Thirty years ago, Roger Mohrlang moved into a mud hut in the desert corner of Nigeria.
He had fallen in love with the Bible, and as a missionary in Africa, he wanted to share the book that had changed his life.
So in 1967, he began learning the language of the Kamwe - the people of the mountain. Armed with a physics degree from the Carnegie Institute of Technology and three summers of linguistic training, his goal was to develop an alphabet and translate the New Testament for a people who had no written language.
Mohrlang, 55, finally completed a revision of that work this summer, sending the second edition of the Kamwe (com-weh) New Testament to the printers. The Bibles will arrive in Nigeria in time for Christmas.
The community will celebrate for days. Mohrlang, head of the religion and philosophy department at Whitworth College, will stay in Spokane, grading final exams and planning next semester’s courses from his office in the chapel. He wouldn’t dream of intruding on the celebration.
“I’d like this to be completely theirs,” he said. “I’m happy if it remains their project and their celebration.”
A handful of lepers
Christianity came to the Kamwe not so much through missionaries, but through the efforts of a handful of lepers.
Before 1950, entire portions of villages were handed over to lepers. A few of them heard about a treatment for their disease. So they set off on donkeys to a town 70 miles away, with a hospital run by missionaries. They returned with their disease cured and tales of Christians who worship a god named Jesus.
Those lepers, along with a blind man, were the founders of the Kamwe church. Now, up to half the Kamwe population of 300,000 is Christian.
When Mohrlang arrived in 1967, there were several churches and more than 10,000 Christians. Each year saw thousands of converts. He lived in a complex of huts with a man and his three wives.
Mohrlang spent the first year in Nigeria learning the language. He used his physics training to develop an alphabet that would stand up to scientific scrutiny.
He started translating with the book of Mark, the shortest of the Gospels. In addition to the translation work, he taught a few men to read.
“It’s very liberating for local people to be able to read and write their own language,” said Bill Wells, of Wycliffe Bible Translators, the nonprofit corporation that sponsored Mohrlang’s work.
“All of a sudden you take the folk tales and write them down. Or write new stories. Most of these people have been told, ‘You are an inferior people because you can’t write your language down.”’
There are 6,703 known languages in the world. The Bible is available in 828 of those languages. Wycliffe is responsible for 408 of those Bibles. Another 900 translations are in the works.
“We have plenty of work left to do,” Wells said.
Checking his work against the original Greek text, Mohrlang completed the first edition of the Kamwe Bible in six years. The average time to translate the Bible into a previously unwritten language is 10 years, Wells said.
Five thousand copies were printed, and Mohrlang left Nigeria in 1974.
“I was exhausted. I was hungry to be with people,” he said. “With Bible translation, you work mostly with papers.”
He went to seminary, where he met his wife, then to Oxford for his doctorate degree.
He came to Whitworth as a professor in 1977.
Rooted in Nigeria
After he left Africa, his experience remained the lens through which he saw life and served God.
He and his wife (a former missionary in Iran) and their two teenage children live as simply as possible.
They drive a 1978 Honda Civic, which they pile high for summer camping trips. He uses his tea bags twice before throwing them out. On rare occasions, he takes his family to Burger King or the Golden Corral.
“We have carpet and I can’t help but think, if a Kamwe woman came into my house, she would say, ‘My goodness what a wealthy person,”’ he said.
“We are world Christians. We are aware of the work of Jesus Christ all over the world. I think twice before I make some of the simple decisions that other people make. I think of this village in Nigeria, of the needs in China, of needs throughout the world.”
Mohrlang didn’t hesitate when Wycliffe called in 1988 and asked him to work on a revision of the Bible. The original 5,000 Bibles were gone. Government schools came to the Kamwe in the 1970s and the first generation of readers had come of age. Christianity was in its second generation.
In Mohrlang’s mind, the language was still sharp, although he hadn’t spoken Kamwe in 24 years.
“There is no other outsider who even knows the language,” he said.
At first he thought the job would take only a few weeks. After all, the bulk of the work was done and computers would speed up the rest.
In 1993, he took a sabbatical to work on the Kamwe revision and another project in Oxford, England.
For weeks he kept finding one more section, one more phrase, he wanted to revise. When he returned to Spokane eight months later, the revision wasn’t finished.
To revise the text, Mohrlang sent more than 6,000 questions about the language to a panel of preachers in Nigeria who can read the language.
The more Mohrlang looked, the more he discovered that his first edition had been a draft. A career in theology and teaching had given him even greater insight into meaning behind the text he was translating.
“A lot of these first Bibles are not polished works of sophistication,” he said. “They are written for people who have a very, very low level of reading ability.”
What’s a boat?
It’s also difficult to translate stories that were written for the Greeks and Jews of the Roman Empire. One particularly tough passage was Acts 27, the story of Paul’s shipwreck.
The Kamwe people have never seen a large body of water, let alone a boat, he said. Boat was translated as water vehicle. Sail became the thing with which the wind drives the water vehicle. An anchor was the thing that makes the water vehicle stand still.
“You can translate into any language, but it’s a complex art,” he said. “Interpreting is even more difficult. You never get a straight one-to-one exchange.”
That’s where the interpreter has to have faith, as well as perseverance, Mohrlang said.
“This is the word of God, and God will take that word to build up his church,” he said.
Through all the missed soccer games and school plays, all the Saturdays spent in the office and endless waits for international mail to arrive, Mohrlang said he had faith that God was at work.
“I’m just thankful my eyes held out,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo