This conversation took place in a coffee shop in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Nov. 20. Bishop Andrew Atagotaaluk and Dean Jonas Allooloo are Inuit men who have been ministering in northern Canada for several decades. They were part of a team that translated the entire Bible into Inuktitut, the language of the Eastern Arctic Inuit, which took 34 years. In what follows we discuss their experience translating the Bible, as well as their thoughts on language, culture, and the ways in which God has worked, and continues to work, among northern people in the communities of Arctic Canada.
A special thank you to Annie Keenainak for proofreading this transcript.
I want to thank you both for taking the time to talk with me about your work translating the Bible into Inuktitut. But before we get into that, could you both introduce yourselves and talk a bit about your background?
AA: Yes, my name is Andrew Atagotaaluk. I was born on Boothia Peninsula, Nunavut. I was raised on Summerset Island, in a place called Crestwell Bay — “no man’s land.” I was just like the prophet Amos: born in the country and tending caribou when God called me. When I got married I moved to Resolute Bay. I now live in Nunavik (Northern Quebec) in a place called Inukjuak. I’m the retired Bishop of the Arctic, but I still do parish ministry in my community.
JA: I’m Jonas Allooloo. I was born near Igloolik, and grew up near Pond Inlet. When I got married I moved to Rankin Inlet. I currently live in Iqaluit, where I’m the Dean of St. Jude’s Cathedral.
Both of you have been in church ministry for several decades now. How did God first call you to ordained ministry?
I came to Christ through an evangelistic crusade up in the High Arctic. I was a young man, and this was the first time the Inuit had ever experienced an evangelistic crusade of this kind. The evangelist was a man named Marnie Patterson, and he came to Resolute Bay, where I was living at the time. He didn’t speak Inuktitut, so he needed someone to interpret for him while he preached. I had gone to residential school, and even though I felt that my English was limited, I was the one chosen to be the translator for these services. It was during one of his sermons, while I was translating for him, that I had a strong sense that I needed to make a decision to accept Christ into my life. I had been brought up in a Christian family. My parents were Christians who taught us how to read the Bible and pray, but that was all I was able to take in. Only at this service did I realize that I had a kind of faith that was without Christ. So I made a decision that day to kneel down and accept Christ, along with my wife, Mary.
Following that decision, I went to visit Marnie and his team. At every service Marnie would invite people to come and visit with him. It was during one of those visits that Marnie said something to me that I had never heard before. He said: “Now that you have accepted Christ as your Lord and Saviour, you have to ask him what he wants you to do.” That was a surprise to me — I didn’t realize I could ask God what he wanted me to do! So I asked God, and it became clear that he wanted me to minister to my own people. There were lots of people my age who didn’t know anything about this living faith and this personal relationship with Jesus.
During this time, alcohol problems were starting to get bad. The armed forces had a base about five miles from Resolute Bay, in what was the old town site, and many people from the community would go to work there. There was a bar on the base, and a movie theatre. At 5 p.m., when the workday was over, all the men went to the bar. There would be brawls there most nights. The community was really starting to feel the negative effects of this.
At that time my father-in-law was a lay leader at the church, and he asked me to help lead Sunday services. We had no clergy in our community, but sometimes a minister named Howard Bracewell would visit from Pond Inlet. One time Howard had a friend visit him from England, and he didn’t have enough money to return to England so he got a job working in Resolute. He was a Christian man, and I got to know him. Before long, he suggested that we meet after work to study the Bible together. This helped me follow through on the commitment I made to Christ, and during this time my call to ministry was deepened. If it wasn’t for him, I probably would not have made it, because there was so much peer pressure to party and go to the bar. But he led me in a different direction, which I’m thankful for.
Thank you for that. Jonas, could you tell us about your background and how God called you to ministry?
JA: I was raised in a Christian family. My father was the leader in the camp. We didn’t live in Pond Inlet, but lived outside the community in the country. My father helped with Sunday services out on the land. I went to high school in Churchill, Manitoba, and then later went to Winnipeg to study at the University of Manitoba. I had Christian friends in Winnipeg, and we would go to church together.
When I was in Winnipeg I experienced prejudice and racism. Once I got kicked out of the Hudson’s Bay store for being an “Indian.” Another time I was coming home from school with my book bag and I stopped at a store. The owner accused me of stealing and searched my bag. I often felt like white people were looking down on me and belittling me. That hurt. But during this time I sensed God was calling me to go back to the north and to minister to my own people.
From 1972 to 1975 you both went to the Arthur Turner Training School, the Diocese of the Arctic’s theological college, which was then in Pangnirtung. There you studied theology and trained for the ministry. Did your interest in Bible translation emerge during these years?
