Dear Friends,

     Here is a preview of a chapter taken from my almost-finished work on the evangelization of India from Ziegenbalg to Carey. In this work I depart from the Anglo-American custom of using merely writings in the English language for research work and have used sources from some eight European languages and many Indian essays, books and dissertations which were written in English though a number of Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Farsi terms are used. Some of these were already familiar to me and the rest I found in intensive studies of Indian grammars and dictionaries. I can never write without having at least five language dictionaries and several grammars on my desk to be used diligently. The older I get, the more I forget.

     I believe that looking into original and secondary writings in the languages of the early missionaries to India has given me an advantage over most English-speaking writers who have greatly neglected original missionary and native works dating from at least two-hundred years before Carey who entered the Indian missionary scene much later than many other missionaries both foreign and British. All the ‘firsts’ gained allegedly by Carey, except perhaps the sea-man’s mission he founded with others, were put in practice well over a hundred years before Carey entered the Danish settlement of Serampore by Continental and British missionaries of other denominations.

     I am especially critical of the way Carey and his large team of co-workers (some say over 100) went about translating the Scriptures, though scarcely able to understand one another. This has burdened translation work in India, Pakistan, Iran and in a number of other countries ever since. Indeed Indians such as journalist-author Khushwant Singh now actually declares his own country to be a ‘Babel’ because of its language confusion. This is to a great deal because of the linguistic mess left to them by former Western missionaries. Then, in Colonial times, the Indians were not allowed to complain, with one or two exceptions, such as Rammohun Roy who influenced Baptist missionaries in taking over Hindu thought into their translation work.

Chapter Seventeen   

The Dangers of using Non-Christian Cultural and Religious Terms in Bible Translations

Translations should not involve cultural exchange

     It soon became clear in Carey’s day that translation work was becoming more an involvement and interactivity with the religion and culture of the target people besides the denominational preferences of the English editors and translators. This brought with it such grave theological and ecclesiological problems that an evangelist could no longer preach ‘Thus saith the Lord’ as various names for ‘the Lord’ in their translations were either based on a polytheistic background or a Unitarian denial of the Person of Christ as testified in the Scriptures. So, too, words to describe the Lord’s Supper and baptism were taken from ancient Indian and Persian myths and legends, noble in themselves but lacking in Biblical meaning. The idea of a strict scholarly and academic attention to the original languages of the Bible played an inferior role. This was not only true of Baptist translators but also of those who perhaps too quickly brought out translations such as Henry Martyn who relied on the ancient EsfandiarHomer-like stories for his language. These epics were apparently written to commemorate the Zoroastrian Wars and the ideals of the Avesta. Yet most translators were sure to affix a statement on their title pages that they had been true to the Hebrew and Greek. 

     Indian languages even before the gospel was heard then as even more today were most touchy on religious and social issues depending on the former religion and caste of the translators and readers. I realised this only recently when employing a group of young unemployed Punjabis to clean up my garden on standard wages and insurance. I greeted them with ‘Saatsiri akaal’. The men did not reply and looked annoyed. On apologizing for my badly pronounced greeting, they told me rather haughtily that they would not respond to the language of unbelievers as they were Muslims. They expected and then obtained from me the greeting ‘As-Salam-u-Alaikum’. Punjabi, like most other Indian languages has now a Hindu form and a Muslim form. 

     One of the greater weaknesses of the translations Carey’s large team of European and Indian translators made is that they had no ‘common language’ into which they could translate, nor had they a common language from which to translate. Nor did the majority have a common faith but one strongly leaning on Indian religions and their many variants. So, too, Carey had no special ‘target group’ in mind when employing multi-cultural translators who were not familiar with the Scriptures in any language. He certainly did not translate for what is falsely called ‘the common man’.

The problem illustrated in modern Bangladesh

     The difficulties of adapting old Bengali translations such as Carey’s into the Bengali of today is illustrated by the modern dialects spoken in Bangladesh. On looking into a modern Bangladesh Mission’s web site entitled Bible Translation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, I found the following statement:

     ‘The William Carey Bengali Bible, translated in the early 1800’s, was the first Bengali Bible to be used in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Unfortunately the language of this Bible is archaic and highly stylized, which makes it incomprehensible to the ordinary Bengali reader.  Early Bible teachers discovered the problem; and an adaption of the Carey Bible into what is called the Bengali Common Language (BCL) version was started in 1966 by Lynn Silvernale. The New Testament of this version was finished in 1976 and the Old Testament in 1995. During this same period, a Muslim Bengali Common Language version (MBCL) was written for the Muslim population in Bangladesh by a group of translators led by Dr. Viggo Olsen. These two Bibles (which use theological terms familiar to Hindus and Muslims respectively) have had a dramatic effect on the dissemination of God’s word among Bengali speakers. They are hugely popular even among non-Christians. It is sadly true to say that these ‘mixed and muddled’ translations were the work of modern missionaries and not native citizens.

