From English to Algonquian: Early New England Translations

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John Eliot

John Eliot (1604-90)

As both a translator and an author, John Eliot played a role in the production of nearly all texts relating to colonist and native interactions in seventeenth-century New England. In addition to playing a key role in the production of the first book printed in America, the Bay Psalm Book, Eliot (with other prominent New England Puritans) authored several early pamphlets collectively known as the Eliot Tracts. This collection of pamphlets printed in London was meant to inform the colonists’ English benefactors of their missionary work. In addition to documenting the colonists’ evangelical endeavors, these tracts include some of the earliest and only known printed descriptions of native social practices and customs. Though these writings are inherently Eurocentric, they offer insight into native practices that may have been lost had they not been written down.

Aside from his tracts, Eliot is best known for his work in producing the Algonquian Bible (also referred to as the Eliot Bible)—a translation of both the Old and New Testaments into the Algonquian language. In the Protestant tradition, Eliot believed that in order to Christianize Native Americans he needed to provide them with a Bible translated into their own language. 

Though he did not create them alone, Eliot is also credited with authoring several other Algonquian-language texts. In endeavoring to preach to the natives in their own language and provide them with primers and catechisms, Eliot worked with several natives whom he employed as his interpreters, including Cockenoe, John Sassamon, and Job Nesuton. Through his work with these native interpreters, Eliot was able to preach his first sermon in Algonquian by 1646. Eliot would also go on to publish Indian primers and catechisms and his magnum opus, the Algonquian Bible, with the help of his interpreters and another Native American, James Printer, a Nipmuc working at the Cambridge Press.