Translating the good story with indigenous Australians

Interview with BSA Translation Consultant, Sam Freney

“Translating into these languages is really hard. Translation and language revitalisation are difficult in a language that doesn’t have abstract concepts anymore. Sure, we remember the word for dingo or eucalyptus tree, but forgiveness…?” 

Sam Freney is a translation consultant with Bible Society Australia. He has studied hard, and for a long time to work in this role: “I think this is my 17th year of tertiary studies, because I’m still doing some.” Yet, as he speaks about the translation work he is involved in across Australia, he is very clear about whose work it is: “All these projects are initiated by the communities themselves and have their passion behind them. They’re the ones translating – the people who would like the Scriptures in their own language. We are the helpers.” 

Sam has seen local translators brought to tears as they hear God’s word in their heart languages. One project he was recently working on was a Christmas book, for which they were translating seven verses from Luke chapter 2 in as many Australian languages as possible. For some of these languages, this book would be the first known Scripture translated. “One woman was working away,” Sam recalls. “It was really difficult. There’s not much written in the language, except a very technical dictionary.” 

In the end, another helper told the woman, “read the story a few times and then just tell it to me in your language”. This helper got a phone out and recorded the woman as she spoke. This woman – who was in her 60s or 70s – had been a Christian all her life. And even though it was her recording, when the other helper played it back, it was the first time she had ever heard Scripture in her language. Sam recalls, “She just started crying. So that’s the ‘why’ of Bible translation. That’s what our brothers and sisters are after.” 

Sam reflects on the work of Bible translation, especially the challenges, and says, “In Bible translation work, an awful lot of it is slow and uninteresting, punctuated by really neat, cool moments.” 

A life verse for Sam, a Bible verse he holds onto in his work of Bible translation, is 1 Peter 5:10: “The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.” (NIV)

Sam says, “I love that beautiful hope of restoration, peace, being with God. And just this throw-away line, ‘after you’ve suffered a little while’, which could be eighty years. But in comparison to what is to come, it is just a little while. In the context of translations that take decades, with setbacks – like, because of COVID, basically every remote community is closed. You can’t go. You can’t leave. A whole lot of projects are in limbo. But that’s just a little while. In the context of what we hope for it’s pretty fleeting really.” 

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