Observations on “Some Observations on William Carey’s Bible Translations”

H.L. Richard has just published a new article on the flaws in William Carey’s Bible translations in the International Bulletin of Mission Research: “Some Observations on William Carey’s Bible Translations,” (241–250). Here’s the abstract:

William Carey’s historic role in Bible translation is widely recognized. That Carey’s actual translations were of an inadequately low quality is not so widely known. This article, while not undermining Carey’s importance as a pioneer, points out five reasons why Carey’s translations were never widely used. Modern understandings of translation inform this paper, and Carey’s historical context explains many of his weaknesses. Not only is this article historical, but it concludes with the modern repercussions of inadequate Bible translations, calling for new translations in all major India languages that focus on people outside the church.

It’s a helpful and thought provoking article, and here are a few reflections.

First, it’s a helpful corrective to my perception of Carey. I had often been amazed and wondered how he translated the Bible into so many languages. It seemed too good to be true, and seemed to set a high and unrealistic bar for missionaries and Bible translators. Missionaries should certainly aspire to “attempt great things for God,” but must also be realistic. We are finite creatures, and if we try “to do too much” (shortcoming #3), we may not succeed in doing it well.

Shortcoming #1 was Carey’s “limited linguistic knowledge.” This is partly a produce of his time and the shortcomings of European studies of linguistics in general, but it is a factor nonetheless. Richard points out some specific aspects of this weakness, including assumptions about the development of Indian languages and their reliance on Sanskrit, assumptions which have since been shown to be false. The result was translations that were “strange and incomprehensible” (244).

Shortcoming #2 on “India’s undeveloped regional languages” mostly raised questions for me. The problem here was that “the vernacular languages in India during his time had not yet been standardized” (244). I wonder what can even be done about that? Perhaps there should be a concurrent effort to publish a variety of indigenous works alongside the Bible in order to “develop” the literary use of the language and move the language toward more stable footing?

The article made me interested to learn more about William Ward — “the best missiologist among the Serampore trio” (245). I know a bit about Carey, next to nothing about Ward.

Shortcoming #4 explores the “failings of the assistants.” Not that they were incompetent language helpers, but intercultural dynamics and the complexities of their relationship resulted in flattery (“this is perfect!”) rather than honest feedback and criticism.

I feel a little bit of tension regarding point #5 “Misplaced focus on words and word order.” As an American evangelical who holds to verbal plenary inspiration, I have a predisposition that the words do matter. But I realize that translation is much more complex and nuanced than a 1/1 code of word for word, or even phrase for phrase. This is an undeveloped area of thought for me. This tension reminds me of that articulated by John Piper (he got it from Andrew Walls) between imposing foreign categories and adopting indigenous categories: “Don’t aim to preach only in categories of thought that can be readily understood by this generation. Aim at creating biblical categories of thought that are not present.” I wonder to what degree this applies to syntax and even words as well as theological categories. There is give and take between languages in the process of translation. Even our English translations contain transliteration. However, it is helpful to be reminded of the ditch on the side of an over-emphasis on words at the cost of meaning.

In his conclusion Richard describes how a new language was created by Carey’s translations, what is called “Christian Bengali” (247). Such a language is fine for those who use it (they even take pride in it), but creates a barrier to evangelizing anyone outside the linguistic bubble. I’ve seen a similar dynamic in English among those who use the KJV exclusively. I personally found the archaic language a significant barrier to evangelism and discipleship which was an important factor in my switch to NKJV a few years ago.

Anyway, tolle lege! This is a great article. Thanks to Dr. Travis Myers for bringing it to my attention.

(Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash)


One thought on “Observations on “Some Observations on William Carey’s Bible Translations””

  1. I just watched a biography of Carey and then searched “how good are Carey’s translations” and Ruchards’ article was the first result. It didn’t surprise me; I studied linguistics and Bible translation at SIL, and work as a translator for a government agency. It is extremely hard for an adult learner of a language to create texts that sound natural in the second language, especially in the first few years of learning it. Obviously Carey had a knack for languages, but it would be impossible for him to produce something more than a very literal and clumsy translation for all those languages (or any of them).

    Modern missionary Bible translators do not do the translating themselves. Rather they train and guide a team of native speakers and then run extensive comprehension checks on it using other native speakers unfamiliar with the text

    My training at SIL and the philosophy in my workplace emphasize meaning-based translation rather than literal. Ideally the translation sounds like it was written in the target language and does not require work to decipher (like the New Living Translation rather than NASB). There is no way Carey could do that in just a few years for any of his languages.

    As you can see, I do not sympathize with the idea of creating new grammar or syntax for a Bible translation. Semantic constructs, perhaps, and modifications to the meanings of key words or expressions might be helpful, but there should be a way to express any meaning in any language.


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