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Translation makes Bible available to Inuktitut speakers

Hart Wiens is in charge of translation projects at the Canadian Bible Society where they have, with the use of their own software, recently completed translating an inuktitut version.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

It has taken an un-Genesis-like 34 years to create, but Inuit communities in Canada's Eastern Arctic can now read the complete Bible in their own language.

A consecration ceremony to mark the translation of the King James Version into Inuktitut – the official language in Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut – was held Sunday at the new St. Jude's Anglican Cathedral in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

The project, jointly undertaken by the Canadian Bible Society and the Anglican Church of Canada, cost about $1.75-million, according to Hartmut Wiens, CBS's director of scripture translation.

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The CBS completed translation of the New Testament into Inuktitut 20 years ago. But it took two decades of painstaking work to produce the entire Bible in a single 1,300-page, hardcover volume, available to the region's 30,000 Inuktitut speakers.

"This is hugely significant on several levels," says Prof. Chris Trott, an expert on Inuit culture at the University of Manitoba. "These are deeply committed Christian communities. This will round out their access to the Old Testament stories, give them access to the same information that white communities have, solidify native control of the church, and provide reading material to adults in Inuktitut to a region that is short of it."

The text, about 577,000 words, is printed in syllabics, the consonant-based alphabet used to write several Aboriginal languages. The syllabic script was introduced by an Anglican priest, the Rev. Edmund Peck, in the late 19th century. But now, for the first time in Canada, the translation work was done not by missionaries that had learned a foreign language, but by Inuit for whom Inuktitut is the mother tongue: four Anglican clergymen, led by retired Bishop Benjamin Arreak.

The translators faced several linguistic obstacles, dealing with Old Testament words and concepts that do not exist in Inuktitut . For example, the language simply has no words for camel, sheep or many other animals mentioned in the Bible, nor for varieties of trees and other flora.

"How do you deal with concepts such as the lamb of God, for which their is no Inuktitut correlative," asks Peter Kulchyski, professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba. "This is an enormous challenge. It's a landscape and a whole way of life that does not match up with what they know."

On the other hand, says Mr. Trott, some Biblical concepts translate very well. The Hebrew word ruach, he notes, which means spirit or wind, is very close to the Inuktitut word aniniq, which translates as breath or life force.

"The ceremonial stuff won't make a whole lot of sense," he adds, "and the whole notion of Davidic kingship and hierarchy doesn't work very well. But Inuit ideas of laws and customs fit very well with the Old Testament. The Deuteronomic notion – love God, follow the law and live – accords very well with the Inuit belief that if you break those laws, there are consequences."

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The translation, Mr. Wiens believes, should help boost Inuit self-esteem. "This key text in their religious life is in their language. God is finally speaking in their language. That's a very affirming moment."

Mr. Wiens also believes the finished product will help sustain the language. "No book," he says, "has contributed more to language development than the Bible. Try to imagine English without the King James Version."

In the early years, the actual translation work was done in the Arctic. Later, the Society installed Paratext – a software program that can allows for easy manipulation of Hebrew and Greek Biblical text – at its Kitchener, Ont. headquarters. That accelerated the pace of translation and improved the quality of the product.

The Society is calling the initial printing – 5,000 copies (at $19.95 each) and another 100 in leather – an interim edition, because, says Mr. Wiens, "I'm sure we will find errors."

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About the Author

Based in Toronto, Michael Posner has been with the Globe and Mail since 1997, writing for arts, news and features.Before that, he worked for Maclean's Magazine and the Financial Times of Canada, and has freelanced for Toronto Llfe, Chatelaine, Walrus, and Queen's Quarterly magazines. More


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