Synaru, a member of IBT’s Altai translation team, recently visited IBT Moscow office and shared her joy with us: she had just defended her Master’s thesis in theology on the topic of Bible translation into Altai. However, the time to relax and celebrate was very short: Synaru was now facing her next challenge – to revise the Altai NT Epistles so that they would be more easily understood by Altai believers.
The New Testament in Altai was first published by IBT two decades ago, in 2003. Since then, Evangelical church members among the Altai had several times initiated partial revisions, which resulted in a revised publication in 2014 and then a bilingual edition together with Russian in 2017. But nothing helped, and the book never became widely read. This is how Synaru explained the situation: “The Altais, who speak their mother tongue well, are very simple people who primarily raise livestock in villages. They are quite far removed from linguistic analysis. So for them, the style in which Paul’s Epistles are written is completely unsuitable: some sentences are so long and complicated that by the end of the sentence you’ve completely forgotten who did what or who said what to whom. Of course, I’ve also heard Russians who live in Altai complaining that they often fail to grasp the meaning of many passages in the Russian Synodal translation of the Epistles.” This lack of understanding is what gave Synaru her impetus to pursue a theological education: “After all, when the author wrote his Epistles, he didn’t just write an incoherent set of words. So I wanted to find out why it is that people can’t understand the meaning of the translated text.”
Synaru’s university education was in philology (language and literature studies), and as already mentioned above, her graduate studies were in theology. But what a long path she had to tread to attain her degrees! “I was born in the mountains and grew up in a shepherd’s family,” she started her story. “Our settlement on the Kazakh-Mongolian border was the most remote village from the capital in Gorno-Altaisk and therefore the furthest from civilization in the entire Republic of Altai. Until the age of six I only spoke Altai, but when I turned six my parents brought me to a bigger village and sent me to school there. In that village the majority of the population were Kazakhs, and thus in my school Kazakh was the language of instruction. Kazakh children attended Kazakh language and literature lessons, but Altai children were supposed to attend Altai language lessons instead. This was well-intentioned, but… there wasn’t actually a teacher of Altai at the school! So we were taught Altai by a Kazakh teacher who didn’t really know our language himself, but merely told us to copy texts from the textbook. As for Russian, we studied it as an additional foreign language (in Kazakh as the medium of instruction). After I finished school, I wanted to become a doctor and told my teacher that I intended to continue my education at a medical school in Gorno-Altaisk, but she persuaded me to become a teacher of Altai instead, because the school was in dire need of such specialists. This is how I enrolled in the Altai department of the philological faculty at Gorno-Altaisk University. After the very first exams I thought of dropping out, because it became crystal clear that I had lost my mother tongue almost totally, having spent all my school years away from my native language environment. I could speak just a little, and I couldn’t write at all. Neither could I write in Russian, so my teachers could not give me any positive marks.”
Synaru was at a loss, but didn’t give up: “My parents asked me to continue on despite all of this. What is more: as I understand it now, God had His own plans for me. As soon as I graduated from university, I met Jesus and started attending a local Evangelical church, where the majority of parishioners were Altais. I stayed in the city and started working as a literary assistant for a children’s newspaper. Soon I also became responsible for work with children in my church. I was first invited to take part in the field-testing of the Altai NT when a group of new Christians, including me, started studying the Bible for ourselves. After the NT publication and first comments of the readers that the text was hard to understand, the translator and I revised the Gospels. At that time, I was wondering what literature could be given to Altai children to read, so I turned to IBT for advice. As a result, I was engaged to produce the Altai Bible Stories edition – a shortened and simplified version of the Children’s Bible.”
“My point is that if you give most people a difficult text, they won’t read it. Even more so the Altais. When my family became Christians, I brought a Russian NT to my brothers and sisters, and… they didn’t understand anything! Then we got them another Russian edition, meant for little children, and my brother said: “I started understanding the Bible only after I read this children’s Scripture book.” It occurred to me that at first people should be given Scripture literature for children, so that they could get used to the structure of the text and grasp what it is all about. Otherwise, it's like offering someone meat with bones in it, which leads to a bone getting stuck in one’s throat! People won't want to read this anymore. I’m glad that we seem to have accomplished the needed task with Bible Stories. All reviews of that edition have been very good. People told us: “It’s very clear, and we took so many words from it for ourselves! It turns out that reading the Bible is so interesting!” I realized that Bible Stories is indeed a good opportunity to introduce a person to the world of the Bible.”
However, Synaru is not stopping at children’s editions. In her Master’s thesis, she studied the experience of the first Orthodox missionary to Altai in the 19th century, Metropolitan Macarius (Glukharev). And this is what she says about the prospects for translating the full Bible into Altai:
“The fact that we still do not have a full Bible in the Altai language is a big minus. When Metropolitan Macarius came to Altai, he saw that the Altais did not understand Russian and there was no writing system in Altai, but he didn’t lose heart: he started creating an Altai writing system based on the Cyrillic alphabet himself! He met a local resident named Mikhael Chevalkov and taught him, and together they translated the Lord’s Prayer and then the Beatitudes. His vision was that if one teaches the Gospel to the people, one should leave them some materials – the Word of God, spiritual bread – in their native language.
For me the Word of God is life for the people. The Bible is the basis of culture, of spiritual life, of ethics. If we pass though this life without leaving behind the Word of God in our own language, our culture will stay without a foundation and our mother tongue will be a language without a future. I believe that if we have the Word of God in the Altai language, we will preserve not only our language and culture, but also tremendous spiritual riches, and will give hope and future to our people.”
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