Yada yaba gabba gaza hey

The first Japanese translation of the Bible is believed to be an 1837 version of the Gospel According to John. What makes this remarkable, however, is that its writer was a German missionary living in China, taught Japanese by three crew members of a cargo ship, Otokichi, Iwakichi and Kyukichi, who survived 14 months adrift on the ocean, and whose paths crossed his quite by chance.

Karl Gutzlaff was propagating the Christian faith in China while serving as interpreter for the British when he took custody of the trio, who reached Macao via America and England at the end of 1835. He seized the opportunity to learn Japanese, directing all his enthusiasm toward one goal: to make the first Bible translation into Japanese. Records show that the task was completed within a year, and the book was put to print in Singapore in 1837.

The book begins with the words:

“Hajimarini kashikoi mono gozaru. Kono kashikoi mono gokuraku tomoni gozaru. Kono kashikoi mono wa gokuraku.”

Direct translation:

“In the beginning was the wise thing. This wise thing was with paradise. This wise thing was paradise.”

The same line in today’s Japanese ecumenical Bible (new joint translated version) reads:

“Hajimeni kotoba ga atta. Kotoba wa kami to tomoni atta. Kotobawa kami de atta.”

This is an almost exact translation of the same passage in the Revised Standard Edition of the English Bible:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

It is impossible to explain all the grammatical and linguistic nuances in detail, not to mention the beliefs behind them, but reading it today reveals a great deal about the kind of comparative religious and linguistic discussion that must have gone into the first translation. What in the latest version is expressed as “kotoba (= word)” was “kashikoi mono,” literally meaning “wise thing”; today’s “kami (= God)” was originally translated “gokuraku,” meaning “paradise.”

In addition to the translation itself, there are other idiosyncrasies. For example, it is written entirely in katakana, and includes some phrases that reflect the Owari dialect of the part of Aichi that the three men were from.

Some believe that Gutzlaff translated from the King James Version of the Bible with the help of the three Japanese. In principle, however, translation of the New Testament to any language should be done directly from the original Greek, so how he actually worked on it is unclear, explained Yuko Takahashi, librarian of the Japan Bible Society Library in Ginza, Tokyo. As Gutzlaff was fluent in Chinese, he could also have consulted the Chinese translation, she added.

“I think he tried to select words very carefully, and there is a strength that penetrates. It’s striking,” Takahashi said.

In Japan, original copies can be viewed at this library as well as several other establishments including the Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Gutzlaff’s translation was used as reference by later missionaries making their own translations of the Bible, but didn’t make it to Japan until James Curtis Hepburn — the American missionary who compiled one of the first Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries — finally brought it in 1859, eight years after Gutzlaff’s death. (S.K.)