Why translate for dying languages?

Melody Kube, Feb 2023

The recent Bible Translation National Gathering was impacting for many of the 70+ participants from around Australia. The collaboration brought many new ideas and insights to the surface, even for a veteran translator like Dave Glasgow. Dave was the oldest participant at the Gathering, he’s 89 this year, and has worked in this field for 60+ years.

A presentation about the Noongar Bible translation and language revitalisation project, along with a personal conversation with Noongar woman Charmaine Councillor, brought Dave to a startling new perspective.

By the beginning of this century, after severe damage from the stolen generations policies, the Noongar language, south-west WA, had all but disappeared from use. A seed-thought to translate part of the Bible began to bring hope to the Noongar community, reviving their passion for the language of their identity. A small group of believers laboured over the Gospel of Luke for many years, bringing it to publication in 2014. The book of Ruth followed in 2020. The language is now being taught to many interested Noongar people, who are together rebuilding their knowledge of their own language.

Dave was impressed by the value Charmaine placed on her language; “Even though it is a dying language and she only had partial knowledge of it, the little bit of Scripture in the language she identified with was, to her, genuinely God’s word. She understood the Bible in English but to her it was nevertheless the “white man’s” book, and it carried with it the stigma of the white man.”

This realisation hit Dave “right between the eyes”. Dave has worked with AuSIL (and its predecessors) as a translator for Aboriginal languages since 1961. In fact, in the early 1970s he was part of the survey team that determined that the Noongar language was not “sufficiently robust” to assign anyone to work in. At that time, priority was given to languages that appeared to have the strongest futures. Dave explains the common thinking of the time, “I had always regarded our job as Wycliffe translators to translate the Bible into robust languages, by-passing the small and dying languages.”

Nevertheless, Dave’s compassion for these Bible-less communities became part of the motivation for creating the Plain English Version. Dave put his energies into developing an English language Bible translation, made especially with the needs of Aboriginal Australians, like the Noongar, in mind.

Now, since the Gathering, Dave has begun to see the problem of language endangerment differently. While the needs of strong languages remain at the forefront, Dave now wants to know what we can do for these smaller neglected languages. Dave has begun to appeal to AuSIL members, past and present, urging us to consider the needs of these languages groups that have been overlooked for so long. He also wants this message to reach Bible translators returning to Australia from projects around the world, urging them; “You still have more to contribute!” You see, Dave and Kathy Glasgow have never figured out “retirement” in its usual sense, and he’s convinced there are many more like him out there too! And Dave has a plan. Generally, the knowledge of English is higher in communities whose own languages are suffering, meaning that mother tongue translators can take the lead, with trained outsiders acting as guides and facilitators. And, the PEV, Dave’s original solution to the problem of language loss, will be advantageous to these new translations as the plain English is easier to translate into Aboriginal languages.

So-called “dying languages” may still have more life in them than was once thought. Like Jairus’ daughter, whom Jesus brought back to life, perhaps they are “only sleeping” (Mark 5:39)! Nothing is truly ever dead when we serve the God of the resurrection.

It’s impressive to see a veteran like Dave, who has served this group for over half a century, embrace a new understanding with such enthusiasm. He’s not settled in his ways, not a bit complacent, or reliving his glory days, as he could be forgiven for doing at this stage of life. No, he’s calling for radical change that could affect the future of how Bible translation is done in Aboriginal contexts in Australia.

I just hope we can keep up with him!