Statenbijbel in Siraya.

Christopher Joby at Neerlandistiek reports on a recently discovered translation from Dutch to Siraya, formerly spoken in the southwest of Taiwan:

It’s not often in one’s career that one comes across a book or manuscript that has lain ‘hidden’ for several hundred years, but by chance this happened to me recently. In Amsterdam in 1661, the Dutch missionary Daniël Gravius published a volume comprising his translations of the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. John in the Formosan language, Siraya, a member of the broader Austronesian family of languages. Until recently, it was thought that only the translation of the Gospel of St. Matthew had survived. However, I recently identified a copy of the 1661 publication which contains both Gospel translations. The Gospel of St. John differs from that of St. Matthew in several respects and will therefore allow scholars in this field to increase their knowledge of this language, which became extinct in the nineteenth century. Hopefully, it will also add to our knowledge of the history of Austronesian or Formosan languages in Taiwan and Austronesian languages more generally.

The translation is based on the Dutch States Bible (Statenbijbel), first published in 1637. This includes several Latin and Greek words, which have been carried over into Siraya. Gravius’s publication consists of 70 folios of Dutch and Siraya parallel texts. It is a good example of the Bible translations that Dutch missionaries made in the seventeenth century into languages in East Asia and also illustrates how they mastered new languages such as Siraya in order to translate the Bible and other Christian literature into these languages. It is also a good example of the role that serendipity plays in scholarship!

There’s a nice image at the link; I love stories like that. (Via a Facebook post by bulbul.)


  1. This is great! I’ll pass the link on to people working on Formosan languages. When I once pulled together data for a sketch grammar of Iwal, a barely recorded New Guinea language which nevertheless had a full translation of the the New Testament, I was able to extract quite a bit of good vocabulary and grammatical information from the passages in Matthew.

  2. I thought you’d like it!

  3. Joel’s comment reminded me of a lost book I have all but given up on finding. Years ago I was talking to someone who had worked at a bookstore specializing in hard to find Pacific materials. One book they had located was written in a very small Papuan language. Its author had visited Finland, of all places, and wrote a book about her trip. As I remember the story, that was at the time the only book published in the language. I made a few inquiries over the years (including the National Library of Finland), but came up with nothing.

  4. If you find out, report back!

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    Gunnar Landtman was in PNG 1910-1912 among the Kiwai and wrote about them. Maybe he sponsored someone to visit Finland and publish their impressions in Pidgin or in Kiwai. But I suppose you have tried to find a reference in his publications already.

  6. Thank you. I didn’t know about Landtman. That’s a very good tip. I’d had the impression that this was more recent, but perhaps that was just me filling in details.

  7. Early Bible translations and the like are often quite good sources for the philological study of mostly-unwritten or more recently written languages. I recently learned that the first full gospel translations in Udmurt actually were by two different people from two separate dialect areas — Matthew in a northern dialect, Luke in a central dialect — and hence they can demonstrate the presence, or lack!, of a few dialect isoglosses already/still circa 1800.

    Re: Papuan visitor in Finland, a corpus search across Finnish newspapers for mentions of Papua New Guinea suggests that Landtman is indeed the best lead here, though I get several hits for SIL missionary couples from the 70s thru 00s (indeed even my parents know a couple who were up to that in the 80s), and even one missionary report already from January 1902 which however turns out to be just a translation from a German missionary publication. (Among an absurd amount of scannos for the town of Lapua as written in blackletter.)

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    OK, so is the actual Siraya text of these Gospels up on the internet anywhere? Heck, I’ll settle for the first chapter of John, suitable for the Easter tradition of reading in as many different tongues as can be managed.

  9. The text can be found on Google Books. This is the 1888 reprint with English introduction, containing only Matthew:

    This is the original 1661 text, again only with Matthew:

    This is a handwritten copy of the book, with the Dutch introduction and the Siraya text copied (not the Dutch text of the gospels). I am not sure whether it contains John:

    Today, my (Dutch) newspaper wrote about the revival of Siraya, in which the 1661 book also played a role:

  10. Thanks!


  1. […] Hat notes a recovered 17th century translation of a Dutch bible into the Austronesian language of Siraya, […]

Speak Your Mind