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Words set free

Jesus is ‘Creator Sets Free’ in new NT translation that uses Indigenous language to open Scripture in a fresh way.

“Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are hunted down and mistreated for doing what is right, for they are walking the good road from above.”

Can you recognize one of the Beatitudes in that sentence? It’s Matthew 5:10 in The First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, a dynamic equivalence translation. Published in August 2021, this version aims to translate the original languages of scripture into English in a way that is culturally relevant to the Indigenous peoples of North America. It is intended for use in ministries with Indigenous people, and it is also a gift for non-Indigenous readers, offering a new way to experience the Bible.

Terry M. Wildman, Ojibwe and Yaqui, is the lead translator, general editor and project manager of the First Nations Version (FNV), as well as the founder of Rain Ministries in Arizona and Director of Spiritual Growth and Leadership Development for Native InterVarsity.

Christian Courier spoke with him to find out more about the FNV.

Language of the heart

The cadence of storytelling used in the FNV evokes the beauty and simplicity of Indigenous storytellers’ oral tradition, Wildman says. Rather than use the familiar anglicized versions of Greek and Hebrew names, the FNV translates what these names mean in a phrase, such as “Creator Sets Free” for Jesus, “Father of Many Nations” for Abraham, “Village of Peace” for Jerusalem, and “Small Man to the Sacred Family in Village of Horses” for the book of Philippians. In the text, names of people are clarified with the commonly-used name in a smaller font and parentheses, such as “He Gives Sons (Joseph).”

This, as Wildman says, “opens a whole new way of seeing and connecting names to the story” for the reader. For instance, in John 3, “Conquers the People” (Nicodemus) encounters “Creator Sets Free” (Jesus). These names add another layer to this story, in which differing views of the coming kingdom are held in tension through their conversation. “Conquers the People” (Nicodemus) seeks the overthrow of Roman rule, while “Creator Sets Free” (Jesus) offers a vision in which “the kingdom is sacrificial love.”

The original list of phrases used for commonly occurring words was developed by the First Nation Translation Council from many different tribes at a meeting in Orlando, Florida in September of 2015. After the publication of the gospel of Luke and Ephesians, a meeting was held in Calgary to make a plan for moving forward with the longer translation. One Book Canada and Wycliffe Associates participated in these meetings as supporters.

The method used in writing this translation was very collaborative, with many people giving input to the verse-by-verse translation drafts written by Wildman. A punctuation specialist reviewed the initial drafts and entered them into ParaText software. From this step, sections of the text were sent to reviewers for input. Collaborators included people working in campus ministries, who would share the translations with students; these students also contributed their ideas about phrasing and the rhythm of storytelling, including ideas specific to their tribes. Students expressed appreciation for these early drafts, indicating that they could relate to the language used.

An Elder from the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians (California) shapes the First Nations Version.

Keep dancing

The gospel of Luke was a narrative-based text in the initial publication. Wildman says that translating epistles from a First Nations perspective for this project was “easier than we expected.” He notes that, even in passages that are doctrine-heavy such as Paul’s letters, storytelling is still a significant part of the text. As Paul expounds on who Jesus is, “he’s doing it from the perspective of the Old Testament story: ‘these things happened to them and are an example to us.’”

Metaphorical language in the original text offers an opportunity to find analogous metaphors “from our Native culture” that speak to the hearts of Indigenous people. For instance, Paul’s words about perseverance in Philippians 3:12 are interpreted as follows: “I do not mean to say that I have won the victory or have already arrived at the end of the good road. But I keep dancing the victory dance, staying in step with the Chosen One, who is the headman dancer leading the way. In this way, I can fully become what the Chosen One, Creator Sets Free (Jesus), has made me to be.”

Wildman adds that, in Bible studies, he has heard from Indigenous people that this translation “gives more meaning to it now,” while non- Indigenous people who read it learned more about Indigenous culture through the study.

The Jesus Film Project partnered with the First Nations Version to create this beautiful depiction of the Lord’s Prayer.

Where phrases are added to the original text for style or clarity, italics are used, as in Philippians 2:13: “My one aim is to forget what is behind me and to keep moving forward, dancing the victory dance with firm steps to the drumbeat of Creator’s heart.

As readers encounter the stories in a specific cultural context, “the Holy Spirit uses this” to open the scriptures in new ways, Wildman says. He has heard many encouraging stories of readers’ encounter with the text. Musician Jonathon Maracle, a Mohawk from Tyendinaga Territory in Ontario, read portions of the FNV to a Indigenous Elder on his deathbed, inviting him to receive Creator Sets Free, which the Elder did.

This version of the New Testament has been used in many Indigenous ministries in Canada and the United States, and it has found an audience with non- Indigenous people; Wildman notes that most of the podcasts and other interviews he has done have been with this audience. He has heard from them that the FNV has given a fresh perspective to people who “had become weary of reading the Bible.” He hopes that this encounter with scripture will also promote and open up new conversations about colonialism and its impact on Indigenous culture, as well as an appreciation for the beauty of Indigenous culture and Indigenous ways of thinking.

Publication

As of the interview with CC, suppliers were sold out of this Bible, which far exceeded expectations for how many copies would be needed. The publication of this new Bible has been complicated by printing delays, due to supply chain issues, but orders are being accepted, and an ebook version is available, in addition to the paperback and hardcover versions. Demand has been high, with some ministries bulk ordering many copies.

The Jesus Film Project created three videos based on a few stories from the gospel of Matthew, Gift from Creator Tells the Good Story, from the FNV. These animated videos are available on the “Retelling the Good Story” page of the Jesus Film website. They are told with a frame story of an elder telling a story to a group of people around a campfire. The videos have been used to “open conversations” about Indigenous culture and the story of the Bible. Plans are also underway to develop a new picture book for parents to read to young children about the birth of Creator Sets Free (Jesus), redeveloping Birth of the Chosen One which Wildman first published in 2013, illustrated by Ramone Romero.

Retelling the Good Story is a collection of three short animated films that feature a storyteller, Mishomis, retelling stories of Jesus’ life and ministry in beautiful animation inspired by Native American art.

Ongoing work

This project was developed with contributions from people of many tribes, but it is not tribally specific. Wildman noted that he hopes the existence of this book “will inspire others to create more tribally-specific versions,” adding that “it is not an end in itself – it’s a beginning.”

When asked about the possibility of an Old Testament translation, Wildman commented that the possibility of starting with Psalms and Proverbs has been considered, and that leaders in Indigenous ministries are especially interested in having copies of the origin stories, including Genesis and Exodus, written in this style.

Other translators are expressing interest in continuing this work of translation, such as translating the FNV into Spanish for indigenous tribes in Mexico. Translators from SIL and Wycliffe in India also approached Wildman, hoping “to integrate similar ideas as they translate the New Testament among some of India’s indigenous peoples. We are working to help them get the text in a Paratext format for them to use for ideas.” Interest from international readers is building: “We also have some believers in Africa wanting copies. These are encouraging samples of how the FNV is having an international impact.”

Author

  • Judith Farris lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her family.

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