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Men of Humble Origin Translate the Bible

Men of Humble Origin Translate the Bible

Men of Humble Origin Translate the Bible

IN 1835, Henry Nott, an English bricklayer, and John Davies, a Welsh apprentice grocer, reached the end of a colossal project. After having toiled for more than 30 years, they finally completed a translation of the entire Bible into Tahitian. What challenges did these two men of humble background face, and what were the results of their labor of love?

“The Great Awakening”

In the second half of the 18th century, members of a Protestant movement called the Great Awakening, or simply Awakening, were preaching in village squares and near mines and factories in Britain. Their aim was to reach working-class people. The Awakening preachers enthusiastically encouraged distribution of the Bible.

Influenced by this movement, a Baptist named William Carey, contributed to the founding of the London Missionary Society (LMS), which was established in 1795. The LMS trained people who were willing to learn native languages and serve as missionaries in the South Pacific region. The goal of these missionaries was to preach the Gospel in the language of the local people.

The island of Tahiti, which had recently been discovered, became the first missionary field for the LMS. For members of the Awakening, these islands were ‘dark places’ of paganism, fields ready to be harvested.

People of Humble Background Rise to the Occasion

To gather the harvest, some 30 hastily selected and ill-prepared missionaries boarded the Duff, a vessel purchased by the LMS. A report lists “four consecrated pastors [without formal training], six carpenters, two shoemakers, two bricklayers, two weavers, two tailors, a storekeeper, a saddler, a domestic, a gardener, a physician, a blacksmith, a cooper, a cotton manufacturer, a hatter, a cloth manufacturer, a cabinetmaker, five spouses, and three children.”

The only tools that these missionaries had in their possession for getting acquainted with the original Bible languages were a Greek-English dictionary and a Bible with a Hebrew dictionary. During the seven months at sea, the missionaries memorized some Tahitian words listed by previous visitors, mainly by the mutineers of the Bounty. Finally, the Duff reached Tahiti, and on March 7, 1797, the missionaries disembarked. However, one year later most had become discouraged and left. Only seven missionaries remained.

Of those seven, Henry Nott, the former bricklayer, was only 23 years old. Judging from the first letters that he wrote, he had only a basic education. Nevertheless, from the outset he proved himself to be gifted at learning the Tahitian language. He was described as sincere, easygoing, and pleasant.

In 1801, Nott was selected to teach Tahitian to nine newly arrived missionaries. Among them was the 28-year-old Welshman John Davies, who proved to be a capable student and a hard worker with a mild temperament and a generous nature. Before long, these two men decided to translate the Bible into Tahitian.

A Daunting Task

Translating into Tahitian, though, proved to be a daunting task, for Tahitian was not yet a written language. The missionaries had to learn it entirely by listening. They had neither a dictionary nor a grammar book. The exhaling sounds of the language interrupted by glottal stops, its numerous successive vowels (as many as five in a single word), and its rare consonants drove the missionaries to despair. “Many words consist of nothing but vowels, and each has a sound,” they lamented. They confessed that they were not able “to catch the sound of the words, with that exactness that is necessary.” They even thought they heard sounds that did not exist!

To make things worse, from time to time, some words were banned, or taboo, in Tahitian and thus had to be replaced. Synonyms presented another headache. For the word “prayer,” there were more than 70 terms in Tahitian. The Tahitian syntax, which is totally different from that of English, was another challenge. Despite the difficulties, little by little the missionaries drew up lists of words that Davies would eventually publish 50 years later as a dictionary with 10,000 entries.

Then there was the challenge of writing Tahitian. The missionaries tried to do so by using the established English orthography. However, the English use of the Latin alphabet did not match the Tahitian sounds. Thus, endless discussions on phonetics and spelling ensued. Often the missionaries coined new spellings, as they were the very first ones in the South Seas to cast an oral language into a written mold. Little did they realize that their work would later be a model for many of the languages of the South Pacific.

Short on Tools but Rich in Resourcefulness

The translators had only a few reference books at their disposal. The LMS directed that they use the Textus Receptus and the King James Version as basic texts. Nott asked the LMS to send additional dictionaries in Hebrew and Greek as well as Bibles in both languages. It is not known whether he ever received those books. As for Davies, he received some scholarly books from Welsh friends. Records show that he possessed at least a Greek dictionary, a Hebrew Bible, a New Testament in Greek, and the Septuagint.

In the meantime, the preaching activity of the missionaries remained unfruitful. Although the missionaries had been in Tahiti for 12 years, not even one local inhabitant had been baptized. Eventually, unremitting civil wars compelled all the missionaries except for the resolute Nott to flee to Australia. For a while he was the only missionary remaining in the Windward Islands of the Society Islands group, but he had to follow King Pomare II when the king fled to the nearby island of Moorea.