JA: Yes, at that time we only had an old translation of the New Testament. This translation came from the Lutheran Church in Greenland close to 300 years ago. It was also used by the Morovians in Labrador. When [Edmund] Peck [1850-1924] came to the Eastern Arctic he took that translation and transcribed it into syllabics. This was in the early 1900s. And that was the translation we used.
AA: Whenever we read that old translation — in class or as during Morning Prayer — we would correct the typos and make changes to some of the words. The translation was challenging to read because it combined Northern Quebec and Eastern Arctic dialects, and many Inuit found some of the terms hard to understand. But God still spoke to people through the old translation. There were many lay leaders in the past who heard God speak very powerfully through it.
JA: Yes, that old translation was used many times by God. It wasn’t perfect, but God still used it to bring people into his church. But how much more impact would a modern translation have if the Inuit could better understand what they read?
You mentioned that the old translation had a mixture of dialects. Can you say something about the variety of regional dialects among Inuit people?
JA: I’ll tell you a story. When the Inukjuak people were being taken up to the High Arctic [in a forced relocation by the Canadian government during the 1950s], the ship stopped in Pond Inlet, where I was living. One of the elders went down to the ship to greet the Inuit who came from Quebec. When he came back home he told everyone, There’s Inuit on that boat, but when they speak they sound like birds! They spoke a Northern Quebec dialect that he had trouble understanding. That gives you an idea of the difference in language from region to region.
AA: There are distinct dialects in the Western Arctic, the Kivalliq region, South Baffin, North Baffin, and Nunavik (Northern Quebec). Even within Nunavik there are slight variations from place to place. You notice it when people use certain phrases. The Inuit in Greenland speak a different dialect entirely.
So even during your theological studies you were trying to make the Inuktitut Bible more understandable for people. When did the process of beginning a new translation formally begin?
AA: It started when [John] Sperry [1924–2012, third bishop of the Arctic] took over from [Donald] Marsh [1903–73, second bishop of the Arctic]. Sperry lived in the Western Arctic, and had been using a New Testament that was translated into the Copper Dialect. This translation was also very old and very limited. It came from the early missionaries to that region. Because of the lack of any modern translation in the north, Sperry felt that this was the time to begin work on a new translation. This was during the 1970s.
JA: The work officially began in 1978, when Bishop Sperry invited all bilingual clergy in the Diocese to Pangnirtung for a workshop. By this time Andrew and I had graduated from Arthur Turner Training Training School and had been parish priests for several years. This workshop was attended by both Inuit and Qallunaat (white people). There were 17 of us in all. The workshop was led by Dr. Eugene Nida, who was known as the father of modern Bible translation. The bishop had given Dr. Nida the job of selecting the committee who would translate the Bible into Inuktitut. While we were there we had to translate the Book of Ruth from English to Inuktitut. We then had to show Dr. Nida our translations and explain the reasons we translated it as we did.
AA: Dr. Nida was a very wise and knowledgeable man. He knew the Bible well, and he understood how to translate the Bible into modern language. He said that, if possible, translation should always be done by the people who own that language, because language is not only about words but also about a certain way of thinking. The missionaries did a good job translating into Inuktitut, but they could never think like Inuit. This is why in the end Dr. Nida chose four Inuit — including Jonas and me — to do the translation. We had grown up in this culture and knew how Inuit people thought.
So once the translation committee was chosen did the work start right away?
AA: Yes, not long after. Since we were busy parish priests we didn’t have the time to do the work while we were in our communities. So we would get together twice each year, for six weeks at a time. We would leave our families and our parish behind, and come together to do Bible translation. Each six-week session would be in a different community, and we purposely chose different regions because we tried to be sensitive to the different regional dialects as we translated. Our first session was in Baker Lake, and the devil tried to distract us with mosquitoes!
What part of the Bible did you start with?
JA: We started with the New Testament, with the Gospels. We gathered together in the same room, but went to different corners to do our work. We each translated a Gospel, and then reviewed each other’s work.
AA: We followed a procedure set out by the Canadian Bible Society. So, for example, Jonas would translate one book of the Bible, and then I would look at his work, giving comments and feedback. And then it would go back to him with my comments, and he would make changes. Then we would all come back together to discuss our translations in light of the feedback we had been given. We also had consultants who would join us. Often these people had experience translating the Bible overseas, and knew Hebrew and Greek. They would check our translations for accuracy, which helped a lot.
How long did it take to finish the New Testament?
JA: We finished the New Testament in 1991.
AA: Soon after finishing the New Testament, people began asking us to translate the Old Testament too. Because our funding was limited, we only planned on translating portions of the Old Testament, not the whole thing. But after we finished those portions we quickly realized that this wouldn’t satisfy our people. They wanted the whole thing.
JA: After we finished the New Testament we slowed our pace down. We only met for three weeks at a time while we translated the Old Testament, but we still met twice per year.
