Rana Issa, The Modern Arabic Bible: Translation, Dissemination and Literary Impact (Edinburgh University Press, 2023).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Rana Issa (RI): I am attracted to texts that work as prisms for disentangling and analyzing the complexities of systems of domination. The modern Arabic Bible is one such prismatic text. When I decided to delve into its history, I knew that I would have occasion to explore the entanglements of colonialism, capitalism, and modern systems of knowledge as they shaped an ancient text, native to the region, and transformed it into a global, Western text that set certain standards for Arabic language use and book publishing in the nineteenth century. I studied a very specific moment in Arabic Bible translation, a moment that was at once intensely local, in how the Bible contributed to the development of Modern Standard Arabic, while also being intensely global: Anglophone missionaries had unified translation strategies that they applied to the eighty-eight versions of the Bible that they produced in world languages. The paradoxes of the nahda thicken in the production and translation of the Bible. In this sense, the Bible was a perfect case for exploring how a text belonging to the genre of scripture ushered in the secular ideologies of modernity through its production processes that depended on philology, modern printing presses, and synchronistic multinational missionary translation strategies.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

RI: This is the first study of its kind that narrates the historical context of the translation of the Bible in Arabic and analyzes its impact on the development of modern Arabic language and literature. I studied the Bible as a commodity; in other words, I examined its life as a book in the process of production, by actors who labored to articulate its exchange value. Its physical attributes—how it was translated, packaged, promoted, and priced—were crucial to exploring how it produced new readers with new tastes about what is to be considered good Arabic style and a good Arabic book. I was especially interested in how the nineteenth-century Bible was produced in Classical Arabic, when earlier Arabic Bibles were mostly produced in dialect or in middle Arabic registers. I was also interested in how work on Bible translation affected the young local translators who assisted the missionaries in realizing their dream of making the Bible available for “forty million heathens” of the “mohammedan faith” and “nominal Christians.” I was interested in comparing the Bible beginnings of al-Bustani and al-Shidyaq to their later and more famous works, and to explore how the Bible has framed some of their thought on key issues in language and literary ideology, the relationship to past texts and to scriptures, as well as their contributions to forging a new political imagination and politics of belonging.

To explore those issues, I read four Bible versions and compared to various other earlier versions from the canon of Biblia Arabica. I also read in classical lexica and dictionaries. I focused on al-Bustani’s encyclopedia and al-Shidyaq’s al-Saq ala al-Saq as well as most other works in their corpus. I assembled an archive for these authors as well, and so also read through their correspondence, a labor that has only rarely been undertaken in scholarship. I connected this massive corpus to the early careers of these authors as Bible translators. In addition, I read nineteenth-century periodicals, correspondence, catalogues, and out of print books and worked on manuscripts and lexica in several languages, including languages that I only superficially knew, especially Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac. This extended philological labor explored the Bible’s contribution to the conceptual history of modern Arabic, and as I argue in the book, the Bible versions that became canonical at the time actively competed with the Quran and participated in the production of a sectarian national imagination.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

