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By Robert Hunt
JMBRAS Vol 52 Part 1 June 1989, pp.35-56
The History of the Translation of the Bible into Malay
For the benefit of those interested in the history of the translation of the Bible into Malay, MBRAS is providing a chronology of that process. Developments in the translation of the Bible into Malay revolve around three considerations including establishing the standards of the Malay language, including rules of grammar, vocabulary and spelling; discovering appropriate ways of using Malay to communicate Biblical ideas within the Malay culture; and catering for the target groups of the translation work and means of dissemination.
According to the article, five major forces shaped the developments led to modern Bahasa Malaysia Bible:
- i. The large number of related dialects of Malay, their geographical distribution as related to the political boundaries in the colonial era, and the difference between spoken and written Malay.
- ii. The linguistic ability of the translators with regards to both Malay and the original languages of the Bible.
- iii. Their understanding of the cultural milieu in which they worked and understanding which cultural milieu they were translating for
- iv. The relationships between the various institutions involved, including governments
- v. Changes in the political, social and cultural environment
One of the most pressing practical issues concerns the use of loan-words from Arabic and Persian which entered Malay (and thence Bahasa Malaysia) through the Islamization of the Malay people. Those active in this long-drawn out effort starting in the early 17th century and right up to the 20th were aware of the delicate nature of their work. The Reverend Shellabear, involved in translation work in the 1910s, suggested that Tuhan was to be used in the place of Allah for El and Elohim when followed by a possessive pronoun, for example, Tuhan and ku instead of Allah-ku.
Shellabear’s reservations highlighted first, the need for a version which, both in idiom and vocabulary, was accessible to the common Malay reader. Secondly, it also emphasised the need for a vocabulary which would appeal to, and not offend, Muslim sensibilities. He had very good local assistants in Chew Chin Yong and Munshi Sulaiman Mohd Noor in his translation work. Munshi Sulaiman (the father of educationist Ibu Zain and grandfather of writer Adibah Amin) was a teacher at the Normal School in Malacca whom Shellabear routinely consulted between 1904 to 1909.
Modern readers should recognize that the necessity of using these words to adequately express Christian concepts inevitably highlight the fact that there are points of contact between cultures which are distinctly religious in nature. The Christian use of Bahasa Malaysia in the future represents, as it always has, a major point of contact between Christianity and Islam in Malaysia, and is thus a subject demanding serious and sustained attention.
Milestones in the History of the Translation into Malay
The Malay translation of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew was published by Albert Cornelius Ruyl, a Dutch East India Company (EIC) trader, in a bilingual format based on the current Dutch text. Ruyl's first translation used the Jawi script but later translations were in Roman script.
The Four Gospels were published together after the Gospels of Luke and John were added by Jan van Hasel, a Dutch EIC clerk. This was based on the 1637 translation
Justus Heurn, a pastor, added the Book of Acts and revised the entire 1637 translation
The Book of Psalms were translated and published by Heurn and van Hasel
The entire New Testament was translated by Rev. Daniel Brower and its publication was sponsored by the Dutch EIC
Translation of the entire Bible was begun by Dr. Melchior Leidekker on the order of the Church authorities in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) and sponsored by the Dutch EIC
Leidekker died, leaving his translation 90 percent complete. It was finished by Rev. Peter van der Vorm in that year
The Leidekker translation was checked and corrected by van der Vorm and other scholars after a translation of the Bible into the Moluccas language by Rev. Francois Valentine was rejected by the Dutch EIC
Publication in the Netherlands of Leidekker’s translation of the Bible into Malay using the Roman script
Publication in Batavia of Leidekker’s translation using the Jawi script. This text became the standard translation until 1916 in Indonesia and until 1853 in Malaysia.
Leidekker’s translation was the first undertaken by a committee which was based not only on Dutch but other original and vernacular versions of the Bible. However this translation had two shortcomings. First, it used many loan-words from Arabic and Persian which were still unfamiliar to many except those with an Islamic religious education. Secondly, the translation still suffered from poor grammar and lack of proper idioms.
