In The Media – How a Bible translation is preserving the Pitjantjatjara language

How a Bible translation is preserving the Pitjantjatjara language

An Aboriginal reading of the Bible

Jennifer (Murika) Ingkatji reads Psalm 23 in her native tongue, Pitjantjatjara, after a 70-year project translated the Bible into the Abori…

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Yanyi Bandicha, pictured with the Bible Society’s Paul Eckert. “There’s some really big words and ideas in there,” she says. Source: TheAustralian

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The Gospel of Johnku (St John) in Tjukurpa Palya. Picture: Adam Knott Source: TheAustralian

IN 1943, two Christian missionaries living in mud huts among the Western Desert people at the remote outpost of Ernabella, central Australia, set about translating the King James Bible into Pitjantjatjara, an ancient language that had never been written down.

It took a year, and many arguments, for Reverend Bob Love and Ronald Trudinger to produce their first draft of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark,Tjukurpa Palja Markaku. Seventy years later, a 21st-century missionary named Paul Eckert sits at the dining-room table of a house in that same isolated community, still toiling away on the project his predecessors started. The world has passed into a new millennium and Ernabella has changed its name to Pukatja since the first words of the Pitjantjatjara Bible were written, and still it remains only half-complete.

Eckert, a 60-year-old emissary of the Bible Society, is working on this chilly winter night in the home of Yanyi Bandicha, a genial 62-year-old Aboriginal elder and one of 30 Bible translators scattered across the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands. Right now the pair of them are poring over a knotty passage from the Book of Leviticus that deals with arcane 2000-year-old Hebrew strictures on the correct offering of sacrifices to God: And the Lord called unto Moses and spoke unto him out of the tabernacle of meeting, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock …

“There’s some really big words and ideas in there,” says Bandicha with a shy laugh, sitting beneath a vibrantly coloured tapestry of Jesus at the Last Supper. On the table is her annotated printout of Leviticus, rendered in modernised English, alongside the latest edition of the Pitjantjatjara Bible, with its red faux-leather cover embossed with a gold crucifix and its title, Tjukurpa Palya. Like most of the elders in this isolated community of 400-odd souls, Bandicha was raised a Christian and schooled by Presbyterian missionaries who taught her to read both Pitjantjatjara and English. As a child in the 1950s she grew up singing hymns in her traditional tongue and reading the gospels that Love and Trudinger had translated. Yet it wasn’t until she was 50 that the entire New Testament was finally published in Pitjantjatjara. Now she and her collaborators have resolved to tackle the remaining two-thirds of the Bible; since 2011 they’ve been working their way through the 23,000 verses of the Old Testament.

It’s the Mount Everest of translation tasks, a project that seems quixotic on any number of counts. For one, traditional languages are in decline in this northwest corner of South Australia, where Aboriginal schoolchildren are taught largely in English. Christianity, too, has been steadily losing its influence since the church ceded control to community self-management, beginning in the 1970s. The whole missionary enterprise, with its roots in colonial notions of “civilising the savages”, seems anachronistic in an age of satellite TV. Yet Bible translation has some high-profile support from indigenous leaders, who regard it not only as a crucial way of saving languages from extinction but, more broadly, as a means of looking afresh at the much-maligned missionary era.

The paradoxes of that era are palpable in Pukatja, Amata and the other communities of the APY lands, where Christianity is the dominant faith but traditional law and custom still hold strong. On Sundays, black preachers deliver sermons about a whitefella God who created the world single-handedly in six days. Yet in the community art centres, those same elders paint a different creation story of giant spirit-beings who shaped the contours of the desert plains and carved out the surrounding Musgrave Ranges. At night in Pukatja, the sounds of Christian hymn-singing drift on the still evening air from the mud-brick Uniting Church, still the most impressive building in the community. But at funerals another sound is unleashed – the anguished wailing of traditional sorry-business that has echoed across the desert for millennia.

