Willcocks’ Egyptian New Testament.

Sameh Hanna writes for Biblia Arabica about a man with the right idea about translating into Arabic:

In an interview published in 1927 in the Cairo-based monthly al-Hilāl, Egyptian intellectual and reformist Salama Musa (1887-1958) asked a retired British civil engineer, among other things, about what made him happy at the end of his career. The then 74-year old Sir William Willcocks (1852-1932) replied: “obeying God and fulfilling Christ’s purpose by serving people… and by printing the gospel in the colloquial so that the common people would have access to Christ’s words and sermons. In this I find more happiness than I used to find in engineering” (Musa 1927:1165). […]

The first edition of Willcocks’ translation of the New Testament (entitled in Arabic Al-Khabar al-Ṭayyib bitāʿ Yasūʿ al-Masīḥ) was published in five serialised volumes that started with Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, published in one volume in 1921, followed by Luke and John’s Gospels (volume 2) and Book of Acts (volume 3) in 1926. The first edition of the translation was completed in 1927 with two more volumes, Selections from Early Epistles (volume 4) and Selections from the Later Epistles (volume 5). The translation went into a second edition in 1928 and Saʿīd (1964/1980, 61) indicates that she had access to a 1949 edition of it, after which time the translation seems to have gone out of print. In addition to his translation of the New Testament, it is claimed that Willcocks also translated the books of Genesis and Psalms into the Egyptian vernacular (ibid), but there is no evidence to support this claim.

This translation project was motivated by Willcocks’ firm belief in the expressive potential of Egyptian colloquial Arabic and its ability to communicate the loftiest ideas in literary as well as sacred texts. He took this belief to the public domain much earlier, when in 1893 he gave a public lecture entitled ‘Why does not the power of invention exist among Egyptians now?’ In answering the question, he mainly argued that thinking and writing in fuṣḥa (a language register that Egyptians learn at school) is the main reason why Egyptians lack in creativity and inventiveness. He emphasised the potentials for using ʿāmmiyya in literature, giving the example of the British people who rejected Latin and adopted English as their language of literary expression and hence achieved progress (al-Dusuqi, 1948/2000, 44-5). To make his point, he published extracts from Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Hamlet translated in the Egyptian colloquial. More than two decades later, he published his translation of the New Testament, co-authored by an Egyptian Christian by the name of Manṣūr Effendi Bakhīt. The translation was published with the Nile Mission Press, a Cairo-based publishing mission that was so active in publishing Christian literature in Arabic vernaculars, not only in Egypt but in other Arab countries. Founded by two British missionaries, Annie Van Sommer and Arthur T. Upson in 1905, Nile Mission Press (NMP) was operated from Tunbridge Wells, England, though based in Cairo. NMP was known for publishing translations in the colloquial and Menzie (1936: 169) reports that the “late Sir William Willcocks said that the Nile Mission Press was the only Press that he knew which took pains to print colloquial accurately.”

There’s more discussion of the translation, as well as images, at the link.


  1. ‘Why does not the power of invention exist among Egyptians now?’ In answering the question, he mainly argued that thinking and writing in fuṣḥa (a language register that Egyptians learn at school) is the main reason why Egyptians lack in creativity and inventiveness.

    The Chinese decided a century ago to ditch their Literary language (Classical Chinese) for the vernacular. I suspect that considerations of ‘creativity’ and ‘appropriateness for the modern era’ might have played a role in making that decision. (The history of Chinese efforts to ‘modernise’ is a rich area for study).

    Apart from issues of religion (sacredness), one obstacle to the vernacularisation of Arabic writing would have been the existence of mutually unintelligible vernaculars. In China’s case, the imposition of a new national standard (northern-based) was achieved despite resistance. China now has one single national standard. The political fragmentation of the Arabs would have made that much more difficult.

  2. John Cowan says

    Mandarin certainly wasn’t that new. It was used for communication face to face between bureaucrats throughout the Empire, and indeed, the meetings of the 1912 Commission on Unification of Pronunciation, which was about standardizing Chinese official speech, was perforce conducted in Mandarin[*].

    The commission eventually settled on the Bopomofo semi-syllabary (one character per initial and one per rhyme) and a weird hybrid pronunciation. This was basically Beijing dialect with these exceptions: three extra initials v, ng, ny; unmerging the originally separate velar and palatal ancestors of Pinyin j, q, x (which had merged as palatals before front vowels); clearly distinguishing between /e/ and /o/; and pronouncing the ru (Middle Chinese 4th, final-stop) tone as a final glottal stop as some southern dialects of Mandarin do. Unfortunately, nobody could pronounce this except Yuen Ren Chao, and not even he in actual conversation, so it was abandoned in 1926 in favor of a slightly deracinated Beijing pronunciation.

    [*] Though there were glitches. One of the delegates from the South happened to use a localism for ‘rickshaw’ that sounded a bit like 王八蛋 wángbādàn ‘son of a bitch (lit. turtle’s egg)’, a strong curse. The vice chairman of the meeting, outraged by this breach of decorum, attacked the delegate, beat him up, and threw him bodily out of the meeting.

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