Revised translation of the New Testament printed in Serampore (a town near Calcutta) by the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS). Robert Hutchings – an Anglican chaplain in Penang and founder of the Penang Free School – was the first British missionary to attempt to correct Leidekker’s translation.
Revised translation of the Old and New Testaments printed. This Bible was not widely distributed – except in Penang – and was not subsequently reprinted. However, this initiative marked the beginning of extensive efforts to improve the available translation and to make it more widely accessible.
Claudius Thomsen of the London Missionary Society (LMS) completed a revision of Matthew. Thomsen was sent by the LMS in 1815 with a specific assignment to work among the Malays. Between 1818 to 1832, Thomsen worked to further improve Leidekker’s translation using the knowledge in Malay he gained from his close friend and teacher, Munshi Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir. However, relations between the two were not always easy due to Thomsen’s insistence on words, idioms and Jawi spellings which were not proper Malay.
Thomsen returned to England but not before completing a revision of eight chapters of Mark, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Thomsen’s works suffered from the problem of developing a proper religious vocabulary in Malay. Thomsen’s final version of the Bible contained phrases like Kerajaan Syurga (Kingdom in Heaven); Mulut Allah (Word of God); Anak Allah (Son of God) and Bapa-mu yang ada di Syurga (My Father, who art in Heaven), all of which Abdullah found objectionable.
Low Malay edition based on the Surabaya dialect published in Johanes Emde
James Legge of the LMS requested that John Stronach, one of Thomsen’s American replacements, undertake a check of the second half of Thomsen’s New Testament. Stronach found that the entire New Testament needed revision. Before the second edition could be printed, the revision was halted by two events. In the first, Thomas Beighton – a Penang missionary fluent in Malay and author of “The Betel-Nut Island” – discovered that Abdullah, a Muslim, was primarily responsible for the revision. The second interevening event was the abrupt departure for China of the entire population of missionaries in Malaysia and their printing presses.
Publication in Singapore of the New Testament translation in Roman script. This translation was undertaken by Benjamin Keasberry and his long-time teacher Munshi Abdullah. Distributed in Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra.
Publication of Keasberry’s New Testament in Jawi script. Distributed in Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra.
This period of Bible translation into Malay highlighted the need for a an idiomatic translation that was faithful to the refinement and beauty of classical Malay literature and yet accessible to those without advanced learning.
Publication of Cornelius Klinkert’s translation in Roman script by the Netherlands Bible Society. In 1863, Klinkert was commissioned to revise Leidekker’s translation and to prepare a new one in “high” Malay, for which purpose he studied in Riau and Melaka. However, there were complaints by missionaries in Peninsular Malaysia that Klinkert’s translation was excessively influenced by the Minahassa dialect which was unfamiliar to Malay readers in Melaka and Singapore.
Bishop Hose complained to the BFBS that Keasberry’s translation needed revision and commenced on the translation of the Gospel of Matthew. A simple but grammatical style was required, such as was used by people of the upper classes.
A committee was formed to revise the Bible in Malay, consisting of Bishop Hose, W.H. Gomes and W.G. Shellabear, a soldier turned missionary.
Publication of the Gospel of Matthew by the committee.
Shellabear was hired by the Bible Society and commenced his translation of the Bible. For Shellabear, the new translation would be chiefly for the Malays and for this reason, he favoured the use of the Jawi script.
Shellabear received help from the Dato’ Bentara Dalam of Johore, Munshi Mohammed Ibrahim, the son of Munshi Abdullah with whom he consulted several hours each day for a week on various questions of Malay language and literature.
Publication of Shellabear’s translation of the Bible in Jawi script, which he completed earlier in 1909. This was essentially a revision of Klinkert’s translation in “high” Malay.
Several points were stressed by Shellabear in favour of a revision. First was the substitution of Malay words for such foreign words as are not in common use, for example jahat for fasek and rumah for bait. Both fasek and bait were Arabic words. Secondly, Tuhan was to be used in the place of Allah for El and Elohim when followed by a possessive pronoun, for example, Tuhan and ku instead of Allah-ku. Tuhan to be used for Adonai and Hu or Hua for Yahya, as in Leydekker’s version. Shellabear himself preferred to use Isa Almasih instead of the Yesus favoured by the Dutch, and used it in almost all the literature he wrote.
