|Bible translator labors to bring word to his people|
Dec. 12, 2005
|A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert
The Rev. Humphrey C. Kumeh translates the Bible into Klao and Sarpo, two native languages spoken in Liberia.
By Kathy L. Gilbert*
MONROVIA, Liberia (UMNS) — The Rev. Humphrey C. Kumeh has been
reading the Bible every day from sunrise to sunset for the past 21
years. Two more chapters and he will be done.
When it is not raining too hard, he gets some nice natural light
through the windows behind his desk. Natural light is often the only
light he has; the country of Liberia has been without electricity since
1989, when it was plunged into 14 years of civil war. The United
Methodist Liberia Annual Conference, where Kumeh’s office is located,
has generators but uses them sparingly to save money.
Bibles are positioned on pedestals and spread out on his desk. A
picture of his wife is squeezed in among the editions, so when his eyes
need a rest, they have a soft place to go.
Kumeh is translating the Bible into Kru/Klao and Sarpo, two of the
native languages spoken in Liberia. The Lutheran Bible Society and other
organizations have done translations into the other 10 native
“I write it out by hand, consulting these materials,” he says,
pointing to the 26 English versions of the Bible. “Before I translate
it, I have to read it in every version, then I refer to the Hebrew Bible
to see which of these translations is closer.”
For Kumeh, not all of the 26 English versions of the Bible are easy to
understand, “even though my English is fair in my own judgment,” he
|A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert
Rev. Humphrey C. Kumeh consults 26 English versions of the Bible before
translating Scripture into native Liberian languages.
“English and our language don’t match word for word,” he explains.
“For example, the word ‘because’ in my language does not begin any
sentence, it is just a connector.” An important skill for the job is
knowing one’s own language well before attempting to translate the
source language, he says.
He was on Chapter 66 of Isaiah in September. On a good day, he can complete 15 verses.
“For narratives, you can do close to 12 or 15 verses a day,” he says.
“The poetry is more difficult; the maximum you can do is 10.”
The other chapter of the Old Testament yet to be finished is Ezekiel.
Continuing the dream
Kumeh is the coordinator of the Liberia Conference’s literacy and
translation department. The translation process was started in 1989 by
United Methodist missionary Nancy Lightfoot. Dedication of the New
Testament was celebrated in 2000.
Lightfoot died a year later in an automobile accident. Kumeh was in the
car when the accident occurred and almost died himself. They were on
their way to meet with the Rev. Don Slager, the United Bible Societies
translation consultant, who was to review the Book of Job.
The Rev. Humphrey C. Kumeh
As soon as he recovered, Kumeh vowed to continue Lightfoot’s work.
Before her death, Lightfoot was quoted as saying, “Watching the faces
of older women in a Klao-speaking congregation as they hear God’s word
read to them in a language they understand is an experience one would
Kumeh shares that same passion. “If they don’t know what God expects
of them, then God has no reason to hold them responsible for what they
ought to have done. They need to know what God expects of us. As a
preacher, if you don’t train them, then you have the blame.”
It is mostly women who attend church, he says. “But unfortunately
these ladies are not literate. The people who put this project together
knew it was not sufficient to just tell them a verse; they needed to
learn to read so they could read the Bible themselves.”
Once enough work has been done, Slager comes to Liberia to review the
translation. A review committee of at least five people who speak the
language also comes to the office.
“We read our draft to them,” Kumeh says. “They listen to not only the
meaning but the context in which certain words are used. It is a long
Asked why he has chosen such a long, hard task, Kumeh turns to look out the window before he answers.
“If I was assigned to even the largest church in Liberia, I might
preach to two or three thousand only,” he says, smiling. “From where I
sit, I preach to close to a million.”
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com
Video Interview with the Rev. Humphrey C. Kumeh
"They need to know what God expects of them."
"I preach to close to a million."
"The difficulty is reaching the people."
Injured translator wants to finish Klao Bible translation
Lost and found: the story of the Klao New Testament
Bible Society work in Liberia
Nancy Lightfoot Profile
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