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."
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