In 1957, Harvey Gabriel heard scripture read out loud in Kanien’kéha for the first time.
When he got home, he asked his mother why Kanien’kehá:ka didn’t have a Bible in their own language. “Oh, that’s a big project,” she replied. “And who’s going to translate it?”
Those words stuck with him, but it wasn’t until 1974, as he was firing up his lawnmower after supper one day, that the idea finally came to him.
“When I retire, I’m going to translate the Bible,” he told himself.
“What was I thinking?” he wonders now. “I had no theology training, and I’m going to translate the Bible? But that word from my mother – who’s going to translate the Bible – that kept me going. When I retired from work, I started.”
He worked on weekends and evenings since his retirement in 2005, and now the book is finally expected to go to print late this summer.
Gabriel is currently doing a final proofreading of his Mohawk Bible – all 66 books of the old and new testaments. This step is expected to take just a couple more weeks.
Gabriel personally translated 58 of the books, he said. Three had been translated by Kahnawa’kehró:non. His own great grandfather translated the four gospels, which were published in 1880.
“It’s 2,100 some odd pages, all in Mohawk. You will not see one other language but Mohawk,” he said. The three clans of the Kanien’kehá:ka will be featured on the cover.
He’s worked with four professors over the years. The process is not as simple as translating the English text and moving on. His translations have had to be reverse engineered back into English to demonstrate that the Bible has been translated faithfully.
Gabriel is fluent in the language; it was the only language allowed in his house growing up. “If you’re not fluent, I tell people don’t touch the Bible because you’re going to miss a lot of good words,” he said.
One professor was watching Gabriel translate text back into English when he leaned back, seeming surprised.
“He said ‘Brother, your translation is side by side with the Hebrew,’” Gabriel said. “Where did that come from? My language.”
Despite the value of Gabriel’s project as a language document, not everyone is pleased with his effort.
“There’s so much criticism going on in this community with the religion, and I have been criticized so much doing this work from this community. Even some of the church elders criticize me,” he said.
He insists the flak has not bothered him, and he said he has been comforted by Kanien’kehá:ka supporters in other communities as well as his steadfast belief in what he is doing. “I believe in the word of God,” he said.
“If people start reading the Bible – I tell them don’t look at the Bible as a Bible. Look at the book as a language learner. But that’s the catch. When they read the book, they’re going to get connected to the Creator. They won’t be able to help it. They’re reading his word,” he said.
Once the Bible is printed, he is planning to make recordings.
Before an initial run of 1,000 copies can come to fruition, however, more money is needed to take the book to print. Gabriel estimates up to $30,000 more is needed, but he is not closely involved in raising it – he has help from the United Church of Canada Foundation, which has expressed adamant support for the effort.
“We’ve got one of the outstanding speakers of Mohawk who’s sort of devoted his life to doing this lengthy translation of all of these different forms of literature that are included in the library,” said Royal Orr, who sits on the foundation’s board of directors. “I think for the future of the Mohawk language, it’s going to be an extraordinary resource.”
He said it was a no-brainer for the foundation to get behind the project.
“They’re just remarkable people,” he said of Gabriel and his wife, Susan Gabriel, who helped with the translations back to English.
“I think it’s something he was destined to do,” said Susan. “From a long time ago, there was always an interest in the Bible, and the other interest of his is his language. And when the two came together, I tried to do whatever I could to encourage him.”
If all goes well with printing, a dedication for the translation will be held in September.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter