2019 was the 100th anniversary of the birth of the "Union Version (UV)" of the bible in modern Chinese, and the Chinese Church held a number of commemorations to celebrate the publication of the centennial version.
There is no denying that the Union Version now enjoys an authoritative status among all Chinese translations of the Bible, but in addition to the commemoration we also need to look at it calmly and objectively.
I.There are three reasons why the Union Version holds a position of authority:
1. Its translation was a rigorous and time-consuming project.
The "Union Version" was a 28-year translation project (1891-1919) led by Calvin Wilson Mateer and Chauncey Goodrich, involving five foreign missionaries working closely with Chinese scholars. On average, each verse took more than 10 hours of translation work. Going through cautiously rigorous reviews, its final translation is faithful to the original text, smooth and elegant.
The excellent translation is the most important reason why Union Version occupies a position of authority. However, the reasons for its position are manifold and it is by no means simply because the translation is excellent.
2. Its historical significance is far greater than its academic significance.
Because before the Union Version, the Chinese bible had different versions, i.e. there were independent translations done by the various denominations. Since each group had its own translation, it was difficult to achieve a unified translation language. Chinese believers habitually revere the classic version of any sacred text (equally respectful to other religious books or classics), so Chinese Christians also needed a unified and universally accepted Bible in particular; and the "Union Version" just conformed to the Chinese Christians' appeal in the faith.
At that time, the Protestant mission in China had three major Bible societies: British and Foreign Bible Society, National Bible Society of Scotland, and American Bible Society. All headquartered in Shanghai, they were both patrons of translation and publishers of the bible. All three bible societies were strongly advocating the "Union Version" and actively promoting the use of it. Therefore, soon after the version had been published, it basically replaced all the other Chinese bible translations and became the unified and universally accepted translation to the Chinese Church.
3. "UV", the result of a large number of references and accumulations of previous translations
In fact, the "Union Version" was not the first official language translation. Before it, there were the "Nanking Official Language Translation" co-translated by Walter Henry Medhurst and John Stronach, the "Peking Official Language Translation" translated by Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky (nicknamed "Prince of Bible Translation"), and the "Peking Translation Committee Version", all produced earlier than the "Union Version".
Moreover, the "Peking Official Language Translation" and the "Peking Translation Committee Version" are very similar to the "Union Version". It is thought that the UV must have taken a lot of references from the two for its translation, especially from Schereschewsky's translation.
It can be said that in the history of Chinese bible translation, Schereschewsky's personal contribution to bible translation had arrived in his career at a height almost unreachable by others. However, his translation did not receive the support of the Bible Societies in time, and the Bible Societies' strong support for the later "Union Version" was, of course, due to the historical significance of the "UV", which was, after all, a "joint translation" that transcended the various denominations.
II. Reflections stimulated by the "centennial UV"
There is no doubt that the UV has brought great benefits to the growth of the spiritual life of Chinese Christians. But the UV alone is by no means the only and irreplaceable version of the bible.
At present, there are many Chinese Christians who feel that only the "UV" is equal to the Bible and the Word of God. They even think that it is a transgression for anyone to dare to question this particular translation of the scriptures, and that questioning the authority of Union Version is tantamount to overstepping the authority of God. This idea could be sympathized with, but is unreasonable.
First of all, among many Chinese translations, the fact that "Union Version" has survived a hundred years is it is in line with the objective principle for the existence and development of a bible translation, and this phenomenon is not unique. The King James' Version had been in use for 300 years, and then gradually faded from its position of authority. And the entry of Protestants into China has been for only two hundred years so far. Therefore it is overly optimistic for anyone to think that the UV will permanently occupy the authoritative position. The authoritative status of the "Union Version" is not irreplaceable, and this authoritative phenomenon of the "UV" is only a stage during the course of historical development.
The Bible exists as God's Word and it is itself beyond any translation, so no one translation can absolutely match God's Words forever.
In addition, the backdrop of the "Union Version" centennial celebration actually exposes the lack of the Chinese Church's own quality. It is an indisputable fact that the Chinese Church has been extremely short of (or unconcerned about) the talents required to translate the Bible. In the current theological educational system, we do not even have proper knowledge of the various Chinese translations that have existed so far, talk less of attempting to translate the bible into Chinese.
New Chinese bible translations will continue to emerge, but any new translation project would be absurd and arrogant if its premise is to replace the UV; because at least at this stage, the "Union Version" is still irreplaceable, but it will not always occupy the position of authority.
Nowadays, the Church has been vigorously promoting the "Revised Union Version" ("RUV"). Pastors have been actively introducing it to their various congregations during services, so as to gradually shift the reading preferences of believers from "UV" to "RUV", which might as well be feasible.
Given that the majority of believers are not highly aware about the "RUV", it will be difficult to promote it. There still needs to be a transition between "UV" and "RUV", and the "Brief Notes Version" can be used as a transitional version. Because the "Brief" explains all of the revisions to the UV in its footnotes. As such, it will be easier for the "RUV" to face the public.
While the UV is a century old, the Mission needs a new approach. While commemorating the centennial UV, we should also hold an open view on Chinese translations outside the UV, starting with theological schools to church herders and even volunteers to promote the use of RUV.
The Chinese Church needs to work hard to develop and discover bible translation talents, and theological colleges can try to add Bible translation courses, or at least courses on Chinese bible translation history.
(The author is a pastor from Zhejiang, China.)
- Translated by Charlie Li