New scripture translation preserves Mohawk language

By Staff Writers

A team of five Mohawk translators, led by a former Oka negotiator, have completed translating three books of the Bible into their aboriginal mother tongue.

Working in the communities of Kahnasatake (a Mohawk community of about 1,500 people northeast of Montreal and the flashpoint of the 1990 Oka uprising) and Kahnawake, Quebec (south of Montreal, near Chateauguay), the project began in 1999.

With funding, technical and consulting support from The Canadian Bible Society, the team translated the biblical books of II Corinthians, Jonah and Ruth.

Commenting on the significance of the project, Hart Wiens, Director of Scripture Translations for the Canadian Bible Society said, “For scripture to find a home in peoples’ hearts, it needs to come in the language of the heart.”

Today, the Mohawk language is spoken by an estimated 10% of the 30,000 North Americans that make up the total Mohawk population. However, aggressive language maintenance programs (including Mohawk immersion in the early elementary school years) have been launched in an effort to conserve both the language and the culture.

Arlene Delaronde is in charge of the Family Violence Program in Kahnawake. Regarding the newly translated scriptures, she commented, “It is going to be a wonderful tool that is going to help maintain our language for generations to come.”

Mavis Etienne is the translation project’s founder and coordinator. She makes her living as a clinical supervisor and counsellor for a local addiction treatment centre. She was involved as a negotiator on behalf of the Mohawk people during the Oka crisis.

Etienne first recognized the need for a Mohawk translation of the Bible a number of years ago, when she searched for Mohawk scriptures to read on her weekly radio show, “Mohawk Gospel Program”. All she could find were out-dated translations.

“I discovered that all of the New Testament had been translated into Mohawk between 1787 and 1839, with the exception of the book of Second Corinthians. The only book from the Old Testament that had been translated was Isaiah,” Etienne said. “But the language used in all the translations needed some up-dating.”

Community forms group
Etienne called a community meeting on a snowy Saturday in January, 1999 to raise awareness of the need for contemporary Mohawk Scriptures, and to garner support for the project. Ten people showed up.

A translation team was formed consisting of Etienne, Harvey Gabriel (whose great-grandfather, Sose Onasakenrat translated the scriptures in the 1800s), and three retired school
teachers known as ‘the sisterhood’; Josie Horne (85), Dorris Montour (82) and Charlotte Provencher (81).

Together, they studied at The Summer Institute of Linguistics in Arizona. Translation experts were recruited to provide linguistic and theological support. A support team was put in place.

In addition to The Canadian Bible Society, The United Church of Canada, The Anglican Church of Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops helped finance the venture. Clergy from Presbyterian, Pentecostal, United, Lutheran and Roman Catholic backgrounds acted as consultants.

The team’s original intent was simply to translate the apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. As the work progressed, they quickly determined the need for a complete and contemporary Mohawk Bible. Translation work now continues on the Old Testament books of Esther, Daniel, Genesis, Proverbs, Job and Lamentations.

Maureen Scott Kabwe, United Church minister in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake said of the Mohawk-language scriptures, “Each word, each part of a word is a treasure that opens up doors of understanding that we didn’t even know existed.”

The Canadian Bible Society, (headquartered in Toronto, Ontario), translates, publishes and distributes the Bible throughout Canada, and has Bibles, New Testaments and other Scriptures available in 111 foreign languages as well as 23 Canadian aboriginal languages.

First native take in 1804
The first Canadian native translation to be published by the Bible Society dates back to 1804, when the Gospel of John was translated into Mohawk. Formally founded in 1904 and chartered in 1906, the Canadian Bible Society is a member of the United Bible Societies, a fellowship of 137 national Bible societies around the world.

The societies work in partnership with churches and other Bible agencies to facilitate and support translation work around the globe. The Bible is now available – in whole or in part – in more than 2,285 different languages.

Four thousand languages have been identified into which no book of the Bible has been translated, and there is a recognized need for translation into at least 2,000 of these remaining languages.

For further information:

Hart Wiens
Director of Scripture Translation, The Canadian Bible Society
(Day) (519) 741-8285
(Night) (519) 883-7436

Mavis Etienne
Clinical Supervisor, Onen’to:Kon Treatment Services
(Day) (450) 479-8353
(Night) (450) 479-6555

Rev. Georges Legault
District Director, The Canadian Bible Society
(Day) (514) 848-9777
(Night) (450) 445-4815