Gwich'in New Testament finished

GOOD NEWS: Couple spends 31 years translating into what's called one of the most difficult languages.

June 12, 2011 

Meggie and Pierre DeMers read a passage from a copy of the New Testament translated into Gwich'in during services last month at the St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Fairbanks. The DeMers spent 31 years completing the Gwich'in translation of the New Testament.


FAIRBANKS -- The gold-lettered title of the plain-covered book reads "Vit'eegwijyahchy'aa: Vagwandak Nizii," Gwich'in for, "God: His Good News."

"Remember the words of our Lord are blessed to give and to receive," said St. Matthew's rector, the Rev. Scott Fisher, following the announcement Sunday that the translation of the New Testament to the Gwich'in Athabascan language is available.

The service was a joyous occasion for the diverse congregation. There was an adult Baptism and more than a dozen parishioners were confirmed by Alaska Episcopal Bishop Mark Lattime.

The final highlight was the introduction of the second team of Wycliffe volunteers, Meggie and Pierre DeMers of Healy, who spent 31 years completing the Gwich'in translation of the New Testament.

Parishioners responded with a standing ovation for the couple.

The Bible, both Old and New testaments was translated in the latter half of the 1800s by Church of England missionary Archdeacon Robert McDonald. He was the first to put Gwich'in into a written form that is no longer used today.

In addition to translating the Book of Common Prayer and a hymnal in Tadukh, a Canadian Gwich'in dialect, by 1897 McDonald also translated the Bible.

Since then, a new Gwich'in spelling/writing system was created by Wycliffe translators Richard and Susan Mueller, who started working on translating the New Testament into the new format more than 50 years ago.

The DeMers arrived in Alaska in 1979 and spent seven years in Venetie where the bulk of the work was done, Meggie said. They had the invaluable aid of Mary Rose Gamboa, who was a main translator, Katherine Peter, David Salmon, Judy Erick, Fannie Gimmel, Addie Shewfelt and Ethel Simple.

"Gwich'in is rated as one of the most difficult languages in the world, probably harder than Chinese," Meggie said. "There are 24 vowels and 46 consonants and the majority of words are verbs; even colors are verbs."

The new Gwich'in writing system was designed in conjunction with Native people and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Pierre said.

"The easiest gospel to translate was that of John, a fisherman by trade. The gospel of Luke, a doctor, was much more involved and detailed," Pierre said, and took much longer to smooth out. But the hardest was the Book of Hebrews, which he described as "sermon after sermon."

The New Testament in Gwich'in is available at the Episcopal Diocese offices for a donation of $15. CDs of the Gospel of St. Mark and a DVD of the Gospel of St. Luke by the Genesis Project, both in Gwich'in, also are available.

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