“I was not afraid”
Summer 2021, Newsletter on the Kalmyk project

Nina, a field tester in the Kalmyk Bible translation project, is one of the earliest local workers to get involved in IBT activities in Russia. She started her work with IBT in 1992 and has continued to the present day. When I asked her how she began working on Bible translation and whether she was chosen for this task because she was a language scholar or a Christian believer, she at first could not answer my question. It seemed that the exact reason was still a mystery to Nina herself. We started unravelling the tangle of that period of her life together.

“No, I wasn’t a language scholar. I graduated from medical college and continued my studies at the biological department of the university. For a long time, my education was in conflict with my newly acquired Christian faith. The story of Jonah and the whale, for example, was a huge stumbling block for me. As a biologist, I couldn’t believe that Jonah was in the stomach of a whale for three days, that he could breathe in there and survived. This episode remained a problem for me until I wrote to another scientist, who was known for his Christian faith, and he explained that the “whale” in the Russian Synodal translation wasn’t really a whale, but some big sea animal. A good proof of how significant accuracy in translation is.”

Nina continued: “You asked if I was invited to join the Kalmyk translation project because I was already a Christian in the early 1990s, when the vast majority of Kalmyks were either Soviet-era atheists or Buddhists, which is our traditional religion. Honestly, I don’t think my Christianity was mature enough at that moment to make me fit for Bible translation work. I was still new to the faith and didn’t yet understand very much.”

“Were you then known for your proficiency in your mother tongue?” I insisted.

“That I was,” she perked up, “but when I was asked to join the project, my first reaction was nevertheless ‘Why me? There are quite a few other people who speak good Kalmyk, but unlike me, they are professionals in the sphere of our mother tongue, and are teaching Kalmyk in schools or at the university.’ The person who invited me sighed and responded: ‘Yes, they are. But they are all afraid.’ I, on the other hand, was not afraid. Even now, when the project has been successfully developing for so many years, other team members sometimes complain that people tease them because of their Bible translation work. People say mockingly: ‘Are you now a Christian? Have you converted to the Russian God?’ But nobody teases me. Everybody is now used to the fact that I’m a Christian, because I never tried to hide this from the very beginning. People see my Christian faith and life style (no drinking or smoking, etc.) as part of my identity. So this may be the answer to why I was invited to join the project: I was not afraid.”

“I remember an interesting episode from my field testing. I was reading the beginning of a draft translation of Luke’s Gospel to an elderly lady, and she exclaimed, ‘This is not a new text. I remember it from my youth.’ I was shocked to hear this, and she continued: ‘A Buddhist priest read this very story to me in a Buddhist temple when I was a young girl.’ I started investigating the matter. It turned out that the pre-revolutionary Gospel translation into Kalmyk made by Professor Pozdneev in the 1880s and written in the old vertical script called todo bichig (“clear writing”) may have been preserved in a Buddhist temple together with Buddhist literature, which was also written in the old vertical script. In the years of state atheism and total religious confusion, the Kalmyk script was changed several times, and only Buddhist lamas remembered how to read the todo bichig script. It seems that a fragment of Christian Scripture ended up in this Buddhist monastery among fragments of Buddhist texts. At least this is the only explanation I can guess. So, in contrast to the idea widely held by Kalmyks that Christ is Russian God, here the Kalmyk Buddhist monks thought of Christian Scripture as their own. Look at how one’s mother tongue changes one’s attitude towards things!”

“In my family, my uncle was the only one who could read the old vertical script. He was a priest in a Buddhist khurul (temple). I still haven’t learned to read it because there is no need for this nowadays, since contemporary Kalmyks use a script based on the Cyrillic alphabet. But our exegetical advisor Alexander learned Old Kalmyk in order to investigate translation decisions in the pre-revolutionary New Testament translation and compare key terms with those used in the new IBT translation.”

“But let me return to why I decided to join the project. The project’s exegetical advisor at that time said that Bible translation was going to revive the Kalmyk language, and these words brought joy to my heart, so I immediately wanted to participate. Did you know that our Kalmyk language was and still is endangered? The entire Kalmyk population was deported to Siberia during Stalin’s regime, so that is where I was born and spent my early childhood. Paradoxically, we spoke Kalmyk while in Siberia, but we gradually stopped speaking our language after we were allowed to return to Kalmykia in the 1950s. Probably this was because our people had an acute desire to preserve our ethnic identity while we were dispersed among other peoples in exile, but after returning to their own land, Kalmyk communists wanted to confirm their loyalty to Russia, so Russian became the main language in Kalmykia. I was 12 when my family returned from Siberia. We continued to speak Kalmyk at home, but by this time Russian had already become the established language of school education in Kalmykia, with only two classes of Kalmyk language instruction per week. When I started working as a Scripture translation field tester, it didn’t even cross my mind to bring these texts to young people. I was sure that no young people knew Kalmyk well enough to help me in field testing. The field testing of the Kalmyk New Testament was done among elderly readers. My approach was to start speaking with people on ordinary topics, and when it proved that they were proficient in Kalmyk, I asked them to take part in field testing. But when our new exegete Alexander joined the IBT project, he was excited about the idea of Scripture engagement. He started an inter-church Kalmyk reading group, which is now led by a Kalmyk pastor. Now there seem to be quite a few Kalmyk young people who have a good command of our language and can be involved in field testing. Moreover, our Kalmyk reading group has become a place for developing our mother-tongue abilities. For example, we have a young woman who has started composing and performing Christian songs in Kalmyk, while I’ve writing poetry. New terms acquired thanks to Bible translation are starting to enter the language.”

Nina says that it’s really interesting for her to now work on field-testing of Old Testament books (Deuteronomy being the latest). The Pentateuch is expected to be submitted to the IBT publishing department in the near future. Nina’s next task will be field testing of the Minor Prophets Habakkuk and Malachi. We hope that the Biblical message from the Old Testament books will find an eager audience among both young and old readers.

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