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Ever since the invention of moveable type, the Bible has been a best-seller. But not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to read it in his mother tongue: out of 6,800 languages in the world, the Bible has been translated into about 400.

A unique institute, founded by a non-Jewish couple from Jerusalem, Yohanan and Miriam Ronen, invites representatives of tribes and ethnic groups, largely from African to spend a year in Jerusalem during which they translate the Holy Scriptures into their native tongue.

The project operates in cooperation with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which created a special academic course for it. The Foreign Ministry has also recently lent its support helping to fund the stay in the capital of some of the students.

Yohanan Ronen, a Norwegian-American and his wife Miriam, who is from Finland, started the translation project in 1996, with their decision to establish a special house in which Bible translators from all over the world would live.

An urgent need

As part of their preparation for coming to work on the translation in Jerusalem, Yohanan explains, the future translators (some six to 13 each year) are asked to take a course in biblical Hebrew in their country of origin, and fund their own air fare to Israel. Their stay in Israel is funded by contributions which the Ronens raise.

Yohanan believes that there is an urgent need to translate the Bible into various languages directly from Hebrew.

"I know one case were a man from one of the African countries needed a translation for the word `grapes.' The problem was that in his country, there are no grapes. Because he had no native translation, and was reading the Bible in English, he thought that the text had made a mistake and actually meant to say `grapefruit'" Ronen said that in this case, the spies in the book of Joshua who brought back the produce of the land to the waiting Israelis came back carrying grapefruit. It was only after the man got to Israel and saw grapes with his own eyes, that he finally understood the story, Ronen said.

"As a Christian, I know that the person who reads the New Testament without reading the Old Testament is like a flower in water with no roots. In a short time, the flower wilts and begins to smell," Ronen explained. That's the way it is with Christians who don't know the Old Testament. They don't know their faith, and they become anti-Jewish. Anyone who tries to separate Christianity from Judaism is doing a terrible thing," he added.

Goodwill ambassadors

Arieh Sher, head of the Foreign Ministry's scholarship department, heard about the translation project a few years ago. He says that it is usually difficult to sign reciprocal scholarship agreements with African nations as they lack the means to offer scholarships to Israeli students. "Therefore, when we heard that Africans were coming to Israel, we decided to support the project, and turn them into goodwill ambassadors," Sher says.

The Foreign Ministry funds three to four students a year, at a cost of a few thousand dollars each.

At the end of their year in Jerusalem, the students return home and teach Bible, using a copy of the Good Book in their own language.

Among the languages into which translations have so far been made is Attie, spoken by some 318,000 people in the Ivory Coast. An Attie-speaking student took part in the Ronens' program in 1996, together with two colleagues from the Ivory Coast, each speaking a different language. One spoke Nyaboa, a language shared by 43,000 other people in his homeland, and the other spoke Baoul, the language of 2.1 million of his countrymen.

In 1999, the Bible was translated into Obolo, spoken by 100,000 people in Nigeria, and in 2000, a translation was made into Soninke, spoken in the West African nation of Mali.

Forty dialects

A Bible in the Sabaot language, shared by 143,000 Kenyans, was produced after a Sabaot speaker from Kenya took part in the Ronens' course in 2000, and in 2003, a participant brought home a Bible translation into Lama, spoken by 173,000 people in Togo.

All told, translations have been made from Hebrew into over 40 languages and dialects since the program's inception.