Friday, September 26, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Bible Translations Save Cultures, Spark Koran Translations in Post-Soviet States

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 26 – Translations of the Bible into 85 languages of the peoples of the former Soviet space over the last 35 years not only are helping these communities to survive but in many cases are stimulating translations of the Koran into the vernacular, thus laying the foundation for the nationalization of Islam.
Thirty-five years ago, a small group of Russian émigré religious activists formed the Institute for the Translation of the Bible in Helsinki, Finland. Since that time, its staff has overseen the translation of the Bible into 85 languages of Eurasia, including many that did not have a written form before these translations were completed.
This week, the institute, together with the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences held a remarkable conference on “The Translation of the Bible as a Factor of the Preservation and Development of the Languages of Russia and the Countries of the CIS (
There are approximately 6500 to 7000 languages in the world, participants pointed out, but the 4500 with the smallest number of speakers make up only five percent of the world’s population. And many of these languages and the communities they represent are projected to die out over the next century.
The Bible has been translated into one-third of the existing languages of the world, Marina Lomova-Oppokova of the Institute of Linguistics said, but that statistic means that the speakers of two-thirds of the languages “still do not have a single page of Biblical text” in their vernacular tongue.
While the “salvation of the languages of the numerically small peoples is not the main goal of translators of the Bible,” she told the conference, “we cannot sit and do nothing” while they disappear because experience shows that “Biblical translations can become a very effective means of defense of disappearing languages and even unwritten ones.”
And while many argue that there is no reason to translate the Bible into languages which “in any case will die,” Lomova-Oppokova argued that the new UNESCO code on disappearing languages makes it “unethical” to refuse to make a translation of the Bible into a language no matter how few speakers it has if some of them want it.
Mikhail Alekseyev, the director of the Moscow Institute, shifted from this international situation to that of the peoples of the Russian Federation. He argued that translations of the Bible or even the announcement of plans for them have the effect of “raising the prestige” of the language for its speakers and thus helping them to survive.
But perhaps the most intriguing comments concerned the impact of translations of the Bible on societies where a significant share of the population professes Islam. Academician Gadzhi Gamzatov said that “at the beginning of the 1990s, attempts at translating the Bible into the languages of Daghestan elicited opposition” in that predominantly Muslim republic.
“However, with the passing of time, and as a result of the continuing cooperation of the Institute for the Translation of the Bible with Daghestani scholars, the situation changed: work on translating the people made possible a dialogue of Muslim and Christian societies and the growth of ‘respect’ for the Bible in Daghestan.”
As a result, he continued, “the Bible or certain of its books have been translated into dozens of the languages of the peoples of Daghestan, including languages which did not have a written form” before these translations appeared. (On this process, which is continuing, see the report at
But perhaps the most intriguing comment of all came from Alekseyev who noted that “the appearance of translations of the Bible in a number of languages of Russia has stimulated translators of the Koran,” a development that may have an even greater impact on Islam than the translations of the Bible will have on the survival of numerically small groups.
That is because the traditional attitudes of Christians and Muslims to the language of their holy books is very different. For Christians, at least in modern times, it makes no difference theologically what language the Bible appears in as long as the translation is accurate and the text understandable.
But for Muslims traditionally, the Koran exists only in Arabic, the language in which the Archangel Gabriel dictated its text to Mohammed. Consequently, for many of them, the Koran is only in the Koran if it is in Arabic. Rendered in any other language, Islamic traditionalists say, it is not the Koran but only “an interpretation.
That view has contributed to the Arab-centric nature of Islam, but it is gradually being challenged as non-Arabs form an ever larger percentage of the worldwide umma and as fewer and fewer Muslims speak Arabic. If a few centuries ago, most Muslims were Arabs, now only about 22 percent are, and their share is falling.
Consequently, speakers of other languages want to read the Koran in their own tongue, and new translations are appearing all the time. In the last year alone in Eurasia, there were complete translations of the Koran into Estonian and Georgia and partial translations into a number of other languages.
What could this lead to? As any student of Western civilization knows, the translation of the Bible from the Latin into German and English helped spark the Reformation because once people could read the sacred text directly rather than having it mediated through priests, they were in a position to make choices that changed the faith fundamentally.
It is thus entirely possible that translations of the Koran will have the same effect, and it will be one of the true ironies of history if translations of the Bible, as the scholars at this Moscow conference suggest, prompt translations of the Koran that in turn could open the way for the reformation of Islam.

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