Thailand's Akha translate the Bible into their own language
by Giorgio Bernardelli

On  the Sunday of the Word of God , the story of Thailand-s mountain tribes who are preparing a Bible dictionary, the first step towards a complete translation of Scripture. In Asia there are still 751 languages spoken by 124 million people who do not have any Sacred Scripture in their own tongue.

Milan (AsiaNews) - On the third Sunday of Ordinary Time, which falls today, for the past three years - at the behest of Pope Francis - Churches around the world have been celebrating the Sunday of the Word of God, with the intention of promoting reflection and the dissemination of Sacred Scripture. This is a theme that also poses a specific question for Asia: how many of its peoples really have the possibility of holding the books of the Bible translated (all 73 or at least in part) into their mother tongue in their hands?  

According to some statistics released a few months ago by the Wycliffe Global Alliance - an evangelical association active in the promotion of translations of the Holy Scriptures - today the Bible is at least partially available in 3495 languages, spoken by a total of 7.04 billion people. However, there are 7378 languages in the world, in short double that figure in which it is not available. And (again according to these figures) there are 1892 languages for which the absence of a translation makes the Word of God completely inaccessible to millions of people. The largest number are Asian languages: 751, spoken by a total of 124 million people.

But how is the Bible translated and who does it? There is obviously no single formula, but one very significant experience in this sense is the one involving the Akha people, who live in the mountains of northern Thailand. In 2007, the last official census recorded 50,000 Akha people in the country, but it is estimated that this number has now risen to 200,000 as a result of migration from neighbouring Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands more Akha live between Laos and (above all) China. For fifty years the PIME missionaries in Thailand have been carrying out their ministry among these people, who today, thanks to the work of evangelisation, have their own Christian communities in what have become the dioceses of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Nakhon Sawan.

"Our mission," says Fr Marco Ribolini, a PIME missionary in Mae Suai, "has always been rooted in the translation of liturgical texts into Akha, which is still mainly an oral language. We missionaries were the first to put it in writing, following two main guidelines, one Protestant and the other Catholic. But it still remains an uncertain language, lacking a local literature".

Hence the importance of a translation of the Bible that is truly the fruit of a community process, which is exactly what is being done. The "laboratory" in the mountains of Thailand started in September 2020, involving all the Catholic communities of the Akha. Each community has chosen representatives from among its catechists, who have formed a commission that meets periodically and is working under the guidance of Fr Ribolini.

The first step was to define a biblical-theological dictionary, before proceeding with the translations. "We worked in three subgroups," says the missionary, "The first focused on the names of biblical characters and toponymy. We had to propose transliterations: since the Akha language was written down by us missionaries, it uses the European alphabet, but the names must be written as close as possible to the Thai sounds."

"A second group worked on the neologisms needed to translate the Bible: there are words and expressions that are completely foreign to the local language and we had to decide how to propose them. For example, how to translate 'people of God' or 'Kingdom of God' into expressions that are just as concise? Some said that we were betraying the Akha language, others (on the contrary) feared that they did not feel worthy of imagining words that would end up in the Bible. After all, even the names of the sacraments - which in the Akha missions have been in use for a long time and have been borrowed from the Latin root - were neologisms for their language. Finally, a third group discussed words that were not strictly biblical, but nevertheless linked to theology and catechesis."

This type of work went on for months and was able to count on an important contribution from the first two priests of this ethnic group, ordained in recent years: the Betharramite Fr Tar and Fr Nathi, a PIME missionary now in the Philippines. Having studied theology, they were able to guide the discussion among the Akha on the words of faith without the mediation of the Thai language.

In spite of the many difficulties caused, even in the mountains of Thailand, by the lockdowns for Covid-19, each group completed its task a few weeks ago. However, as Father Ribolini goes on to explain, "the discussion continues on these 4,000 or so terms: each group will discuss the solutions adopted by the others, before asking for a written opinion from all the parishes where there are Akha communities. And only at the end of this great consultation will the final version be handed over to the bishops of the three dioceses, who will make the final decision on the approval of this biblical-theological dictionary".

Therefore it is a profoundly communitarian process. "The Akha people," commented Fr Ribolini, "were looking for something to represent them, to bring them together by offering a tangible sign of their presence, culture and identity, also with reference to the faith."

In the meantime, some catechists have already started to work on the actual translations of the books of the Bible. For the time being, they are leaving the words contained in the biblical-theological dictionary in red as provisional, pending the final choices. But they are proceeding with their work. So that the Bible in the language of the Akha does not remain a distant dream.