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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

The first Bengali New Testament

Title page from the first Bengali New TestamentTitle page from the first Bengali New TestamentThis Bengali New Testament was the first to be printed in a language of northern India and was the work of Englishman William Carey (17611834), founder in 1792 of the Particular Baptist Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Heathen (later the Baptist Missionary Society) and the first Baptist missionary to India.

Carey arrived in Bengal in 1793 and worked initially as manager of an indigo factory, while learning Bengali and Hindi. After being joined by two other Baptist missionaries in 1799 he moved to the Danish colony of Serampore, where missionaries were looked upon more kindly than in those parts of India where the East India Company held sway. Carey and his companions established a printing press there and baptised their first Hindu convert to Christianity, Krishna Pal, in the following year.

In 1800 Carey produced a translation of the Gospel of Matthew into Bengali in an edition of 500 copies. By the following year he had completed the translation of the entire New Testament into that language and it was printed in an edition of 2,000 copies, one of which is shown here.

The translation of the Old Testament followed in 1809. Carey was a prolific translator and an able linguist; by the time of his death he had translated the Bible or portions of it into 34 different Asian languages and dialects, including Chinese, Hindi and Gujarati, and 200,000 individual copies of Biblical works had rolled off the presses of the Serampore Mission Press.

Carey also wrote a number of pioneering Indian language grammars, translated parts of the Ramayana into English and edited workson Indian flora, on which he was an expert. In 1801, following the publication of his Bengali New Testament, Carey was appointed professor of Sanskrit, Marathi and Bengali at the East India Company's Fort William College, Calcutta, as noted in manuscript on the title page of our copy.

Many of Carey's translations were paid for or heavily subsidised by the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804 to further the translation, publication and distribution of editions of the Bible all over the world.

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