     The BCL Bible translations have impacted the tribes living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts; but Bengali has never been a unifying language for Christians because of their different cultural and religious differences. For years, the tribal Bible teachers have used the dubious Bengali Common Language Bible in their teaching but the scriptures were always translated by the teachers into the language, dialect and cultural background of their audiences. The BTBM association has members from 8 different tribes. These tribes are the Tripuri, Chakma, Marma, Rakhine, MroKhumiChak and Khyang. Translators in Bangladesh have worked towards providing the New Testament for the principal tribal groups within the BTBM association.

Even a ‘Common-Language Bible’ does not work

     The idea of a ‘Common Language Bible’ has obviously misfired here as it appears to be a Bible from which all that might offend either Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims has been erased, leaving Christians who have separated themselves from other religions the task of Hinduising or Islamising the contents of such as Carey’s Bible, or any Bible as the case may be. Viggo Olsen, the Baptist medical missionary to Bangladesh mentioned above, rightly pointed out the folly of using Carey’s translation because of the use of the Hindu god ‘Ishwar’ (IswarIswa) for God. 

     If we look into Hinduism, we find that Ishwar is a god amongst thousands of gods and is also used to describe such a god as Rama who was an allegedly human elevated for his services to a senior god. Christ is often compared with Rama in Indian religious debates. Here we see how easily Arianism can infiltrate Christianity through faulty and misguided translations. We must also mention the name of Avatar used for Christ in Bengali. Like Ishwar, this term is used in Hinduism as an epithet for various gods. Thus in the Western world we are presented with the blue-coloured fairy-like people in James Cameron’s film of that name but also the far more dangerous flood of Avatar-Christ occult ‘theologies’ and the idea that Christ, Krishna, Buddha and Chaitanya are all incarnations of ‘god’ which merely means they are humans entrusted with a divine task. Thus Cameron’s Avatars, as also the Christ depicted in Arian and Hindu oriented translations, are hybrid humanoids but not truly God and truly Man

     Olsen rightly objected to this misuse of Bengali terms arguing that they might suit Buddhist, Hindu and Pantheistic interpretations but not Muslims. So he composed what he called ‘Muslim-friendly’ Bengali and English translations for Bangladesh readers which we might call a further Babel Edition leading to confusion. The samples I have seen in this ‘translation’ are quite horrific as Olsen has merely erased Carey’s Buddhist and Hindu terms and replaced them by Arabic terms such as ‘Allah’ for God which have no common appeal. Of course, ‘Allah’ is just as heavily loaded with non-Christian ideas as ‘Ishwar’ and robs God of His Triune Being, thus ranking Christ and the Holy Spirit as Hindu deities or Muslim ‘prophets’. In spite of its obvious failings, Olsen’s ‘Muslim-friendly’ Bible, published in 1980 became Bangladesh’ best- selling book. The question here is what Bible text did Olsen use on which to base his ‘translation’? On a web site discussing Olsen’s methods, I found an article written online by Jay Pratt dated 2008 that states:

     ‘I thought that we had planned for a successful CPM by translating the eminent Train and Multiply leadership training course and activity guide written by George Patterson. However the Buddhist background leaders turn up their noses at the existing Bible translation that these excellent materials were based on. Many of the exercises in those materials that we translated read, for example, ‘Find in Acts 10, whom Peter brought with him to start the first Roman church.’ Well, they could not find anything, because they did not have Bibles, and my apprentices would not distribute the Bible in the majority language.

     Currently these new church leaders from a minority people group have formed their own translation committee and are translating from the United Bible Society’s, Contemporary English Version into the majority language. They have completed the Synoptic Gospels and Acts as of first importance for them. New believers and seekers prefer Matthew’s gospel, after asking for evaluations from their Buddhist family and highly educated monk friends. In contrast, most international Bible consultant organizations have agreements with the National Bible Society that they will not work on newer translations of the existing Bible.’

