“When translators match their text with reality, their translation comes to life!”
Spring 2021 Newsletter on the Kabardian project

These words were pronounced in connection with a study tour to Israel of a group of IBT translators several years ago. This thought was expressed by our Kabardian translator and summarize his experience of the trip: “No doubt, that tour was one of the greatest in my life. We got an opportunity to see all the places mentioned in the historical books of the Bible. What a magnificent experience it was! Now when I read the Biblical text, I can mentally visualize where it occurred, whether north, south, east or west, and what these places look like. My translation is no longer a mechanical process of merely combining words – it reflects what has really happened. When translators are able to match the text with reality, their translation comes to life!”

But the trip to Israel was not the only vivid experience described by the Kabardian translator. So were IBT’s regular translator training seminars. One could feel that these training events were not mere routine, but a real adventure for him: “Such workshops make you remember everything you know about the history of ancient Israel together with the entire lexical stock of your mother tongue. You have to tune in not only with your exegete, but also with the lecturers, who give us assignments to come up with solutions to certain translation problems. The workshop program is intensive, and we push ourselves to the limit to find answers to really important questions, and this is not in vain. I enjoy this format very much.”

His description reminded me of a piece of music with a variety of tempos changing from allegro to adagio and back. The Kabardian translator obviously associated learning with speed, tension and extreme circumstances. But when he described the translation process itself, he depicted this as long and slow, using such metaphors as “sitting around” and “plodding along like a turtle.” However, as the laborious translation process resulted in gaining experience, speed re-entered his description as if it were the most adequate image for a newly acquired quality of work: “We are sometimes like a slow turtle – that’s how difficult it really is to translate. It only seems easy: the text lies in front of me, and I know the literal meaning of each concrete word. I can divide the text into verbal units and translate it word by word, but then it turns out that this elaborated translation doesn’t fit with the context. I come to realize that I should have taken into account much more of the background information: the historical setting and all that remained unsaid underneath the surface of the text. Let me give you an example. Translating the book of Proverbs took a very long time. It lasted for more than six years. We had so many possible ways of translating the text. Suffice it to say that we ended up with 16 versions of the translation, and we had to choose the best verses from all of them. I got some great experience of searching for terms and expressions and learned how to quickly navigate amidst numerous key terms. As a result of my experience with Proverbs, I can now more quickly resolve the problems that arise with new Scripture portions. We’re no longer merely sitting around and dawdling.”

At the very end of 2020 IBT received a letter from the Kabardian project co-ordinator with feedback on the above-mentioned Proverbs translation: “My wife’s friend gave Proverbs to a friend of hers and asked her to read just one chapter in order to see whether the book was clear or not. But this woman couldn’t stop reading: she kept going further and further through the book, sighing, wondering, making remarks and expressing agreement with the text. Thank you for your valuable work, which clearly brings great benefit to Circassians!”

A new publication was released at the end of 2020 – the bilingual edition of Ecclesiastes in two closely-related Circassian languages: western Circassian (i.e., Adyghe), and eastern Circassian (i.e., Kabardian). The macro project that brought these two translation teams to work together required the translation experience and multi-faceted vision from both teams. The two exegetical advisors needed to develop a unified exegesis of the text, and the two translators tried their best to use similar vocabulary items for basic concepts in their respective languages. The Kabardian translator shared his joy that as a by-product of this joint work, the Kabardian team managed to return into active use a word that has in recent years lost part of its rich semantics. This word is nothing less than the title of the book: “We entitled the book Jakio, which means ‘a herald calling out his message, or preaching something.’ This word has many shades of meaning, and there is no other word in our language that would render the Hebrew word kohelet better than this. However, this word has in recent times preserved only one meaning: ‘one who calls out,’ while the shades of meaning characteristic of a higher literary style have been lost. As for Adyghe, this word has preserved its full meaning in their vocabulary, which is no wonder, because their language is closer to our common archaic Circassian roots. The word itself is written a little differently in Adyghe – Jakiye, and thus the book has two titles: the Adyghe one and the Kabardian one. With our translation, we are breathing new life into the Kabardian word. We have discussed this issue with the staff of Kabardian newspapers and consulted with the editors of several radio programs. When we suggested that this word could be used more broadly in its initial full meaning, they agreed, ‘It fits indeed.’ And now it is already being used in new contexts.”

After this story about how the team returned a lost archaic sense to a Kabardian word, one could easily imagine that the Kabardian translation is guided by principles of high style and its target audience would be a small group of highly educated people. This impression is further confirmed by the fact that the translator consulted with newspaper staff and radio editors, who are definitely a small, highly educated group. It could therefore be expected that for the vast majority of ordinary people, the bilingual edition of Ecclesiastes would hardly be easy reading. But here is another message that IBT recently received from one of the book’s distributors after it was delivered to the region:

“Today my wife and I gave 10 copies of this book to our friend Tanya (a pseudonym), because she wants to present them to all her relatives in her native village. Here’s what she said about this book: ‘When I read Ecclesiastes in Russian, I understand everything. But when I read this book in my own language, it becomes so close and touches me so deeply, as if my own parents were speaking to me, and I have shivers running up and down my spine. Thank you for this book!’”

It seems that the team members managed to bring together many layers of reality in their translation – the common basis of the once undivided Circassian language; the history of ancient Israel; and the human search for the meaning of life – a key theme of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, who has tested all human paths with their limited wisdom and testifies to the meaninglessness of life without God. All of these combined strands of meaning have indeed brought life to this translation, and it has become as vivid as the voices of parents to their children.

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