(RNS) – It’s a Bible verse familiar to many Christians — and even to many non-Christians who have seen John 3:16 on billboards and T-shirts or scrawled across eye black under football players’ helmets.
But Terry Wildman hopes the new translation published Tuesday (Aug. 31) by InterVarsity Press, “First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament,” will help Christians and Indigenous peoples read it again in a fresh way.
“The Great Spirit loves this world of human beings so deeply he gave us his Son — the only Son who fully represents him. All who trust in him and his way will not come to a bad end, but will have the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony,” reads the First Nations Version of the verse.
In the First Nations Version, “eternal life,” a concept unfamiliar in Native American cultures, becomes “the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony.” The Greek word “cosmos,” usually translated in English as “the world,” had to be reconsidered, too: It doesn’t mean the planet Earth but how the world works and how creation lives and functions together, said Wildman, the lead translator and project manager of the First Nations Version.
They’re phrases that resonated with Wildman, changing the way he read the Bible even as he translated it for Native American readers.
“We believe it’s a gift not only to our Native people, (but) from our Native people to the dominant culture. We believe that there’s a fresh way that people can experience the story again from a Native perspective,” he said.
The idea for an Indigenous Bible translation first came to Wildman nearly 20 years ago in the storeroom of the church he pastored on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona.
Wildman, who is Ojibwe and Yaqui, was excited to find a Hopi translation of the New Testament in storage. He wanted to hear how that beloved Scripture sounded in Hopi, how it translated back into English.
But, he said, while many Hopi elders still speak their native language and children now are learning it in schools, he couldn’t find anyone able to read it. That is true for many Native American nations, he added, noting that at the same time Christian missionaries were translating the Bible into Native languages, they were also working with the boarding schools in the United States and Canada that punished students for speaking those languages.
It occurred to the pastor that “since 90-plus percent of our Native people are not speaking their tribal language or reading their tribal language, we felt there needed to be a translation in English worded for Native people,” he said.
Wildman, a licensed local pastor in the United Methodist Church, has been working on translating the Bible into words and concepts familiar to many Native Americans ever since.
He first began experimenting by rewording Scripture passages he was using in a prison ministry, giving them more of a “Native traditional sound,” he said — a sound he’d learned by being around Native elders and reading books written in a more traditional style of English by Native Americans like Oglala Lakota spiritual leader Black Elk.