Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Lord's Prayer

After the Catholic fathers arrived among the Salish speaking tribes of the Columbia Plateau, they translated many of their most important prayers into the Salish language. The prayers were used as a missionary tool to convert the Indians, but in many cases, the Salish language had no way to describe European Christian concepts. For example, notions of heaven and hell did not exist. The fathers had to substitute other words, like sky for heaven and fire/suffering for hell.

Other words were equally problematic.

The early Salish had no concept of Old World lordships and kingdoms. Tribal chiefs acted more like experienced advisors, with no binding authority on tribal members. When the Jesuits attempted to describe the "Lord" Jesus Christ, they used the Salish word for chief. In a very literal translation, Jesus became a tribal chief rather than a feudal lord. And without any notion of kingdoms, Chief Jesus became "Owner of All Hearts," rather than Lord of the Heavenly Kingdom.

Some time ago, my uncle Mike asked me to complete a literal reverse translation of the Lord's Prayer from Salish to English. He wanted to know how much the original meaning may have changed. It took me a while to feel comfortable with the task, but I'm happy to make a first attempt. (By the way, this is a tentative translation, so if anyone knows a more correct translation, please leave me a note in the comments).

Our Chief Jesus Christ's Prayer

Our father, in the sky, you are there.
Your name will be loved.
You are owner of all hearts.
Your will/thoughts be done
here on earth as in the sky.
Give us today all our needs.
Cast away for us our debts,
As we cast away for those
who have debts with us.
Help us to not take bad.
We live again from bad.

May it be like this.

So for all my theologians and Bible scholars, do you think the meaning is changed by the translation? Is anything lost?

As I consider the translation, it seems the most essential qualities are preserved. However, I do believe certain concepts have been altered in subtle ways. Perhaps the most important change is the transformation of Jesus Christ from a kingly lord to a tribal chief. By so doing, Jesus is presented as a wise, approachable advisor, worthy of consideration and respect, but not necessarily fear or even obedience. Of course, any notion of a less kingly Jesus may offend some believers, but this is the only translation we have received.

Another subtle change involves concepts of good and evil. In the English language, some things are good, but other things are holy. Likewise, some things are bad, but others are evil. These superlatives of holiness and evil do not exist in Salish. Something is either good or bad. Period.

And finally, the notion of sin is different in the Salish. In our language, a person may do bad, or take bad, or talk bad... but we do not "sin." The notion of sin as a separate concept has come to us from Europe with a connotation of filth. It's as though doing bad places a stain on the human soul that can only be removed through the power of a redeemer. Without this cultural connotation of filth, how does our idea of "taking bad" and repentance change? Do we gain added insight by observing the Salish form or is the true meaning lost?

All of this leads me to the question of Bible literalism. If I'm supposed to accept the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God, do I have to accept the English version, or can I rest upon the Salish version? Are all versions valid, or do we have to study Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to get to heaven (or the sky)?


Anonymous said...

Your post touches on a couple of things regarding culture, language and meaning. I would like to share these thoughts with you:

Language and meaning is influenced by what one believes. English didn't always have the word "sin" in its vocabulary, nor did it have "transubstatiation", nor "king" or "kingdom". They came in as a result of Roman Empire effectively missionizing the pagan peoples of Europe. Europe was also organized into tribes and tribal chiefs, and yet over time, understood the Catholic faith as transmitted by the missionaries and those countries became Catholic nations.

Your question of Bible literalism is a question foreign to the Catholic worldview in which the missionizing to the Salish speaking peoples took place.

The Catholic starting place is not "the Bible", but "the church",
In the Catholic view, Jesus established an official church, passed his teachings to the apostles, and then to the bishops in an unbroken succession. The church was given the mission to spread the faith in its fullness, and thus, through councils, determined which books were holy, which were not, and compiled the Bible. Thus Catholics feel that their church is the only church that has the authority to interpret the Bible correctly.

Catholics aren't the only ones with this notion of oral traditions and living authority. Orthodox Jews, and the Orthodox Christians also believe in this notion.

In high school English class, we had to give our interpretations of stories and poems that we read in class. Each person had their own unique interpretation. The author of the work was not around to say what he or she meant, so we were left to our own thoughts.

Protestants gave the Bible the "English class" treatment, and so today there are hundreds of thousands of protestant religions, each claiming divine inspiration.

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Matthew, this is an interesting response. Of course, your comments speak to the heart of the Catholic-Protestant debate. Which holds greater authority, the scriptures as revealed by God, or the apostolic succession? I won't pretend to resolve that question here, but I will thank you for adding this insight to how the Catholic fathers would have approached my Salish ancestors. Catholicism is still so closely intertwined with our culture, that these questions are still quite relavent.

Dante Ferry said...

Hi! Would you have these prayers in Salish? Sign of the Cross, Hail Mary, Glory Be to the Father, Apostles' Creed. I need them for a collection in different languages of the world. Thank you! DANTE FERRY, Manila, Philippines, danteferry@gmail.com

dngshaw said...

Barry, I enjoy your blog. Do you know of a comparable word in Salish for 'forgive'?


dngshaw said...

Barry, I enjoy your blog. Do you know of a comparable word in Salish for 'forgive'?


Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Hi Pepper,

I am unaware of any indigenous Salish word for forgiveness. This has been the subject of a long search on my part, and I have found a few possible answers. However, I suspect that most of the responses are creations of the Catholic missionaries and not indigenous or pre-Christian.

There are words however for taking pity on someone or having compassion on someone. I suspect those may have been used prior to the Catholic notion of forgiveness.


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