     What is actually happening is that Bibles are being translated from old translations and not from the original languages. This is seen also in the many ‘Children’s Bibles used in the Western world. They are translations of translations and often depart widely from the original Bible. We have also ‘Reformed’ Bibles, ‘School Bibles’, Roman Catholic Bibles, Baptist Bibles, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bibles, feministic Bibles and Politically Correct Bibles. Tragically Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin as also early Early-English Bibles and those translated in Reformation times are disappearing from our churches, homes, schools, libraries and universities. Happily my own University Marburg where I did my doctorate in Theology demand a knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew of their post-grad students, a number of whom become involved in Bible work.

     If Olsen used such an English rendering as the United Bible Society’s translation and the many different tribal translated versions which use terms from their former religious languages, we are in for a return to pre-Babel times. Few Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist religious terms are of use Biblically, theologically and linguistically in Bible translations. This confusion is enhanced by dialects of Bengali being written in different scripts, some written from left to right and others written from right to left. Southern Hindi, a Sanskrit derived sister language is written from left to right but its northern Urdu form is written from right to left. 

     Indeed Indians such as journalist-author Khushwant Singh now actually declares his own country to be a ‘Babel’ because of its language confusion. Even if we remain within the context of one language allegedly rooted in Sanskrit such as Hindi and compare Bombay (Mumbai) Hindi with Lucknow Hindi we must ask whether it is the same language or not. We must also consider the fact that because of a presence of over 200 years in India, modern English has more ‘pure’ Hindi words in it (about 2,000) than many northern Hindi-speakers use as they have mixed their language with Persian and Arabic.

     Obviously using Ishwar or Krishna is inappropriate for a Bengali translation as Olsen rightly realised. Terms like ‘Ishwar’ and ‘Allah’, was used of either a plurality of gods or one god amongst many. This is why we give the Christian God a capital letter to distinguish Him from many gods. However, the God of the Bible is not to be confused with ‘Ishwar’ and ‘Allah’. Especially the latter term is highly misleading as a name for our triune God. The generally accepted meaning and usage of ‘Allah’ shuts out the divine character of Jesus and the Holy Spirit who are essentialities of the Godhead. The Muslim ‘Allah’ has no such Trinitarian properties. This means that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are separated from the Godhead, leaving a pseudo-Christian god who is much less than God the Heavenly Father of Christians. Olsen is merely treading in the footsteps of the translators he seeks to correct who fell into Unitarianism. So, in avoiding a Hindu god, Olsen has given us a Muslim Unitarian god but Christians know only the Christian triune God. Even, however, in his English rendering of the Bible, Olsen refers to Jesus as ‘Isa al-Massih’ and John the Baptist is rendered ‘the Prophet Yaha’. This may suit an Arabic Bible but hardly a Bengali Bible and certainly not an English Bible. Anyway, the office of ‘Al Massih’ (or Masih) in Arabic and Muslim thinking is quite different from what the Bible means by ‘Messiah’.

     So, too, Hindi was a far more widespread Indian language than Bengali and had a long literary background so why start with a new form of a language such as Bengali which had even in Carey’s days no real past? Chamberlain saw this and worked on a Hindi Bible but such Bibles had been around for very many years and only needed to be revised though they were still usable.

     Carey’s methods of translating or rather having Scriptural passages translated by a team mostly composed of non-Christians with no skills in the Biblical languages was most questionable. A number were not even Bengali speakers or familiar with associate languages. The translation work was thus done most unprofessionally. He appears to have used the Authorised Version and his own Sanskrit Bible, which took him years to translate though not really needed, as a basis for his dictations to his mostly Hindu translators. This would account for his Bengali Bible’s overload of Anglicisms, ancient vocabulary and the use of Hindu vocabulary and strange syntax. The Bengali of Carey’s day, if it were really based on Sanskrit, which was only Carey’s theory, was nevertheless strongly anchored in different, often opposing, Sanskrit forms which may or may not have provided the different Bengali dialects and caste vocabularies which were available in Carey’s day and still are. One can truly say that Bengali was not yet a unified, stable standard language and had no standard written form but Carey sought to create such a language using newly designed scripts. One wonder, too, why Carey went to such time-consuming labour in translating the Bible into the dead language of Sanskrit which he nevertheless modernised’ on his own bat but which few would find useful as anything other than a linguistic exercise or merely a time-consuming hobby as if a modern Englishman would attempt to translate the Bible into ancient Anglo-Saxon. Besides, Carey used the metalanguage of Latin Grammars into which he squeezed Bengali which is hardly helpful. Indeed, Bengali literature seems to have received an artificial boost and newness of life through the use of Carey’s linguistic creations. One wonders why Carey did not use a Hindi Bible from scratch as this was readily available and Hindi was spoken all over the North but also in southern regions. So, too, both the Bengali and Hindi of the missionaries were brought very close together so that they hardly represented two different languages. Nevertheless, Carey and his team seemed unaware that the same word used in the two languages had different meanings. This is paralleled in Swedish and Norwegian ‘Bokmål’, especially in adjectives and adverbs but the differences can be instantly mastered.

