How Bible Translation Protects Indigenous Languages

William Carey's translation of the New Testament into Bengali

We’ve already seen how the first major contribution William Carey made to India was to teach that reform was not only necessary but possible.

Indian intellectual, Vishal Mangalwadi argues that the process of Indian Modernisation began with Carey’s rejection of Karma in favour of the Christian concept of a personal God who is the Creator:

‘The idea of Karma is that an impersonal law rules our destiny and automatically gives us the consequences of our actions.

‘According to the Bible, sin is breaking the laws of a Person – our loving heavenly Father. Therefore it is possible to find forgiveness and to be delivered from sin and its consequences.’ (Mangalwadi, William Carey and the Regeneration of India, Good Books, Mussouri, 1997)

Access to knowledge for all
Following the example of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th Century, Carey knew that in order to achieve spiritual and social liberation, the Bible must be translated into the languages in common use (vernacular).

Mangalwadi argues that this was the first step towards modernisation – the availability of knowledge in the language of the people.

Carey's Bengali Grammar, 1801

This meant the possibility of education for the masses as well as their protection from exploitation through ignorance. To Carey it was obvious that the most important text to translate was the Bible.

Mangalwadi writes: ‘A key factor in modernisation which Carey tried to popularise is that the spoken language of the people should also be the language of learning, the language of industry, of marketing, and of governing.

‘A feature of a medieval society is its use of an elitist language as a means of discriminating, and also as a method of granting to an aristocracy unearned privileges.

The preservation of indigenous languages – what Carey’s work enabled
‘It became possible for India to make the transition from Persian as the court language, to Urdu, and then to the regional languages (at least in the lower courts) because of Carey’s labour and leadership in turning the vernaculars into literary languages through Bible translation.’ (ibid p.79-80)

The promotion of indigenous languages

Carey became utterly consumed with the need to record, write and understand the local languages – in order that he might deliver the Bible to the people.

He translated and published the Bible into nearly 40 different languages. He started more than 100 schools and began the first college in Asia to teach in an Asian language (Bengali).

Hear the voice of a modern Indian scholar: ‘Their passion for reforming India by making the Bible available in the vernaculars motivated the missionaries to develop grammar for many Indian dialects, and eventually, to develop Hindi as a literary language for the majority of the citizens of India.’ (ibid p.80)

We know that mistakes were made, but the next time you hear the legacy of self-sacrificing, good-hearted missionaries slandered in the lecture hall, or classroom, in conversation or on TV, remember the work of William Carey and Vishal Mangalwadi’s assessment of his contribution to India.

For the first part of the William Carey story click here

© 2011 Church History Blog / Lex Loizides

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