Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2005.

Source: Melita Historica : Journal of the Malta Historical Society. 6(1975)4(446-448)

[p.446] KARM SANT, It-Traduzzjoni tal-Bibbja u l-Ilsien Malti 1800-1850. Veritas Press, Zabbar, 1975, 48 pp. Published by the Malta University on behalf of the Ġużè Galea Foundation.

The first sound research on Protestantism in Malta during the 19th century appeared in Giorgio Spini’s Risorgimenta e Protestanti (Naples 1956). Spini is a leading Italian historian, and an authority on Protestant, and reformist movements in Italian history. The book mentioned above contains frequent references to Malta as a centre of Protestant propaganda in Italy and in the whole of the Mediterranean. The British and Foreign Bible Society, set up in 1804 with the two-fold aim of promoting education among the lower classes and providing them with the possibility of reading the Bible, and the Church Missionary Society, whose activities were usually backed by the Colonial Office, were both very active in Malta in the first half of the century. The first Evangelical journal in Italian, according to Spini, was the one published in Malta in 1845 by M.A. Camilleri, a lapsed Maltese priest who had followed the footsteps of the University professor Cleardo Naudi. Quite a few important Italian exiles, such as Gabriele Rossetti (the father of Dante Gabriel), Giovanni Battista di Menna (a lapsed Capuchin, who later taught at Eton) and Giacinto Achilli (a lapsed Dominican, notorious for having taken Cardinal Newman to court), actually became Protestant in Malta.

The present publication by Professor Sant (who teaches Holy Scripture at the local Faculty of Theology) throws new light on Protestant activity in 19th century Malta. The names of British and Maltese activists, which I met the first time in Spini, become real men whom we learn to know and understand thanks to the original research carried out by the Author in the archives of the two Protestant Societies mentioned above. He mostly based his research on unpublished correspondence, which cannot fail to throw light on the character, aims and activities of the various people who form the object of one’s investigation. I would say that the real “hero” revealed by the present publication is the Rev. William Jowett, of whom we had hardly heard before. A young sincere clergyman, fired with missionary zeal, he was sent to Malta by the Church Missionary Society in 1815 to cater for the spiritual welfare not only of Malta but also of other countries bordering the Mediterranean. During his fifteen years’ stay in Malta, he founded the Malta Bible Society in 1817; he established. the Church Missionary Society Printing Press which in 1822-44 turned out several thousands of copies of a hundred different books in Greek, in Italian, in Turkish, but mostly in Arabic; he travelled widely in the Eastern Mediterranean and published some of his findings in his Christian Researches in the Mediterranean from 1815 to [p.447] 1820 (London 1822); despite all sorts of difficulties and opposition, which would have disheartened a less dedicated minister of religion, he managed to bring out the first Maltese translations of the Bible, or parts of it. He wrote in his diary: “Sunday 6th September [1818], Giuseppe Canolo finished the Maltese New Testament. This will be an illustrious day in our Calendar.” And in March 1828, when he had just engaged Mikiel Anton Vassalli as a translator, he wrote to the Secretary of his Society: “His style is so much superior to that of Canolo and Dr Naudi that I rejoice in having him. He has given me St. Matthew’s Gospel and is now, on St. Mark’s. I never incurred an expence with greatet satisfaction, than this.”

This keen, intelligent, energetic Englishman actually played a decisive role in the early establishment of Maltese as a written tongue. To promote a Maltese translation of the Bible, he had to face the arduous task of choosing and establishing a Maltese alphabet. The part he played in all this is one of the “revelations” contained in the present publication. Jowett discussed the Maltese alphabet with his Maltese translators and availed himself of the advice of Professor Lee of Cambridge University. He proposed, his own alphabet. He probably influenced Vassalli’s tendency towards orthographic simplification (though the Maltese philologist would not easily change his mind; it is interesting to find him insisting on correcting the proofs himself and on using “English Pica” for his Maltese Grammar). Professor Sant analyses the development of the Maltese alphabet in the early Bible translations promoted by Rev. Jowett: his findings are a necessary addition to Ninu Cremona’s and Professor Aquilina’s contributions on the history of Maltese orthography.

“After all,” wrote Jowett to Professor Lee, “considering that the Maltese has never properly been cultivated, their Gospels seem to me our experiment. But it ought to be tried.” Jowett realized fully that he was “experimenting” with what he repeatedly called “fixing the Maltese language.” Apparently, he dedicated so much thought and energy to this “experiment” for two main reasons. First, to prove that the language spoken by the Maltese “is a truly dignified one, a worthy daughter of Arabic, fully deserving an eminent place among oriental tongues”: there could have been, therefore, in Malta during the early years of British rule, influential people genuinely interested in Maltese and desirous to see it grow and prosper, while others, more politically minded, were interested simply in diffusing the English language at the expense of Italian and used Maltese as a lever to reach their aim. Secondly, Jowett believed that the Maltese language, once the experiment of fixing it succeeded, could lead “to a new principle in writing the spoken language of North Africa and Syria by introducing a judicious use of new vowels.” [p.448] In other words, Jowett thought that Maltese could provide a clue as to how to write Spoken Arabic, and thereby promote the study of modern Arabic dialects in the interest of local education. This shows what a man of broad vision Jowett was. The question is still hotly debated in Arab countries today (cfr. Current Trends in Linguistics, vol. 6). He believed that the Maltese edition of the Bible, in its purist style, could one day be used in North Africa and in Syria. Of course, the more practical Prof. Lee and Dr. Pinkerton, of the Church Missionary Society, suggested that in that case “the Arabic character will be necessary.” Professor Sant aptly remarks that these Maltese editions of the Bible did not make headway either in Africa or in Malta, as they were not “Semitic” enough for Africa, and too purist in style and vocabulary for Malta. Nonetheless, Jowett’s was no mean personality, and his activity in Malta and the impact of his ideas are worth studying.

The paper under review is entitled: The Translation of the Bible and the Maltese Language. It contains new ideas of interest both to historians and linguists. It is, I think, one of the best papers ever published in Maltese (in spite of oversights like Buthurst for ‘Bathurst,’ attentat for ‘tentativ’). It augurs well for future lectures and publications with the funds of the Ġużè Galea Foundation.

G. Mangion