Everything flows…
Autumn 2021, Newsletter on the Tuvan project

The 1st edition of the Tuvan Bible was highly appreciated by reviewers and the Tuvan public. However, it was recently decided to start a Bible revision project at a meeting of the translation team with Tuvan church representatives. Why is this necessary? The Tuvan project exegete, IBT’s director Vitaly Voinov answers this question:

“Whatver a human being can produce is never perfect. Even if you are highly professional in what you do, there is always the chance that time and a new perspective will show you what could be improved. Moreover, language and culture are never static, so translation too needs to keep up with ongoing developments. As the ancient Greeks used to say, πάντα ρεῖ – ‘everything flows’ – including language and culture. And we as Bible translators need to accept this and adapt to it. Many Bible scholars believe that ideally every generation should have its own Bible translation.”

But why was a revision started now, ten years after the 1st edition came out?

“As soon as we published the Bible in 2011, we handed out questionnaires to the local churches in order to collect their comments and suggestions, and we’ve been receiving feedback ever since. Ten years is a decent period to get a good idea of which new words have been included in the general vocabulary and which of them were never properly understood or accepted by readers. Seeing this helps us make needed changes in the text. Before the Tuvan Bible was printed, IBT had published trial editions of separate Scripture portions, and all our translations were field-tested, which is part and parcel of our translation procedure. We tried our best to replace most low comprehension words during that process, but over the past ten years the Tuvan language itself has changed significantly.”

“Among the repeated suggestions there were requests to replace certain archaic expressions. One of these was kenen kizhi, the rendering of the Hebrew word פתי (pǝti), meaning ‘a simple or naive person’ in the book of Proverbs. Kizhi means ‘person,’ and kenen is ‘simpleton.’ However, almost no one understood the word kenen. It can be found in Tuvan dictionaries, but has disappeared from live speech. In the comments we received, readers repeatedly asked us what that word meant. When we hear from different people of different church backgrounds that the same part of the text is unclear to them all, we seriously consider looking for a more intelligible synonym, if such can be found. In this particular case the translator and I decided to use the word bödüün instead. This means ‘simple’ and is neutral, with no positive or negative connotations. The Hebrew pǝti is also neutral, though in Proverbs it is almost always used with a negative connotation: a naïve person, who doesn’t know things that one should know. The previously used Tuvan word kenen also had this slightly negative connotation, but since most people didn’t understand it, it did not fulfill its intended function. Hopefully, the more commonly used word will eventually be correctly interpreted based on the context.”

“Besides archaisms, there are other cases in which we are replacing a word or expression in order to avoid a cultural problem. For example, Tuvan believers asked us to replace the word khereezhen ‘woman’ with an expression meaning ‘woman-person.’ They justified their strange request by saying that ‘woman’ doesn’t sound respectful enough in Tuvan. There is an interesting story behind this. The current word khereezhen (woman) is not really an indigenous Tuvan word. In pre-Soviet times, women were referred to in Tuvan with the word khereezhok, which etymologically meant ‘useless/good-for-nothing,’ because the traditional Tuvan culture is patriarchal, with characteristic gender inequality. Soviet linguists tried to solve this problem by slightly changing the Tuvan word: they substituted the Russian root meaning ‘female’ - zhen - for Tuvan -zhok. This slight change should have settled the awkward situation, but that was not the case. Tuvan men started using the newly introduced word in exactly the same contexts and with the same tinge of disdain as the old familiar word was used, and it inherited the same connotation of disapproval.”

This is a vivid example of a doomed attempt to change human consciousness artificially, though the idea seemed good at first. However, we also see that the Bible’s more respectful attitude to women has changed the worldview of Tuvan Christians, hence their request.

“One more example shows how a change that was originally requested by some readers proved to be unnecessary in the end. When the first edition of the Bible was being prepared, one of the local Tuvan churches objected to the term used to render ‘Holy Spirit.’ They believed that the word Sülde which we were using was in fact pagan, connected with cosmic energy and not at all with the God of the Bible. But in other churches this term didn’t cause any complaints. And now we see that it is slowly coming into use also in the church that refused to accept it initially. People get used to a word the more they use it, and the word becomes saturated with biblical meaning and takes on a new life.”

“At the meeting when we were discussing the proposed revision, there were also some Tuvans who did not want these archaic words replaced. An eighty-four-year-old woman stood up and said: ‘I am so grateful that you are not going to remove all my favorite words, familiar from my childhood, from the new edition of the Bible. I’m personally ready to teach young readers what they mean.’ And the young people agreed that they would learn from her. Over the past ten years new vocabulary items related to modern technology have entered the Tuvan language. However, the task of revision is not to replace old vocabulary items with new ones, since new words connected with modern technology usually have nothing to do with

 Biblical concepts. The problem is more complicated than that. As new words appear, some original Tuvan words cease to be understood by the younger generation. After all, people’s attention is switched to what they face every day, and there remains no place for entire layers of vocabulary in contemporary life. If replacing an obsolete word seems completely impossible, the problem is solved by expanding the glossary. This is another important task of the new edition. And it is precisely for this task that new technology provides invaluable assistance. Thanks to the smartphone revolution, an important sociolinguistic change has taken place. Previously, the Tuvan-Russian dictionary existed only in a book form, and most people didn’t have it on their bookshelves at home. Today, however, Tuvan-Russian dictionaries are available in Bible apps. In the IBT app Ыдыктыг Библия users may click on a word and look it up in the glossary. As developers we can expand this glossary as much as we need. An impossible task requested by Tuvan readers – to reduce the size of the Bible so that it fits in a ladies’ handbag, and at the same time to make the font larger – is easily achievable in an app, even if these two components cannot be combined in a single paper edition. But we will make the size of the printed 2nd edition smaller too, meeting the wishes of our readers. When the new edition is ready, we’ll invite representatives of all local churches to the dedication and once again explain the differences between the two editions.”


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