The birth of the Gospel in the Chukchi language
“The Gospel of Luke has been translated into the Chukchi language. The translation team includes experts and native speakers from the indigenous people group. Their purpose is to make sure that the translation is clear and intelligible to readers, and what is even more important, that the proper meaning, power, and spirit is conveyed by the text.”
These words were spoken on the local TV newsbroadcast in Anadyr, the capital of Chukotka. But these simple words of a short TV report do not give us the full picture of what strenuous creative efforts and what intellectual agony the task demanded. It does not show how many months and years first the translation and then the revision of a relatively small text of the Gospel of Luke actually required.
“Proper meaning, power, and spirit…” A true statement indeed, but how can it be achieved if, for example, there is no word meaning “God” in Chukchi (the only existing term is “Creator”)? Or if there is just one word to be used for both “angels” or “demons”? It is only with the help of additional explanations that one can distinguish one from the other, while the term in itself is altogether different from the reality described in the Gospels. In fact, the Chukchi word means neither “angel” nor “demon”, but rather some “personal spirit.” Let’s take a look at how the translator explained the meaning of this term during our long interview: “In traditional Chukchi culture, it is believed that my spirits are good, because they are doing good things for me, but someone else may think them to be not so good at all.”
“Do you mean to say,” I wondered, “that if there is enmity between two people, I will call my enemy’s spirit a devil and my own an angel?”
“It is like this indeed,” the translator agreed, as surprised as I was by this realization.
The translation project’s exegetical advisor struggles with difficult tasks. The meaning of the verb “to repent” may be rendered only as “change your shameful life,” while “do not judge” will sound as “do not think badly.” For example the Gospel expression “your sons will be your judges” has to be rendered as “your children will say whether you have spoken correctly.” The word “Savior” in Chukchi will be literally understood as “the One who has granted life.” Of course, the question immediately arises, what then is the difference between “Savior” and “Creator” in Chukchi, but the translator patiently explains the shades and subtleties of meaning: “The Creator created, but people were perishing, while the Savior is the One who granted them life, which means He showed a different life to those who were perishing in their sins.”
“To bless” is rendered as “to send good words, to wish good.” What is completely absent from the Chukchi language is the notion of “casting lots.” If the original reads that the lot fell upon somebody, like in the book of Jonah, in the Chukchi translation we will read that “the person was chosen”, or “found”, or even “appointed…”
When I listen to all this I find myself thinking that if I were in the translator’s shoes, I would probably lose heart and feel utterly discouraged. Doesn’t the task sound impossible? But evidently the woman in front of me is much stouter of heart than I am. She speaks about her translation experience with ease. She neither backs down from challenges, nor looks terrified by their size. “Of course, when I agreed to become involved in this work, I had no idea what I was getting into,” she confesses. “This job turned out to be not so easy at all. But my translation experience is very useful, for if I read Luke in a Russian translation, I would have most probably failed to understand what it was all about, or even if I did, it would have been a rather vague understanding. Now, when I have not just read, but lived through this text in my mother tongue, all its contents have become very close to my heart.”
And here is what the exegete said after a trip to Anadyr: “Whatever people do on their own initiative is likely to require serious revision, but it is so precious, because they wish it so strongly! They are burning with a desire to have these texts in their mother tongue! It’s amazing that at the initiative of a local church, one honored teacher, an elderly woman, has launched into a full translation of our Children’s Bible, and has drafted the entire book! In order to help in the field testing of Luke and Jonah, local women were coming in pairs or groups of three, never one by one. This was not surprising: usually, one of them knows the language better, but can’t read Chukchi, while another member of the group can read it, but her knowledge of the language is poorer. So the participants were helping and consulting each other. It would have been impossible to work with them otherwise. Among all of the people who took part in the field testing, only one woman was able to provide her email address and cell phone number. Another one only gave her two landline phone numbers, with the following comment: ‘You can call at this place, as I go there from time to time, or you can call at that place, because at other times I also go there.’ I insisted, ‘You’d better give me your cell phone number as well.’ ‘Oh, the cell phone is not in the least reliable,’ she responded, and pocketed the phone as if it were a toy.”
In order to come to Moscow for a checking session with a translation consultant, Chukchi project workers sometimes have to sacrifice their summer vacation, even though in Chukotka they say that “the summer day feeds the year”, and summer is desperately short. When the translator, whose Russified name is Larisa, shared an exciting story about the secrets of the Chukchi language, she also mentioned that her true Chukchi name is Ryskyntonav. “When a child is born,” she said, “we give a name in connection with what is happening around at the moment of his or her birth. I was born in the summertime, when the buds burst forth and fresh leaves appear, and this is precisely what my name means.”
“In the summer, you said?” I asked in amazement, not sure that she really meant that and ready to correct her Russian. “Do plants bud in Chukotka during the summer, and not the spring?!” It turned out that I had understood her correctly. The buds burst forth in June… Such is the climate of this northern land. July is the time for fishing, closely followed by berry-gathering season. This is the time of year when all the Chukchi project members disappear into the forest to pick berries, with no communication with the outside world. During the rest of the year, people who know their native language well are in high demand for various other jobs and can’t afford to go on a long trip to Moscow...
It is therefore hardly possible to hold working sessions on the Chukchi Bible translation more frequently than once a year. Each such meeting is worth its weight in gold. The schedule is tight, and the time is short. In 2016, right before the appointed consultation time, the translator fell ill with pneumonia and was taken to hospital. It was only because of her tremendous enthusiasm for the translation project that she overcame her condition and came to Moscow. However, the text proved to abound in difficulties. The book of Jonah was completed, but only part of Luke was covered. During the next planned consultant check in 2017, the team hopes to complete all remaining work on the revision of Luke as well.
The process of Bible translation into languages where no Bible texts have previously existed, such as Chukchi, is always slow and complicated. The first translation is inevitably rather clumsy and sometimes literal. It is often full of lexical borrowings. But if this first biblical text becomes part and parcel of the people’s life, it awakens the dormant resources of their language, becomes thought-provoking, and brings forth new life, just like buds that burst forth in the summertime.
We expect to print both Jonah with an audio recording and revised Luke by the end of 2017.
The cost of Jonah diglot is $ 1,29 per copy + audio CD – $ 0,61 per copy. The cost of Luke diglot is $ 6,00 per copy.