Russian Orthodox Missions — November 23, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Principles of Orthodox Translation of Gospel.


St. Nikolai endeavored to translate keeping to the original style and meaning, so that “each word reached the mind and soul of the listener and reader”. Due to the specific features of the Japanese language St. Nikolai faced the two problems: to choose the necessary vocabulary and appropriate grammar. Besides that, the 19the century Japan, has just revoked from the self-isolation and feudal disunity. Many peasants talked in their local land – “kuni” – dialect and could hardly understand the neighbors at several hundred miles’ distance. Therefore, St. Nikolai has chosen the “bungo” language – official literature language of educated elite and samurais. Due to excessive use of Chinese vocabulary, the texts were enough complex and substantial, in reading the sounds of ideographs was adapted according to Japanese phonetics.

Bishop Nikolai described the principles of translation: “I believe, it is not the Gospel and service translation that should descend to reach the level of multitudes. On the contrary, faithful should rise to understand Gospel and service texts. Vulgar language is inadmissible in Gospel.  When I find two absolutely identical characters or phrases and both are equally noble for Japanese ear and eye, I will doubtlessly prefer the most prevalent one, but never will yield to illiteracy and do not allow for slightest compromises in translation precision, even if I had to use extremely rare Chinese ideograph. I do feel that sometimes my translation requires much concentration the part of the Japanese”

The first results of the daily 7-hour translation during several years of immensely devoted work are summarized by St. Nikolai in his diaries: “We have employed all the means of clear reasoning and expressing the text; we used three Greek, two Latin, Slavonic, Russian, English, French, German, three Chinese, Japanese texts, commentaries in Russian and English, all the lexicons. Every day, almost every hour we had to dig through all this…At least, our translation is clear and the link between ideas, where possible, is kept”.

St. Nikolai was happy to find a trustworthy and highly educated companion-in-arms for his work – the leading specialist in Chinese and Japanese philology, Orthodox Japanese Pavel Nakai Tsugumaro. Professor and researcher in Chinese studies Pavel Nakai was the dean of the public Osaka University in the pre-Meiji period. Later this school became Osaka State University.

The following note in St. Nikolai’s diaries reflects the recognition of Pavel Nakai in Japan: “…The celebration in honour of his [Nakai’s] family will be held in Osaka. This family is indeed the honour of Osaka, it had a famous Chinese literature and Classicism school there. Osaka’s governor and many celebrities participate in honouring Pavel Nakai’s forefathers.  On his part, among other things he will bring our translations of the New Testament and Divine Service. The time, stolen from our translation, we shall compensate studying from 1 till 5 in the afternoon”.

Below is the brief outline of the new ideographs and terms, invented by St. Nikolai for the translation:

· Character  – (the upper, Chinese reading “shin”, used only in word combinations; lower, Japanese reading “kami”) has the meaning “idol, god, ghost” and previously used to name pagan, and in particular, Shinto gods. St. Nikolai used the same character, but added a circle to it  ?O and assigned it reading “shin”, so that the character became the translation of the term “Spirit”.

This is St. Nikolai’s explanation of his choice: “In the morning [we were involved in] the usual work of correcting the New Testament translation. We came to the word “Spirit”, the hardest one in the whole Gospel. One hardly knows what to do; whether to use old, completely out-of-use scripture “shin”, which can not be found in any lexicons…but this would imply to settle a mummy among the alive; to create a new ideograph…but if the word is not adopted, this would mean settling an artificial doll among the alive. The best thing seemed to use this “shin”, but with a circle, which would reflect that “spirit” (shin) and not God (kami) is assumed”.

· Character “kotoba” – “word”, which was attributed Orthodox meaning. In the Gospel of John “kotoba” means God’s word.

· The verb “awaremu” – “co-suffer, have mercy, love, cherish” – equivalent to Russian verb “have mercy” (milovat’).

Following the steps of St. Cyril and Methodius, the enlighteners of the Slavs, St. Nikolai filled a number of existing characters with the new meaning. The reading of the above mentioned character “kami” – “Shinto god, idol” became the meaning of Christians’ God. This change the usage of word was identical to the evolution of the Slavonic word “bog” 900 years before St. Nikolai’s work.

Certain Bible realities were translated descriptively according to Greek original. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness” (King’s James version) [in Slavonic – “the voice of one crying in the desert” is translated as “the voice of one crying in the field”; “our daily bread” is translated as “our daily food” (with the key element of the ideograph “food” meaning rice); “scribe” [in Slavonic – “educated person, scientist”  is translated as either “the one, who knows the law” or the “teacher”; “pagan” as “without the knowledge of law”. All measures of length and weight are translated into Japanese. The Japanese word “ten” – “stroke, line” – connected to traditional calligraphy is used instead of Greek “iota”.

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