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Nicholas Monsarrat’s masterpiece translated by Wistin Born

Wistin Borg

Wistin Borg

Less than a year after the well-known English novelist Nicholas Monsarrat first published The Kappillan of Malta back in 1973, Wistin Born, the famed author of Is-Salib tal-Fidda (The Silver Cross), had already translated it into Maltese.

The main objective was not to publish it but, with the author’s consent, to have it read by Charles Arrigo on the Rediffusion cable service. This was done at the very end of this company’s 39-year existence in the Maltese Islands.

As it happened, this was also Born’s last major contribution to national broadcasting. In February 1975, just a week after Arrigo finished reading Born’s translation of The Kappillan of Malta, the Rediffusion company ran into industrial troubles with the General Workers Union, at the end of which the government ended the company’s indenture and took over the service.

Born, after being unceremonously dismissed from the service, locked out like most of his colleagues, was not even allowed to personally retrieve his belongings. He never went back.

Ever since, the manuscript of Born’s translation lay in an archive at Sliema belonging to his religious congregation, the Dominican Order. The manuscript, consisting of two large folio volumes, had never been released for publication until now.

By consent of Monsarrat’s and Born’s literary proprietors, the entire translation is being released by SKS Publications in its original form, supervised by myself, also a member of the Dominican Order.

The publication includes a researched introduction on the lives and literary endeavours of Monsarrat and Born, together with an appreciation of the novel’s text, genesis and background. It pays homage to the literary prowess of both Monsarrat and Born.

The novel, which has been translated into various languages) including German, French, Spanish and Portuguese) and sold in millions, bears all the marks of an accomplished writer with elegance of style, broad vision of plot, a command of idiom and extensive research.

The manuscript, consisting of two large folio volumes, had never been released for publication until now

Born retains all these features which make the novel a great read, but also added to them his own special imprint: his wide fund of Maltese terminology, his skilled turn of phrase and his gifted grasp of local sensibilities.

Born’s version is far from being a literal translation. Comparing the two versions, Monsarrat’s original novel and Born’s rendering of it in Maltese are like two adaptations of the same film.

They do not replace each other, but both stand alone, each in its own right. It is clear that, while translating the novel – intended to be heard, as opposed to read – Born paid special attention to the effortless flow of words and ease in understanding.

In print, this is not lost. On the contrary, it bestows a beauty and a luxury of its own. Born’s rendering, in fact, is as much a work of art as Monsarrat’s original production.

Though the central figure of The Kappillan of Malta is a priest, its protagonists are the people of Malta and Gozo. Having lived the previous five years in Gozo, fully acquainting himself with Maltese life, history and customs, Monsarrat’s novel is more than just a talented act of invention. It reads like an act of fondness, if not of love.

Charles Arrigo (left) with Nicholas Monsarrat.Charles Arrigo (left) with Nicholas Monsarrat.

Without ignoring our foibles, his work is very often like an anthropological sketch of the people he lived with, though he was not part of.

Choosing World War II as the immediate setting for his story – a time of great peril, anguish and grief for the Maltese people – Monsarrat brings together in a most dexterous way the big history of that terrible conflict and the small histories of the ordinary people with all their magnanimity and pettiness. He was good at this.

Moreover, by flipping further back to other histories – such as St Paul’s shipwreck, the coming of Count Roger, the Great Siege, the French occupation, and others – Monsarrat weaves a 3,000-year long narrative in order to highlight the strengths he perceived in the Maltese character.

All of this went down well with Born who immediately, on reading the newly-published novel, decided not to keep it from the Maltese-speaking Rediffusion subscribers.

Nevertheless, there probably were also other features he bonded with in Monsarrat’s epic work: its romantic nature, possibly already outdated at the time; the personal vicissitudes of the central figure, Fr Salvatore, most of which somewhat mirrored Born’s own experiences.

And, not least, there are the wartime incidences and hazards. What Born toned down were only the few saucy parts of the novel, which now have been fully restored.

The great majority of Born’s literary productions have never been published. They include poems, novels, academic studies, homilies, speeches, and a large number of stage and radio plays of various lengths and calibres.

In his heyday, back in the 1950s and 60s, Born was a well-known cable and radio personality, and also a well-liked drama director. For many years, he was the heart and soul of Rediffusion. The De Porres Hall at The Strand in Sliema, which he founded in 1957, was his base up till the twilight of his life.

Today he is still mostly known for his 1935 novel, Is-Salib tal-Fidda, a dramatic love story which in its day was considered somewhat too racy.

Since its first publication four years later, the novel was issued in seven other editions, translated into English (Godwin Ellul, The Silver Crucifix), published in photographic form, adapted twice for the stage, turned into a musical, and also converted into a TV series.

By contrast, Born himself is little known. SKS’s new publication, Il-Kappillan ta’ Malta, will include what is probably his first ever published full biography.

Born in 1910, he was the grandson of an English dockworker from Devonshire who emigrated to Malta around 1873. In 1926 Born joined the Dominican Order, and was ordained a priest in 1933. During World War II he was a military chaplain, aiding soldiers on gun batteries, after which he followed a bright career in mass media. He died in 1986, aged 76.

Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Kappillan of Malta, now to be published in Wistin Born’s original, unabridged Maltese version, celebrates the unconquerable spirit in each and every one of us.

As hard as life can be, we cannot allow its callousness and cruelty to bring us down. Both Monsarrat and Born bear witness to how resilient our human mettle can be. Their joint work of art is a celebration of life and the power of love, and a treasure of Maltese literature.

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