Several times a year Marijke takes the plane to Istanbul, Moscow or Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). She is one the Global Translation Advisors of United Bible Societies. She tells us the story of one of the Central Asian projects she consults and takes us with her on a virtual trip to Kyrgyzstan. There she meets the Tukar team (a code name for one of her confidential projects) twice a year. This project was started by the Institute for Bible Translation (IBT) in Moscow, and was joined later by SIL and UBS. It is financially supported by, among others, the Netherlands Bible Society.
“I meet the translators twice a year,” Marijke says. To meet with them on Skype is impossible and email exchanges are limited. It is also impossible to meet in the country itself, and therefore the team meetings are organised in Bishkek, the capital of neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Stalinism is still very much alive in Central Asia, and religion is firmly controlled by the government. Religious freedom does not exist. Although the future looked brighter after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Christianity seemed to flourish, the situation changed rapidly from 2000 onwards. Churches were closed, and Christians were harassed: a real Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazakh or Karakalpak should be Muslim, not Christian. But despite persecution by the government, churches still exist. A tiny part of the Tukar people are Christian. The pastors of these churches asked for a translation. And despite the difficulties, two translators have committed themselves to the translation of the Old Testament.
Each of them works from home. They hardly communicate with each other for reasons of security. Sometimes they meet in a public place to exchange files. In 2014 their homes were searched twice by the KGB, the secret police. This was a disturbing experience for them and their families. They work with ParaText, a computer program used by almost all Bible translators. It is on a hidden drive in their laptops. This program allows them to type in their translation and compare it with a variety of translations in neighbouring languages, but other than that they have no access to resources. They are not allowed to have more than one religious book at home, there are no Christian books in the libraries, and Christian internet sites are closed – and internet is anyway not safe because it is watched by the secret police. Hebrew and Greek courses do not exist in their country, and so they mainly work from translations. They do, however, have contact with the SIL exegetes who help them with their translation work. This is done mainly via email. “The little material that is available for them in Russian, we scan and store on the hidden drive of their laptops. That is the most we can do,” Marijke explains.
Twice a year there is a meeting with all the team members. Marijke: “Two Tukar translators, one Norwegian and two Korean exegetical checkers, a Russian project coordinator and a Dutch consultant … we come from very different cultural backgrounds, but we all have one goal: producing a good Tukar translation. During the week we go through the texts and discuss all kinds of translation issues: what do we do with metaphors, how do we handle images, how do we deal with cultural differences, how do we solve textual or exegetical problems? The translators need to juggle with language, because the basic structure of their language is the exact opposite of the Hebrew. I admire their ingenuity.”
Once a year, the exegetes organise a reading conference which also takes place in a neighbouring country. Around 30 people gather together and read systematically through a number of books. They read the translated texts out loud, discuss them and give their feedback. But they also discuss the meaning of the texts for their personal lives. Often, only at the reading conference people find out who are their brothers and sisters – people they meet at the market at home, but of whom they had no idea they were Christians like themselves.
The team meetings are not only for checking texts. They are also to listen to the stories of the translators, hear about their families and to understand more about their personal situation. Sharing meals, praying together, having fun together is so important. The translators work hard and do not have easy lives, and so the meetings are not only about producing texts, but are also times for sharing and fellowship.
Marijke sums up: “Even is this translation ends up with only a minority of the Tukar people, we know that it is more than worthwhile. We know it comforts the tiny and vulnerable communities, we know it encourages them in difficult situations. That should be reason enough for people in the free West to support projects like this.”