Tribute to Malta’s foremost translator

Tribute to Malta’s foremost translator

Malta’s accession to the EU in 2004 and, consequently, the need of readily available translators for recruitment caught the translation profession in this small member state on the wrong foot and, as yet, the European institutions are still sorting the issue of finding permanent qualified Maltese translators.

Notwithstanding, it is wrong to assume translation to the Maltese language started in earnest with the country’s EU accession eight years ago. A cursory look at the list of the 19th and 20th centuries’ publications in Malta would show numerous literary and religious works translated into Maltese, mostly from Italian and English and, to a lesser extent, from French. Well- and less well-known European literary works provided the much-needed texts for translation to Maltese language, which was striving to assert itself as the country’s national tongue in the colonial era preceding the 1964 Independence.

In a predominantly Catholic country like Malta, especially that of the 19th and 20th centuries, religious literature and the Bible provided the larger source for translation into Maltese. Ironically, it was the Protestants who sponsored and published the first translation into Maltese of the four gospels and the Apostles’ Acts in the 19th century intriguing, among others, our beloved father of the Maltese language, Mikiel Anton Vassalli, at a time when not even the British colonist dared to challenge the quasi-theocratic status of Catholicism in Malta. Besides the gospels’ and the Apostles’ Acts’ translation, printed in London in 1829, there is a long list of works translated into Maltese and printed in Malta by the Christian Missionary Society, a Protestant body that ran a printing press on the island between 1822 and 1844.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Malta’s foremost translator is a Bible scholar: Mgr Professor Pietru Pawl Saydon. Considered to be an intellectual giant of 20th century Malta, Mgr Saydon dedicated 30 solid years of his life translating the 75 books of the Bible from the original languages, namely Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. He published the first part in 1929 and the last part in 1959, financing the publication himself.

Born on July 24, 1895, in Żurrieq, Mgr Saydon became a Catholic priest on September 20, 1919 after following studies at the Archbishop’s Seminary and the Royal University of Malta. Soon after, he took up Holy Scriptures’ studies at the Bible Institute of Rome.

Between 1931 and 1964, Mgr Saydon was professor of Holy Scriptures and Hebrew at the Royal University of Malta and was president from 1931 to 1932 and, for many years a very active member, of Għaqda tal-Malti (Università), a University-based association that strove hard to promote Maltese as the national language during the colonial era.

In 1946, Pope Pius XII appointed him Cameriere Secreto, an honorary position in the papal household. On November 12, 1960, the Royal University of Malta conferred on him a doctorate of literature (honoris causa). Mgr Saydon was well-respected in academic circles throughout Malta and Europe, especially among Bible scholars and experts of oriental languages. His researched commentaries on some scriptures of the Old Testament – still considered academically authoritative in Europe – were published for many years in major reference books dealing with the subject.

He was also a great polyglot, a master of many languages including Arabic, Aramaic and Syrian, besides the major European languages. Two of his closest students, Mgr Karm Sant, another biblical scholar, and Canon Joachim Schembri, say he possessed Latin “impeccably”.

In 1959, Mgr Saydon discovered an old manuscript from the ninth century AD containing an excerpt from the gospel of St John, from verse 19 to 28 of chapter 17 in the University of Malta library where he was librarian.

This year, Malta is marking the 40th anniversary of his death, which took place on March 22, 1971, in Żurrieq. The anniversary coincides with the 50th anniversary of the death of national poet Dun Karm Psaila.

An extensive biography, Saydon – Biblista u Studjuż tal-Malti (Saydon – Bible and Maltese language scholar), by Carmel Bezzina, was published in 2006. The book includes an in-depth critique of Mgr Saydon’s writings and translations.

Two monuments commemorate Mgr Saydon, one at the University of Malta’s Junior College and another in Żurrieq, his home town. One of the major lecture theatres on the University campus is named after Mgr Saydon as are two streets and a square in two Maltese villages: a well-deserved tribute to a great man.

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