Soon-to-Be-Blessed Allegra, a Translator of the Bible into Chinese

Ven. Br. Gabriele Maria Allegra, a Franciscan friar who died in 1976, will soon become the first person from Hong Kong to be beatified. He was also the guy behind the first translation of ALL the books of the Bible into Chinese.

During the 600th anniversary of Bl. John of Monte Corvino in 1928, Ven. Allegra was greatly impressed by hearing how he translated the Psalms into Mongolian. Allegra wrote later that it was like “a lit match thrown into a powderkeg.” The speaker chanced to mention that there was still no full translation of the Bible into Chinese. With a feeling like a “powerful electric shock,” he immediately became determined to do it himself, discerning that God meant him to. For the rest of his time in Italy in formation, and from his first arrival in China in 1931, Br. Gabriele studied Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and various kinds of Chinese, determined to translate the full Bible direct from the sources, and to provide a commentary as well. Despite being interned by the Japanese, he finished his Old Testament translation in 1944.

Then he had to stop translating during WWII due to the press of duties and stuff happening, and part of his finished translations were lost.

He founded Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Hong Kong, a Biblical studies institute affiliated with other Franciscan ones, in 1945 in Beijing, to spread the work and not make its survival depend on one person. He and several of his Franciscan brothers, all native speakers whom he taught Hebrew and Greek, started in on the Old Testament again. In 1946, their translation and commentary on the Psalms was published. Then the turmoil with Mao caused his superiors to transfer the institute and him to Hong Kong in 1948. This turned out to be a blessing, as Ven. Allegra glommed onto refugee priests and monks with Biblical and language skills, including an expert on Greek. In 1949, the first volume of the historical books of the Old Testament was published, and the second came out in 1950. By 1954, the entire Old Testament was out.

Then the group took a sabbatical year — to study in Jerusalem, at the Studium Biblicum there. Then they plunged right back into translation and commentary. All four gospels were out by 1957, Acts and Paul’s epistles came out in 1959, and the rest of the epistles and Revelation were published in 1961. What had never been done was done — in exactly thirty years!

Publication of the entire Studium Biblicum translation of the Bible with commentary in a single volume was not completed until 1968. But sheesh, that was the downhill slope. Not done yet, they started writing a Chinese Bible dictionary with reference articles. That was finished in 1975, and then most of the friars were assigned to other duties. That’s what it means to work for the Church’s needs.

But the Studium is still around, focusing on both scholarship and promoting love of the Bible among laypeople. Here’s their online learning website in English. If you go to their main webpage and choose the English version, there’s some nice info about Ven. Allegra. There’s also a wonderful page under News about their “Project Isaiah 61,” which is providing Bibles in Braille to the blind, Bibles for Chinese speakers in prison and for Chinese migrant workers around the world, Bible study to the physically challenged, and ecumenical Bible activities to help unite all Chinese Christians.

The Studium Biblicum Version or “Franciscan Version” is the most popular Catholic Bible translation in China. Since it is written in Chinese characters, it can be read by members of many different Chinese language groups. The “spelling” tends to lean toward Cantonese forms, although some only found in Mandarin are also used.

The beatification ceremony will take place at his hometown in Sicily, probably to avoid freaking out the Chinese government (or giving them scope to try to meddle and threaten), but the Catholics of China will be celebrating all the same.

Here’s a very nice article about Ven. Allegra by an Orthodox blogger.

I think Ven. Allegra is a great example to us of academic patience and fortitude. Imagine losing large parts of over ten years of work, and starting over again! But he did.

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