Translation of Christian Texts in Nineteenth-Century China

Translation of Christian Texts in Nineteenth-Century China

Robert Morrison’s first translation of the New Testament in 1813 set the stage for Protestant missionaries in China to make Christian documents accessible to the local population by writing them in native dialects (Century of Protestant Missions 13). By the time of Cornelius Gold’s visit in 1861, translations and distribution of Scripture had become one of their most important tasks. That same year, the Canton mission distributed 1.3 million “pages, tracts, and portions of Scripture,” and their missionaries, namely Daniel Vrooman and Mr. and Mrs. Bonney, travelled great lengths to distribute them to the Chinese people (American Board of Foreign Commissioners 120). But to make the texts legible for the Chinese population, missionaries wrote these texts in “idiomatical language,” according to Charles Gutzlaff (Gutzlaff 1840). Many took after Gutzlaff’s groundwork for translation, and soon these Christian works created “a great sensation” throughout the Chinese mainland.

When William J. Boone arrived in Hong Kong in 1847, his first task was “to study the language” (Boone 1847). He and other missionaries “were all formed into a class” and soon began their own translations of Christian works. The immediacy of learning the local language underscores the importance in translating texts. Charles Gutzlaff’s studies were the prime examples for missionaries during the nineteenth century, as he focused on making the translations something that “all classes” could read (Gutzlaff 1840). He was frustrated by the texts that were “unintelligible to the native reader” because they were based off of “the idiom of the English” (Gutzlaff 1840). Instead, Gutzlaff believed missionaries should converse with local people and use “native helpers” to create the most effective translations of Scripture. They had to be able to “think in their tongue” and “collect expressions” frequently used by everyday people (Gutzlaff 1840). Even “Nevins,” whom Gold mentions as a missionary for the United Presbyterian Church, had taken two years to truly master the language (Gold 1861). Only with this diligence and attention to detail could these texts be truly understood and welcomed by the Chinese people.

Morrison was the first to get help from native assistants, employing “Chinese helpers who were potential converts” (Barnett and Fairbank 73). Gutzlaff also used these helpers in all of his translations, editing his drafts and deleting any “foreignisms” that were not authentic to the native language (Barnett and Fairbank 73). In later years, the ABCFM missions regularly employed between two and six local people to assist in translating. The Fuh-Chau mission tested their six helpers “once a quarter, upon select portions of Scripture,” and the Shanghai mission gave examinations for English literary degrees to their Chinese students (American Board of Foreign Commissioners [1864] 126). “The native catechist Nga” not only helped with transcribing the catechism for the Fuh-Chau mission, but he also helped missionaries in their preaching to the local people (American Board of Foreign Commissioners [1863] 120). The vast number of works translated by missionaries could not have been done without these assistants who worked side-by-side to ensure that their texts would be widely read.

To print all of these texts, mission societies tried to furnish their outposts with sufficient resources. The majority of the texts were small portions of Scripture or smaller tracts (pamphlets meant to explain Christian doctrines). To translate the entire Bible was a major endeavor, and was done by only a few leading missionary scholars, including Morrison, Gutzlaff, and Walter H. Medhurst. But even with antiquated lithographic presses, missions produced prolific amounts of texts. The ABCFM Shanghai mission saw itself as the epicenter of book production, believing that, “This is the station where books in this colloquial will naturally be prepared” and distributed throughout the region (American Board of Foreign Commissioners [1864] 130). For the Canton mission that Gold visited, missionaries often went farther than Hong Kong, as “Mr. Forbes” (Gold 1861) did to distribute texts—Mr. and Mrs. Bonney travelled over 250 miles to give away “copies of the New Testament and other books and tracts” (American Board of Foreign Commissioners [1864] 124). Gutzlaff also spent a great deal of his time travelling along the Chinese coast, reaching Manchuria and even making it to “Corea,” where he presented a translated Bible to the “King of Corea,” who refused to accept it (“The Bible in China” 1833). Despite this rejection, Gutzlaff and other Protestant missionaries tried to reach all corners of East Asia in order to spread the faith through texts.

The translation of Christian texts into local Chinese dialects was the cornerstone of Protestant missionary work during the nineteenth century. To understand colloquial languages, they talked regularly with people on the street and relied heavily on native helpers to assist them. Missionaries also spent much of their time distributing these texts, travelling throughout the mainland to find people newly interested in Christian doctrine. Cornelius Gold saw this work firsthand, understanding the role of learning the language and also noticing the importance of “distributing of books” to these missions. As the main focus of Protestant missions, translation and distribution governed the role that missionaries played in China.

- Peter Burdge

Works Cited

American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Reports of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. 1861-1864. Boston: T.R. Marvin & Son, 1864. Web.

Barnett, S. & Fairbank, J. Christianity in China: Early Protestant Missionary Writings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. Print.

“The Bible in China.” The Christian Index (1833): 406. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

“The Bible in China.” German Reformed Messenger (1857): 2. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Boone, W. J. “To the Board of Missions of the Protestant Episcopla Church.” Episcopal Recorder (1847): 25. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Christian Literary Society for China. A Century of Protestant Missions in China (1807-1907). Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1907.

Gold, Cornelius. Complete Journal of a Voyage from New York to Hong Kong, 1861-1863. Web.

Gützlaff, C.H. “Letter to Reverend W. C Buck.” Christian Secretary (1840): 2. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.


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Translation of Christian Texts in Nineteenth-Century China