AA: The Bible Society knew that being away from our families was challenging, so later on they allowed us to bring our wives to these sessions. One wife was allowed at each session, and we took turns.
I heard someone say that there was a revival whenever the Bible translators came to a community. Can you talk about your experiences visiting communities?
JA: People in the communities were always excited to have us come. The week before we arrived they would announce on the radio that the Bible translators are coming. So when we got there we would preach, lead worship services …
AA: … often we would meet with young people, or lead Bible studies. This all happened naturally, and was organized by the community. Sometimes people would organize Gospel Jamborees, or Prayer and Praise services. That’s how the Spirit would move people.
Going back to the translation itself, do you remember any passages that were especially difficult to translate?
AA: There were many parts that were challenging. I remember trying to translate names for various plants and trees and animals, all the terminology that comes with the Holy Land. Those of us who live on the barren lands don’t have trees, so it’s difficult to imagine all these different trees with different names. Also, certain concepts like grace and peace were difficult. It was hard to find Inuktitut words that conveyed the meaning of those biblical concepts in such a way that our people would understand.
How did you translate grace?
AA: We used two Inuktitut words, which roughly translate to “God’s kindness that enables us.” We thought that was pretty close.
That sounds like a good definition of grace to me. Can you think of anything else that was especially challenging to translate?
JA: The worst of all was poetry. The Psalms were difficult to translate into Inuktitut.
AA: It was often challenging to capture the meaning of what the biblical writers were saying, and then to put it into words that Inuit people would understand. We didn’t always use the same terminology, but we tried to capture the basic meaning.
Despite the challenges involved, did you ever find that being from an Inuit culture gave you insights into the Bible that you might not have had otherwise?
JA: Yes, we often found that Hebrew thinking was very close to Inuit thinking.
AA: The Hebrews were nomadic people. They were closely connected to nature. That is similar to the Inuit experience. Also, the Bible talks a lot about the spiritual realm — angels and demons, and the power of the Holy Spirit. You don’t have to try to convince the Inuit about these things because we know the reality of them. It is a part of our spiritual journey.
So after 34 years you completed the entire Inuktitut Bible. It was launched in Iqaluit at our Diocesan Synod in 2012, which was such a moving experience for the people here. Can you talk about some of the responses you have heard from the Inuit across the north?
JA: The response has been tremendous. Many people have personally thanked me for it. I have even had people come up to me amazed, saying, “Now God speaks my language!”
AA: Yes, the response has been very good. I remember when we first completed the New Testament. I was in Resolute Bay on holidays with my wife and children. Every morning I would see my mother-in-law sitting on her couch reading the New Testament translation we had done. Then finally one morning she looked at me and said, “Andrew! We can understand the Bible now!” Before this new translation came out she had been reading the old one and had struggled to understand it because of the typing errors and the mixing of dialects. But now that she had a Bible she could understand, she was so joyful.
Do you have any idea how many copies are out there?
AA: There have been several reprints of the New Testament. And the initial print of the entire Bible was 5,000 copies. It has circulated quite widely across the north.
You are just beginning the process of revising your translation for a second edition. Can you tell us what that process will involve?
JA: Well, we were in a hurry to finish the Bible in time for the launch in 2012, so we’re not happy with the final stages of the translation. There was less input into the last part of the translation, and most of it was done by one person.
AA: As we read and study it, we find typos and sometimes phrases that are not as clear as we would like. The revision process will involve checking through the entire Bible, and getting feedback from others who use it. We’re not redoing it, but just improving it. One of our consultants a few years ago told us there is always room for improvement. Perfecting it could go on forever, so at some point you have to stop and realize you’ve done your best.
Has the process of translating the Bible helped you understand it in a new way?
JA: Yes. After our translation had been published, I often read it and thought, I’ve never seen this passage before! And then realized it was a part that I had personally translated. That happened a lot.
AA: Yes, this happens all the time. I remember one time I was coming home on a plane, and the plane was quite full. It was boarding time, so I got on the plane and sat in my seat. As the plane filled up the two seats beside me stayed empty. The rest of the plane was completely full, but no one sat in the seats beside me. I wondered why this was. But then I felt the presence of God very strongly. And right away I sensed God was telling me to read the story of Joseph.
So I opened my Inuktitut Bible and read the story, which I had personally translated many years ago. I had gone through it hundreds of times and knew it very well. But when I started reading, it began to have a new meaning for me. Reading about Joseph and his brothers got me thinking about my relationships with my own siblings, and specifically about some struggles we were having, and some issues in our lives that had never been dealt with. So as I’m reading these stories and thinking about my family I began to shed tears. I wept while I read. I’m glad no one was sitting beside me — they might have been worried about me. But the way God spoke to me that day was amazing!
Amazing indeed. I want thank you both for your time, and for your ministry of bringing the Bible to the Inuit people in their own language.
JA & AA: Thank you.