20 May 2017

Heinrich August Jäschke: 200th anniversary

The year 2017 marks the second birth centenary of Heinrich August Jäschke, whose Tibetan-English Dictionary (1881) is still widely used to this day.  This is an anniversary that ought to be noted by all Tibetanists and devotees of Ladakh Studies. 
H.A. Jäschke (Bechler 1930: 65)
Jäschke was born on 17 May 1817 in Herrnhut, the headquarters of the Moravian Church, which is better known in Germany as the Herrnhuter Brüdergemeine. His surname indicates his descent from Protestant refugees who had migrated from Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, a century earlier. Jäschke was a child of the Moravian church, which is known for its wide-ranging missionary activity, through and through.
Herrnhut, May 2011. Photo: John Bray
Jäschke spent the first part of his adult life as a teacher of Latin and Greek at the Moravian school (Pädagogium) in Niesky, some 25 miles north of Herrnhut. However, in 1856, when he was already in his late 30s, he was called to a new post as Superintendent of a new Moravian mission in Kyelang, northern India. Kyelang lies in Lahul, on what used to be an important trade and pilgrimage route between India and Tibet. Jäschke was selected for his linguistic skills and, from the outset, one of his main tasks was to be the translation of the Christian scriptures into Tibetan.

He spent the summer of 1857 in Stok, near Leh in Ladakh, totally immersed in his linguistic studies. His host was Sonam Stobgyas, a former monk from Hemis monastery who later became one of the first Ladakhi Christian converts. Jäschke then spent the next 11 years in Kyelang, apart from an extended stay in Darjeeling in 1865, before returning to Germany in 1868.

Although Jäschke’s own travels were limited, he took every opportunity to engage with travellers from all parts of the wider Himalayan region and Tibet. Among many others, these included Lobsang Chospel (bLo bzang chos ’phel), a monk trained in Central Tibet who stayed in Kyelang from 1865 to 1868.

At the same time he studied a wide variety of written texts. These included: the 'Dzangs blun, a collection of legends of Buddha; the Vaiḍūrya dkar po, an astrological and astronomical work compiled by Desi Sangye Gyatso (sDe srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho, 1653-1705);  a version of the La dvags rgyal rabs (the Ladakhi royal chronicle); and the biography and songs of the famous Tibetan Buddhist master Milarepa.

The Kyelang mission house in the 19th century (with thanks to Hugh Rayner)
In Kyelang, Jäschke produced a range of school books, evangelistic texts, draft Bible translations and a Romanized and English Tibetan Dictionary, all of which were copied out by hand, and published on the mission’s lithographic press. Back in Germany, he worked on his 671-page Handwörterbuch der Tibetischen Sprache (1871), which was likewise copied out by hand for lithographic printing. This was the direct predecessor of his Tibetan-English Dictionary, published in London in 1881. 
A sample extract from the 1871 Handwörterbuch der Tibetischen Sprache
The 1881 English version of the dictionary is Jäschke’s best-known work: every page reflects years of painstaking research with careful notations as to literary sources and regional variations.

At the same time Jäschke worked on revisions of his Tibetan New Testament, and these were eventually published by the British and Foreign Bible Society in Berlin in 1883 and 1885. The printed version is notable not only for the translation but also for the carefully selected Tibetan font cast by the Berlin firm Th. Unger (see illustration).

The first page of the Gospel of St John, 1881.

By the early 1880s Jäschke was already in poor health, and this made the task of correcting the proofs of the New Testament both slow and laborious. He passed away in Herrnhut in September 1883. His tombstone in the nearby Moravian graveyard is marked with a text from his Bible translation, Matthew 25: 23.

 John Bray

Select bibliography

Jäschke’s works

Jäschke, Heinrich August. 1871. Handwörterbuch der Tibetischen Sprache. Gnadau: Unitäts-buchhandlung.

______.1881. A Tibetan-English Dictionary with Special Reference to the Prevailing Dialects. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

______. 1883. Tibetan Grammar. London: Trubner & Co.

____. (trans). 1883. Four Gospels. Tibetan. Berlin: British & Foreign Bible Society.

____. (trans). 1885. Acts to Revelation. Tibetan.Berlin: British & Foreign Bible Society. [Revelation was translated by Jäschke’s pupil and successor, F.A. Redslob].

Secondary sources

Bechler, Theodor. 1930. Heinrich August Jäschke, der geniale Sprachforscher der Mission der Brüdergemeine im westlichen Himalaya. Herrnhuter Missionsstudien No. 25. Herrnhut: Verlag der Missionsbuchhandlung.

Bray, John. 1983. “Heinrich August Jaeschke. Pioneer Tibetan Scholar.” Tibet Journal 8, No.3, pp. 50-55.

______. 1990. “A History of Tibetan Bible Translations”. In Wissenschaftsgeschichte und gegenwärtige Forschungen in Nordwest-Indien, pp. 66-79. Edited by Gudrun Meier and Lydia Icke-Schwalbe. Dresden: Museum für Völkerkunde. Available on www.ladakhstudies.org.

______. 1991. “Language, Tradition and the Tibetan Bible”. Tibet Journal 16, No. 4, pp. 28-58. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

______. 2008.  “Missionaries, Officials and the Making of the Dictionary of Bhotanta, or Boutan Language.”  Zentralasiatische Studien 37, pp. 33-75.

______. 2015. “A Himalayan Encounter: Lama Lobsang Chospel and Heinrich August Jäschke”. Tibet Journal 40, Nos 1 & 2, pp. 151-158.

Forthcoming. “Heinrich August Jäschke (1817-1883): Translating the Christian scriptures into Tibetan”. Paper presented at the Seventh International Csoma de Kőrös Symposium on Buddhist Transcreations in Tibetan Literature and Art, New Delhi, September 2014.

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