By Paul Goble
Baptist missionaries in Daghestan are doing what neither the Soviets nor the post-Soviet Russian government has done: they are helping to save the numerically smallest languages of that predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republic by translating portions of the Bible into them.
The Evangelical Baptists have been active in Daghestan for more than a decade and because of the centrality of the Bible for them, they have been translating and publishing it or portions of it in some of the numerically smaller language groups including Lak and Dargin (kavpolit.com/articles/dagestanskie_baptisty_ljudi_pisanija_eto_my-20935/).
In doing so, the Baptists hope to attract speakers of those languages to their faith, but their translations are doing far more than that: They are fixing the orthography and grammar of these tongues, and they are thus providing a model for the language of these groups not only now but in the future.
Christian missionaries have a long tradition of translating the Bible into vernacular languages. Prior to 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church in what became known as the Ilminsky system in Kazan translated it or at least portions of it into Tatar and other languages of the Middle Volga and Central Asia.
In fact, the very first use of a Cyrillic alphabet for Kazakh was in a translation of the gospels prepared by Ilminsky’s coworkers and published in the early 1890s. That translation, albeit without acknowledgement, even became the basis of the Soviet Cyrillic script for Kazakh introduced in the 1930s.
What is interesting is that this trend of translating the vernacular is now spreading beyond Christianity to Islam. Until a few years ago, no Muslim accepted that the Koran existed except in Arabic; any “translation” was only a translation of its “sense.” That has now changed around the world and in the post-Soviet space in particular.
There are currently more than 300 translations of the Koran in various languages. In the post-Soviet space, there are at least 30; and in some languages, Russian and Ukrainian, for instance, there is more than one. That certainly makes it easier for Muslims to turn to the foundation of their faith, but it has two other consequences.
On the one hand, it has forced even many members of the ulema to concede that the Koran exists even when it appears in a language other than Arabic and that Muslim leaders need to come up with standards to determine what is the basis for determining whether a translation is canonical or not.
And on the other, it is “nationalizing” and perhaps even “modernizing” Islam. Most people are familiar with the impact of the translation of the Bible from the Vulgate Latin into German and English in the 15th century, actions that had the effect of triggering the Protestant Reformation.
While the circumstances today for Muslims are clearly different, there is every reason to think that the appearance and then acceptance of translations of the Koran into vernacular languages will have an equally profound set of consequences, especially since such translations will help to overcome the obscurantism of some mullahs and the ignorance of many congregants.