Eckert, a fluent Pitjantjatjara speaker who has been working with the Western Desert people since he came here as a young schoolteacher in 1973, sidesteps the question of how Christian and Aboriginal spiritual beliefs can be reconciled. People are free to choose those parts of the Bible that mean something to them, he avows. “If people ask me a question like, ‘How does this fit in with our Dreaming?’ I would say, ‘Think about the Scriptures and see how God enlightens you’,” he says.

It’s a mildly disingenuous answer, of course – missionary work is above all about recruiting, and even the name the Church authorities bestowed on the Pitjantjatjara Bible seems freighted with ambiguity. Tjukurpa Palya is commonly translated as “The Good Message”, yet it could also have a more loaded meaning – “The Good Dreaming” or perhaps “The Good Law”. Certainly Bandicha professes that she no longer has much time for the old beliefs her ancestors once adhered to. “Some people consider those stories as superior, I guess,” she says, speaking in her own language, as Eckert interprets. “But I don’t put them in the same category as the Scriptures.”


The desert terrain that radiates from the border of South Australia and the Northern Territory is certainly worthy of creation legend, biblical or otherwise. The light plane that takes Eckert to the APY lands on a brisk winter morning passes south from Alice Springs over a panoramic pale red landscape and skirts Uluru, squatting on the desert floor below; flat-topped Mount Conner stands on the horizon, shrouded in mist. By the time we cross the border into South Australia, a slanting morning sun is casting shadow-plays across the smooth flanks of the Musgrave Ranges.

Eckert spent 34 years living out here, most of them in Pukatja, where he and his wife raised their three daughters. In 1993 he moved to Alice Springs and since 2007 he’s been a fly-in-fly-out missionary, based in Adelaide and flying up to Alice to meet the Bible Society’s pilot, David Curtis, for their regular sorties to the communities. The Society has been publishing Bibles in Australia for nearly 200 years – it claims to be the oldest continuously running organisation in the nation – and the 20-odd indigenous-language Bibles and Scriptures it has published are the rarefied end of its readership. There are only 2500 people in all of the APY lands, for instance, so Tjukurpa Palya has a readership so small that it costs more to produce than the $20 the Society charges for it. It’s the loss-leader of evangelism.

Today Eckert is heading first to Amata, 14km inside the South Australian border, to flog a few books and check up on his translators before heading on to Pukatja. Balding, bearded and bespectacled, clad in khakis and a dark Akubra, he moves easily among the people, exchanging greetings and jokes in the rapid-fire cadences of Pitjantjatjara. Language fluency is a missionary tradition: early proselytisers such as Reverend Bob Love in Ernabella (as it was then known) and the Lutheran Carl Strehlow across the border in Hermannsburg painstakingly learnt local dialects and created the first written record of them.

“When I first came here in 1973, most Aboriginal people weren’t living in houses; they were living in whirlies [traditional shelters] and tin sheds,” says Eckert as we walk around Amata. Today the communities boast government-built homes and all the infrastructure that land rights brought – power stations, art centres, government administration offices, police stations, even skate-parks. The adoption of traditional place names such as Pukatja was part of that shift, but self-management has had a dismal history across the APY lands – poor school attendance, appalling levels of diabetes and myriad social problems stemming from welfare dependency. Eckert saw the transformation first-hand and talks wistfully of an era when people here worked as builders, gardeners and stockmen under the supervision of the Church.

It’s not a fashionable view, given the bad press missionaries have suffered these past 20 years. The Bringing Them Home report of 1997 uncovered harrowing stories of Aboriginal children wrenched from their parents and confined to dismal church-run institutions, and documentaries such as First Australians have revisited earlier cruelties inflicted in the name of Christianity. What’s less widely acknowledged is that missionaries were also among the first people to systematically document the culture and learn the languages of Aboriginal Australia, in the process creating written forms for those languages which enabled indigenous children to become not only literate but also bilingual.

Alison Anderson, the Northern Territory Minister for Aboriginal Advancement, was raised in Papunya reading the Bible in her native Aranda. She vividly recalls the impact of seeing her own language on the page and hearing it explain the Gospels’ cautionary teachings about the temptations of sin and the fires of hell. “If you were interested in the Church or Christianity you had to pick up a Bible in order to understand the Lord’s Prayer, to read it in your own language,” says Anderson. “It was challenging as a young person but very interesting, and it gave you that ability to know your own language. It preserved culture and language.”

