of the heart, our family, our community, and our culture. God’s word, “alive and active,” works on our hearts and is the best read; it follows in our heart language. As a native English speaker, I am almost ashamed of the Bible’s richness in my heart: I can choose from a long, long list of different translations and paraphrases, over 100, each carefully tailored to other English language cultures and sensibilities.
It is estimated that between 120 and 150 aboriginal languages are spoken in Australia, 110 of which are considered endangered. There is only one fully translated native Bible.
Sit in there for a minute.
Many languages are asleep, a benign expression that belies the horror of heart languages being knocked out of a stolen generation.
However, that generation is now returning to the language of their hearts, elders reclaiming it and passing it on to the next generation. But there is no quick or easy fix: The translation work is the work of decades as congregation elders work with translation consultants to select and translate the Scriptures in and for their communities. As explained, the elders know which turtles they want and where they are; the whitefella takes care of the boat. But the nuance and complexity of that turtle hunt are astonishing. The translation is not a word-for-word conversion but a linguistic transformation to ensure that the meaning, the meaning, will be true for the community and culture for which it is being translated.
It is meaningless to say “white as snow” to someone who has never seen snow.
Special attention is paid to where figurative language can be taken as literal, with a keen awareness of the cultural meaning embedded in words. For example, saying “white as snow” to someone who has never seen snow is meaningless. And, at the other end of the climate spectrum and more complex, is the meaning of the word “desert”. In English, we can speak of a desert as a physical place, but it can also describe a spiritual place of desolation, drought, or exile. None of these concepts will work for someone who lives in a desert and sees the landscape as their life-giving home, not somewhere to get away from. Or, while we would long and pray that there would be a ‘burning’ feeling in our hearts (as Cleopas and his companion experienced when they met the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus), such a sensation would terrify many communities. , an indication of a black magical curse.
For someone who works with words, a week filled with such stories was a feast for the mind, but the one that touched my heart as much as my head was the one said to me by Mally McLellan, a translation consultant who works in the Galinwin’. W(You can read about Mally and her life helping native Christians meet God in language here.) worked for the Ku community on Elcho Island for over 20 years.
Claiming an object as so definitively yours—and by definition, no one else’s—was childish.
One day, while working with a native elder, she wanted clarification on how to say “my tape recorder.” She said the sentence as she thought it would be said, and as the elder confirmed that her translation was correct, her face told Mally something was wrong.
“What’s wrong with it?” she asked.
“There’s nothing wrong,” her friend replied, “but you wouldn’t say it.”
“Well, you sound like a two-year-old.”
Why? Because only a toddler would claim an object as his own, a possession. You could say “my head” or “my leg”, but to want to claim a thing as so definitively yours – and by definition, no one else – was, well, childish.
Our language reflects who we are. It reflects the culture it speaks; this was a language where ownership was kept light and communal.
In that little example, my white, western heart was utterly convinced. Our language, like us, like me, is possessive. Because we don’t just say “my” and “my” about little things like “tape recorders”; we’re talking about the big stuff – the most shameful, land, other people’s land, other people’s homes.
No one is disconnected. A mother’s sisters are the mothers of her children, not her aunts.
It is also reducing. When we say “family,” we often mean the nuclear family – two parents, maybe one, and a few children, not so much. However, family in native languages is much bigger: everyone is connected. No one is disconnected. People who come into the community are “adopted” and made part of the community (read the beautiful story of Rachel Herweynen here). A mother’s sisters are the mothers of her children, not her aunts: it is almost impossible for a child to be orphaned in this community structure. What a safety, what a safety net—and one that white invasion ripped to shreds when we orphaned the “untraceable,” that stolen generation. That whites are adopted at all speaks to a generosity of heart, a grace in offering atonement to the white hand that has snatched so much.
I have also learned that most indigenous people will speak three or four languages. No dialects, languages: the languages of their mother, father, and partner, languages with linguistic complexity, beauty, and nuance. Yet many white people, including I realized, judge them by the command of their perhaps fourth language, English, the language of their occupier, their oppressor.
I must unlearn my short-sighted, anglo-centric approach to language to serve my better native sister and brother better.ly. Do I have to learn other languages, but at the same time research the language I use, especially the possessive expressions, and frankly, stop talking like a two-year-old.
Maybe five days are enough to learn something important.
Susannah McFarlane is Head of Publishing at Bible Society Australia.