     As a security in using words which were not religiously loaded by non-Christian translators, Carey is said to have compared the Old Testament material with Biblical Hebrew. Carey also worked industriously on the Bengali New Testament and we can infer from what he said of his Old Testament work that he compared this with the Greek. He most certainly did not translate directly from the original languages as so often presumed. Yet Carey did not understand some of the languages used so how could he check their accuracy? Reports on how Carey translated are most varied and often quite contradictory, varying according to the educational status of his commentators and their background languages. This would have meant, too, that Carey was as fluent in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, Bengali, Chinese etc. as he was in English, though the language he allegedly used were weighted down with religious and philosophical elements quite foreign to Christianity. So too, there were many critics, including Fuller, of Carey’s brand of English. 

     Translating ancient forms of a languages, whether Indian or Chinese and culling linguistic constructions and figures of speech from them to be put into Christian usage does not seem to be a fitting way of preparing a modern translation of the Bible. If one wishes to translate the Bible into into Modern Greek, it would hardly help to re-translate Homer. Luther and Ziegenbalg perfected their target languages by talking to people in the market place. It appears that Carey, in wishing to arrive at a quick translation to be used to convert the Indians, made too many compromises with Indian religious terminology and relied too much on pundits who either spoke different Bengali dialects or, like Carey, had just learnt or were learning Bengali. What Carey was aiming at was a new Bengali lingua franca. However, Carey’s Bengali Bible was variously rejected as either totally useless, good in parts or as a revelation of Christianity which was acceptable to the reader for want of anything better. The fact that Carey’s Bengali was taught in the Mission’s schools and colleges for almost thirty years, provided Bengal with a new dialect of Carey-Bengali. Otherwise known as ‘Missionary Bengali`.

What was Carey’s real contribution to the Bengali Bible?

     Baptist accounts of Carey’s translation work are most puzzling and there are no clear Baptist records of how Carey and his large team translated the entire Bible into Bengali from the original languages which was claimed on the title page of the first printed edition which is said to have been published in 1793, 1801, 1806, 1809 and 1811 according to the various accounts. The disastrous fire of 1812 destroyed much of Carey’s work. The state of the press at this time and what exactly the damage was is also recorded differently in various works. Some say that it was devastating others, however, claim that the loss was not great. 

     Carey had gained some rudiments of New Testament Greek and Hebrew before embarking on his journey to India with John Thomas, a doctor by profession. It is also known that during this journey, he learnt some Bengali from Thomas who went through Genesis with him. How much Bengali Thomas had picked up, we do not know. This, of course, could not suffice as a basis for translating the Bible immediately on reaching India, setting up a business and preaching mainly in English in a church for Europeans. Besides the Bengali grammars Carey used were written by British diplomats who had picked up more Farsi than any other language. They were used to enable British employees to obtain a quick grasp of basic Bengali. 

     Many other earlier and contemporary foreign missionaries to India were academically trained in Hebrew and Greek both as translators and expositors. This had been the Scandinavian and German practice for centuries. Even today in oral Hebrew finals in Continental universities, Hebrew or Greek texts which are seemingly picked at random must be read aloud, translated without dictionary help and then expounded. Neither Thomas nor Carey had such a most necessary background. We are repeatedly told, however, that Carey had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Dutch and Italian before sailing for Calcutta and after a few lessons from Thomas on board was able to translate the Bible into Bengali immediately on reaching India in 1793. This story must surely belong to merry myth-making. Another story concerning the origin of Carey’s Bengali Bible is perhaps more believable. Carey was conducting a meeting one Sunday morning in Calcutta but was interrupted by someone demanding that the Bible be translated into Bengali. Carey is supposed to have been so struck by the idea that he immediately asked a friend to continue the service, went home and started on a Bengali translation. When this translation ended, the story does not say. What language Carey and his friend were speaking, we do not know.

