Eritrea: God speaks Blin, my language. He is not a foreign God.
Paul Samasumo – Vatican City.
“The Word of God spoken, heard, read in the language you grew up with, in which you think, is a different Word of God when you read it in a foreign language. The moment God begins to be heard in the language of your mother tongue, the first thing that clicks is that God speaks my language. God is not a foreign God. That is beyond any price. That is what the United Bible Societies is geared toward providing for everyone. It doesn’t matter the size of your language or how many you are. Everyone should hear God in their language,” responds Dr Misheck Nyirenda, a Global Translation Advisor working with the United Bible Societies.
Dr Nyirenda is currently engaged in an ongoing project with a team of Blin speakers of Eritrea to translate the Old Testament Bible.
The Blin people are to be found in Eritrea’s northern town of Keren and its surroundings.
The dire need for the Bible in Blin
“Though Blin is a minority language in Eritrea, there is a dire need for the Scriptures in Blin. The Eparchy (diocese) of Keren uses Blin in the worship. They really need the Scriptures in that language. I commend Bishop Kindane Yebio of the Eparchy of Keren and other diocesan officials. The Bishop has been very involved in this project, and we are grateful for his help,” said Dr Nyirenda.
The Blin language has two regional dialects. In most cases, the Blin people are also bilingual or trilingual, and most speak Tigre or Tigrigna or both, in addition to their language. There does not seem to be any reliable census, but the Blin population worldwide is estimated to range between 150 000 to 200 000. So, when translating the Bible into Blin, which dialect prevails? None, says Dr Nyirenda. Language is dynamic and ever evolving.
“This happens often. Usually, you are probably doing one translation project for a cluster that includes several dialects of the same language. How do you go round that? You must bring every stakeholder and every dialect to the same table. As a consultant or translation advisor, you ensure stakeholders agree on the content that should go into the Bible. It is a give-and-take situation. When the whole project is done, you still need to bring it back to the community. The thing that drives the choices of which dialect, word or phrase gets accepted is: ‘Which rendering will everybody understand?’ We are not interested in pure language expression. We are interested in communicating the Scriptures. That is, what you know today; not how your grandfather used to say things,” explained Dr Nyirenda.
The Blin translators
When we caught up with the team of Blin Bible translators during their Rome sessions, they were hard at work. It is a slow, painstaking slog that starts early every day and goes into the evening. I wondered why they were meeting in Rome with Dr Nyirenda and how a non-Blin speaker like him would guide the team.
“The current project was initiated by the Eritreans themselves. They have a Bible Society in Eritrea, which coordinates Bible translations. They needed expertise in doing this. They wrote to the United Bible Societies, and I was assigned to the project. I have worked with the team on and off for nearly six years. During that period, I once managed to visit Eritrea and train a team of Blin translators. Generally, it is difficult to get into Eritrea. This team has met with various consultants in Lusaka, Nairobi, and Addis, and now we are meeting in Rome,” said Dr Nyirenda.
Paratext, the software making a difference
What is Dr Nyirenda’s role in the translation project, considering that he is a Zambian national and does not speak Blin?
“The United Bible Societies have developed a tool called Paratext. This is software that has Biblical and linguistic resources. We can input any language in this software, and it begins to generate what we call back-translations. With the help of a local team of translators, we then fine-tune the text. As a Global Translation Advisor, I can see what is going on in that language and what they are saying as they translate. I can guide the team on what they should say to stay true to the original languages scripture sources we are translating from. So, I really do not need to know the particular language to guide the team,” said Dr Nyirenda. He added, “They bring the expertise of their language. I bring the expertise of the Scripture sources, and together we produce a text that is faithful to the Scriptures according to the source language texts.”
The United Bible Societies describe Paratext as the world’s leading Bible translation software. It is packed with powerful features and is used by more than 9000 people in over 3000 languages worldwide.
You leave your doctrine at the door
The United Bible Societies, an interconfessional network of national societies, aims to serve and work with all churches of all traditions and denominations -Catholics, Orthodox, Protestant, and even emerging Churches. They are to be found in in more than 240 countries.
People get excited when they have a Bible they have laboured for in their hands, says Dr Nyirenda. Working across doctrines is not a hindrance.
“Part of the training of being a translator is to leave your doctrine at the door. When we come into the translation room, we are focused only on the Biblical text. You can pick up your theologies and doctrines when the translation is done,” he said.
A Bible for everyone
Does every tribe and language on earth have to have its own Bible in their language, given that it costs as much as one million dollars to translate one Bible? The answer is yes.
The United Bible Society wants to make sure that everyone who wants to can access and engage with the Bible. This is encapsulated in an ambitious motto, ‘a Bible for everybody at a price they can afford.’ This begs the question, who pays for all this? It is a question I put to Dr Nyirenda.
“The United Bible Society is a fellowship made of individual national societies in different countries that use the Scriptures. The member Churches of various denominations are the ones who go about looking for funding once they have identified a project. They ask themselves where they will get the money. Mind you, you are talking in excess of one million dollars for the translation of just one Bible. There are also Bible Societies that can meet their needs and even help others. We call these donor-giving Bible Societies. But in truth, everybody must pull together. Some donate their expertise, and others donate space or a meeting room from where translators can work. It is incredible that with such open-ended financing, we are able to do so much. Sometimes individual families come forward to fund projects. They say they like the idea of a Bible for everybody at a price they can afford. And so it goes,” explained Dr Nyirenda.
Blin speakers have already successfully translated and published the New Testament. They now can’t wait for the Old Testament.