Translator of the Word
Translating the Bible into modern Russian is a fearsome yet rewarding responsibility
By Celeste Ryan Blyden
On the third floor of the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church office building in Takoma Park, Maryland, in a tiny white-walled attic with three windows, Mikhail Kulakov, Jr., is waxing poetic about merging the past with the future.
“The task of a translator could be compared to a musician transposing a piece written for violin and readying it for guitar,” he says. One end of his desk is completely covered with open books and Bibles, a lamp, a smattering of office supplies, an open laptop computer, and a black encased iPad 2. The professor of philosophy on a five-year leave from Washington Adventist University (WAU) rehearses the Russian translation of the Bible he hopes will be useful for public worship and personal devotional study.
“As we work on each phrase and passage, we read it aloud to see if it retains the melody and rhythm of the original,” he notes. “This morning I reviewed Jeremiah 51:15 in the King James Version.” He peers at the text and, with arms in full accompaniment, conducts an orchestra of words that stream forth melodiously. “‘He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heaven by his understanding,’” he reads in full crescendo.
The goal, he says, is to find the best words and idioms to render the meaning of the original Hebrew and match them with words typical for today’s Russian culture. “Scripture was written over a period of 1,000 years, and over that time language changed,” says Kulakov, who matriculated from Newbold College in England, the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Michigan, and the Oxford University’s Christ Church College, where he earned a Doctor of Philosophy in theology. “It’s important to keep the linguistic nuances in mind.”
GOD’S WORD IN RUSSIAN: From his office in Takoma Park, Maryland, U.S.A., Mikhail Kulakov, Jr., oversees a team that is translating the Bible into modern Russian.That’s why he and a dozen other translators, some of whom live eight time zones away in Russia, painstakingly research, write, review, and rewrite each text. “We go back and find the original Hebrew, study the definitions of each term, consult the Russian literature database to see how the best writers through the centuries used the verbiage in the most appropriate, fitting and closest context,” he shares. “We choose a variant, sleep on it, review it prayerfully and critically, and send it to philologists—specialists in language studies of syntax, style, and usage—who can tell us if it sounds like perfect, natural, good Russian that is the best equivalent for the original phrase.”
And so it goes—phrase by phrase, text by text, passage by passage, chapter by chapter, book by book, and year by year. The process has taken more than two decades, and so far the team has completed and published the Psalms and the New Testament (2002); the five books of Moses, known as the Pentateuch (2009); and Daniel and the 12 minor prophets (2011), all projects led by the fourteenth and founding member of the translation team, Kulakov’s father, role model, and namesake, the late Mikhail Petrovich Kulakov, Sr. Talking about his father’s death in 2010 and carrying on his dream to translate the Bible is a “fearsome responsibility” that his son finds moving and, at this moment, nearly overwhelming.
According to Guillermo Biaggi, president of the Euro-Asia Division (ESD), it was 22 years ago that Mikhail Kulakov, Sr., had the dream. “As the first president of the Euro-Asia Division, he wanted to translate the full Bible into modern language, because the current Russian translation of the Holy Scriptures is 130 years old,” he says.
Biaggi, now president of Kulakov’s home division, sits in his office on the first floor of the four-story division headquarters in Moscow. Biaggi, executive secretary Volodymyr Krupskyi, and treasurer Brent Burdick shepherd the Adventist Church’s work in 13 countries including Russia, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Ukraine, and Afghanistan. They have the largest land territory of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s 13 world divisions. “Russia alone has nine time zones,” Biaggi says, pointing to a large framed map on his office wall. The ESD has a membership of 137,000 out of 315 million inhabitants.
Although the church Biaggi leads exemplifies resilience and growth, they now face a new crisis: postmodernism. “We used to share literature, but now people spend more time on the Internet,” he explains. He talks of riding the extensive underground subway system in Moscow, a metro area of 15 million, many of whom struggle with alcoholism, domestic abuse, tobacco, addictions, or emptiness. “They are looking for something, and we have the answer,” he posits. “We are committed to bringing this gospel of hope to them.”
At the division’s Zaoksky Adventist Seminary and Institute 70 miles south of Moscow some of the translators are working with Mikhail Kulakov, Jr. In May Biaggi, nine union presidents, the publishing house president, and other leaders of the vast ESD convened their Bible Translation Institute board. Kulakov, Jr., who helped found Zaoksky in the 1990s, attended with fellow board members Weymouth Spence, president of Washington Adventist University (WAU); and Zack Plantak, chair of WAU’s Department of Religion.
During his report Kulakov shared how the meticulous work of the translation team is drawing encouraging reviews from leading Russian philologists touting the beauty of the language. He also shared how specialists in biblical languages have noted its “accuracy and high literary and scholarly” work, and that leading Russian Orthodox scholars have given positive evaluations for its literary and scholarly quality. Adventist leaders, readers, and donors underwriting this project are also pleased and anticipate the completion of the translation by 2015, in time for it to be distributed at the General Conference session in San Antonio, Texas. “People who have read the finished portions say, ‘Now I can understand the Word of God,’” says Biaggi, who chairs the board.
All of this spurs Kulakov and his translation team forward and keeps them going around the clock between Maryland, United States, and Zaoksky, Russia. “When I go to bed at night here, it’s morning there, and they start work,” he explains. “And when they finish their day, it’s morning here, and I review their latest version.” Now that they’ve finished Jeremiah and the other major prophets, they Skype, live-chat, telephone, and e-mail about drafts of their current work on the poetic and wisdom literature of Job, Proverbs, and Song of Songs.
Back in his office at Sligo church, Kulakov is trying to articulate why his father’s legacy has become his life’s work. “I started working with my father in 2006, and I don’t know if in my lifetime I will participate in anything as important, rewarding, joyous, or humbling as this project.
“I remember when he was working on Genesis 5:22, which reads in King James, ‘Enoch walkedwith God,’” he said. “Out of their desire to be reverent, nineteenth-century Russian scholars instead chose ‘Enoch walked before God.’ But having suffered through humiliation and loss of dignity in Joseph Stalin’s labor camps, my father wanted new generations of Russians to experience a God who stands at the doors of human hearts, respectfully knocks, and waits to see if we will invite Him to enter,” he says, pausing to gather himself. Then comes the crescendo: “Heso wanted them to understand that you can have such a personal experience of love, acceptance, and affirmation with God, that on this rare occasion, properly footnoted, he departed from the original and chose to say ‘Enoch lived in intimate relationship with God.’”
Like father, like son.
Celeste Ryan Blyden serves as communication director for the Columbia Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. See a video about this project atwww.columbiaunion.org/videos.