“I dream of translating the whole Bible into my mother tongue, and so far God has been helping me”
Spring 2022 Newsletter on the Abaza project

The twin-peaked Mount Elbrus is located right on the border of Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia in the North Caucasus region of Russia. Many well-known legends and myths have been reinterpreted by the local peoples and connected with their native lands and this enormous mountain: it was here that the Argonauts searched for the golden fleece, and Prometheus, who gave fire to mankind, was also chained to a cliff on Mt. Elbrus. The Abaza people see Mount Elbrus in the biblical story of the Flood. According to one of their legends, Noah's ark should have stopped on Elbrus. Noah addressed the mountain: “Please stop the ark, let it abide on your top!” But the mountain refused Noah, so the Lord punished it by splitting its top in two, and the ark eventually stopped on Mt. Ararat.

This version of the legend was recorded by Abaza poet and writer Alexander as a young man, while he was collecting the folklore of his native land. Many years later, Alexander began working on Bible translation into Abaza. He has published three collections of Abaza folk tales and says that there are many biblical plots in Abaza folklore. “Many traditional Abaza names are also derived from Hebrew, though they came via the Koran, not directly from the Bible. The Abaza words for ’church’ and ’Saturday’ are so reminiscent of the Greek Ekklesia and Hebrew Shabbat, that it would be interesting to investigate when and how they were borrowed. After all, such words could hardly have come via the Koran,” Alexander says.

How can we characterize the Abaza language? It is extremely complex… But such a definition has become commonplace when talking about most of the North Caucasian languages. Each is complex in its own way, and many are endangered. Here is a fascinating estimate about the Abaza language proposed by the project’s exegete Brian, an American linguist who has been working with the Abaza since the 1980s and who created the writing system for the Abaza people living in Turkey: “I have calculated that theoretically the Abaza verb can have 60 billion forms (!!), although not all of them are used in speech. Abaza has very short morphemes – they often consist of only one letter, and there can be many morphemes in a word: prefixes, suffixes, infixes, prepositions and postpositions”. About 15 years ago, when the Abaza Bible translation project was in its early stages, members of the translation team complained: “An average native speaker, even a well educated one, doesn’t have the vocabulary needed for Bible translation. And dictionaries are either unavailable or inaccessible. We dare not ask our more experienced language specialists for their advice for fear of misunderstanding or condemnation. The Abaza are a Muslim people, and for them Bible translation into their language is something new, suspicious and frightening.”

But finally, a team member found the courage to ask for help, and a miracle happened. The current translator, Alexander, turned out to be one of these “more experienced specialists” who were sorely lacking. Alexander himself doesn’t see anything special in the story of how he got involved in the project; for him it was a routine matter: “A colleague asked me if I could help her finish the translation she was working on at the time (the book of Jonah), and I said: ‘No problem.’ After finishing it, I was invited to the seminar for Bible translators in Moscow, and I liked that seminar very much. I still keep all the notes I made there, and I am re-reading them from time to time.” Alexander finished Jonah, then translated Ruth and moved on to the Gospels. He translated Matthew, and then together with the exegete they reviewed the existing translation of Luke and decided to re-translate it from scratch. From there, Alexander naturally moved on to Acts. Since he works for the local radio station, Alexander decided to try making some audio recordings of his translations in the station’s studio. He did the reading, and his colleague did the proofing. It worked out perfectly. Now Alexander includes readings from the Bible in his broadcasts on a regular basis. He is also distributing the published Scripture portions to 12 libraries in Karachay-Cherkessia, including the National Library.

Alexander does not speak of his mother tongue as endangered. He simply loves it and does his best to create new literary works in Abaza. All the rest, he believes, is in God’s hands, and it’s not up to man to judge: “It’s not my job to judge what awaits the Abaza people at the end of this century. Only God knows.” He doesn’t complain of any insufficiency of vocabulary either: “Our vocabulary is sufficient. The Abaza language is not poor. We have a literary language that has absorbed all the richness of different dialects. There is also a sufficient number of dictionaries. As a student I studied at the Institute of Foreign Languages and majored in German. Since my student days I dreamed of translating Heinrich Heine into Abaza. I finally succeeded, and a book of my translations of Heine’s works was published in 2007. Just as I dreamed of translating Heinrich Heine, so now I’m dreaming of translating this literary masterpiece – the Bible – into Abaza. It’s true, we are a Muslim society, but there is also a certain number of Abaza Christians. Only a few, but I still think it would be good to translate the Bible for them. I got acquainted with both the Bible and the Koran for the first time in 1987, and it was in Russian. Now I’m aware of various translations of the Bible and the Koran. I try to understand the Bible and the Koran more deeply. And I feel God helps me in this noble work.”

I presumed it was more interesting for Alexander to work on the Old Testament portions, taking into account his Muslim tradition and the similarity of many Old Testament and Koranic plots, but he gave an unexpected answer to my question about this: “Why should we divide the Bible? It would be good for the whole Bible to appear in Abaza. The most difficult thing in the process of translation is to get as close as possible to the original. This I consider the main task of the translator. To achieve this result, it’s important to work hard together with the exegete and with the translation consultant, and to go step by step, without skipping a single step of the translation procedure. Only then will the translation be good.”

Alexander regrets only one thing – that he started working on the Bible translation very late, at the age of 68: “But I am trying my best to lead a healthy lifestyle: I walk a lot and do physical exercise, so that I could finish what I have started, because translation requires good health. But so far God has been helping me! And my wife also helps me a lot. She supports me emotionally and sometimes she even gives me good advice in my translation. She is Russian and a Christian, while I am a Muslim. We have been together for 46 years already, and it seems to me that the two of us were created for this work.”

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