By Laurie Hallstrom
West River Catholic (WRC): What inspired you to take on such a big project?
Deacon Ben: When I was ordained a deacon in the Catholic Church, I spoke Lakota fluently. In fact, that was my first language and I was becoming literate in Lakota. I did a lot of the preaching in Lakota.
My mother taught me how to read and write in Lakota when I was still in middle school at St. Francis Mission Catholic Boarding School. I thought it was important to produce a lot of material written in Lakota, including the Bible.
The Bible was translated into Dakota. But it was not translated into Lakota—which is a different dialect. There were enough differences between the two dialects that it was difficult for Lakota speakers to read the Dakota Bible.
I started translating St. Luke’s Gospel into Lakota on my own. Fr. Paul Manhart, SJ, heard what I was doing and offered to help me with the effort. He was the one who directed me to use the RSV Bible Catholic version. So I worked with him for a short while.
WRC: How long have you been working on this and how long do you think it will take to finish?
Deacon Ben: I started around 1980. I worked with a group in Rapid City who got funding from the United Bible Society. Together we did complete the Gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke, and few of the Epistles. I believe the Psalms were also finished. I took on the translating of St. John’s Gospel and I am still working on that. I am up to chapter 16. It will take about a couple of years to finished it. I am in the process of trying to learn some Biblical Greek so I can remain faithful to the original writing.
WRC: Is it possible to translate word for word or do you take the general idea and write it in Lakota?
Deacon Ben: I try to use several methods in translation work. I took a course in Bible translating from the United Bible Society. One method they use is called the ‘dynamic equivalence method’ of translating which involves taking a sentence and breaking it down to its simplest form. Then translating it to the target language. Then building it back up in the target language to a more formal expression. Word for word translation does not work very well because most words do not have equivalent words in other languages. Even a simple word like ‘the,’ which is ‘ki’ in Lakota is not used in the same way in both languages.
In fact, the reason why I am studying Greek and re-studying Latin is because I learned that in order to do translation work with the Bible one should learn these languages and possibly even Biblical Hebrew. There are so many versions of the Bible written in English that it is difficult to decide which one to use. I stay with the Catholic editions of the Bible. It is a huge task.
WRC: Can it be seen?
Deacon Ben: When I was working with the United Bible Society sponsored translation work, I believe they did publish some preliminary translations. The funding ceased with that effort, so the office no longer exists. Together we did produce a video of the Gospel of Luke in Lakota. So one can say that the entire Gospel of Luke is in Lakota. Perhaps the United Bible Society may have some information regarding this. I don’t know where the translations are at this time. I do have some draft copies of the work that was done, but they are not published at this time. We did community checking with all the translations we have done, so there are drafts that were printed.
WRC: What feedback have you gotten from other Lakota people on this project?
Deacon Ben: When we did the community checking on the translations we completed, there was a very positive reaction to the Bible in Lakota.We had lively discussions during the community checks that we did. We also distributed most all of the Luke’s Gospel videos.
WRC: Do you plan to have it available?
Deacon Ben: I will have to do some community checking before it gets published with church approval. Once it is published it will be available to the public.
A sample text of the Gospel of St. John in English with a Lakota text provided by Deacon Ben Black Bear, Sr.
Used with permission, January 2020 West River Catholic, Diocese of Rapid City