The Aranda Bible that Anderson read as a child was written by the missionary Strehlow and revised in the 1940s by his anthropologist son Ted, two men whose collective work is one of the great anthropological treasures of Australia. When Anderson talks today about the mission life she remembers from the 1960s and early 1970s, she sounds no less nostalgic than Eckert. “If you look at the Lutherans in my part of the country they did a lot for the people,” she says. “These old communities like Hermannsburg and Papunya, you look back on the old photographs and see how clean they were. There was no rubbish, kids were at school every day wearing uniforms, people worked in schools and health clinics. There were hygiene squads, farms that had fresh vegetables every day … Today you’ve got a problem with younger people who don’t accept either Christianity or the older teaching.”

Cape York leader Noel Pearson similarly learnt his father’s language, Guugu Yimidhirr, partly by reading the Bible and listening to sermons translated by the Lutheran missionary Georg Schwarz in his community of Hope Vale. “I realise in retrospect how crucial the church program was to the maintenance of the language,” says Pearson, who notes the Lutherans were so successful at teaching Guugu Yimidhirr that children brought to Hope Vale from other regions, under the Stolen Generations policies, became its most fluent speakers. The fact that the stern Germanic pastor helped preserve an indigenous language while denouncing the customs of the people who spoke it is an “absolute irony” not lost on Pearson.

Because Aborigines did not read or write, missionaries such as Schwarz in effect had to devise written languages using phonetic spellings for Aboriginal words and “Aboriginalising” English words that were foreign to indigenous language. The Western Desert people, for instance, do not use the “o” vowel and had never seen a donkey, so this alien creature is denoted by the word tangkiyi. “Box” became pakutja (“packet”), which is why the biblical Ark of the Covenant – the chest said to have contained the Ten Commandments – is known as Pakutja Kalkuntjitja in Pitjantjatjara.

Translating this way is a tortuously slow road littered with potholes. Pukatja elders remember collapsing in laughter during a fiery sermon from missionary Ron Trudinger when he warned that the Holy Spirit would descend on them in a deluge of wallabies (he meant to say “tongues of fire”). Pearson notes that the Christian belief that Jesus died for all of humanity’s sins generated bafflement among many Aborigines in Hope Vale, who believe death is caused by the malign actions of an individual who must submit to payback. A story passed down at Hope Vale relates how a devout young Aboriginal woman was sent to the mission outskirts to convert the traditional elders camped there, and caused some consternation when she explained that Christ had been crucified for their sins. “This old woman interrupted the younger woman,” recalls Pearson, “and said, ‘Just a minute, young lady – I’m completely innocent in relation to the killing of Jesus!’?” Pearson chuckles. “She rejected the theological proposition.”

The clash of Scriptures and Dreaming didn’t always result in laughter. One of Pukatja’s veteran Bible translators is Graham Kulyuruy, a lean and wizened man born in the desert in the early 1930s and raised on the mission from infancy. These days he’s a natty, white-bearded figure, often dressed in pale moleskins and a wide-brimmed Akubra, who preaches in Pitjantjatjara at the Uniting Church. But his conversion to Christianity as a young man triggered a wave of metaphysical discord at Pukatja when his mother died and his older brother Willy developed a growth on his leg shortly after Graham refused to attend a traditional ceremony. In her memoir of her years at Pukatja, The People In Between, former missionary Winifred Hilliard recalls how Willy became “partially deranged” by the belief that his brother’s rejection of the old law had brought evil magic on the family, a torment that persisted for a year until Willy underwent traditional healing.

