Israeli Maronite children learning Aramaic (Photo: Ksenia Svetlova)
Aramaic is best known as the lingua franca of the Holy Land of two thousand years ago. It’s still spoken now—in various modern dialects—by an estimated 200,000 people worldwide. But few speak it as their mother tongue.
In Israel, there’s a move afoot to change that. The country’s roughly 10,000 Maronite Christians are seeking official recognition as a national group. They’re currently classified as Arabs—a label that the Israeli government insists on. But the Maronites say they’re distinct, and they are appealing to Israel’s high court. They say they should be known as ‘Aramaic.’
As part of an effort to maintain their culture—and to prove to the authorities that they are deserving of their own classification—Maronite activists have organized Aramaic language courses for kids. Most Israelis Maronites speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Volunteer teachers—whose Aramaic skills are of varying quality—want to ensure that the next generation speak the language better than they do.
In the pod, we speak with Israel-based reporter Ksenia Svetlova about all this. Her fascinating report for the Jewish Daily Forward outlines the history and politics of this linguistic initiative. It also explains why largest concentration of Aramaic-speakers today is in, of all places, Sweden.
A book written in Aramaic
In 1973 Sue (pictured) and Peter Westrum and their baby went to live among an indigenous tribe in Indonesian New Guinea. They had been dispatched by Wycliffe Bible Translators (check out my interview with Wycliffe President and CEO Bob Creson) to learn the Berik language, develop a script for it, and then translate the Bible into Berik. They spent more than 20 years there. It was a time of great transformation for the Berik people, their beliefs and their language.
This week’s pod is entirely given over to a conversation I had with Sue Westrum. It includes two astounding pieces of archive tape recorded in New Guinea by her husband Peter. The first is the Westrums’ first meeting with the Berik people who lived essentially in the jungle, in several villages a few dozen miles upriver of a modern Indonesian port town. The second recording is of Berik singing and drumming: one night a large number of them gathered unnanounced outside the Westrums’ makeshift home, and they just started playing and chanting. In both cases, the Westrums weren’t sure how to respond, though they sensed that these were friendly gestures.
Over time, the Westrums learned the Berik language. They also began teaching some of the Berik about the Bible, with a view to selecting some of the best students to help them translate it into Berik. The Westrums — and Wycliffe Bible Translators — insist that they are not Christian missionaries, that their role as translators is different. And in some cases the roles can be kept separate. But perhaps not in this case. The Berik had animist beliefs and had been barely been exposed to other religions. It’s difficult to imagine how language classes focused on the Bible would not sometimes morph into Bible study and discussions of belief. Certainly, during the time that the Westrums lived among them, many Berik converted to Christianity.
There are so many aspects of Berik language and culture that are different from American English that the process of translating the Bible was painstakingly slow. One small example: for the Berik, the emotional center of a person is his gut — something between the heart and the soul in western thinking. The Wycliffe method is to translate words, ideas and messages in ways that speak to the target audience. But there are, presumably, doctrinal limits as to how far a translator of the Bible can stray. (True, this hasn’t stopped some Bible translators in the past from veering radically and quite imaginatively from the original).
Eventually, the Bible was translated into Berik– the very first book (aside from education and nutrition booklets) to be published in what had been an oral language: a cause for celebration among those who wish to spread Christianity, but far from that among those who argue against such cultural and linguistic intervention in fragile indigenous societies. I barely get into this debate in this particular podcast, but I feel duty-bound to do so at some point in the future.
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When it comes to naming a street, you can go with the bland: Bella Vista Ave. Or not: Mugabe St (which has been among several contentious new street names under consideration in Durban, South Africa.) In the Palestinian city of Ramallah, some recently named streets celebrate “fallen matyrs”, including American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in Gaza in 2003 in disputed circumstances. Israel too, memorializes its “freedom fighters” from the early 20th century.
You might expect arguments over street names in Israel/the occupied territories and South Africa: these are places with profoundly traumatic recent histories. But wherever there are streets — or other things to name — there are heated debates over what to call them. Why, some ask, name a new federal government building after Ronald Reagan, a small-government president whose administration tried to prevent such statist expansionism?
Also in this podcast, a conversation with Bob Creson, President and CEO of what appears to be the world’s largest Bible translation organization, Wycliffe Bible Translators USA. According to Wycliffe, about two hundred million people lack access to the Bible in their native tongue. So, with the help of technology and donations, Wycliffe has set itself a deadline: it aims to have at least started translating the Bible into every language by 2025. Nearly all the languages that Wycliffe is currently working on are oral languages only: Wycliffe’s field translators must first design a writing system for any of these languages before committing a translation to paper. So in those cases, the Bible will likely be the first book to appear in that language, and that culture. The act of introducing the written word and an outside religion to a group of people who hitherto knew neither is, depending on how you look at it, freighted with promise or fraught with peril. More on this in future podcasts.
Wycliffe, by the way, is named after 14th century theologian John Wycliffe, who translated parts of the Bible from Latin into Middle English.
Finally, language journalist Michael Erard makes the case for using only artisanal, locally grown and sustainably packaged words. His satirical essay first appeared in web magazine The Morning News.
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The Bible is being translated into Jamaican patois. For some, it’ll bring the scriptures alive; for others it’s just not how the word of God ought to sound. Then a longish segment on English that’s so bad, it’s rotten. Whether spoken by Joe Strummer, Linton Kwesi Johnson or Louise Bennett, this is the language of oppression, rebellion and revenge. It can sound more raw and authentic than the Queen’s English, but it’s often just as refined. Listen here.
Joe Strummer performing with The Clash at the Tower Theater Show March 6, 1980. (Photo: John Coffey via Flickr)