Translations of the Ave Maria (Hail Mary) made before
the May Fourth Movement were into Classical Chinese
for the practical reason that many of the words in colloquial Chinese had,
before then, no written form; and for the cultural reason that
no religious text of any significance would be written in the
vernacular tongue. Certainly, in pre-May Fourth China, even
personal letters between private individuals were written
in Classical Chinese (possibly via profession letter writers).
The earliest translation I am aware of is a clumsy affair
derived from Latin:
mǎn bèi gélàjìyà zhě
full of grace
Zhǔ yǔ ěr xié yān
the Lord is with you
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Nǚ zhōng ěr wéi zhànměi
Blessed art thou amongst women
et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus
ěr táizǐ Yēsù bìng wéi zànměi
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus
Sancta Maria mater Dei
Tiānzhǔ shèngmǔ Mǎlìyà
ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora mortis nostrae
wèi wǒděng zuìrén jīn qí Tiānzhǔ jí wǒděng sǐhòu
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
The translator obviously had difficulty translating certain concepts into Chinese.
There is no attempt to translate some words and these are merely transliterated
by strings of nonsense characters:
these words are ave 亞物 (hail) and
gratia 額辣濟亞 (grace).
Benedicta 'blessed' is translated by 讚美
which really means 'praised'; my feeling is that 見福
jiànfú or 受福 shòufú
('to have received good fortune') better retains the sense of the original.
The word 候 is also used to translate hora 'hour', although it
more usually means 'to wait'—the usual
translation would be 時 shí.
A slightly later translation exists that addresses some of these issues.
It is identical to the older translation, except that
ave is translated as 申爾福 shēn'ěr fú
(literally, 'Wish you good fortune'), and gratia as 聖寵 shèngchǒng.
In my opinion, the choice of 寵 is not appropriate, as it
implies the indulgent love of a parent to his child; I think the word
恩 ēn, which is the favour and grace of a ruler towards his
subject, more accurately encapsulates the meaning of the Latin gratia.
A still later Classical Chinese version exists, which, again, is essentially
the same, aside from 萬福 wànfú being used
to translate ave. This version is still in current use.
When older Chinese Catholics pray the rosary, they do so in a manner that is almost
identical to the recital of Buddhist sutras: a rhythmical, sing-song, Buddhist chants:chanting
sort of prayer that sounds alien to Christian ears. As the text is entirely in
Classical Chinese, most Chinese may not actually understand the words, but merely
memorise the sounds. For this reason, the version which is currently used in most
Mandarin and Cantonese churches is a vernacular one, the older classical version
being used only by non-Mandarin speakers, for whom the Mandarin vernacular is
incomprehensible when read in their dialect.
nǐ chōngmǎn shèngchǒng
full of grace,
zhǔ yǔ nǐ tóngzài
the Lord is with you;
nǐ zài fùnǚ zhōng shòu zànsòng
blessed are you among women,
nǐ de qīzǐ Yēsù tóngshòu zànsòng
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
tiānzhǔ shèngmǔ Mǎlìyà
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
qiú nǐ xiànzái hé zà wǒmen línzhōngshí wèi wǒmen zuìrén qǐqiú Tiānzhǔ
pray for us sinners, now, and at the our of our death.
Ave Maria. Commissariat of the Holy Land, Franciscan Monastery. Washington, D.C. (1936).
Ave Maria in 404 Lingue. Ordine Equestre del S. Sepulcro di Gerusalemme. Milano (1931).
Many thanks to David Landsnes of Kendall Park, New Jersey, for providing some of the source material I cite.