However, Nott’s move did not stop the translation work, and after Davies had spent two years in Australia, he rejoined Nott. In the meantime, Nott had undertaken a study of Greek and Hebrew and had mastered those languages. Consequently, he started to translate some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures into Tahitian. He selected Bible passages that contained accounts to which the native people could easily relate.

Working closely with Davies, Nott then started to translate the Gospel of Luke, which was completed in September 1814. He composed a rendering that sounded natural in Tahitian, while Davies checked the translation against the original texts. In 1817, King Pomare II asked if he could personally print the first page of the Gospel of Luke. He did so on a small manual press brought to Moorea by missionaries. The story of the Tahitian translation of the Bible would not be complete without mentioning a faithful Tahitian named Tuahine, who remained with the missionaries throughout the years and helped them to grasp the nuances of the language.

The Translation Is Completed

In 1819, after six years of hard work, the translation of the Gospels, Acts of Apostles, and the book of Psalms was completed. A printing press, brought along by newly arrived missionaries, facilitated the printing and distribution of these Bible books.

A period of intense activity of translation, proofreading, and revision followed. After living in Tahiti for 28 years, Nott fell ill in 1825, and the LMS allowed him to sail back to England. Happily, by then the translation of the Greek Scriptures was almost completed. He continued translating the rest of the Bible during his journey to England and his stay there. Nott returned to Tahiti in 1827. Eight years later, in December 1835, he put down his quill. After more than 30 years of hard work, the whole Bible had been translated.

In 1836, Nott traveled back to England in order to have the whole Tahitian Bible printed in London. On June 8, 1838, an elated Nott presented Queen Victoria with the first printed edition of the Bible in Tahitian. Understandably, this was an intensely emotional moment for the former bricklayer who 40 years earlier set sail on the Duff and immersed himself in the Tahitian culture to complete this huge, lifelong task.

Two months later, Nott headed back to the South Pacific with 27 crates containing the first 3,000 copies of the complete Bible in Tahitian. After making a stop in Sydney, he fell ill again, but he refused to be separated from the precious crates. After recovering, he arrived in Tahiti in 1840, where the population led a virtual assault on his cargo, seeking to obtain copies of the Tahitian Bible. Nott died in Tahiti in May 1844 at the age of 70.

A Far-Reaching Impact

Nott’s work lived on, however. His translation had a far-reaching effect on Polynesian languages. By putting Tahitian in written form, the missionaries preserved that language. One author stated: “Nott fixed the classic grammatical Tahitian. It will always be necessary to resort to the Bible to learn the Tahitian language in its purity.” The unremitting work of these translators saved thousands of words from oblivion. A century later, one author said: “The remarkable Tahitian Bible of Nott is the masterpiece of the Tahitian language​—everybody agrees with it.”

This important work not only benefited the Tahitians but also established a foundation for other translations in South Pacific languages. For example, translators in the Cook Islands and Samoa used it as a model. “I have essentially followed Mr. Nott, whose translation I have carefully examined,” declared one translator. It was reported that another translator ‘had before him the Hebrew Psalter and the English and Tahitian versions’ as he was ‘translating one of David’s psalms into Samoan.’

Following the example of members of the Awakening in England, the missionaries in Tahiti enthusiastically promoted literacy. In fact, for more than a century, the Bible was the only book available to the Tahitian population. It thus became a vital element in Tahitian culture.

The large number of occurrences of the divine name in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures constitutes one of the finest features of the Nott Version. As a result, today Jehovah’s name is well-known in Tahiti and its islands. It even appears on some Protestant churches. However, God’s name is now essentially associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses and their zealous preaching activity, in which they make extensive use of the Tahitian Bible translated by Nott and his collaborators. And the strenuous efforts made by such translators as Henry Nott remind us of how grateful we should be for having God’s Word readily available to most of mankind today.

[Pictures on page 26]

First translations of the Bible in Tahitian, 1815. Jehovah’s name appears

Henry Nott (1774-1844), the principal translator of the Tahitian Bible

[Credit Lines]

Tahitian Bible: Copyright the British Library (3070.a.32); Henry Nott and letter: Collection du Musée de Tahiti et de ses Îles, Punaauia, Tahiti; catechism: With permission of the London Missionary Society Papers, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

[Picture on page 28]

Bilingual Tahitian and Welsh catechism of 1801, where God’s name appears

[Credit Line]

With permission of the London Missionary Society Papers, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

[Picture on page 29]

Protestant church with Jehovah’s name on the front, island of Huahine, French Polynesia

[Credit Line]

Avec la permission du Pasteur Teoroi Firipa