Tucked in the hillsides of the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion is what could be your average dormitory. The spacious villa includes 10 rooms — a common dining area, several bedrooms and a large library with three computers hooked up to the Internet. And there are also students, though of a slightly unusual kind.
Welcome to the Home for Bible Translators.
The home was established in 1995 by a Christian couple, Mirja and Halvor Ronning, who wanted to enable Bible translators to truly understand their sources by offering them Hebrew classes as well as tours of the land of the Bible. The couple affiliated their project with the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and thus they were able to offer students an academic program tailor-made for their needs, as well as an opportunity to become part of a worldwide family of scholars with whom they can exchange ideas.
The course is given in English or French, and this year’s graduates are nine French-speaking Christian scholars from the Congo, Benin, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. The majority of the scholars originate from African countries, where there are hundreds of different dialects and languages.
“Christianity is spreading throughout Africa, and the existence of 200 translation projects is the evidence of that,” Ronning said.
Yet this is not the sole reason for the increasing numbers of African scholars in the program. The person who helped the Ronnings establish the home was Julie Bentinck, a Bible translator herself, who worked for 16 years in Africa. She was concerned that translation training was more available for English- than for French-speaking students.
On a recent afternoon, three of the students — Genelosse Awankra from Togo, Issifou Korogo from Benin and Thomas Kore from Ivory Coast — sat around discussing their experience, which began when they all met on the same flight to Israel. Since then, the men — aged between 30 and 40 — have become good friends.
“You can’t understand the New Testament without reading the old one” said Kore, who is not a translator himself but intends to set up a Hebrew course for those scholars who wish to register for this program. And despite being Christians, all scholars emphasized the importance of the Old Testament.
“Our culture in Africa is closer to the culture of the Old Testament, and people have a better image of God,” said Korogo, who is engaged in translating the Old Testament into Yom, a language spoken by 200,000 people. “They can relate to the Bible’s themes — the sacrifice, for example.”
“In my language, Lama, a tribal dialect spoken by 200,000 people, there are some expressions similar to Hebrew,” added Awankra, a former teacher and Bible translator. He intends to translate the Old Testament along with a team that includes his brother, who participated in the program last year.
Between classes at the university, field trips and exams, the students hardly have any spare time. Going out in the evening is not an option, but on Saturdays they sometimes travel to Jerusalem to pray in one of the Catholic churches in the Old City, or alternatively, visit the Catholic church in Abu Gosh, an Arab village outside of Jerusalem.
“We return in the afternoon and eat together,” Korogo said. “We then read the Bible. Everyone can choose a paragraph he wants to read, and then we discuss it. In the evening we pray together.”
And, like many first-time visitors to Israel, the scholars found that their preconceived ideas about the state were not quite right — though they didn’t come from newspaper reports or television broadcasts.
“We read many things about Israel from the Bible, but we had no idea about the way it really is,” Korogo explained. “After being here and traveling through the land, we have a complete picture.”
Surprisingly, they said that although the curriculum was quite fulfilling, there was one feature they would have liked to experience more: Jewish traditions.
“We would have liked to attend a Jewish wedding and other religious ceremonies,” Awankra said, “like funerals, Shabbat services or… the Jewish festivals.”
Sima Borkovski is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.