The Protestant Missions — September 13, 2010 at 10:03 pm

The translation of the Bible in Japanese and “There is a Happy Land," and "Jesus Loves Me."


Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff (8 July 1803 – 9 August 1851), anglicised as Charles Gutzlaff, was a German missionary to the Far East, notable as one of the first Protestant missionaries in Bangkok, Thailand and for his books about China. He was one of the first Protestant missionaries in China to dress like a Chinese. He gave himself a Chinese name, 郭士立 (pinyin: Guō Shìlì), but later on 郭實腊 (Simplified Chinese: 郭实腊, pinyin: Guō Shílà) became his official Chinese name. Gutzlaff Street in Hong Kong was named after him.

In the first period of missionary effort a beginning had been made towards providing a Kiristian literature. Reference has already been made to some of the works that were published. It will be convenient here to give a more detailed account; and since the translation of the Bible is one of the first things to take the attention of Protestant missionaries, we will consider what had been accomplished in this direction up to the close of the year 1872.

The materials for this account of the translations of the Bible are chiefly drawn from an address made by Dr. Hepburn in 1880 at a meeting held to celebrate the completion of the Japanese version of the New Testament.

So far as known, the first work of this kind was that of Dr. Gutzlaff, who, with the help of the shipwrecked Japanese that found shelter in his house at Macao, made a translation of the Gospel of John. By the aid of the American Bible Society this was printed about 1838, on the press of the American Board at Singapore. When the circumstances of its production are considered, it is not strange that it was very imperfect and abounded with errors.

Dr. S. Wells Williams also attempted by the help of shipwrecked sailors to make translations. The results appear not to have been published.

Dr. Bettelheim, while in Loochoo, prepared a translation of the New Testament in the dialect he found in those islands. The Gospel of Luke was printed at Hongkong. Afterwards Dr. Bettelheim, while in Chicago, obtained the assistance of a Japanese for bringing his translation more into conformity with the language used in Japan proper. This revision of the Four Gospels and Acts was printed at Vienna in 1872, and many copies were sent to Japan.

The Protestant missionaries in Nagasaki made early attempts at translation.

Dr. Hepburn states that when he undertook this kind of work in 1861, the prejudices against Christianity, and the fear of the Government were so great that his teacher, after proceeding a little way in the Gospel of Matthew, positively declined to remain in his service. In 1866, the Christian Intelligencer of America, said, concerning the work of missionaries of the Reformed Board: “The Gospels are translated. The money is ready to print an edition. . . . Shall we print the Gospel?

Walter Henry Medhurst (Chinese: 麥都思, 29 April 1796 – 24 January 1857), was an English Congregationalist missionary to China, born in London and educated at St Paul's School, was one of the early translators of the Bible into Chinese language editions.

The missionaries hesitate, fearing bloodshed. For, by the laws of Japan, whoever may be converted by reading the Word of God may be put to death with all his family.” Reference is probably made here to the translations prepared by Dr. S. R. Brown; and the question of their publication was settled in 1867, when his manuscripts were all destroyed by fire.

Finally, in 1871, Mr. Goble had an edition of the Gospel of Matthew printed from wooden blocks. He said of this: “I tried in Yokohama to get the blocks cut for printing, but all seemed afraid to undertake it, and I was only able to get it done in Tokyo by a man who, I think, did not know the nature of the book he was working upon.” The next year, Drs. Hepburn and Brown published Mark and John. Their translation of Matthew was issued in 1873.

The first tract was published by Dr. Hepburn in 1864. Shortly before it appeared, he wrote :

” I am now publishing a Christian tract The block-cutter is at work on it and will probably finish it in a month. It is one of Dr. McCartee’s [of China] tracts, which my teacher with my supervision has translated into what appears to me to be very good Japanese. It is the tract “The True Doctrine Made Plain or Easy.”. . I have to be very secret in getting the blocks cut. No doubt, if the officers of the Government knew it, they would soon put a stop to it. Most providentially, as it seems, the man who is cutting the blocks is employed by one of our merchants and lives in his compound; and that merchant, strange to say, is a Jew, but a most liberal one ; indeed, I think he is much more of a Christian than a Jew.”

Samuel Wells Williams, President of the American Bible Society, 1881-1884

Another early tract prepared by Dr. Hepburn consisted of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed.

One difficulty attending the preparation of tracts for the common people is described by Rev. J. D. Davis, D.D., and may be inserted here, although what it narrates occurred in the first year of the next period of our history.

Dr. Davis says:

“In the summer of 1873, the writer sat under the maples by the waterfall in Arima, the only missionary in the place, and wrote in Romaji [Roman letters] in his broken Japanese the first draft of a little tract. Two months later, when his teacher had copied this into Japanese, he asked him to revise it, and it came back in such high Chinese that none of the Common people could read it. He then asked a scholar of the pure Japanese language to put it into such language that the masses could read it, and after another month it came back about fifty decrees higher yet The writer then took his original draft and sat down with his teacher and fought it over word by word and sentence by sentence, demanding that the words which could be understood by the greatest number of the common people should be used; and after two months more it was ready for the block-cutter; but his teacher begged of the writer not to let anyone know who helped in the preparation of it, as he would be ashamed to have it known that he prepared so colloquial a book.”

Bernard Jean Bettelheim Medical Missionary on Okinawa April 1846 to July 1854

In other ways the printed page was the medium for teaching Christian truth. Students of English found in their reading-books frequent references to religious doctrines. English books on ethics were for a while diligently studied in the government schools. One who was a teacher in these schools has written of this time:

“Every class of students able to read a foreign language, from the highest to the lowest, was supplied with text-books on morals, and the use of them continued during several months. Suddenly an order from the Dai Jo Kwan (the Emperor’s Privy Council) to discontinue the study arrived in the various schools; this study was banished from the curriculum, and the manuals of Wayland, Haven, and Malebranche were exiled to the dust and oblivion of the top shelf. Text-books on morals made by Christian writers were supposed to be too strongly flavoured with Christian theology, and the name so long publicly outlawed and hated in this Empire occurred too often on their pages to render it safe to allow such books in the hands of Japanese youth.

A noted native educator . . . had translated ‘ Wayland’s Moral Science’ . . This translation, however, is but a fragment It omits all the positively Christian theology of the book, much of the theory and reasoning, and gives scarcely more than the results arrived at by the author and a portion of the moral code which is expressed in the book. Those high officers who read only the translation and were pleased with it, sanctioned the use of the various moral text-books of foreign countries, not knowing their full contents. On discovering their true nature, however, the order to discontinue the study of these books was sudden and peremptory. … A few weeks later came an order prohibiting all students in the government schools from attending or visiting a Christian church.”

The first attempts at Christian hymnology were probably the translations of “There is a Happy Land,” and “Jesus Loves Me.” The first version of the former was made by Mr. Goble. The imperfect knowledge of the language led to the production of verses that have since been a source of merriment. The first stanza commenced,

“Yoi kuni arimas

Taiso empo.

Shinja wa sakaete

Hikari zo.”

Apparently several persons attempted the translation of “Jesus Loves Me.” These two hymns, so far as is known, were the only ones produced before 1873.

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