After 42 Years in Translation, the Bible Speaks at Last in the Language of the Navajo

UPDATED 06/09/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/09/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

It is a big book, 1,583 pages, bound in black. Its title, in gold letters, reads Diyin God Bizaad. In the Navajo's language it means Holy God, His Word.

In every sense this Bible was a labor of love, and the fact that it exists at all stands as a monument to perseverance. Over a span of 42 years, separate teams of Protestant missionaries and Indian interpreters toiled to convert the English of King James into the Navajo tongue. Many who were involved at the beginning did not live to see the work end. But at ceremonies dedicating the Bible this January throughout the sprawling Navajo reservation (most of it is in Arizona, though portions extend into Utah and New Mexico), no one doubted the achievement: For the first time an Indian tribe in the U.S. possesses a complete Bible published entirely in its own language.

The magnitude of the accomplishment can hardly be appreciated without some notion of the linguistic acrobatics involved. Though the language of the Navajos has a rich oral tradition, it has acquired a written form largely within the past half century. It is a tonal language in which similar words can mean different things: Depending on the inflection, for example, one Navajo word can mean "father" or "forehead." Moreover, explains Navajo interpreter Emily Johnson, 70, "There are many words in the English Bible for which there are no Navajo words, such as 'he' or 'she.' In our language we always name the person."

Compounding the difficulties is the well-known fact that the Bible is not an easy book to interpret. "That is one of its characteristics," says the Rev. David Tutt. "It is a book of mystery. So when you try to translate a meaning not readily clear into the language of the Navajos, which is as complex as ancient Greek—well begin to see some of the problems."

Tutt, 60, a Methodist minister and project director for the American Bible Society, coordinated the Old Testament translation of the Navajo Bible. "The process of working from a rough draft to a revision, then to a revision of the revision, then to yet another revision," Tutt says, could have gone on indefinitely. "But we decided, 'This is it! We've got to get it printed.' "

The start of the Navajo Bible dates from 1944 when the Wycliffe Bible Translators, a California society that promotes the distribution of Bibles in various, often obscure languages, undertook to translate only the New Testament. But even at that there was resistance. "Some government employees simply didn't understand," re-calls Turner Blount, who headed the Wycliffe translating team. "They asked, 'Why translate the Bible into Navajo? Make them learn English.' "

The Wycliffe group disagreed. "We had seen what translated Bibles had done for other peoples," says Blount, 73. "It was the only way we could get the word of God to them in a form they could really understand. We knew that Navajos needed to read the Scriptures for themselves."

A trained linguist, Blount was able "to hear tone, vowel length and nasalizations—things that characterize the Navajo language." But he is quick to add, "No Navajo translation can be done without the help of native speakers to convey proper meanings." The work was laborious, but Blount's teams completed the job in 1956—"12 years is indeed speedy," he crows. Priced at only 75 cents, an encouraging 14,500 copies of the Navajo New Testament eventually circulated.

There matters stood until 1968, when the American Bible Society continued what the Wycliffe group had started. In the dozen intervening years linguistic experts had improved the system of tone-indicating diacritical marks to make written Navajo more precise and easier to read. There was dissatisfaction with having only half a Bible. "Many Navajos had heard about Old Testament characters from reading the New, and they wanted to read about them too," says David Tutt. "It was like an unfinished novel." Accordingly, his translating teams joined in a revision of the Wycliffe work and simultaneously started an Old Testament translation.

One of the few to work with both the Wycliffe group and the American Bible Society was Geronimo Martin, a Navajo translator born on the reservation and educated at a mission school. Blind since the age of 25, Martin later suffered strokes that left him unable to walk or talk. But until his death in 1984 at age 67, his mind remained sharp. And Martin had the help of his Anglo wife, Lois, a Kansas-born teacher who had made herself fluent in Navajo. "He would listen to me read every day," Lois says, "and if he heard a wrong word he'd stop me. I would play 20 questions to try to get the meaning clarified After that we would take it back to the translating committee They would work on it again until it sounded just right to him."

Navajos need to be able to form a mental image as they read, Lois explains: "If you talk about a rope, they need to know if the rope is curled up or laying out straight. Some English words were particularly difficult to translate. Navajos, for example, have no word for 'faith.' That came out as 'believingly trust.' Even the word 'God' was difficult to decide upon. The Navajos wanted to use a word meaning 'the most holy creator of all things,' but they had had enough contact with missionaries to have picked up the term 'God.' So in compromise the text just uses 'God.' "

Lois Martin also remembers an unexpected setback. "We had just finished the Book of Job, which took maybe three month's work, and we were going to Tucson. We had the handwritten manuscript, at least 100 pages covered front and back, in a suitcase tied on top of the car. The rope must have loosened and the suitcase fell off. We walked over the entire area but never found it." Smiling serenely Lois says, "We learned Job's tribulations by doing the book over again."

The revised New Testament appeared in 1975 but the Old Testament took another decade to complete. Through that span the Navajo Bible translators, fewer than a dozen altogether, worked out of a cabin and three mobile homes in Farmington, N.Mex. Each averaged $30 a month and lodgings in a project underwritten entirely through donations, missionary support and by the American Bible Society

Their finished book has been printed in 10,000 hardback copies, which are now selling on the reservation at $5 each. "That's a fair amount of money for the Navajo," says the Rev. Colin James, the American Bible Society's national distribution representative, "but I think they would buy it if it cost $100 because of their pride in a Bible printed in their language."

About 165,000 Navajos live on their West Virginia-size land, with perhaps another 40,000 living off-reservation. Only 10 percent or so of them are Christian; most others follow traditional practices that include the ministrations of medicine men. The new Bible may foster a feeling among more Navajos that Christianity is their religion as well as the white man's. "Faith is very effective and personal," observes tribal vice-chairman Edward T. Begay, "when one can express it in one's own language."

Many missionaries also see the Navajo Bible as the best literacy tool to come along. Approximately 60 percent of the Navajos now read English. But few—no one knows precisely how many—read their own language, and books in Navajo are fewer still. Thus the Navajo Bible is expected to fill a literary as well as spiritual need at a time when tribal pride is surging. "English isn't the language of my heart or home or the language I grew up with," a young Navajo told Lois Martin. "Navajo speaks to me more fluently."

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