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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The First Book in Bezhta Is a Gospel

MTA challenge is some Siberian languages have no word for "grape," Beerle-Moor said.
The Gospel according to Luke is the most important book ever published in the Bezhta language. It is, after all, the only Bezhta book there is.

The Bezhta version of Luke comes courtesy of the Institute of Bible Translation, a group that has been working for 30 years to provide translations of the Bible into all of the former Soviet Union's 130 languages. IBT so far has published passages in 80 languages.

Although the Bezhtas, a group of about 5,000 people living in southern Dagestan, are predominantly Muslim, they apparently were grateful for the material. The Bezhta legislature decreed that the work be studied in schools. Locals organized reading groups for the new book, and subsequently sent IBT numerous letters of thanks.

"This book was a great success," said Mariana Beerle-Moor, director of IBT. "It became a must-read."

The IBT's translations aren't always groundbreaking events, though. In 2001, IBT translated the four Gospels into Chuvashi, a language of more than a million books, including an earlier copy of the Bible. "It's certainly a very good translation," said Roza Lizakova, deputy culture minister in Chuvashia. "Although I'm not sure that every person is interested in this kind of literature."

In some cases, the institute has not only printed the first book in a given language -- it may well have published the last. The IBT has translated sections of the Bible into 18 of the 63 CIS languages that experts consider in danger of falling out of use altogether.

Beerle-Moor said the organization is just as concerned with the study of languages and their preservation as with the Bible itself. IBT is nondenominational, and Beerle-Moor said that it does not proselytize.

"It's an organization that cares for all the non-Slavic peoples in this country," she said.

The Institute For Bible Translation was founded in Stockholm in 1973 by Borislav Arapovic, a devout Lutheran. When Arapovic left Yugoslavia in the 1960s, he realized that many people in the West were unaware of the great diversity of languages within the Soviet Union.

An economist by training, Arapovic took an interest in linguistics and studied Slavistics at Stockholm University. In the meantime, he scoured Western Europe libraries for translations of the Bible into the lesser-known Soviet languages. "Being a Christian himself, the Bible was very important to him," said Barbara Lindstrom, who has worked with Arapovic for 29 years.

The institute began by providing translations into less obscure Soviet tongues such as Tatar, Tajik and Uzbek. Arapovic and his associates then passed along the books to groups that smuggled them into the Soviet Union. Although no one was ever arrested in connection with their work, Arapovic himself was officially blacklisted by Soviet authorities, Beerle-Moor said.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the institute moved its headquarters from Stockholm to Moscow. Since then, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II has publicly supported IBT's work -- he holds a meeting with the organization every year. Arapovic himself was made an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1990.

Today, the institute has roughly 200 employees and has published Biblical excerpts in 80 different languages, many of them wildly obscure, such as Bordvin-Erzya, Yazgulyami and Karakalpak.

Languages in the CIS can present special problems for biblical translations, Beerle-Moor said. Some Caucasus languages, for example, have multiple words for "goat," while some Siberian languages have no word for "grape" -- words that appear with great frequency in ancient scripture.

"We might just write 'sweet fruit,' or, 'a sweet fruit called 'vinograt,' [the Russian word for grape]," Beerle-Moor said. "Or sometimes we'll use a neologism. But we try not to do that too much."

Initially, IBT specialists translated the Bible only into languages that already had developed alphabets. Then, as their work progressed, they moved into uncharted territory. Now translating teams occasionally must create visual representations for sounds that have never had one. That's no easy task considering that some Caucasian languages have as many as 70 consonants.

Although IBT now has its headquarters in Moscow, funding still comes mainly from Western donors. IBT asked oligarch Roman Abramovich, who serves as governor of Chukotka, to finance a $2,000 translation of the New Testament into Chukchi. Abramovich never responded to the request.

"I think we may have offended him by asking for too little," Beerle-Moor said.

Beerle-Moor noted that the institute often translates the Bible into languages spoken primarily by Muslims. But she says she can only remember one instance of a negative response from the readership, during a reading in Moscow of the modern Tatar translation.

"Why did you do this at all?" asked an audience member. "In principle, we should burn this book."

But after hearing the text, Beerle-Moor said, the audience was partially mollified. "They said, 'It's a very pretty translation, and we can't have anything against it,'" Beerle-Moor said. "'Except for one thing: One really shouldn't love one's enemy. This we don't agree with. But otherwise, we're happy with it.'"