“I am not giving that book back to you!”
Autumn 2023 Newsletter on the Uzbek project

The Uzbek Bible translation project is one of those projects where the full Bible, already translated and published (in 2016), is being actively incorporated into the life of local Christian communities and into Uzbek society at large.  The Uzbek Bible app for smartphones holds the record for being the most downloaded IBT app for several years in a row. One of the project's translators, let’s call her Esther (she asked us not to use her real name since Uzbekistan is a Muslim country), gladly shared a few stories about her many years of work in the project and plans for the future.

“Uzbek Christian believers looked forward greatly to getting the full Bible. The attitude to the Bible varies among traditional Muslims, but the main thing that all of our readers noted, regardless of their religion, was that the translated text is very clear. One Uzbek scholar, who is a university professor and a traditional Muslim, even said, ‘This is one of the best translated books I’ve ever read in Uzbek.’ It was a great joy for us to hear this from a professional of such caliber, because among Christian Uzbeks there are those who prefer the old (1992) IBT translation of the New Testament, which was based on the Russian Synodal translation. Most of the Old Testament books that were translated for the first time in our translation were well received by our readers. This was not the case with the Psalms, however, which had previously been published alongside the New Testament in 1992, and by the time the full Bible was published, people knew many Psalms by heart from the previous translation. As is often the case, they immediately started criticizing, saying that the old translation sounded more beautiful, more poetic. Today there are churches that prefer the old translation, and we say to them, ‘No one has cancelled the old translation, you may use it if you wish.’ It’s always like that: when one gets used to the old, it’s very hard to accept something new. But here’s an example of how the new translation is gradually being accepted: pastors from other countries come and preach, quoting the Bible in their sermons, their sermons are translated into Uzbek, and the Bible quotations are read from the new translation, because thanks to IBT’s Holy Bible app, everyone has it. The preachers ask clarifying questions to see if they have been correctly understood by their listeners, and they conclude with joyful surprise, ‘What a good translation of the biblical text you have! It’s very close to the Hebrew and Greek original!’ That’s when our audience starts to realize, ‘Wow, it turns out this new translation is very good because it’s not based on the Russian Synodal but rather on the original languages!’ Besides this closeness to the original, our translation is also very accessible. When we working on it, we tested each book with Uzbek readers. Each chapter was field-tested with several people.”

“Here’s an example of why a meaning-based translation is preferable to a literal one. We were testing chapter 5 of Daniel, the episode where a supernatural hand appears and writes  ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN’ on the wall of King Belshazzar’s palace. In verse 27 we translated ‘you are weighed on the scales and found very light.’ Well, I wondered, and how else could it be translated? We field-tested this passage with believers from our church. They got it right and translated it correctly. And the next day we tested the same text with a Muslim, who interpreted what he understood in the following words, ‘Oh, this man is without sin, since he is found light! When a man is sinful, there is a weight upon him, and he cannot cross the bridge that is as thin as a hair, which is to be crossed over fiery Gehenna in order to enter Paradise!’ He took this image of the bridge Sirat from the Qur'an. And that’s when we realized we had a huge problem. A literal translation produced this gross misunderstanding. So we had to make a change and translate like this, ‘You have been weighed and found unworthy to rule.’ We had to do a less literal translation so that Muslim readers wouldn’t understand the opposite of what it actually means!”

I asked Esther if she knew of any cases when Uzbek Muslims, who adhere to the canons of Islam, read the Uzbek translation of the Bible, despite the widespread opinion in the Muslim world that the Bible has been corrupted. And I didn’t mean the procedure of field-testing, when Muslim friends agreed to help them during the translation process. I was asking if there were any that wanted to read the Bible out of personal interest. She answered with an amazing story:

“We have a family of new believers in our church. They sew clothes for a living. They moved to Tashkent and rented a small room where they live and have a tailor shop. I was asked to give a Bible to a young woman from this family. We drove up to her house, I presented a Bible to her, and she put it on her sewing machine. She used to get up early in the morning, read a short passage from the Bible and then put it back on the sewing machine. Her neighbor, who had come from Khorezm, often came to see her. She was a zealous Muslim and always wore a hijab. She noticed the Bible on the sewing machine and said, ‘Oh, Mukaddas Kitob! (This is what the Bible is called in Uzbek.) That's a holy book!’  She took it, opened it, and began to read straight from the book of Genesis, starting with the story of creation. And so she read on and on and couldn’t stop. Finally she asked, ‘May I take the book with me and bring it back to you tonight?’ And she took the book and left. In the evening she came without it and explained, ‘Well, you don't have time to read anyway because you have so much work! How about I read five chapters every day and come over and retell it to you?’ And for a couple of months she did it. Then it was time for her to return home to Khorezm, and she came to our friend and said, ‘You know what? I'm not giving that book back to you. I liked it so much! And you don’t have time to read it anyway. I’ll take it with me, okay?’ And so this young woman called me very upset and complained: ‘Esther, she took my book and won’t give it back, I don't know what to do.’ I said, ‘Just let her have the book, don't ask for it back, and I’ll get you another one.’ That day I had with me an audio player with a recording of the old Uzbek Bible translation. I brought her this audio player so that she could listen to the Bible together with her seamstresses while they were working.  Later I brought her a new Bible. And guess what happened to her neighbor, who had taken the Bible from her to read it at her home in Khorezm: she took off her hijab! I can’t judge of course, if and how her worldview has changed, but such an interesting change in her appearance occurred, according to the words of her neighbor-friend. I would like to clarify for you to understand the situation: wearing a hijab is a contemporary trend in Uzbekistan right now. But historically, the hijab has never been a traditional clothing item among Uzbeks. It was Arab garb, and indeed, we are a Muslim people, but we are not Arabs, we are Uzbeks! We have four seasons, and God gave us our very beautiful traditional clothes. As for the Arab clothing, the story is that originally it was not religious clothing at all. It was just their traditional clothing, because the Arabs need to cover their bodies and protect their skin from the sun, which is very hot in their climate. They had such clothes even before Islam appeared in their land. Right now we simply have a fashion for Arabization. Whether they understand it or not, people who practice Islam start wearing Arab clothing. Perhaps this young woman who began to read the Bible simply realized that her relationship with God was not about the shape of her clothes, so she stopped wearing the hijab. I won't make any other assumptions, but I believe that God is working in her heart.”

A new, illustrated edition entitled Jesus Christ in the writings of Alisher Navoi is now ready for printing in the Uzbek project. “I had this idea a long time ago to write a book about Alisher Navoi,” shares Esther. “Alisher Navoi is not only an Uzbek poet: the Turkmens, Uighurs and Tajiks also consider him their own. Central Asian Turkic-speaking peoples love and respect him very much because he was the first poet to write in the old Turkic language. Alisher Navoi composed a lot of poems, and we all learn his poems at school. But very few people know that he wrote about the Messiah as well.” The book will be available in three languages: Uzbek, Russian and English.

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