Bible translation is only needed in far-flung places, right? In Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America.

Largely, yes. But not exclusively. Let me introduce you to one Bible translation that is happening much closer to home…

In Europe there is a people group who do not have the Bible in an understandable version of their own language. A very large people group, who currently have to use the Bible in the languages of the countries where they live, rather than in the language that speaks to them best.

And today is the UNESCO World Day to celebrate that language.

Raising the Standard

We’re talking about the Roma people, who number perhaps 20 million worldwide and around 10–12 million in Europe, and their language – Romani. (Given that many Roma choose not to register their ethnicity in official censuses, some suggest the worldwide figure could be as high as 40 million.)

Image of a Roma grandmother and her granddaughter in Romania A Roma grandmother and her granddaughter in Romania

Of these, perhaps 2 million speak the Romani language as their first language. But, sadly, when they go to church and read or hear Scriptures and the gospel message, it’s invariably in the national language of the country they live in, not in Romani. Or on the rare occasions it is in Romani, it is in a highly academic form of the language. So they don’t have the opportunity to fully understand, because it is not in the language they speak and relate to.

But moves are afoot to change that.

In Romania, a team has come together to translate the Bible into the Romani language, so that all Romani speakers can access God’s word in the language that speaks to them best.

The translation is going to be in Standard Romani. Why Standard? Because one of the complications of Romani is that it has many dialects – 17 in Romania alone, though there are plenty of others spread across Europe.

So the Romani Bible translation team plans to literally standardise the language for the Bible, so that whatever dialect a Roma person in Romania speaks, they will be able to read the Standard Romani Bible and fully understand everything in it.

As Daniel, one of the translators, says:

‘The spiritual discernment we gain from reading, helps us better understand God’s will and our mission. I want the Romani Bible to impact as many Roma people as possible by transforming their minds and hearts.’

The translation work is aided by the fact that these dialects share the same basic grammar and have many words in common. But there are a lot of words – many of them important in the context of the Scriptures, such as light, darkness and word – that are different across the dialects. This is because each dialect has absorbed words from the languages around them. So one dialect near the Hungarian border has taken in words from Hungarian; another near the Turkish border has taken in words from Turkish; the same for Greek, etc. Think of how English takes words from other languages and assimilates them – something you will be aware of if you live in a bungalow or a caravan, etc.

The need in the community and the Church

In addition, there are issues with where and when Romani is spoken.

Image of a Roma mother and her children with their horse and cart in Romania A Roma mother and her children with their horse and cart in Romania

Zoltan, who works with Wycliffe Romania and is helping on the project, says: ‘There are three different levels of Romani use. First, there are those who speak Romani at home and in their villages. Second, there are those who understand Romani but who generally use Romanian as their communication language. And third, there are Roma who have lost their language and only speak another language – Romanian, Hungarian or whatever is the nearest main language to them.’

Zoltan continues: ‘And there are three levels in the Roma Church. First, those who mix Romanian and Romani: they speak Romanian and read the Bible in Romanian, although they speak Romani in church. Second, those who speak Romani in the family, on the streets, in the shops, everywhere, but use the Romanian Bible in church. Some preach in Romani. When they say something in Romanian and the people don’t understand they translate straight away into Romani. Third, those who use only Romanian in the church; everywhere else they speak in Romani, but the official language of the church is Romanian and so they follow this.

‘The best situation, of course, is when they are all using Romani as a mother tongue everywhere. We have been in churches where they do everything in Romani, except the Bible reading, which makes everything difficult and less understandable.’

That is where the Standard Romani Bible would make such a huge difference: suddenly, the Roma people would be able to do EVERYTHING in church in Romani, and thus fully grasp what they are hearing and reading.

Nicolai, a Roma mission worker and member of the translation committee, says:

‘When I preach in Romani the people say the words come out differently. They say, “Our pastor is Romanian but I understand you differently: why, what’s the secret? Because you speak to our heart, you speak heart to heart.” They listen to you with a different sort of attention – because you are speaking to them in their own language. It is the best!’

Assessing the appetite

It’s into this situation that the Standard Romani Bible translation team has stepped.

Crucially, the Bible translation team is made up of people from different denominations and represents different Romani dialects – thus embodying the vision of the project.

One of the first things the team did was to go into different Roma communities where different dialects are spoken, and assess the appetite for a Standard Romani Bible. These communities expressed great interest.

One pastor said:

‘These people are doing God’s work, they are translating the Bible into our language. Let’s help them.’

Image of Wycliffe Romania worker Zoltan presenting a booklet with the Standard Romani translation of John 18–21 to a Roma church in Romania Zoltan presenting a booklet with the Standard Romani translation of John 18–21 to a Roma church in Romania

And a church member commented: ‘I would stay with these people all day and every day to learn Romani words and to read the Scripture in my language and the language of my parents.’

The churches suggested translating the book of John as a test. So the translation team started work on John.

Zoltan says: ‘I visited one church to present the passages of John that the team had translated into Standard Romani, to see how the community got on with the translation. I was sitting there and they did everything – they read the questions and got answers from the church, they preached using it, and so on. It was very exciting to see.’

It’s early days in the translation process, with the Gospel of John nearing completion. But already its impact is being felt. One elderly woman, on hearing the Scriptures being read in Roma on a phone, said:

‘I cannot believe I have lived to hear the Bible played in my own language!’

As Roma people hear and read the word of God in the Romani language, as the translation becomes more widely known and used more broadly in churches, so the Roma people will be able to understand the good news of Jesus in a way they never have before, and see transformation come to their communities.


Watch out for further stories about the Standard Romani translation in the coming months, including in our Words for Life magazine.

You can find out more about the UNESCO World Day of Romani Language here.

Story by: Jeremy Weightman

Date: 04/11/2022

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