The Useless Bible Translation

A lot of missionary effort in hindsight turns out to be quite a waste of time, at least as far as we can judge. How many missionaries have trained and did years of language study, only to have their visa rejected or face evacuation? How many institutes that were established with faith and prayer were destroyed or closed before fulfilling their purpose?

What follows is one story about a missionary effort that seemed to just go nowhere, until, after a long wait, it went somewhere. Somewhere very remote.

The Manchus are the third largest ethnic minority group in China. Today, there are about ten million of them. From 1644-1912 they ruled over China. We call this period the Qing dynasty. It ended when China’s last emperor abdicated following the Xinhai revolution.

The homeland of the Manchus is Manchuria, the North Eastern part of China, bordering Siberia and the Korean peninsula. The Manchus have their own language, Manchu, which during the Ching dynasty was the official language of the state, even though the Han majority people spoke Mandarin as a mother tongue.

The language is quite different from Chinese, belonging to a different language group, with its own alphabet. It is written from top to bottom in a beautiful script derived from the Mongolian Uyghur script, and looks a bit like vertical Arabic.

A Jesuit missionary, Louis Antoine de Poirot, who worked at the imperial court, translated the Old Testament into Manchu in the 18th century. This translation, judged to be a very good one, was never published and only a few manuscripts were in existence. It was no more than an addition to the imperial library.

In the 19th century the British and Foreign Bible society wanted to rectify this. It was a shame no Bible was available to the public in Manchu, this important language, which was spoken by millions and used in the courts. A Russian diplomat, Stepan Vaciliyevich Lipovtsov, who had learned Manchu while working in Beijing, was employed by them to translate the New Testament. He translated the gospel of Matthew, and 550 copies were printed. However, all but a few were destroyed in a flood.

After this setback, the Bible Society thought it would be a good idea to send someone to Russia who could supervise the completion of the translation of the New Testament, as well as its printing. They found their man in the person of George Borrow, a young Englishman who was chosen for his linguistic genius. He learnt the Manchu language in a matter of months from studying a French-Manchu dictionary and the translation of Matthew’s gospel, before he set off to Russia.

Only two years later, Lipovtsov and Borrow finished the New Testament and had one thousand copies printed in St. Petersburg in 1835.

Borrow wanted to take them to China and distribute them there. However, Russian authorities did not allow the New Testaments to cross the border, because they feared it would jeopardize their relationship with China. Borrow had to leave Russia with the New Testaments still on the shelf. They remained there for another ten years before a few copies made their way to China. However, most of the New Testaments eventually ended up in the storage facilities of the Bible Society in London.

All the effort put in to translating the Bible in Manchu seemed wasted. Worse, Manchu itself became a dying language. Increasingly, Mandairn was being used as the official language in China. The Manchus themselves also started to use Chinese as they traded and intermarried with the Han majority. A bi-lingual gospel Manchu/Chinese was printed 25 years after Borrow’s New Testament, but by that time almost everyone preferred to read Chinese. When the Qing empire fell, Manchu became obsolete as a state language and declined rapidly even as a minority language in Manchuria. Today, there are only a handful of native speakers, all elderly.

So many years and resources had been wasted on a translation that was never really used, into a language that was all but gone. When such things happen we wonder what went wrong. Were the directions of the Spirit not followed? Was the Bible society ignorant of the decline of the importance of Manchu? Was the strategy to translate and print in Russia wrong?

But this story has a redemptive silver lining.

After the end of the Qing dynasty, thousands of miles from Manchuria, there was a brave pioneer missionary by the name of George Hunter crossing the wild and remote regions of China’s North West, evangelising and distributing literature. He carried gospels in several languages spoken by the Muslim minorities of the region. Once, while crossing the Gobi desert, he came across an isolated community living beside an Oasis. He did not recognise their language. It was Manchu.

These people were descendants of troops of an 18th century Qing emperor, who had given them this land. They had lived there for many generations, keeping their own language. Hunter wrote to the Bible Society in his homeland, who found they had New Testaments in Manchu, which had been on their shelves for 80 years. They were sent over to Hunter and distributed among these Manchu warrior descendants in the Gobi desert.

Missionary work can be baffling. Sometimes efforts are blessed beyond all expectations. Sometimes all our carefully planned work seems wasted. Stories like these remind us of how small we are and how little we can predict and control, but also that God sees a much bigger picture, and can use our work to bring blessing to people we had not even heard of.

1 thought on “The Useless Bible Translation”

  1. It’s intriguing to learn about Brian Beauford’s experience having a conversation about church planting with an AI application called, and the unexpected outcomes that came out of that exchange.

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