By Keith Holmes
Recently, I was in Bulgaria for a week-long Wycliffe Romani team meeting at a Christian conference center two hours from the capital, Sofia. While I was in Bulgaria, I also wanted to meet with the Adventist Publishing House “New Life.” Twenty years ago they had published O Neevo Zaveti, a translation of the New Testament in one of the Romani languages spoken in Bulgaria, and I hoped to speak with them about recording the whole New Testament with our partners, Faith Comes By Hearing.
Toward the end of the week of Wycliffe meetings, I discovered that Mladen, a young Roma man who worked at the conference center, could speak some English. Everyone knew he was a Christian because he always had his Bulgarian Bible with him, and in the evening he played the guitar and sang Christian songs with the rest of the musicians in our group. One morning at breakfast I showed him my copy of O Neevo Zaveti and asked him if he could read it. He could, and he was very excited to see it. One of the Wycliffe team members nearby told him that this was a meeting of Bible translators working in the Romani languages, and he responded, “That’s what you are doing here?”
The translator asked him what his favorite verse was. John 3:16. I turned to it, and he read it aloud with only a bit of hesitation.
He asked if he could have the book, and I told him that he could borrow it, but I need it for a meeting on Monday.
An hour later, at the morning coffee break, he came up to us and read out loud the whole story of Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee and the woman washing Jesus’ feet with her tears. I asked him if this was exactly his dialect, or just near his dialect, and what he thought of the quality of the translation. He said it was definitely his dialect, but he had encountered 2 or 3 words he was not familiar with. He would have to study it more to judge the quality of the translation.
On Monday the head of Wycliffe’s Bulgaria Romani team and I went to the offices of New Life Publishing House to discuss the recording O Neevo Zaveti. The assistant director spoke with us, and was very enthusiastic about the idea since many Roma do not read. However, there were a few problems. When O Neevo Zaveti was printed in 1995, it was back in the days of 3.5” floppy discs. The disc containing this translation apparently went to the printing house and never returned. The translator was working on the Old Testament and was nearing completion when he passed away, and they had electronic files for the Old Testament, but not for the New.
During the meeting we talked by phone with a Roma pastor who had helped with the distribution of the printed version twenty years ago. He explained that the translation was in rather bookish, formal speech which was not widely accepted by people as normal conversational Romani. This explains Mladen’s reaction.
We now need to decide whether to record this O Neevo Zaveti as it is, or if the Wycliffe team should use it as a basis for revision to conversation Romani. In either case, the first step is to get it back in digital form.
One thing has already been made clear so far: Do not neglect to engage in conversation with the people right in front of your nose. Just like Mladen, they might be the person God intends to be a blessing to you–or for you to be a blessing to them.
Please pray for wisdom for the Wycliffe team and for us as we discern our next steps.
Keith Holmes is a CBF field personnel serving in the Netherlands alongside his wife Mary Van Rheenen. Their ministry centers around recording faith materials in Romany languages and providing outreach to the Romany people.