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Bible translator labors to bring word to his people

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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.
Dec. 12, 2005

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 languages.

“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.”

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert

The Rev. Humphrey C. Kumeh consults 26 English versions of the Bible before translating Scripture into native Liberian languages.
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 says.

“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.

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The Rev. Humphrey C. Kumeh
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.

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 not forget.”

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 process.”

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 newsdesk@umcom.org

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."

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Resources

Bible Society work in Liberia

Nancy Lightfoot Profile

Episcopal areas – Africa