Scripture Translation Continues in Russia

A renewed pride in the native language and literary heritage of the once-marginalized minorities in the Russian Federation is having a positive impact on Bible translation work, according to the United Bible Societies.

Spanning 11 time zones and covering more than 17 million square kilometers, the Russian Federation is a place of incredible diversity – perhaps more than any other country in the world according to a report released by the United Bible Societies. One of the ways in which this is reflected is in its languages, of which there are more than 100.

“During the Communist era, speakers of minority languages were often marginalized and sometimes forced to assimilate with larger language groups,” UBS reported. “Now, though, small federations are regaining a sense of national identity. With this comes a renewed pride in their language and their literary heritage.”

Excerpts from a series of reports compiled by Andrei Ovsiannikov, Executive Director of the St Petersburg branch of the Bible Society in Russia, revealed that this trend is having a positive impact on Bible translation work and that, in many cases, well-known writers in particular languages are being drawn to translation.

“They are showing great enthusiasm and devotion,” according to UBS, “setting aside their other writing work for long periods of time in order to undergo the necessary training and carry out the painstaking research required to produce top quality translations.”

In the Bashkortostan Republic, between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains, UBS reports that translators are striving for the highest possible standards as they tackle challenges such as finding words for concepts that do not exist in Bashkir - the language of around 1.6 million people who descended from the tribes that used to roam the southern Urals.

Although the first written materials in Bashkir date back to the tenth century, Christian speakers of this language have never had access to a full Bible in their own language, UBS reports. So in the late 1980s, local Christian communities approached the Bible Society with a request to begin a translation project. After consultation with religious leaders, journalists, linguists and academics, a five-member team was created and in 2000 they began a two-year training course in Ancient Hebrew.

Assisted by the Bible Society and UBS experts and the latest translation software, Bashkir translators have now completed or are working on 16 Old Testament books. They are also working on a dictionary of proper names and a glossary of Bible terms.

In the Buryat Republic, located around Lake Baikal close to the border with Mongolia, the Bible Society launched the Buryat translation project in 1998 in response to a revival taking place in Buryat churches during the 1990s.

Within Russia, the Buryat language is spoken by around 450,000 people, but it is also spoken by a further 100,000 living in China and Mongolia.

So far, UBS reports that the translation team has completed or is working on 18 Old Testament books. As with the Bashkir project, work is also under way on a dictionary of proper names and a glossary of Bible terms.

In 1998, the Bible Society heard that a group of Ossetians had begun a modern translation of the Bible into their own language, of which there are around 500,000 speakers. Ossetic is the only language spoken in the northern Caucasus that belongs to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.

Although Ossetic-speaking Christian communities were very enthusiastic about the translation project, it was clear that the translators were not fully equipped for the work, according to UBS. Eager to help, the Bible Society sent some staff members to Ossetia to assess what was required. Later, a two-year course was set up in St. Petersburg to ensure that the team members – who included a poet, a writer and a book editor – were fully trained in the basics of Bible translation and in the latest research techniques.

According to UBS, the Ossetic translation team has completed or is working on eight Old Testament books, as well as a dictionary of proper names and a glossary of Bible terms.

Other languages of the Russian Federation in which the Bible Society is leading translation projects include Yakut (444,000 speakers), Altai (73,000 speakers), Chuvash (two million speakers) and Kreshen (300,000 speakers).