Angelo Mathuch: Translating the Bible is my contribution to South Sudan’s transformation

It was in early 1997 in Kakuma Sudanese Refugee Camp in Kenya when I found myself as a translator during a church service for the South Sudanese churchgoers. It was then that I realized how tough the work really was. Listening on TV made it look very easy. I struggled so much trying to help people understand.

Starting the change through the Bible

This verse looked simple in English but a challenge to translate in local language: “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29: 11).

Those who were able to study English looked happy listening from the rag-tag benches. But there were some former soldiers, grandmothers, and young children in the audience waiting for me to tell them what was being read from the Bible. We did not have the Bible in our mother tongue.

One has to be well-connected in the camp to be able to borrow a copy of the New Testament (27 books for the full Bible were non-existent). The more I did translation at the church, the more I was pained that we do not have it in a language my fellow South Sudanese will understand. At the core of my being, I knew I was not translating it so accurately. But many thought I was the best there was. 

Translating the Word to the hungry thousands

With how I did the translation, I felt they were only getting the leftovers of any sermon. It is one thing to read and understand the written Word yourself and another thing to read, internalize, then translate it for others. 

There were times when preachers will read in Arabic or Kiswahili (Kenyan) then to English for me which I then translate to Muonyjaang, one of our local dialects. It dawned on me that the longer the channels of the translation was, the more flawed the message got. 

I began to ask myself how come the Bible has no South translation? I began reading about the Bible translations around the world and figured out that it was made possible by normal people just like me. It was usually courageous individuals who shouldered the cost.

All it needed was some people who have the passion, knowledge, commitment, money, and tools to do the work. But I had none of these resources except my passion. But I also knew that passion alone without knowledge cannot get the job done. 

Starting the journey from scratch

In late 2004, I felt like I got enough knowledge and some Bible tools (a laptop and free software to start my translation project. I tried talking to South Sudanese people I could find in the United States but although most of them were excited about the idea, none was willing to provide support, especially financially. 

The experience my friend Wol and I got years later answered the questions I had in the 1990s about how is it that we always get late in about everything in our country. It was a lack of good governance, which then feed other things like violence, poverty, and the plight of expertise and innovation. 

I thought that it was time to kick the habit and be a blessing for once to others in my life. I decided to start it in the right place – the book of Genesis and then see what happens from there – and maybe finish the whole Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy). I was doing it every day after my classes and also on the weekends.

Well in the book of Genesis, it turned out that the work of translation seemed so interesting. I learned the history of the world, also knowing how God dealt with humanity throughout the first few pages, and realizing how indeed the “Old Testament was the New Testament concealed and how later the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed!”

Painstaking work that needs more than passion

Translating the Book of Genesis took me about three to four months to finish and I went on to Exodus and then came to Leviticus (the most difficult book so far to translate in Dinka) where I fully understood why most people would not bother themselves to translate God’s Word where it’s badly needed. 

And what’s worse? It consumes a lot of time – thousands of hours, energy, thinking, money, and even health with very little relief to show for all the suffering at least in this life. In Kakuma, I used to pull out my favorite King James Version and read on without ever thinking about all the costs and hardship that went into producing it.

I now have great respect for those who ever sacrificed themselves and labored so much to have produced the Bible in their mother tongues throughout the world. It took me about three years to finish only the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

But what I finished was only the first draft with a considerable amount of spelling and grammatical errors needing another 1 year or so to edit and refine the manuscripts before sending it out to be community-tested, blessed, and published. At the end of 2007, I graduated from Andrews University in the US and traveled back to South Sudan to get married.

God brings in partners to lighten the load

I was blessed that I was not alone in this translation project. God is always out there to surprise anybody when you think that you are the only hero around. I found out that another passionate but thoroughly trained theologian from my tribe was doing the same in his own place. He was my friend Wol Bol Wol. We separated in Kakuma in 2000 but both went to the US as refugees.

He also started the same project and is fully equipped as he can read in both Hebrew and Greek and has Masteral Degree in Theology. When he told me about it, I was thrilled and told him that I will join him as soon as I am finished with my Torah but made it in 2005. 

He would translate and I would edit for phonology with emphasis on transliteration, grammar, and clarity – the goal of our version. Although the first manuscript of the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation in Dinka-Rek was completed in 2011 after seven years of sustained labor, we still have a long way to go even by 2021. 

The objective of the Bible we are making was to produce the closest version possible to the original Hebrew and Greek versions ever produced for the South Sudanese language. 

Recently, there is a version with limited availability in South Sudan but is most challenging for the most tribal communities of Warrap, Northern Bhar al Ghazal, and Northern Bhar al Ghazal states to understand. We are yet to finish what we started. 

We are now stuck because of the cares of this world, working to raise our families. Fourteen years after we started, we look like we are moving to finish but not really. 

We badly need another King James kind of personality as our good Samaritan in our generation. The minimum annual cost to finish the remaining work is $72,200 to cover the remaining labor, revision, expert and community review, testing, and then publish it.

Why the need to translate the Bible in Rek Dinka?

Dinka Rek who are mostly found in South Sudan’s three states of Warrap, Northern Bhar el Ghazal and Western Bhar el Ghazal are yet to get the full Bible in their mother tongue as of 2021. We believe that the Bible needs be available in one’s tongue as a witness by availing needed talents and resources endowed by God. 

The goal is to “proclaim Good News to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed (Lk 4:18) in the language people understand.

As Faith and Development Manager in World Vision, there is no higher duty than to support putting the word of God in people’s tongues and help save many souls. For it is the only book that “answer all problems people face and whose author is always present when to read” as once said by Ronald. 

The Word of God is not only useful for preparing people for the next life but also in transforming minds in the here and now. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105. 

As long as the Word of God remains hidden from the majority of the poor Dinka people, there will be stumbling and darkness in their path. I believe that only God’s word can steady their feet and brighten their way.  

Angelo Mathuch's story: My journey to hell and back: From child soldier to refugee to World Vision employee

Angelo Mathuch is currently the Faith and Development Manager of World Vision South Sudan based in Juba.

If you want to support Angelo’s Bible Translation Project for the South Sudanese people, please email him at angelo_mathuch@wvi.org, or call via phone +211924 681137. He is also available to speak about this life-long project.