In what is being hailed as a break from patterns of the past, the Bible is being translated into a Canadian Indigenous language entirely on the initiative of Indigenous people.
Since mid-2015, a team of five translators has been working on rendering the Bible into Oji-Cree, a language spoken by Aboriginal people across northwestern Ontario. A range of organizations have helped with funding, but most of the translation team is Aboriginal and the project is ultimately owned by the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh.
“I’m glad that we’re doing this project on our own, using our own mother tongue translators, whereas before it was the missionaries from the outside who did the translations for us,” says Mishamikoweesh Bishop Lydia Mamakwa. “We’re happy that we have the ownership of this project.”
In 2007, after 25 years of work, Bill Jancewicz, of Wycliffe Bible Translators and its Canadian affiliate, Wycliffe Bible Translators Canada, and the Rev. Silas Nabinicaboo, a Naskapi deacon, completed a translation of the New Testament into Naskapi, a language spoken by Aboriginal people in eastern Quebec and Labrador. That Bible translation project, which is still ongoing, is owned by the Naskapi Nation Development Corporation, but was begun by the corporation in conjunction with St. John’s Anglican Church, Kawawachikamach, Que. It also received considerable support from outside sources such as Wycliffe Bible Translators, Jancewicz says.
The Oji-Cree project was one of the first priorities of the new Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh. It had been talked about for some time, but did not begin to take concrete form until a meeting in early June, 2014, only days after the establishment of the spiritual ministry, Mamakwa says.
Until now, Oji-Cree-speaking people have had to use hymnals and prayer books in Cree, Mamakwa says. That means they’re hard to understand for Oji-Cree speakers, especially younger people.
“Ever since I can remember, it’s other people’s books with the Cree translation that we have been using all this time in our worship services,” Mamakwa says. “We want something in our own language…It’s our God-given language, and we use it every day…We’d like to use it in our worship services, too.”
Mamakwa says she hopes more people will come to services if they’re able to hear them in their own language.
These texts are also often sorely out of date, because they haven’t been revised to keep up with changes made to the English versions over the past few hundred years. For example, she says, the version of the Book of Common Prayer used in Mishamikoweesh is a Cree translation, made in the 1800s, of the 1662 edition.
“We’re stuck with a 1662 prayer book,” she says.
In fall 2014, Mamakwa invited Bill and his wife, Norma Jean, also of Wycliffe Bible Translators, to help her set up the project. A committee of elders, leaders and community members in Kingfisher Lake, Ont., was formed to pick the translation team and support it. In January 2015, the team began training, and by July of that year, their translation work had begun.
Translating the Bible, of course, is no mean feat, and complete translations can take several decades. Because of this, project leaders decided they would need to prioritize, focusing first on the readings from the gospels and epistles in the Prayer Book lectionary. The first draft of these passages—nearly 2,500 verses as of press time—is now finished, Jancewicz says.
Mishamikoweesh clergy have already started using freshly translated passages in their services—to appreciative congregations, say Mamakwa and the Rev. Ruth Kitchekesik, of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Kingfisher Lake, and co-ordinator of the team.
“There was a young person who was in church on Sunday, and she said, ‘It was so good to hear the gospel in my own language,’ ” Kitchekesik says.
To complete the entire New Testament might take another eight or nine years, although timelines for such projects can be hard to estimate, Jancewicz says.
The team of translators all work in Kingfisher Lake; two are working full-time on the project; the rest have other jobs and do the work when they can. The Jancewiczes live in southern Ontario, but visit a few times a year to help the team, Mamakwa says. They’ve also organized two translation workshops, which have been very helpful, she says. Wycliffe Bible Translators also hopes to have two of its own full-time translators working on the project starting sometime in 2017, Jancewicz says.
There are several stages involved in translating a biblical passage. The Indigenous translators are each assigned sections of an English Bible to translate into Oji-Cree. As they translate, they check their translations with one another, and also with community members to make sure they sound natural. Jancewicz and other project helpers who know Greek and other biblical languages then check these translations against the Bible as it was originally written.
Asked how she finds the work, Kitchekesik says, “It’s interesting. It’s exciting. And it’s very stressful sometimes.” One of the stresses, she says, is trying to translate words for which Oji-Cree has no equivalent—palm tree, camel and shepherd, for example.
Aboriginal Bible translators might try different ways of tackling tricky cases like these, Jancewicz says. They may make up new words, like “sheep-caretaker,” or they might simply borrow the original words without trying to translate them, as English does with words like “apostle” (from the Greek apostolos) and “angel” (from the Greek angelos).
The Oji-Cree word for God is kishemanito, literally “Great Spirit.”
The total cost of the project, organizers say, is hard to estimate, especially given that no one knows how long it will take. A number of organizations are supporting it financially, including the Anglican Healing Fund, the Anglican Foundation, Wycliffe Bible Translators Canada and Wycliffe Bible Translators U.S.A. The Canadian Bible Society, Jancewicz says, has provided computers and other equipment.
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald says the ability for people to read Scripture in their own language is critical for their spiritual well-being.
“It is hard to overstate the importance of the Oji-Cree translation process,” he says. “Beyond this very special group of Christians, it is a vital sign that Indigenous languages can and are moving in a positive direction. This is very good news.”
An earlier version of this story did not identify Silas Nabinicaboo as a deacon.