‘Reading the Bible in Northern Sámi moves me to tears’

“When I started school, I couldn’t speak a word of Finnish. The older kids helped me out. I only went home at Christmas and when it was time to return to school I cried bitterly.”

“In the spring I fell ill – probably due to my acute homesickness – and I ended up in hospital. Everyone there only spoke Finnish and I had to learn Finnish fast. When I started in Grade 2 I managed better.”

This is the story of Helena Valkeapää (pictured right) from Finnish Lapland, who started school after World War II. In those days, starting school was a traumatic experience for many Sámi children. It meant leaving home and moving into the hostel for the whole school term. Children were expected to learn in a language that they did not understand.

Tears well up in Helena’s eyes as she remembers her time at school. She did learn Finnish though, and even ended up in a profession where she needs to use both Sámi and Finnish: she became a Bible translator.

The previous Bible in Northern Sámi is 125 years old and although Helena could understand it, many of the words and even the sentence structures, were influenced by Scandinavian languages.

One example of this is that in Norwegian, articles are written separately from the noun, whereas in Finno-Ugric languages, such as Sámi and Finnish, they are written together with the noun. The new translation follows this convention.

Helena was part of the translation team since the 1980s, beginning as a New Testament reviewer.

“When the Old Testament project began in 1998, I worked as translator producing the first draft, using Finnish and older Sámi translations,” says Helena who now works as a schoolteacher and Sámi language lecturer. “I also referred to the Norwegian and Swedish translations. The final translated version was polished by the whole translation team.”

The experience of being a member of a minority language group means the place of the Sámi language is extremely important.

“My mother tongue is my heart language,” says Helena, “When I read the Bible I am moved emotionally – sometimes to tears. They are tears of joy as I can read in my own language.

“I believe that the Sámi community will accept this Bible joyfully, because they will understand it better than the old version. I believe that the majority will be thankful and happy to have this new Bible.”

More about Bible Society’s translation work