By BECKY SHAY
BUSBY, Mont. — Hearing and now reading the Bible in her own language has changed Verda King’s spirituality.
"A long time ago I tried to read King James," King said. "It wouldn’t make sense to me until I heard it in Cheyenne. It struck home with me."
King, who is among a group of people who have worked on translating the Bible into Cheyenne, said reading the translation has motivated her to "dig deeper" in her spirituality and made the Bible more meaningful.
"It’s helped me to have a deeper relationship with God," she said.
White River Cheyenne Mennonite Church Pastor Willis Busenitz said that deeper understanding comes from learning in one’s "heart language."
"It’s the language deep down inside of here," Busenitz said and put a hand on his chest.
People have been working on the translation for about 30 years. Their cumulative effort has resulted in the translation of at least part of most books of the Bible and the entire books of Luke, 1 John, Philippians, 1 Peter and James.
The work, Ma’heonemoxe’estoo’o, which is Cheyenne for Bible, is available in soft- and hard-bound editions and also recorded on cassette tapes and CDs.
The translation is idiomatic, meaning it is done more in ideas than literally. For example, in the scripture where Abraham made the altar, the translation into the descriptive Cheyenne language is roughly that he piled rocks.
There are markers in the translated Bible in English, so that readers will easily be able to locate a book’s name or a well-known story. And, not all of the words were translatable, such as "Egypt" and people’s names.
The Golden Rule — Do unto others as you would have done unto you — translates to "Be nice to people the way you have been nice to. It is written that way by Moses and also by the prophets."
That translation falls in line with the closely held Cheyenne tenet that one should treat others as they wish to be treated, Busenitz said.
"The principle is still very strong in the Cheyenne community — to not argue but turn and walk away," Conrad Fisher said.
Generations of stories of native language and culture have not been given a place in churches. In many churches that is changing and it is frequent now to easily use a native word for God or Creator and to see physical attributes such as darker skin or beadwork in artwork, said Conrad Fisher, one of the newer members of the committee.
"There is a sense of security and a sense of comfort to be able to come to a religious institution and feel welcome," Fisher said.
Fisher said the Bible translation is an asset.
"Spiritually, you have a closer understanding of what the Bible is trying to say," he said.
The translation is based on a solid foundation of more than 100 years of work, Fisher said.
"This has been a continuum of language preservation and translation," he said.
Mennonite missionaries, including Rudolphe Petter, started working on translations in the late 19th century, Busenitz said. Petter translated the New Testament as well as stories from the Old Testament.
In the 1960s, Northern Cheyenne Ted Risingsun and others sought to create a more modern interpretation with fewer literal translations, Busenitz said.
Wayne and Elena Leman, linguists who lived on the reservation for about 30 years, helped train Cheyenne speakers who completed the translation, Busenitz said.
As part of the Cheyenne Christian Education Project, Busenitz and others have created Cheyenne songbooks, storybooks and dictionaries. There are even animated videos and books of Bible stories done in Cheyenne.
Busenitz said the Bible translation project is ongoing. Modern publishing techniques make it likely that future, more complete translations can be printed.
The process starts with a rough draft of the translation that is "revised, refined then checked," he said.
Each new effort makes the translation better, King said, as those involved come up with the right words. Worrying about having the best translation has been one of the difficulties of the project, she said. But that attention to detail and concern about being correct also has led to the best work.
Floyd Fisher said one of the challenges has been filtering through similar Cheyenne words to find the best translation.
"You got to know your Cheyenne language really good," he said.
Translation is difficult, Conrad Fisher said, in part because language is based in culture. A joke that is hilarious to Cheyenne speakers can be translated to English and a listener will ask, "Where is the punch line?" he said.
Another struggle is that some words in the Bible aren’t used today.
"You try to come as close as you can," Conrad Fisher said.
In addition to helping preserve language, the process also improves and tries to continue the language, Conrad Fisher said.
"Cultures are dynamic and we’ve go to continue to try to have sustainability within the Cheyenne language," he said.