Major milestone achieved in first ever Tokelauan Bible translation

12 July 2019
Guest Author

Major milestone achieved in first ever Tokelauan Bible translation

by | Jul 12, 2019

On Wednesday, after 23 years and one month of work, head translator Ioane Teao and Bible Society Translations Director Dr Stephen Pattemore performed the final check of the final verse of the brand-new Tokelauan Bible translation.

“We’re very pleased we’ve come to this part of the project! Yes, we had some fun – we celebrated with some sandwiches, a date scone and some bananas and oranges,” Ioane said.

The project, which has been a joint effort of all Tokelau churches and community groups, had its genesis nearly 30 years ago. Ioane and others consulted with the wider Tokelauan community for six years before the project could officially start. Ioane was the secretary of the team trying to get the project off the ground and support whoever would do the job. To Ioane’s surprise, it was he who would be asked to spend more than 23 years of his life working on the translation.

“One of the interesting things is that the Tokelau language never used to be a written language,” Dr Pattemore says. “Ioane’s generation were never taught at school how to write the language. They were taught English grammar, but not Tokelauan grammar.”

Ioane recalls having to learn how to write down the oral language before the translation work could begin. “I remember struggling to put a paragraph together in Tokelauan. In English, I had no problem, but it was a struggle to write in Tokelauan.”  Ioane spent hours writing short columns in Tokelauan for a local Porirua newspaper to practice.

Initially reluctant to do the job, Ioane now recalls some farewell words his father said to him as Ioane left Tokelau for New Zealand when he was a boy. “As I was leaving Tokelau, my Dad was still talking to me as the boat was moving. He was saying to me, ‘You know you are going away to school. You must remember, you’re not going for yourself. You’re not going for your family. You’re going for the people. You’re going for Tokelau. Whatever you learn, you’re going to use to benefit the people of Tokelau.’ Those were his lasting words that I keep hearing everyday!”

When the first ever Bible in Tokelauan is published, it will be a major benchmark not just for Tokelauan Christians, but for the Tokelau language as well. “I think this book will be the foundation of the language. As in many cultures, the Bible became the mainstay for the language. I think it’s going to be quite valuable for Tokelau, not only from the point of the spiritual life of the people but also for sustaining the language.”

There is still more work to do though. The whole Bible must be checked for style and consistency, a glossary produced and maps for the back of the book translated. Once these are done, the lengthy typesetting and publishing process will begin, which could take up to a year.

Ioane says he keeps praying that God will give him one more day. “This is all I live for, to finish this job.” He is looking forward to the launch of the published Bible, most likely to take place early in 2021.

Bible helping save the Tokelauan language

More than 7,000 Tokelauans live in New Zealand, with 50% living in Wellington as well as Tokelauan communities in Auckland, Taupō, and Rotorua. There are only 1,400 Tokelauans living on the island of Tokelau.

The 2006 Census reported that the Tokelauan language is one of the most-at-risk Pacific languages in New Zealand, along with Niuean and Cook Island Maori. Today only 34% of Tokelauans speak their heritage language.This is why our Tokelau Bible translation project is so important. Not only does it mean Tokelauans can read the Bible in their own tongue but it will also lead to the preservation of their language and, as part of that, their culture.

The completion of the Tokelauan Bible next year will be end of a 21-year project for head translator Ionae Teao. Ioane has dedicated his life to this project, which was initiated by the Tokelauan Society for the Translation of the Bible and supported by Bible Society New Zealand.

The Tokelauan New Testament was launched in June in 2009 with great celebrations and accolades. Now as the finishing touches are made to the Tokelauan Old Testament next year, and publication set for early 2019, the Tokelauan community in New Zealand will again have cause for celebration.

A scene from the launch of the Tokelauan New Testament at Pahina O Tokelaua, Porirua, in 2009.
Listen to Dr Stephen Pattemore speaking on Radio New Zealand about the Tokelauan translation project (click on the logo)
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