Speaking in his own language, Kulyuruy explains that it’s not that he condemns his elders for the Dreaming stories they told; he still respects their teachings, but those stories today are told as examples of the old ways, not literal truths. “The old men’s tjukurpa was taught to us so we could live the sort of life we were supposed to live, a good life,” he recalls. “But then when I heard the Bible, God’s tjukurpa, I thought, ‘No, this is above that.’ I heard the stories from my ancestors and I heard the stories from the Bible, and as I was listening I realised the Bible is the greater story – it overshadows the other one.”

Even this long-devout Presbyterian, however, must sometimes sense the old law reaching across time to assert its authority. Asked to recount some of the Dreaming stories he learnt from his parents, Kulyuruy gently demurs. “I can’t talk about them,” he replies, “because they’re sacred stories.”

Anderson cautions that in communities such as Pukatja and Amata, even those who identify as devout Christians may be simultaneously grounded in the traditions and ceremonies of their ancestors. “I had both and I worked out very early on that you can have both,” she says. “It’s having an ability to live in the English world and still be an Aboriginal person practising your culture. Our concept of creation is a religion in itself; it’s something we hold strongly and it’s the foundation of our culture. We never put other religions before our own. We have a totally different story of creation to the Bible and we still hold that strongly. We accept Christianity as a good thing in our lives because it teaches you to be a good person. But we still hold our own culture very strong.”

In Hope Vale, Pearson, too, saw the old ways persist. “There was a surreptitious maintenance of traditional beliefs, which was very much unofficial, frowned upon and hidden from the Church. People still believed in sorcery but there was no public expression of those beliefs. So that was maintained in Hope Vale over the course of the century.” It was in north Queensland, in fact, that Aboriginal pastors created a synthesis of the Dreaming and the Gospels called “Rainbow Spirit Theology” in the 1990s.

Pearson still nurses a dream of finishing the Guugu Yimidhirr Bible that Pastor Schwarz began translating more than a century ago. Schwarz’s incomplete 121-page manuscript wasn’t published until 1946, and a proposal to complete it in the 1980s was shelved because the traditional language has been modified by the infiltration of English words.

But Pearson believes that today, no less than 100 years ago, Bible translation can help save a language from extinction. “I think it’s crucial. Translation itself can help to strengthen and revive a language, and you have to have a large literature like the Bible to do it. “Quite apart from the fact that I value it as a Christian, the Bible is a vast and important work of literature, so it’s a logical choice for preservation of language. And I think we’re at a stage in the indigenous psyche that the era when the church was all evil and the mission was all bad is now over. We have a much more balanced view and we have come to terms with our mission inheritance and therefore I think we’re able to be more objective about its value.”

In Central Australia, meanwhile, the quest for a complete Pitjantjatjara Bible is expected to take 15 years, a longer span than some of its current translators are likely to live. Among the oldest is Hector Burton, one of the most famed artists in Amata; he is both a Uniting Church elder and senior law man of the old tjukurpa. Like so many elders in the APY Lands, Burton has adapted to unthinkable changes in his 70-odd years. As a child he lived naked in the desert with his parents; as a young man in the mission years he worked as a ringer, construction worker and fruit-picker; as a senior citizen he’s become a painter whose work hangs in state government galleries and private collections.

On the chilly day we visit Amata, he’s in the Tjala Arts Centre, rugged up in a woollen jumper, his halo of wiry white hair splattered with paint. One of Burton’s recurring motifs as a painter is theanamura tjukurpa, the caterpillar dreaming which is the subject of a ceremony he went through early in his life. In recent years, he and other elders in Amata have revived that ceremony, worried that it would be forgotten. Yet here in the arts centre he seems as dismissive of those old creation stories as Yanyi Bandicha was in Pukatja.

“Maybe that was something that God showed our ancestors, those stories,” he says in his raspy voice, sipping on a cup of milky tea. “He’s the one, he’s the ultimate cause of the Dreamtime events and creations. The kangaroos and the snakes that crawl along the ground – God was the creator.”

But does Burton ever incorporate the white man’s tjukurpa into his paintings? “No, I haven’t done that yet,” he replies, rubbing his chin, and then a smile plays across his lips. “Hmmm, maybe I’ll do something in that area.” It seemed like Hector Burton was pulling my leg.

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