Planting Biblical concepts in Khakas soil
Winter 2021-2022 Newsletter on the Khakass project

The land of Khakassia in south Siberia is unique in many respects. It is rightfully considered the “archaeological Mecca” of Siberia, a land of rich history and ancient culture. More than 30,000 archeological remains have been preserved there. Khakassia is also called “the land of 1,000 lakes” and is well known for the healing properties of the mineral water in several of these lakes. Lake Tus (“salt” in Khakas) is even called “the Khakas Dead Sea.” As in the Dead Sea in Israel, you can float on its salty waters without sinking.

The contemporary Khakas people are descendants of the Yenisei Kyrgyz, who ruled Khakassia in the 7th century A.D. and were later conquered by Mongolian tribes. Today’s Khakas are neither Muslim, like the Kyrgyz of Central Asia, not Buddhist, like their neighbouring Tuvans, who were also dominated by Mongolia for part of their history. The Khakas are shamanists, like many other Siberian peoples. Though they converted en masse to Orthodoxy by the late 19th century, the majority assimilated only to the external, ritual side of Christianity, while secretly continuing to practice the faith of their ancestors. Thus, when Khakas shamans performed shamanistic rituals, they would take off their baptismal crosses and cover up Orthodox icons. Nowadays, there is great interest among the Khakas in their old shamanist traditions, which are associated with ethnic revival on one hand, and with new ecological thinking on the other.

Nevertheless, when the IBT Khakas/Russian NT diglot was published in 2012, we received very positive feedback on it. In fact, Christianity has remained mostly unknown to the majority of the Khakas population, since historically it was not supported by much preaching of the Gospel or missionary activities, and the Christian system of values was generally accepted only due to friendly relations with Russians and ethnic intermarriage. Thus, the first real encounter with Christ and Christianity for the Khakas may actually be happening now via Bible texts in their mother tongue.

The last trip of the Khakas project coordinator to the region showed that there definitely are Khakas people who are interested in reading Old Testament texts in their own language. The translation team has been working on several OT portions. Jonah was published in September 2021 as a trilingual edition (with parallel texts in Russian and English), and a presentation of this book took place in early November in Abakan, the capital of Khakassia. Immediate project plans include Genesis and Exodus.

Since the beginning of the covid pandemic, when IBT converted its translator-training seminars into an online webinar format, one of the Khakas translators has been faithfully taking part in all of these webinars on her own initiative. This is how she explained her desire to participate: “I’ve been translating the Bible since the 1990s and am working on Exodus right now. I enjoy these webinars to such an extent that I participate in each one. It proves very useful for me to translate the Bible portions that are discussed there, even if they are not in our own project’s immediate plans.”

At the 2020 webinar on translating the book of Habakkuk, the exegetical checker of the Khakas project stated that the passage in 3:17-18 – “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail… yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” – would need to be translated rather distinctively. He said the following: “We don’t have fig-trees or grapevines or olives in the Khakas language. So we have adapted these to Siberian plants: chokecherry, berries, nuts.” The Khakas translator added: “The fig-tree has been replaced with chokecherry, because a lot is connected with the latter in our culture; people can even foretell weather by looking at how the chokecherry is growing, and its berries are widely used in Siberian food culture. We replaced grapevines with berries, using a generic Khakas term that includes strawberries, raspberries, and currants. And we replaced olives with nuts, since nuts provide oil like olives do. We assume that this whole passage is trying to convey feelings, and it is the attitude, not the plant species, which is most important in verse 17.” The lecturer on Habakkuk, a Bible translation consultant, summed it up thus: “I agree that if we only have this book, then we just need agriculturual items that are relevant to the life of the readers. However, I wonder what you’ll do in other places of the Bible when you read about grapes being pruned... On one hand, we want to bring the translation closer to our readers. On the other hand, we should never forget that the source text reflects realities that are inherent to a different culture, and these images are important. It is necessary for the translator to make an additional effort to keep the historical connection with the time and culture of the original text, maybe even by including illustrations in your translation. The first point to consider is the purpose of your translation. If you want your readers to understand what the Lord is doing for His people in the historical context, this is one approach. If you want the text to serve for preaching purposes, you have more freedom. It will be difficult to make a once-and-for-all decision right now. We can make one decision today, then test it and change it, then find additional information and change it again. The most important thing is not to translate mechanically, but to think about your context and your audience all the time.”

A year passed, and at the 2021 webinar on translating Song of Songs the Khakas translator took the floor to help other translation teams that were struggling with the absence of several Biblical plants in their own northern lands. She shared: “There is a basic concept in every word.

For example, the Siberian cedar is a very strong tree that will not bend if you climb it. The same is true for the cedar of Lebanon, so I can use our word. As for the cypress, I will try to avoid this word, since no Khakas reader would have a clear idea about what sort of tree this is. I changed this for another evergreen tree that is known in our region. The most difficult set of terms for us is connected with incense. We have only one Khakas word both for pleasant fragrances and unpleasant stenches, and this is simply a generic word meaning ‘smell’. For further differentiation I have to use additional adjectives: pleasant, sweet, etc. The same concerns alcoholic beverages. I have to use an additional adjective to differentiate wine from vodka.

I have some advice for those who want to translate each word into their language and never use loan words. Of course languages differ in terms of their vocabulary. Some have plenty of words in active use, and some have a more limited set. Still, there are concepts characteristic only of the specific region where a concrete text was written. This means that our language may not have analogues to certain concepts in ancient Hebrew; it is perfectly normal not to have them. At the same time, grapes are quite well known to everybody in contemporary life, no matter where one lives, so we may leave this Russian borrowed word in our translation. There are several places in the Bible where it is important to clearly understand that it is specifically grapes in the text, and nothing else. We should give our reader a clear impression of everyday features of the source culture, even though it is quite different.”

We thus see how the Khakas translator, through her work on different OT fragments, found her own way of balancing the domestication and foreignization approaches to translation.

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