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

The Bible comes to India

Title page from the Tamil New Testament of 1715Title page from the Tamil New Testament of 1715This New Testament in Tamil was the first to be printed in any of the languages of India. It was translated by a German missionary, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (16831719), with the help of Johann Ernst Gründler (16771720).

Ziegenbalg had been sent with a companion, Heinrich Plütschau, to the Danish possession of Tranquebar, at the southern tip of India, at the behest of his patron, King Frederick IV of Denmark. Ziegenbalg and Plütschau were the first Protestant missionaries to India, arriving at Tranquebar in 1707. Ziegenbalg immediately set about learning Tamil, with a view to translating the NewTestament into that language.

Frederick IV’s uncle George, who was married to the English Queen Anne, was interested in Ziegenbalg’s work and it was through him that the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), which had been founded in 1698 to encourage Christian education and the production and distribution of Christian literature, became aware of the project.

Barred from missionary activity in India by the East India Company, the SPCK was keen to support Ziegenbalg’s work, seeing an opportunity thereby to gain a foothold in the sub-continent, and launched a public subscription. This raised enough money for a printing press and a supply of paper to be shipped out to Tranquebar.

Ziegenbalg completed his translation in 1711 and began to revise it with Gründler’s help.By the summer of 1714 the Gospels had been printed but the large typeface that had been used meant that the supply of paper was running low. A new smaller typeface was cast for the remainder of the New Testament and the book came off the press the following year. The printer, Johann Adler, reportedly used the metal lids of boxes of Cheshire cheese supplied by the SPCK as the raw material for his founts of type. Later he was to set up a proper type foundry and papermill in Tranquebar, to support the missionary printing of Ziegenbalg and his successors.

This copy of the Tamil New Testament was given by Ziegenbalg to Joseph Collet (16731725), governor of Madras. It is bound in blue velvet, over wooden boards.

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