Shellabear’s reservations highlighted first, the need for a version which both in idiom and vocabulary was accessible to the common Malay reader. Secondly, it also emphasised the need for a vocabulary which would appeal to, and not offend, Muslim sensibilities.
Shellabear had the help of local persons such as Chew Chin Yong and Munshi Sulaiman Mohd Noor in his translation work. Chew Chin Yong accompanied Shellabear on his missionary work from 1907 to 1913 while Munshi Sulaiman (the father of educationist Ibu Zain and grandfather of writer Adibah Amin) was a teacher at the Normal School in Malacca whom Shellabear regularly consulted between 1904 to 1909.
Discussions commenced between the Bible Society of Britain and Foreign Parts and the Netherlands Bible Society to produce a new edition of the Bible, a unified work that would be acceptable for the Malay-speaking populations of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Shellabear was instrumental in initiating these efforts.
The Bible Society of Britain and Foreign Parts, the Bible Society of Scotland and the Netherlands Bible Society formed a translation team under Rev. Werner Bode to prepare a new edition of the Malay Bible, based on the Shellabear, Klinkert and Leidekker versions. One of the members of this team was a Perak Malay, Mashohor bin Kulop Endut, who had assisted Shellabear with the latter’s dictionary.
Shellabear did everything to scuttle the project he himself had mooted. His criticism was that the language used was too heavily influenced by Malay dialects in Indonesia, and by earlier works of Klinkert and Leidekker. Shellabear insisted that the Bible ought to use the Malay of Johore and Melaka, which he regarded as more pure. Shellabear was also adamant that the language used should appeal to Muslims, for example insisting on the use of Isa Almasih instead of Yesus Kristus.
Publication of Bode’s translation of the Psalms.
Publication of Bode’s translation of the New Testament with a revised version of Klinkert’s Old Testament by the Indonesian Bible Society.
The Second World War marked the end of an era in Bible translation into Malay. The independence of Malaysia and Indonesia resulted in the creation of “national” languages with uniform standards of grammar and pronunciation. The rapid development of Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia left the older translations out of date. Bible societies the world over also drew back from using Isa Almasih for Jesus after the Second World War, both because it convened a false meaning in the context of the gospel, and because its use by Christians was offensive to some Muslims.
The Bible Society of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei commissioned a new translation of the Bible into Bahasa Malaysia. The need for Malay Christian literature had shifted to a need for Bahasa Malaysia literature to serve the upcoming generations of Christians who would be educated in the national language. Supplies of tracts and other outdated literature in both the Jawi and Roman script were destroyed as a result.
A new method – the dynamic equivalence – was employed in Singapore to translate the Bible into Malay, with Rev. E.T. Suwito as its chief translator. Under this method, the form of the original versions gives way to the forms of the receptor language (the language into which the original text is translated, in this case Malay), so that the meaning of the original can be understood by readers using the Malay language. However, “form” here means more than mere sentence structure. Where terms in the original language do not exist in Malay, equivalent terms from Malay culture are sought.
Suwito’s work was revised and reviewed by a committee which included Barclay Neuman, Matthew Finlay and Daniel C. Arichea.
First edition of the New Testament translation (Perjanjian Baru, Today’s Malay Version)
Second reprint of the New Testament
Publication of the Old and New Testaments together in the Alkitab (Today’s Malay Version) by the Bible Society of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.
Robert A. Hunt was born on 15 December 1955 in Dallas, Texas. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from the University of Texas, which he obtained in 1977 followed by a Masters degree in Theology from the Southern Methodist University in 1982. Hunt received his PhD from the University of Malaya in 1994. Between 1985 and 1992, Hunt served as Director of Theological Education and Lecturer at the Seminari Theoloji Malaysia, located at that time in Kuala Lumpur. Hunt is fluent in Malay/Indonesian and German. Currently, Hunt is
Director for Global Theological Education at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is part of a
research project studying indigenous Christian movements in Southeast Asia sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia at
Trinity Theological College in Singapore.