Reading the Bible “in the original”
Winter 2022-2023 Newsletter on the Kurdish-Kurmanji project

The full Bible in the Kurmanji dialect spoken by Kurds in Armenia and Russia is in the final stages of work, and we at IBT hope that it will be published already in 2024. At this last stage of work, the figure of the philological editor becomes particularly important. This is the translation team’s mother-tongue Kurmanji speaker who improves the translation in terms of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and naturalness, and together with the other team members assesses corrections suggested by reviewers. In the course of the past several decades of work, the IBT/SIL/UBS Kurmanji translation project has had several philological editors, and a highly professional new language specialist joined the team in 2017 – just in time to pull together the work on the full Bible. After taking part in the recent audio recording of Jonah, Bakhram (we are using a pseudonym for safety reasons) shared with IBT staff his impressions of the work and also the story of how he joined the project.

 “It was known among the Kurdish community that I was teaching Kurmanji at Moscow Linguistic University, and one day I received a telephone call from Seraphim (Bakhram used his Kurdish name, but we are giving the monastic name of a Kurd who had converted to Orthodox Christianity and become a monk – see his story in Glimpses of the Glassy Sea, pp. 64-65). Seraphim said: ‘Uncle Bakhram, I need your help with translating Orthodox texts into Kurdish, and I would also like to take lessons from you to improve my Kurdish.’ So I invited him to visit me in Moscow and we worked together.”Here I interrupted Bakhram with an exclamation of surprise that he happened to be Seraphim’s uncle. Bakhram smiled and explained that the address form “uncle” is typical when speaking to a respected senior person in Kurdish culture. Then he continued: “Seraphim told me that there is a certain Institute for Bible Translation, where among other languages the Bible is being translated into Kurmanji and a specialist like me is badly needed. He asked me if I would like to get acquainted with them, and I agreed. I got in touch with the Kurdish project co-ordinator, came to the IBT office and saw Kurdish Bible translations for the first time.”

I posed my next question: “What was your impression of these texts?” Bakhram’s answer was deeply emotional: “My primary impression was and is that the people who took on the job of translating the Old and New Testaments into Kurmanji are true heroes! We Kurds don’t have a country of our own, we don’t have officially codified language norms, nor any institutions that specialize in Kurdish language development. Each village has its own speech variant, and finding the golden middle that is understood by all is incredibly difficult. I’ve dealt with many translations in my life, so I understand what a hard job it is in general, but to launch into Bible translation is the highest level of difficulty. When I want to understand a Bible passage, I take several Russian and Armenian translations and compare them with each other, but these people have produced their Kurmanji translation from scratch! I could never have taken upon myself such a tremendously difficult task.”

I asked Bakhram to say a few words about himself and whether the Bible had played any role in his life before joining the IBT translation team. This is his story: “My roots can be traced to the Kurdish genocide by the Ottoman Turks. My grandfather perished then and my parents moved to Armenia as children. I was born in the 1950s in Soviet Armenia. After school I wanted to study history and found that a specialization in Kurdology was offered by the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Armenia. This is where my scholarly studies began.” I then asked Bakhram if traditional Yezidi Kurdish society allowed him to pursue a university education, but my question proved irrelevant, since that was still the Soviet era when all religious views contrary to the state ideology were persecuted. Athough receiving an education is considered a sin in the Yezidi tradition, Bakhram said that in the USSR no Kurdish Sheikh or Pir was ready to go to prison for preventing young Kurds (even girls!) from receiving an education. Nevertheless, the family of Bakhram’s parents was rather traditional. They observed all the Yezidi rituals, holidays and fasts. Although Bakhram loves Kurdish folklore and their interesting wedding customs, funeral ceremonies, etc., he gets annoyed whenever he is asked about Yezidi beliefs and says that there is no clarity in anything and there are many contradictions in Yezidi teachings. Paradoxically, the Yezidi community in the Soviet Union was spared assimilation by the Muslim environment of the rest of the Kurdish people. This is how Bakhram describes it: “We are now criticizing our Soviet Yezidis, but, on the other hand, how else could they have survived in the midst of this Middle Eastern world? Almost all other Kurds converted to Islam. Just about the entire Kurdish world adopted Islam, while this part did not accept Islam!”

It was interesting to listen to Bakhram because his position is radically different from that of IBT’s other Kurdish team members. All the others are Christians, who converted from the Yezidi religion as a result of their personal search for God and truth and then dedicated themselves to Bible translation. Although this dedication made them heroes in Bakhram’s eyes, Bakhram considers Christian preaching in general to be a threat to the Kurdish Yezidi culture that he loves and studies as an orientalist. During our interview, there was a heated dispute between him and another team member. Bakhram insisted that if the unique Yezidi culture disappears, this will be an irretrievable loss for all of humanity. This topic highlights the sensitive and tragic conflict between the value of traditional culture and the value of individual human souls. During the argument among the Kurdish team members, the project co-ordinaor returned our discussion to the Bible. He asked Bakhram if the Bible had influenced him personally in any way, and after all the preceding polemics we were surprised to hear the following:

“It certainly has, in a simply human way. When you read the Bible, you see the origin of good, you see what is truth and what is not truth, and what a person should be like. When a normal human being is reading this, what will his attitude be? It will of course be positive, very positive! I am very glad that I now know the Bible from the beginning to the end. Prior to this work, I knew that there was Christianity, I knew about Christ, but I didn’t know any of the details contained in the Old and the New Testaments. So engaging with the Bible was very interesting for me as an orientalist. I am very grateful for this opportunity. I had studied world religions at the university, heard about Orthodoxy, studied the history of the Koran, etc., but only this work in IBT’s Kurdish translation project provided the occasion for me to actually read the Bible from beginning to end in the original…”

My heart jumped for joy when I heard this slip of the tongue by our professor of Oriental Studies, who obviously knows that the original languages of the Bible are Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek and who is himself correcting the Kurdish translation as a translation. Nevertheless, he called the Bible in his mother tongue the original and didn’t notice his mistake. I didn’t correct him either, but simply enjoyed the power of the moment and the reconciling power of the Bible. The human mind has many contradictions… and the Bible continues to speak directly to the heart.

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