Saturday 22 December 2012

An Englishman who learnt 35 languages

He was one of the earliest Englishmen who came to India to study its people, culture and literature.  He called himself a humble shoe maker as he was mending the shoes of other people.
In his early years, he taught himself Latin.
A devout Protestant Christian, he had a deep and abiding interest in languages and he learnt several Indian languages including Bengali, Telugu and Kannada. His introduction to other Indian languages was through Bengali.
His brush with Bengali occurred when he was appointed as a manager of an Indigo plantation in a small village in Bengal. He was assigned a Munshi (clerk) to help him run the plantation. The Munshi helped Carey learn Bengali and even Sanskrit.
He is William Carey who was born in England in 1761. He embarked on a journey to India in 1793 where he lived for most part of his life before his death in Serampore near Calcutta in 1834.
Once he mastered Bengali, he went about translating the New Testament into Bengali. He then set about translating the Bible in many north and Eastern Indian languages.
He was the founder of the English Baptist Missionary Society. He is also called the “father of modern missionaries”. However, he is today more known as a pioneer of translations, lexicologist and a grammarian.
Thus by default, Carey whose ambition was to translate the Bible into many Indian languages,  became an important figure in Indian literature.
Carey was highly impressed by the Bengali language, which he thought was superior to all other Indian languages. He wanted the Bible to reach out to the vast Indian populace and the best way, he thought, was to translate them in the local language besides Sanskrit.
Carey’s tryst with Indian languages gave him a nodding acquaintance with the epics and he put this to good use by translating parts of the Ramayana to English. His translation remains among the first of its kind.
He had a burning ambition to translate the Bible into Sanskrit.
He thought that the best way to teach Bible to natives (Indians) was to learn their language and educate them through it.     
Thus, Carey was among the first missionaries who wanted to educate Indians about Christianity. But he ended up becoming a grammarian, lexicologist and translator. He also played a very important role in introducing English in schools and colleges in India.
More importantly, Carey singlehandedly showed people the importance of prose as a medium of communication and knowledge. His Bengali Colloquies was written with help from Bengali scholars. This is a series of  articles written in colloquial Bengali. 
As a translator, Carey translated the Bible into Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, Odiya, Gujarathi and Assamese. He also learnt Pashto and Khasi and translated the Bible into these languages.
He was among the first Britishers to learn Kannada.  
Carey was instrumental in translating the Bible into Marathi, Hindi, Oriya, Panjabi, Assamese, and Gujarati.
Critics of Indian literature say Carey played a vital role in the early stages of development of Indian languages in the 19th century. He either worked or was deeply involved in the translation of the Bible in 35 languages.
Carey’s contribution to the literary scene has elicited the admiration of  no less than a person of  Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest Bengali writer.
He also laid the foundation for typesetting of many of the Indian languages including, Kannada.  A Grammar of Kurnata Language might be the first ever book that was printed and published. Of course, it had to be authored and published by William Carey at his press in Serampore. 
A grammer of Kurnata was first published in 1817. A copy of this book is available in the William Carey Library in Serampore. This small town of Serampore is an hour’s journey from Kolkata. A copy of his Kannada translation of the New Testament is also in the library.          
Carey was not merely interested in preaching religion or translating Bibles. He tried to bring to the notice of the then East India Company the evil of Sati. He joined hands with two British colleagues, Ward and Marshmann in persuading the British to abolish Sati. The Indian reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy was impressed with these endeavours and he fully supported Carey.
When orthodox Hindus, particularly Bengalis, took umbrage at his stand and told Carey that Sati was sanctioned by religion, Carey  poured through those very books. He found that these scriptures had only advocated Sati as a virtue and not as a custom or practice to be followed.
Carey enlisted the support of newspapers of those times in educating people about the evils of Sati. One day, he received a communication from the office of the Governor-General of India.
Carey was asked to translate it into Bengali. It was the order banning Sati through out India.
Today, Serampore has honored its famous citizen with a college in his memory. There is also a William Carey Library.

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