Inuit native language Bible translation finally finished after 34 years

A bible at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston REUTERS/Brian SnyderIt's taken 34 years, but Christian Inuit will finally be able to read the Bible in their own language.

"We're happy to have this out of the way," Rev. Canon Jonas Allooloo, who was with the translation team since its 1978 inception, told the National Post. "It's been 34 years and we can do something else now."

The translation of the Bible into Inuktitut was a joint project of the Canadian Bible Society and the Anglican Church, who covered the $1.7-million costs. The entire team of translators was made up of Anglican ministers who are Inuk.

"For the first time in Canada, the entire translation was done by mother tongue speakers of the language rather than by missionaries," the society said in a statement.

The manuscript was sent to the society's translation offices in Kitchener, Ont., last month. The newly completed Bible is to be launched June 3 in a ceremony at the igloo-shaped St. Jude's Anglican Cathedral in Iqaluit, capital of Nunavut.

"When I was finishing the last book, I felt like the burden rolled off me," retired Bishop Benjamin Arreak, translation team coordinator, told the Anglican Journal.

Arreak described the challenge of translating a text sourced in the Middle East and finding ways to relate ancient words and concepts that have no equivalent in Inuit language or culture, such as camel, pomegranate and palm tree. Often that meant reverting to English words.

"We had to put footnotes and pick up words that the majority will be able to understand," Arreak told the Journal.

For shepherd, the text uses an Inuktitut word that describes both a babysitter and someone who watches over a dog team, the Post reported.

Allooloo said the most difficult words were "peace" and "grace," which have no Inuit equivalents. The translators had to describe the specific situation surrounding use of the word, such as a sense of inner peace or a state of non-war, he told the Post.

The translation team also had to account for regional variations in Inuktitut dialects, making adjustments so the text could be understood by as many as possible.

Inuktitut, spoken by about 30,000 people in Canada, is one of the official languages of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. It existed entirely as an oral language until Rev. Edmund Peck, an Anglican priest, introduced a syllabic script in the late 19th century. Peck did the same for the Cree language.

Bishop Arreak, who was a newly ordained priest when the project started, said it took more than three decades because team members all worked full-time as parish priests. They set aside time for translation every six months. Arreak began working on it full-time after he retired in 2010.

The Washington Post reported portions of the Old and New Testaments have been translated into more than 2,500 languages and, according to United Bible Societies, the complete Bible has been translated into more than 469 languages by 2010.

The Inuk translators completed the New Testament first and it was published in 1992. Arreak and Allooloo agreed the Old Testament was easier to translate because both Jewish and aboriginal traditions stress the oral tradition of storytelling and history, the Washington Post reported.

Bible society translation director Hart Wiens told the Washington Post the Inuktitut Bible will go a long way to boosting literacy and redressing past wrongs.

"Increasingly, native people are saying,'the church or Christianity or Western influence have taken our language away and you have a responsibility to restore it,'" said Wiens, who has guided Bible translations into Mohawk, Cree and Algonquin. "No book has contributed more to language maintenance and literacy than the Bible."