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Colonialism in Bible translations?

6 July 2023

When Europeans began to colonise countries in southern and eastern Asia, it was customary to bring their religion with them. Along with the propagation of their faith, they began to produce Bible translations in the local languages. This happened also in the Indian subcontinent, which includes present-day Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. This blog shows that the Bible translators had good intentions, but that they did not take the local traditions into account. This caused unnecessary alienation.

Waseem Raza

The work of translation

According to the classical work Contributions Towards a History of Biblical Translations in India, produced in 1854 in Calcutta, the Dutch were the first European nation to translate a portion of the Scriptures into a language of the East. First, some psalms were translated in Formosan (1631), a language spoken in Taiwan. Some time later, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments were translated into Urdu, a language spoken in present-day Pakistan and India. This translation was made by the Dutch Joan Josua Ketelaar (1659-1718), who worked for the United East India Company (VOC). Ketelaar also wrote the first grammar of the Urdu language. An ancient manuscript of this grammar is preserved in the library of Utrecht University. It includes Ketelaar’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Native Holy Books

The holy scriptures of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions were native to the Indian subcontinent. Many people could read and understand them, so they were usually read in the original language. There was no sense of alienation between the reader and these scriptures.

Christian scriptures did not enjoy this advantage. Therefore, European colonisers produced many Bible translations in the local vernaculars. This gained momentum during the British rule. Remarkably, however, also some Danish played an important role. Bartholomew Ziegenbalg was commissioned by the Danish protestant mission to translate the Bible into Tamil, a language spoken in Tranquebar, in Southern India. In 1705 he sailed from Copenhagen to Tranquebar, but unfortunately he died at a young age. After his death, Rev. Benjamin Schultze replaced him to continue his Tamil translation. Schultze later accepted support from the English Society for the Propagation of Christian Faith to serve in the British territories. Therefore, his new converts were baptized as Anglicans, although he was a Lutheran himself.

Schultze realised that instead of Tamil it was better to focus on a translation into Urdu/Hindi, which was the lingua franca of the whole Subcontinent. Urdu and Hindi are two variants of the same language, like Dutch and Flemish. This language belongs to the Indo-European family, just like Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, etc. Hindi is written in Devanagari script, which is the typical script of India, while Urdu uses the Perso-Arabic script, which is used in Pakistan.

Schultze paved the way for the Urdu “King James Version”. He translated the New Testament, the Psalms and some parts of Genesis. At the same time, dozens of other languages of the subcontinent got New Testaments, or at least portions of it.

Supremacy of the King James Version

When the British jumped into this business, their authoritative translation was imposed as a model to be followed. This so-called King James Version had successfully replaced the Latin Vulgate in the Protestant churches of the United Kingdom. The principles underlying this translation influenced the new Bible translations of the Indian subcontinent. Examples are the Urdu translation of the New Testament (1804) and the complete Urdu Bible translation by Henry Martyn (1814). William Hunter produced a Devanagari version of the New Testament (1805). All this work was facilitated by the British and Foreign Bible Society, which explains why they follow the model of the King James Version so closely.

Colonial Features

The Christian converts adopted the Urdu translation for liturgical usage. They were a tiny fraction of society. Most of the inhabitants of the subcontinent did not appreciate the newly translated guest scriptures. Instead of acceptance, there was a sense of “distanciation”, to use an expression of Paul Ricoeur. This was due to several features that were unlike the native holy scriptures or the translations of these scriptures produced by native translators.

No source text displayed

On the Indian subcontinent, it was – and it still is – quite unusual to display a translation of a holy scripture without displaying the source text. The source text is always expected to parallel the translation. The supposition is that God speaks in a holy language, not in the commoners’ language.

I illustrate this with an example from a different tradition, which includes the same idea. During the ninth century C.E., the Jewish scholar Saadia Gaon was a pioneer in the translation of Hebrew scriptures into Arabic. Below is a sample page from his work.

Genesis 2 by Saadia Gaon. Courtesy of Project Saadia Gaon.

Saadia’s work includes the Hebrew text in bigger letters and the Judeo-Arabic translation displayed under it in a smaller font. Since his time, in the East it is customary that translations of holy scriptures are printed next to the source text.

Another good example concerns the first translations of the Quran in Southern Asia: the Persian translation of the Quran by Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) and the first Urdu translation produced by his son Abdul Qadir (1750-1818). Both translations were printed beside the Arabic source text. Since in Christian Bible translations the source text is missing, the readers are inclined to think that these translations lack authority. Both Christians and others readers will conclude that the translations are not based on the word of God. This is the most important cause of the alienation of Christian scriptures from the natives.

Unusual outer features

Another feature that contributed to the alienation is the use of black covers for the Christian Bible translations. In the East, black is usually considered a colour of mourning or bad luck. The covers of native holy scriptures are primarily green and display impressive calligraphy.

The native scriptures are usually printed with borders on the top, bottom, and sides of the page. These borders are filled with arches and domes.

Christian translations miss those crucial elements, just like the undecorated King James Version. Furthermore, the pages of the Bible translations usually include two vertical columns, just like the pages of the King James Version. In the East, however, this is not a standard layout for religious books. Readers’ eyes are not accustomed to vertical columns.

Peculiarities within the translations

Within the KJV-like translation of the Bible into Urdu, there are several features that cause an unnecessary distance between the text and the readers. While more adequate and easily understandable translations were available, the Urdu translation includes words like “baptisma” – a transliteration of English baptism – instead of the more common word “istebagh” – and “cherubim” instead of the more usual word “malayk”, which means “angels”. Furthermore, the Ark of the Covenant was already known as “Taboot e Sakina”, but the translators rendered it as “Ehad ka Sandooq”, which literally means “box of the covenant”. The latter expression, which is quite awkward, is a literal rendering of the English translation in the King James Version. Furthermore, “believer” was translated as “imandar”, which means “honest” and does not designate a “believer”. The correct Urdu word for believer is “momin”. “Testimony” was rendered as “gawahi”, while “shahadh” would have been more appropriate. “Glory” was translated as “jalal”, which has quite a different meaning, namely “anger”. Such awkward translations seem to be due to an imperial rejection of existing native terms.

My final example concerns the frequent use of the conjunction (English: “and”) at the beginning of phrases. In Biblical Hebrew and Greek, conjunctions occur at the beginning of most of the sentences. The King James Versions reproduces them in English. So does the KJV-like Urdu translations, which results in a translation that does not represent usual Urdu.


There are no reasons to strongly criticise the European producers of the early Bible translations of the Indian subcontinent. We should appreciate their contribution to the distribution of the good news. I owe them many thanks for my Urdu Bible. However, it is time to produce a different kind of translations and editions that take the cultural and linguistic characteristics of the Indian subcontinent into account.

Waseem completed PThU's one-year master's degree in 2021.

Header photo: Anupam - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0


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