Always learning: the changing landscape of Indigenous translation

Wycliffe Today| Spring 2021

David Blackman has been working with Alyawarr speakers of Central Australia for almost 30 years. We caught up with David to find out what he has discovered during that time.

What does a typical Bible translation facilitator look like in an Indigenous community?

I’m not sure there is one! For me, a Bible translation facilitator is someone who engages with people. You don’t come as an expert. You don’t come to fix anything or teach anyone. You come to learn. That’s where it all begins. Any opportunity to learn from the local people, whether it’s hunting with them or watching them paint, watching them fix cars – anything like that to start relationships and discover more about culture and language.

What influenced your decision to move to Epenarra as a translation facilitator?

When I worked for the Northern Territory Education Department in 1980-82, I recall noticing how little English was spoken in remote communities. It occurred to me how little people would understand English Scripture. Why would they?

You had around 10 years experience living in Central Australia before joining Wycliffe Australia and being seconded to AuSIL in 1990. What changes have you observed amongst the people and languages over the past 40 years?

Things were very different in 1980. In remote communities, there was no electricity, few schools, no phones, often no shops, housing was very basic. When I first visited, there were many people living in humpies. Ten years later, when I returned to the Territory, there was better housing, sometimes electricity and usually a community pay phone. In recent years, mobile phone coverage has reached many remote communities. Increasing contact with the wider culture and more educational opportunities have opened up. Unfortunately, this contact has also brought about a decline in the use of local languages.

Have you noticed a change in the way young people perceive or identify with their language since more of the Bible and dictionary has been translated?

Traditional languages are being used less by people under the age of 20, but many of them actually get excited about hearing the audio Bibles in their mother tongue. Young people mix their traditional languages with English, so they develop a unique, hybrid way of speaking. They like to read from the Plain English Version Bible, as the structure is similar to traditional Aboriginal languages.

When Alyawarr speakers first see their language in print, they have to get over the hurdle of the fact that it doesn’t look like English. Those who are able to do that can transfer the English literacy they gained at school to reading Alyawarr, and some find that they enjoy it. Having said that, people are always delighted to have Scripture available in their own language, readers and non-readers alike. More people these days choose to access it in audio format.

What is the next project on the go?

We’ve been translating Revelation for a number of years and we’re getting close to the final stages of checking the Epistles of 1 and 2 Peter.

What is the biggest challenge in your ministry and how has it grown your faith?

I have learned that things hardly ever happen the way I expect! Inevitably, God has a better plan. There are so many variables in cross-cultural ministry that can affect what happens. We need to be flexible enough to cope with whatever comes. We are always learners! I used to have a poster on my wall that said ‘Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken’! We learn to depend on the Lord. It teaches us to pray and seek God’s guidance on a daily basis.

Please pray for:

  • wisdom in balancing different roles
  • the ability to finish the task well
  • young people to join the Alyawarr team.


Thanks for your patience...

Waiting is hard, isn't it. But imagine waiting 2000 years for Scripture in your language! Thanks for your patience. And thanks for your generous support which will help bring the long wait to an end...