Australian Indigenous Languages
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Bible beginnings in the back of Burke
By John Tan
Boorong was the first known Indigenous Australian to have substantial exposure to the Bible. She was sick with smallpox in 1789 when Governor Philip’s men took her to Sydney for treatment. Rev Johnson and his family looked after her for 18 months. Boorong saw the clergyman’s family reading and studying the Bible, and heard him preach from the ‘buk’ on Sundays.
Boorong, like other Aboriginals in that era, encountered the Bible as colonisers tried to educate and ‘civilise’ their communities. Christian missionaries brought the King James Bible into their society, together with other products of European civilisation. Indigenous Australians learned the Bible as they learned English.
The Bible Society started in Australia in 1817, making the Bible available to the public . For non-English readers, they brought in Bibles in Welsh, Hindi, Scottish Gaelic, Russian, Chinese and other languages. They desperately also wanted to get the Bible into indigenous languages.
Lancelot Threlkeld, together with Aboriginal translator Biraban, finished translating Luke’s Gospel into the Awabakal language in 1831.  This could be Australia’s first Indigenous Bible translation.
The list of Indigenous languages grew slowly in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1942, when Wycliffe Bible Translators began in the USA, CMS missionary Len Harris and his best students, Grace Yamambu and Bidigainj, translated Bible passages into the Wubuy language of Arnhem Land. Madi, who heard it read at a campfire, was excited that to realise that ‘Jesus speaks Wubuy’.
Wycliffe Australia started in 1954, with some of the first translators sent to work in languages overseas in places like the Philippines and PNG. Others formed AuSIL (Australian Society for Indigenous Languages)* and worked in the languages of Bandalang, Burarra, Kuku Yalanji and Wik Mungkan.
Translation efforts picked up in the 1960s and 1970s. The most significant result of this was the Kriol Bible, the first full Indigenous Australian Bible. This Holi Baibul was published in 2007, after about 30 years of work by people from Wycliffe, AuSIL, the Bible Society and the CMS.