YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories - There are no vultures in the Northwest Territories.
How then can there be a description for a bird that's never been seen in Canada's Far North and for which there are no words in the local Indian dialect? More to the point, how can the sayings of Jesus and the teachings of the New Testament be converted into a Native tongue without losing its meaning?
That was the challenge posed to the field team of Jaap Feenstra and his wife Morina from the Summer Institute of Languages (based out of Dallas).
For 18 years the Feenstras have lived among the Tlicho (Dogrib) Nation in and around the Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife. While their original purpose was to translate the Scriptures into the Aboriginal language, what was first required was the creation of a Dogrib-English dictionary, a text that didn't exist until 1992.
For five years the Feenstras and another dozen Tlicho poured over each psalm and verse within the Gospel from the then known Dogrib vocabulary of 5,000 words. Only recently following another three years of re-reading and final editing has the book been distributed publicly with 650 copies.
"There has to be consultations in the community because if we translate it this way, how will it be understood?" Jaap Feenstra rhetorically asked. Each phrase was read by at least three locals to safeguard against language pitfalls. "Sometimes you can't help it if they are puzzled if it's the content but if it's the translation, then it can be helped."
During almost two decades since leaving the Netherlands, Feenstra has become fluent in Dogrib but he readily admits this job could not have been completed without the community's support. Joining him were Mary Siemens and Marie Louise Bouvier White who had significant roles in shaping the New Testament for the 4,000-member Dogrib community, about one-quarter of whom only speak this language.
The predominance of Christianity, specifically Catholicism, is strong among the Tlicho who are spread out among six communities, including four within an isolated area of 15,600 sq. miles that will have its own self-government. It was the elders' wish that culture, language and religion be passed on to the next generation and the translation of the New Testament fulfills this mandate.
"I've heard some elders say we are strong in keeping the culture but if it doesn't come with the language, it's not very strong (at all)," Bouvier White said, who would often determine if the colloquial terms would make sense.
One proverb that all three agreed proved tricky to change into Tlicho was "Where the body is, the vultures will gather." The problem was that these flying scavengers are foreign to the area and therefore are not within the Dogrib diction.
The first attempt was to use eagle, but Feenstra mentioned even that didn't work.
"A lot of women are unfamiliar with wildlife terms and even as impressive as a word like eagle they didn't know," he said noting that traditional roles of hunting are still a male responsibility.
Eventually the translating team settled on using raven, a bird that's predominant in the Northwest Territories and a creature that can be found in the Middle East. Other beasts the Dogribs have never seen requiring the collaborative thought of the team included camel (translated to be "big animal") and sheep ("little black bear").
Animals though weren't the only puzzle in this linguistics exercise. All three members agreed that the term "Kingdom of God" also proved a challenge to convert into Dogrib because as Feenstra says, the use of kingdom is an abstract concept, not a physical object. The term decided upon was "God's culture."
"It was a lot of work coming to grips with it because it wasn't linguistically Native to the Dogrib culture," said Feenstra.
Although there aren't any quantifiable results yet as to the success of this project, the Tlicho community is looking forward to when the book will be incorporated into the education curriculum. Although the schools are public, there's a presence of Christianity including morning prayers and now the Scriptures will be used as a language tool.
"This would make the people want to read it for themselves and motivate them to read their own language," Siemens said adding there are very few books written in Tlicho. In the next edition of the Dogrib dictionary there will be several hundred new words added. "There are those who speak Dogrib but cannot read or write so this preserves the language."
The unicultural nature of the Tlicho is the reason why they permit the use of religion in their schools.
"The elders made it known their desire to have the word of God in the school," Siemans said. "Completing the mandate of the elders and Jesus' words which is to spread the Good News."
Though the New Testament is complete, the Feenstras will remain in Yellowknife for a couple more years to see that audiocassettes are completed. The Feenstras are one of about 20 field teams across North America including a dozen in the United States that are translating the Bible from English into Indian dialects.