The Holy Bible was first subjected to translation into the Fijian language in 1839 – and only in part. It was undertaken by the first European Christian missionaries to Fiji, David Cargill and William Cross, who had arrived, 12 October 1835, at Lakeba island in the lau group. The men had come to Fiji directly from prior service in Tonga, where both, and Cross in particular, were versed in Tongan. Cross had published the first Tongan translation of the Gospel of Matthew.

Although Cargill held a Master’s degree in linguistics, it was the untrained Cross who, working mostly in Viwa and Rewa, devised the first elementary Fijian alphabet. In 1839, Cross completed a translation of the Book of Genesis predominantly in the Bau and Rewa dialects of Fijian. Cross also translated hymns and other texts using his Fijian alphabet.

David Cargill adopted Cross’s alphabet “being convinced of its usefulness” and produced a grammatical system (‘Hints to a Friend on the Rudiments of the Feejeean Language’) and the first Fijian dictionary, as well as pursuing his own predominantly Lauan translation of the New Testament, starting first with the Gospel of Mark (1839).

Meanwhile, John Hunt joined the Fiji missionary effort in 1839 to work in Somosomo, but also to assist in the work of Biblical translation. Others “new recruits” who contributed to the work were missionaries, James Calvert (assigned to Lakeba), Thomas Jaggar (a printer assigned to assist Cargill in Rewa), and Richard Lyth (who worked with Hunt in Taveuni).

But it was Hunt who took the lead. While able to make use of Cargill’s New Testament, his preference was for Bauan. By the time of his death in 1848, Hunt had completed his New Testament (1847) as well part of the Old Testament. Assisting Hunt were indigenous Fijian translators: Noa Koroinavuqona, Ratu Ravisa of Viwa, and Adi Litia Vatea.

Noting the difficulty of translation they encountered, Hunt observed:

“We have to use words in a sense in which they have never been employed before … there is still sufficient obscurity arising from new ideas and an uncommon use of words”.

Hunt further observed that while the Fijian language (like Tongan) was “very simple” on the face of it, “a critical knowledge of [it] requires great application … [but that]

“a person with the Authorised Version … a good commentary, and good common sense, may make a tolerable translation of the Scriptures into any language he understands”.

Cargill and Cross’s alphabet and the work of Hunt and his team, were subsequently built upon by the missionary, David Hazlewood, in his revised translation of their foundational work. Hazlewood’s translation of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) was completed and published in 1864, almost 150 years ago.

In 1901, 62 years after the first Bible translation work began, missionary Frederick Langham produced a further revised Bible (based on Hazlewood’s version) – the standard Fijian version which is in use to today