First steps towards new Bible translation in Chad
Two linguists serving with Wycliffe Bible Translators have taken the first step in the long process of translating the Bible into two languages in Chad that have no writing system.
Dorothea Reuter and Maria Gustafsson will be researching the linguistics of the languages to provide the foundation for translation and literacy work. They have started by creating a draft alphabet chart for each language.
“We began our assignments at the end of June,” says Dorothea, who will focus on a language called Gula Iro, while Maria is focusing on a language called Mulgəni (spoken by the Mulgi people). “We will partner with other organisations, working towards an oral Bible translation which at some point will be written down as well.”
It is estimated that there are between 5–7,000 Mulgi and 10–11,000 Gula Iro. It is not even known how, where and when they use their languages. “That will be part of our research,” says Maria. “We know that Mulgəni is not well known, except by immediate neighbours. Gula Iro does have some written literature, and we know that for the Gula Iro their language is a key part of their identity.”
Caroline Tyler, who serves with Wycliffe and is the team director in Chad, comments: “It’s such a privilege for our team to start working with these two people groups. Of course, we want them to have the Scriptures in their language so they can hear and read about Jesus in the language they understand best. But the Mulgi and Gula Iro will obtain so many other benefits from having their languages formally studied, written down and taught.”
Initial contact was through community meetings. Caroline continues: “We visited representatives of each community in the capital, N’Djamena, to explain the work and to hear from community members about their aspirations and concerns for their language.” The Mulgi meeting was attended by about 70 people and the Gula Iro one by about 25.
“We created a draft alphabet chart for each language,” continues Dorothea. “People get enthusiastic about this simple document as it’s often the first written material they’ve seen in their language and they immediately want to provide feedback, give corrections and make suggestions. In both instances it led to some lively interactions! The chart sparked considerable interest in the Mulgi meeting as everybody wanted a copy; people were fascinated as one of them read the words out loud. At the end of the meeting they were singing in their language (Mulgəni) and dancing.”
At the meetings, Mulgi and Gura Iro people spoke about what it means to them to have work begin on their languages:
- ‘It was an exceptional meeting. Never before has anybody talked to us how to develop our mother tongue.’
- ‘It woke us up. It was the first meeting about how to go towards translation. It was a good meeting to show us the way forward.’
- ‘It gave us hope, made the heart glad, and opened up the spirit.’
There are considerable challenges in writing down a language for the first time. Dorothea comments: “First, we need to figure out what sounds there are in the language, and how they affect the meaning of a word. Then how many letters we need in the alphabet and which letters to choose – and how to represent in the written language everything that is important in the oral language.
“It’s exciting to start this work, to work directly with the people, and to do something that no one has done before or very little. It’s also challenging, because there is so much to do and you can’t look up ‘the right answer’. It’s definitely something I need God’s wisdom and strength for and I can’t do on my own.”
Producing the Bible in Mulgəni and Gula Iro is the ultimate aim, so that these peoples have access to God’s word in the languages that speak to them best. However, that’s a long-term aim, and in the meantime there are many other benefits.
“The work will benefit the whole community, not just the Christians, who are a minority,” says Dorothea. “Writing down a language shows it has a value. It also helps to keep knowledge about the history of a people – their traditions, culture, and stories. If children can learn to write and read in their own language first, it will help them then to continue with French later in school.
“French and Arabic are the official languages in Chad, but many Mulgi, for example, do not speak them or only know them enough for basic conversation. The schools teach in French, but the education and literacy levels are low – many have not been to school or only for a few years. So the Mulgi and Gula Iro have many disadvantages in life.”
When asked why they wish that their children will continue to speak Gula Iro, people said “because that’s who we are, that’s our identity”.
For a video about the wider benefits of Bible translation work, click here.