"To translate the Bible is to walk on the water"
Autumn 2014 Newsletter on the Lak project

The Lak are one of the indigenous peoples of Dagestan. Their administrative centre is the village of Kumukh in the mountains, although nowadays most Laks live on the shore of the Caspian Sea in Makhachkala, the capital city of Dagestan. The Lak translator in the IBT Bible translation project is no exception. His ancestral home is in Kumukh and he uses this as a summer country home, while he himself lives the rest of the time in Makhachkala.

“Makhachkala is a black hole for languages,” he complained when I interviewed him. To me these words were unexpected, because previously I had heard quite the opposite description of his city. I remembered that many people called Makhachkala “a paradise for linguists”, because Dagestan is the most multinational region of Russia, and about 13 or 14 languages belonging to four different language groups are spoken in the streets of its capital. But the translator, whose name I cannot reveal for safety reasons, explained his bitter words. “When so many nationalities are gathered on a small piece of land, people have to somehow communicate with one another, and their only common language is Russian. As a result, Laks who live in smaller communities far away from their homeland, such as in Tbilisi, Baku or even Central Asia, manage to preserve their language to a higher level than those who remain in Dagestan. And there is one more factor that has damaged our native speakers’ competence. Paradoxically, it is our intellectuality. Laks have always valued education, and all the textbooks are in Russian, and all the literature is in Russian. That’s why for many years it has been prestigious for educated people to speak Russian, while the knowledge of one’s mother tongue remained on the level of market trade.”

It is not only in educational matters that the Lak have always been ahead of other Dagestani people groups. The Lak were among the first peoples of Dagestan  to accept Islam as their national faith, in the 8th century. They still enjoy a unique position of cultural and religious prestige among their neighbors because of this. And it was on their territories that the anti-religious campaigns of the first years of Soviet power were the most violent. So it is no wonder that today, in a time of cultural revival, the younger Lak generation has resumed its devotion to the traditional religion. Although there are several Christians who are ethnically Lak, it is very difficult to find a Lak who is both a Christian and has a good command of his native tongue. Our exegetical advisor, a Russian man of Evangelical faith who courageously moved to Muslim Makhachkala with his wife and children from a distant part of Russia with the sole purpose of giving the Gospel to one more people group, says that such Lak-speaking Christians can be counted on the fingers of one hand. So it is hardly surprising that, as in many other Caucasian translation projects, other team members belong to Muslim culture if they are young or to post-Soviet secular culture if they are of an older generation.

Such is the Lak translator, an open-minded person of broad cultural background and a real enthusiast for his mother tongue. “I want to address all the Lak with these words: learn your own Lak language,” he says fervently. “We encountered a most curious situation when testing our translation of Matthew. It is said of John the Baptist that he came preaching in the wilderness (Mt 3:1), but our respondents have a tendency to understand this text as if he ‘stepped aside in order to preach’. This is because two Lak expressions ‘to go into the wilderness’ and ‘to step aside’ differ only by the case of the noun, and because people do not pay attention to such things, they have simply forgotten the first expression. We do not have any wilderness in our environment, so they do not know how to say “wilderness” in Lak. They do not remember that there is such an expression in their language. All this is extremely sad, because in reality there is nothing that is impossible to render in Lak,” he declared sadly. “I have had many different professions during my life”, he continued, “and it was only when I was already 50 years old that I engaged seriously in improving my level of Lak. At first I considered my knowledge of Lak quite satisfactory and I translated the Quran almost as a leisure interest, but today I understand much more than in those days. Now, each time that I start translating, I come across passages that make me strive for more thoroughness, more perfection. I wish my translation of the Quran had been tested in the same way as the field-testing of all the Biblical texts is being done by the Institute for Bible Translation. When people read the text, give their comments and express their misunderstandings, this is valuable experience indeed. The Holy Scripture is always a source of inspiration. You cannot learn it once and for all like a multiplication table, and then put it aside and simply recall it at need. When you come into contact with this Book, when you read it or look it through, you always see something that you have not noticed beforehand. Now we are at the point of starting the translation of John. It must be difficult, but we have already entered the water. There will be hidden reefs of course, but we will not tread on the ground – we shall walk on the water!”

I could not but smile at the end of this interview. There is no certainty that our translator, who is not a Christian, was consciously remembering Jesus or the Apostle Peter when he spoke his concluding words, but the influence of the two translations (Mark and Matthew) that he had just completed was clearly and undoubtedly manifested.

Isn't this a good prayer for any Bible translator as he is getting into his work, full of unknown hidden reefs: “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water”?

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