Translating the Alcoholics Anonymous bi Naaltsoos Si’ah
Quitting alcohol was hard, said Eugene Plummer. But translating the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” into Navajo? That was right up there.
Believe it or not, Plummer, who was a pretty serious alcoholic for 30 years, says he quit drinking in one day when he got a job working with young people and couldn’t stand the thought of letting them down.
Translating the book took four years.
Plummer’s long journey with the Big Book, which he started calling the “AA bi Naaltsoos Si’ah” (the AA book that’s there), started one day when he was working his day job at KYAT Radio in Gallup.
“Word came to me at the studio one day that they were looking for somebody to translate something,” recounted Plummer, 65, of Manuelito Canyon, New Mexico.
That wasn’t a rare occurrence. Several of the announcers at the station are fluent in Navajo and use it on the air, so people come to them when they need translation services.
Usually, said Plummer, someone wants five or six lines translated for a PSA or something.
“Nobody wanted to take it,” he said, “so I emailed Sabina Wrightsman at the World Translation Center to find out more.”
Wrightsman, the center’s president, pulled no punches. She told him Alcoholics Anonymous had contracted with the center to translate the Big Book, sometimes referred to as the AA bible, into Navajo in an audiobook.
The Big Book is not called “big” for nothing. It is 575 pages long.
Plummer would be paid by the audio file he turned in and the center would provide the recording equipment.
“My first reaction was, ‘I can’t do that!’” Plummer recalled. “Sabina convinced me to just translate the 12 steps, and we would go from there.”
Unbeknownst to Plummer, Wrightsman had recruited several other Navajos to attempt the project. The 12 steps were a test.
“She thought my translation was the best,” said Plummer.
Encouraged, Plummer signed up for the long haul. He asked the station owner, Sammy Chioda, if he could use the station’s audio equipment. Sure, said Chioda…but he would have to do it when no one else was using it.
This presented a problem. The radio station is on the air 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Plummer tried to come in on the weekends, but with a family, that was hard.
“I started driving to the station at 2:30 a.m.,” Plummer said. “I always had a dictionary in my hand.”
The Big Book basically has two kinds of chapters: case studies and teachings. The stories were easy to translate, Plummer said…descriptive, verb-heavy Dine bizaad is a storyteller’s language. Plus Plummer enjoyed reading about people like him, who had beaten the odds and overcome a drinking problem.
The teachings, on the other hand, are a bit obtuse and contain a lot of scientific language.
“There’s one part where he (AA founder Bill W.) talks about how everything has life in it, even a metal bar,” explained Plummer. “He talked about the atoms in everything and how the electrons are orbiting around the nucleus.”
As far as Plummer could determine, there was no Navajo word for “atom.” So, in time-honored Navajo fashion, he jury-rigged.
“I thought about how the moon orbits around the earth, and that’s how I explained it,” he said.
For those technical passages, it might take Plummer an hour to translate five lines of English.
About three-quarters of the way through the book, Plummer hit a wall.
“I couldn’t hack it no more,” he said. “I was way behind.”
He called Wrightsman and quit.
To his surprise, she let him go.
“She didn’t argue with me,” he recalled. “She didn’t beg me or anything.”
But, as the days went by with no 2 a.m. alarm, something nagged at Plummer. He thought of all his relatives who were sill in the grip of alcohol. Could hearing the AA method in their native tongue touch them somehow?
Like any good recovering alcoholic, he turned to his Higher Power.
“I said, ‘lord, you have to help me,’” he recalled. ‘“If you’re the one who wants to get this to the people who need help, you have to help me.’”
After a two-week hiatus, Plummer was back on the job. This time he was better about asking for help, and not just from the Man Upstairs.
“I didn’t do it alone,” he said. “When I was having trouble with the English, I asked some of the non-Natives who worked at the station. There was also a lady in Utah who translated some of the stories.”
The struggle continued…up at 2:30, translate for a couple of hours, start his day job. Whenever he felt like quitting, he prayed his work would reach the people who needed it the most, and found the strength to go on.
One day last summer, he turned the last page of the last script. He was done.
Then there was the editing process, which took a few more months.
On May 5 of this year, President Russell Begaye unveiled the 14-CD set that represented an oral, Navajo version of the Big Book at an AA conference in Albuquerque.
Plummer was there. He felt like a celebrity.
“They recognized me,” he marveled. “Apparently, some people had already been listening to my voice.”
They asked Plummer to speak. Luckily, extemporaneous speaking comes easy to a radio personality.
“I told them, ‘this is freedom,’” he recalled.
Plummer made a connection between the Navajo language used as a code in World War II, to free the world from the specter of totalitarianism, and the language used again to free people from the grip of alcohol.
According to Wrightsman, the 800 CD sets AA brought for sale sold out that day.
“People from other tribes were buying them, even white people were buying them,” Plummer said. “People were asking me to autograph them.”
By the time Plummer finished the translation, he and Wrightsman had become friends. She was in awe of his work ethic.
To say this was an incredible labor of love is an understatement,” she said. “Eugene worked relentlessly during the night and on weekends to get this done…We were blessed to have found and worked with him.”
Like Plummer, Wrightsman believes the translation is an important work that may save some lives. She put Plummer’s initial narration to a Power Point on the 12 Steps, and has seen people cry as they watch it.
“At the AA conference, President Begaye said something that I think is true,“ mused Wrightsman. “He said, ‘We all understand English, but we feel Navajo.’”
Don (members of AA typically use only their first names at AA functions) who answered the phone at the Gallup AA chapter, said the audiobook is available at the chapter office in the Southwest Indian Foundation Building (218 E. Historic Highway 66) at $7 for the 14-CD set.
“It’s a good thing, especially for the older people who don’t speak English well,” he said. “Sometimes we use it at meetings if we have a lot of older people.”
-Reprinted with permission from author Cindy Yurth of the Navajo Times 7/12/18