Stories from the Field, 7 Feb 2023
Vera Khor has been a Bible Translation consultant since 2012. She served the Obo Manobo in the Philippines, translating the Bible, hymn books and health books into their language. The New Testament was completed and dedicated in 2011, and some portions of the Old Testament have also been translated.
When someone mentions Bible translation, what comes to mind? The very complex processes of translating, and the technical expertise that is expected from a Bible translator? Vera’s story tells us that there is more than that!
When Vera heard God’s call to missions in 1982, she hesitated because she was not confident in her ability. She was then working as a maid in Kampar, Malaysia. God, however, showed her that he was more concerned with her availability, and so she responded to the call. She went through the first SIL training course for Asians in Singapore in 1987, and was assigned to the Philippines in 1988. A year later, she went to the Obo Manobo tribe and dedicated the next two decades of her life to translating the Bible into their language.
She first had to navigate unfamiliar circumstances, cultures, places and people that challenged her in personal ways. The people lived in very remote areas on the slopes of Mount Apo where travelling was a challenge. Electricity was limited. Food was different. The people considered themselves the poorest of the poor. When she arrived, the people were ashamed to speak their language, and they lived in constant fear of spirits, witchcraft and superstitions. Even those who were Christians carried charms. Most people did not know how to read, and the preacher was the only person who had a Bible, which was not in their ethnic language. The Word was preached in English that the listeners could not understand. Vera felt the great need for the people to know and understand who Jesus is, and the power that came from having a personal relationship with him. But they could only experience this if they could understand the Word preached to them.
She could not begin translating immediately as she needed to learn the language. The Obo Manobo language also didn’t have a writing system. So she lived with the people with the goal of learning their language. She studied their culture by whatever means available, like attending celebrations such as weddings, funerals and birthdays.
She and her partner in the field did what they could to help the people. They became like a health clinic handing medicines out for fevers and coughs; a bank where the people could change their banknotes; a pawnshop where they could leave their precious radio for 200 pesos. They were the village’s official photographers during funerals and weddings! Their doors were open 12 hours a day to cater to the people’s needs. In this way, they were able to gather and record stories, build up a dictionary and, more importantly, come up with a writing system that represented the sounds in the Obo Manobo language. Only then could the rigorous process of translating God’s Word begin. It took Vera and her team about two decades to complete the New Testament translation into the Obo Manobo language.
But Vera’s mission work didn’t stop after translating the Bible. She became much more than a translator. There was a need for continuing work to reach over 20 different groups of the Obo Manobo (about 70,000 speakers) spread across 6 different districts. She and her team continued to train people so that they too could become the teachers of their language. They also encouraged the pastors and church leaders of different churches and denominations to take ownership of the Bible translation they now had. Recognising that the translation of the New Testament was not enough, they continued working on the translation of the Old Testament. For God’s Word to reach more people, a 30-minute live radio programme was also started, and a training centre was erected to facilitate Bible training courses for local leaders.
At present, Vera is working as a translation consultant and no longer stays with the Obo Manobo people. However, she continues to make trips there as she believes there is still a lot of work to do. She sees the need to train the pastors and workers not only in the Bible, but also hymns, and to provide guidance as to how to introduce these to the community. There is also a need to ensure the sustainability of the language and the available resources through expanding literacy programmes for children. They have begun to invest in digital libraries for schools. Armed with a computer, a big TV screen and the translated Manobo materials, teachers are empowered to preserve the language among the younger generation. The work is far from completion.
Vera went to the Obo Manobo with the goal of sharing God’s love by helping them to have a Bible in their heart language. However, her work went beyond translating God’s Word, and has served as God’s way to redeem and preserve Obo Manobo culture while building confidence in their identity. Vera’s life has been a journey of being faithful to God’s call and sharing God’s love for the people, using whatever ability that God has given her.