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Mexico. God in the Tzeltal language

One people, one language, their Bible. Thirty-five years of patient and systematic work.

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It was a Sunday morning, the sun warmed the thousands of people standing on the large level ground not far from the Cathedral of San Cristόbal de Las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. An elderly woman dressed in traditional clothes brought the Bible in the Tzeltal language to the altar, located under a large tent. She was holding something that belonged to her people. She gave the Bible to the Bishop of San Cristόbal de Las Casas, Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, who solemnly lifted up the Book so that everybody could see it. You could hear the sounds which some men made by blowing into large shells and the beating of the drums. Some people were dancing while some others were singing some Tzeltal songs. A holiday spirit and great excitement were all around.

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The team of translators was close to the altar: the priests, Felipe J. Ali Modad, Eugene Maurer, Mardonio Elizalde, Morales Elizalde and the laypeople, Gilberto Moreno Jiménez, Abelino Guzmán Jiménez, Francisca Silvano, and Manuel Maria Saragos Silvano Gόmez. Emotions, smiles and a feeling of gratitude pervaded the place. All this happened in 2005. The Bible in the Tzeltal language was officially given to the Tzeltal people.
“After ten years, I still feel those overwhelming beautiful emotions every time I think back to that event”, says Father Eugenio Maurer, a Jesuit priest and anthropologist who was one of those experts in charge of the translation of the Bible into Tzeltal: “translating the word ‘God’ into the Tzeltal language was an absorbing experience of faith.” The Jesuit priest continues, “We are used to the words: ‘Yahweh’, ‘Elohim’, but calling God ‘Mach’s nananx ay ah’ was a wonderful feeling, difficult to explain.”

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The second edition of the Bible in Tzeltal will be published in a few weeks.
The Tzeltal language is one of the fifty languages spoken in Mexico. The largest Tzeltal speaking community, which counts about half a million people, is located in the State of Chiapas. While some other groups of migrants speaking the language live in Mexico City, in Quintana Roo (the Mayan Riviera), and in the states of Jalisco and Sonora. “If we consider all communities, municipalities and groups scattered throughout Mexico, we can say that the Tzeltal language is spoken by at least two million people,” underlines Father Maurer.
The translation was not an easy task and took almost 35 years of patient work and the commitment of many people. “The Jesuit missionaries arrived in the region of Bachajόn, in the State of Chiapas in 1958 – says Father Maurer – Dominicans had already reached the region in the sixteenth century. Jesuit missionaries were initially helped by some translators but, later on, they decided to learn the Tzeltal language to establish direct communication with the natives.

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At the beginning, the missionaries translated small passages of the Catechism and some of the New Testament. Some Protestants had already done a translation of the New Testament into Tzeltal, but their version put the fundamentals of the Catholic faith in a bad light. In 1969, Father Mardonio and Father Ignacio Morales began the adventure of translating the entire Bible into the Tzeltal language, supported by the then Bishop of the Diocese of San Cristόbal de Las Casas, Samuel Ruiz or ‘j Tatic Samuel’, as the Tzeltal natives called him”.
“We were convinced that the translation had to be done by Tzeltal people – says Father Mauer – therefore we limited ourselves to support them.”

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Abelino Guzman Jiménez, a Tzeltal indigenous and translator of the second version of the New Testament and the Psalms says: “I would have never expected to translate the Word of God, but when we started I felt I was building a bridge for my Tzeltal brothers and sisters”.
Gilberto Moreno, Tzeltal translator of the Old Testament says: “I felt I was an intermediary between God and my people. Seeing that my people could easily understand the Word of God, and listening to the words and understanding their meaning in their own language, filled my heart with joy”.

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