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John Ross and Cultural Encounter: Translating Christianity in an East Asian Context

  • James H. Grayson (a1)


John Ross, a late nineteenth-century missionary of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland to Manchuria, was the effective founder of the Protestant Church in Korea through his translation of the New Testament into Korean. This article explores his work of translation by looking firstly at general issues in translating biblical texts into Korean, secondly at Ross's principles for translation, and thirdly how Ross actually conducted his translation work on a day-to-day basis. Thorough consideration will be given to the linguistic and social characteristics of the Korean language. The article concludes with an overview of the linguistic, religious and sociocultural effect of the ‘Ross Translation’.


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*School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TD. E-mail:


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1 This article is based upon research which I conducted using Ross's regular monthly missionary reports for the United Presbyterian Missionary Record [hereafter: UPMR] (and its successors), the scant records on Ross contained in the United Presbyterian Church Archives held at the National Library of Scotland, other historical records, and interviews with older residents of Balintore and with surviving members of Ross's family. I was unable to find a diary, but the reports in UPMR are in many ways a better source of information about Ross and his colleagues. I have published this information in several places, notably in 羅約翰, 한국의 첫 선교사 [Na Yohan: Han'gug-ŭi ch’ŏt sŏn'gyo-sa, John Ross: Korea's First Missionary] (Taegu, 1982); and ‘The Legacy of Ross, John: A Neglected Chapter in the History of Pan-East Asian Missions’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 23 (1999), 167–72. Na Yohan was published to celebrate the centenary of the translation of the New Testament into Korean.

2 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford, 1977), s.v. ‘translation’.

3 For a more detailed discussion see Grayson, ‘Legacy of John Ross’.

4 For a brief history of the United Presbyterian Church, see Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed., The Encyclopedia of Protestantism (New York and London, 2004), 1: 444.

5 The principal source of information about Williamson's travels and his ideas about the location and method of missionary work may be found in his book Journeys in North China, Manchuria, and Eastern Mongolia; with some Account of Corea, 2 vols (London, 1870).

6 The first Protestant missionary in Manchuria was the English Presbyterian Church missionary William Chalmers Burns (1815–68). After his death in Yingkou, the Presbyterian Church of Ireland sent two missionaries to Manchuria before the arrival of the Rosses. However, the start of significant missionary work in Manchuria was undoubtedly Ross's missionary endeavours.

7 Ross's son was cared for by a Chinese woman until Ross's sister Catherine (d. 1892) arrived in 1874 to look after him. Drummond was bilingual in English and Mandarin from his earliest years.

8 Manchuria, although part of the Manchu Qing Empire, was the ancient homeland of the Manchus and consequently was treated as a separate administrative entity from China. There were an imperial palace, government ministries, and Confucian academies, all mirroring what was to be found in the Chinese capital at Beijing.

9 Ross wrote two descriptions of his two visits to the Corean Gate: ‘Visit to the Corean Gate’, Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal 5 (1875), 471–2; ‘To the Corean Gate’, UPMR 8 (1877), 355–7.

10 In the late 1970s, when I visited Ross's home village to learn what was still remembered about him, I was told that some time after his retirement in 1910, he and his son were conversing with some of the Gaelic-speaking villagers in Balintore. They were all looking politely blank while John Ross addressed them. His son nudged him and said: ‘Dad, you're speaking Chinese!’

11 A more thorough discussion of the Korean language may be found in my article ‘Korean’, in Brown, Keith, ed., The Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edn (Oxford, 2005), 6: 236–9.

12 For a more thorough discussion of the various attempts to write the Korean language and its predecessors, see my article ‘Korean Writing Systems’, in Brown, ed., Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics, 6: 239-44. A more recent discussion of the creation of the Korean alphabet is Yeon, Jaehoon, Queries on the Origin and the Inventor of the Hunmin chŏngŭm, SOAS-AKS Working Papers in Korean Studies 1 (London, 2008).

13 Popularly, modern Koreans refer to all three scripts as idu, but this is not correct and blurs the distinctions between them.