A reassessment of Carey’s work as in recent Ziegenbalg studies is urgently needed

     The Swedes, Dutch, Germans and Danes continued to send out missionaries to India throughout the 18th century, supported also by Church of England institutions such as the SPCK who encouraged Ziegenbalg and his successors to publish in England through them. The Swede Kiernander had been appointed to his task by Clive of India and Governor Hastings who were missionary-minded men. Kiernander founded a church and free schools in Calcutta and built a printing press there so neither tasks were pioneered by Carey as so often claimed. Indeed, when Carey reached India his future friend David Brown, an evangelical clergyman, was pastoring Kiernander’s Old Mission Church and at least two printing presses were at work in the city before Carey set up his press from cast-off parts from the other presses.

     Kiernander also evangelized the Bengalis long before Carey and the oft repeated statement that Carey found no Christian in Calcutta contradicts the historical evidence which shows that there were many Christians of many Western and Eastern denominations working in Calcutta at the time and Carey was warmly received by most.  Testimonies to the sturdy Christian faith of such people often occurred in local newspapers. During Carey’s early sojourn in Calcutta, it was still common for Kiernander’s converts to give their children the middle name of Kiernander after the Swede. The thriving church, schools, hospitals, almshouses and the local Christian cemetery Kiernander founded were all still living institutions and there for Carey to visit. Indeed, Baptist missionaries such as Fountain were married in Kiernander’s Mission Church then pastored by Brown and Buchanan. They wished for an ‘Anglican’ service. The Kiernander family blog on the internet tells us that ‘Not a year went by without a reference being made in print’ in the English press to Kiernander so his work was internationally revered. 

     Carey’s alleged flight from Calcutta for Serampore as commented on by most modern British Baptist writers is also something of a myth. Carey used Serampore merely as a weekend or part-time residence for all the years he worked at the Fort William College founded in Calcutta by Lord Wesseley in 1800 for the training of civil and military officials connected with the East India Company. Carey worked at first five days a week in Calcutta in the Civil Service College and then was rowed up the river to Serampore on Friday evenings and brought back to Calcutta Monday mornings for year after year. This altered as Carey who was Head of the Sanskrit Department was given the freedom to let others take over his lectures. He then spent a mere three days a week in Calcutta which left him plenty of time to do his own secular translating work for publication and sales.  According to the Christian Herald and Seaman’s Magazine, Band 8, for the year 1821, Carey kept up two spacious houses, one in Serampore and one in Calcutta with ‘every comfort one could wish for’. He kept ‘a large number of Hindu servants’ and earned 6,000 dollars a year besides support from within India and overseas. Here this former cobbler lived in stark contrast to his academic forerunners who dwelt amongst the casteless with no display of ‘upperclassness’ at all. Yet Carey only paid his co-working Indian evangelists, pastors and pundits 6 dollars a month though they were paid hundreds a month themselves. There was no social and financial equality between the British and their Indian co-workers.

     Nevertheless, though Carey never seemed to have much authority in India outside of Calcutta during his missionary life time, his importance together with his team of workers, on the whole, is seen with hindsight as massively influential and important to the history of India. Here we think of laws Carey and his Serampore and Calcutta friends and fellow-workers helped establish prohibiting widow burning, infanticide, and human trafficking and that fact that he reintroduced many ancient cultural works which had not been available to educated Indians for centuries. These were not go-it-alone actions but Carey worked hand in hand with Hindu reformers.

     In the face of such evidence given above it appears strange to this author that the massive number of new works on Indian missions world-wide has still not moved Baptist writers in England to revise their ‘histories’ of Carey the individual and the part the Baptist Missionary Society played in his life radically. Many stories about Carey the missionary are pure myths or what one calls today ‘fake news’. The picture they present does no justice to Carey as a man deeply involved in national politics and one who eventually got on well with the East India Company, the British Government and the Calcutta Bible Society, nor does it do justice to early Indian foreign missions, nor especially to the Indians themselves. Indeed the present ‘Baptist Picture’ certainly does not honour the thousands of Christian Indians who served Christ throughout the century before Carey and parallel to Carey and after him.