14 The most accessible and thorough description of these three early Korean writing systems is Buzo, Adrian, ‘Early Korean Writing Systems’, Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch 55 (1980), 3562. In this article, he also discusses the potential relationship between these early Korean scripts and the Japanese kana scripts.

15 Sampson, Geoffrey, Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction (London, 1985), ch. 7, ‘A Featureal System: Korean Han'gŭl’, discusses the linguistic methods of research used by the Chiphyŏn-jŏn scholars and how they applied this to the creation of an alphabet which visually represented the linguistic principles which they used. A more recent collection of essays on the creation and structure of the alphabet is Kim-Renaud, Young-key, The Korean Alphabet: Its History and Structure (Honolulu, HI, 1997).

16 The minister of state was Ch'oe Malli (崔萬里; d. 1445), who objected strenuously to the promulgation of the indigenous script. For documents relevant to the creation of the alphabet and his criticisms of it, see Lee, Peter H., ed., Sourcebook in Korean Civilization, 2 vols (New York, 1993), 1: 516–20.

17 For a survey of this period, see my Korea: A Religious History, rev. edn (London and New York, 2002), 205–23.

19 In 1883, Ross wrote an extensive article about the translation of the New Testament into Korean, how it was done, the issues involved, and how they distributed the copies of the New Testament: ‘Corean New Testament’, UPMR 14 (1883), 491–7. For more detail, see his contemporary reports: UPMR 11 (1880), 150, 278–9; 12 (1881), 85–6, 271; 13 (1882), 33–4, 244.

20 For a detailed discussion of the history of translation of the Bible into Chinese, and the issues around terms and terminology, see Latourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of Christian Missions in China (London, 1929), 429–33. A more recent survey may be found in Moffett, Samuel Hugh, A History of Christianity in Asia, 2 vols (Maryknoll, NY, 2005), 2: 286–9, and especially 301–2 (footnotes 23–30).

21 Eugene Nida's theory of ‘dynamic equivalence’ is discussed in Nida, Eugene A. and Taber, Charles R., The Theory and Practice of Translation (Leiden, 1969), 137, 140, 202.

22 See, in this volume, Joan-Pau Rubiés, ‘Ethnography and Cultural Translation in the Early Modern Missions’, 272–310, at 301–2, 304.

23 For a more recent summary of the ‘Term Question’ and the related question of the acceptability of participating in Confucian ancestral rites, see Moffett, Christianity in Asia, 2: 220–32.

24 The classic English discussion of this issue in Roman Catholic mission history is Latourette, Christian Missions in China, 131–55. A more recent, but less detailed account is found in Gernet, Jacques, China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures (Cambridge, 1985; first publ. in French 1982), 24–30.

25 The best modern discussion of the ‘Term Question’ in Korea is Oak, Sung-deuk, The Making of Korean Christianity: Protestant Encounters with Korean Religions, 1876–1915 (Waco, TX, 2013), ch. 1, ‘God, The Search for the Korean Name for God, Hananim’.

26 The Delegates’ Version was the standard translation of the Bible in Chinese during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The New Testament was completed in 1850. For a discussion of this translation, see Latourette, Christian Missions in China, 260–3, 265.

27 See, in this volume, Kirsteen Kim, ‘The Evangelization of Korea, c.1895–1910: Translation of the Gospel or Reinvention of the Church?’, 359–75.

28 For a brief history of the Korean Church, including a discussion of Bible translation, see my article ‘Korea’, in Hillerbrand, ed., Encyclopedia of Protestantism, 2: 1035–41, especially 1036.

29 The New Testament of the Common Translation was first published in 1971, and the whole Bible in 1977: 공동번역 신약성서 [Kongdong pŏnyŏk sinyak sŏngsŏ, Common Translation, New Testament] (Seoul, 1971).

30 Kim, ‘Evangelization of Korea’.

31 A thorough discussion of the role of Protestantism in the reform movement and the movement against Japanese colonial occupation is Wells, Kenneth, New God, New Nation: Protestants and Self-Reconstruction Nationalism in Korea, 1896–1937 (Honolulu, HI, 1990).

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John Ross and Cultural Encounter: Translating Christianity in an East Asian Context

  • James H. Grayson (a1)


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