RI: This is my first book, and it took ten years of labor to produce. I started writing this book one month after Lebanon began its journey towards total collapse, in September 2019, when I was still a faculty member at the American University of Beirut (AUB). When I set out to do the research for this book, I was interested in analyzing some of the structures that began collapsing all around me at the time of writing. I had started my inquiry into these structures when I was still a bachelor student at AUB, and when time came to write my Master’s thesis, I chose to work on Edward Said and produced a gendered study of his work. My interest in postcolonial and gender studies was rooted in my political awakening in post-civil war Lebanon and my deepening understanding of how colonialism has shaped many of the violent structures that continue to rule us today. After AUB, I spent two years at the University of Marburg researching pre-nakba Palestinian literature and published an article on the topic before I began my PhD. In many ways the book is a culmination of my critical study of the early beginnings of resisting Zionism in writings by Palestinian authors. I sacrificed gender in this project, but I cultivated skills in philology, translation, and history that I hope to transfer to other research interests in the future.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RI: The book intervenes in theoretical debates on translation and world literature by historicizing the role of the Bible as the inaugurating object for thinking translation, since Eugene Nida’s foundational impact on the field. The book deprovincializes the case of the Arabic Bible by revealing its generalizable characteristics in its impact on literary cultures of modernity, as well as on thinking translation as a practice and as a modern academic discipline. The book targets an interdisciplinary readership in theology, translation studies, literature, Middle Eastern studies, and nahḍastudies. It is suitable for middle to upper-level undergraduate courses. I have used some of the material in this book in undergraduate courses such as: “Introduction to Translation Studies,” “Translating the Nahḍa,” “Survey of World Literature,” “Introduction to Victorian Literature,” as well as in graduate seminars: “Translating the Nahḍa Bible,” and “Individual, Religion, Nation.” It can also be part of courses on “Biblia Arabica,” “Foundational Texts of Modernity,” “Modern Translations of the Bible,” and “Historical studies in Translation.”

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RI: I have two projects at the moment. Together with Suneela Mubayi, I am in the process of translating Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s travelogue with the title Tickets to London and Paris by the Remarkable Ahmad Fares. This translation is a by-product of my work on the Bible and will make available to English readers a more accessible al-Shidyaq text than his masterpiece Leg over Leg that was translated by my friend and mentor, the late Humphrey Davies. I am also on a writing sabbatical to develop a memoir project that covers four generations of women in my family. I use queer methodologies of analysis as well as my philological and translational skills in this memoir. The wager is to learn from maternal politics of care a viable modality for how we can mend our societies despite the continuing onslaught and fragmentation decimating us. I see this memoir as a continuation of my work as a literary historian of translation, whereby I push the limits of my thinking around translation’s Arabic cognate, tarjama, which also encompasses biography writing, into a praxis of micro history that connects with my sustained critical interest in describing and resisting systems of oppression operating in the Levant.

J: What are three main features of change that occurred for the modern Arabic Bible that set it apart from past translations?

RI: The commoditization of the Arabic Bible in the nineteenth century was a major shift in how the Bible came to be perceived as scripture in modernity. The new Bible was a best seller, when in earlier epochs it enjoyed only limited availability, and circulated mostly in clerical and some elite circles. The commoditization of the Bible influenced the language style the missionaries ultimately chose for the Bible. Whereas in earlier times the Bible translations produced in the Levant were distinguishable by their local dialects, the new Bible used a simplified form of classical Arabic that came to be known as Modern Standard Arabic. Consequent upon its commoditization, the reading practices around the Bible also changed. Whereas in earlier times, most Christians would encounter the Bible in Church services and would be acquainted with it as a written text only in small excerpts, like by reading Psalms or the Gospel of Matthew out loud to the village priest, the new Bible was for almost a decade the cheapest book one could purchase in Arabic. Even the proletarian classes (regardless of their religious belonging) could afford to purchase it.  This wide availability promoted solitary reading practices among people and ushered a new market for Arabic books that spanned the entire Arabic continent.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, pp.149-187)

Butrus al-Bustani: Translator (excerpt)

The death of Eli Smith in 1857 disentangled Butrus al-Bustani from his engagements with the Syria mission, and his career as a Bible translator came to an end. Two years before Smith’s death, this friend and mentor had left him a long letter explaining why his candidacy for the position of minister of the evangelical church in Beirut had been rejected. As Smith writes, al-Bustani had acquired a ‘secular rather than spiritual’ reputation, as a ‘man of great intelligence’, whose skills and contribution to the secular betterment of the people can be seen in his dedication to ‘secular business whichever be of the literary kind that would leave for the pastorate a divided mind and heart which would certainly stand in the way of success’. Fearing that al-Bustani may become too distracted by his literary pursuits from the work of the ministry, Smith might have triggered al-Bustani’s release from the burden of spiritual responsibilities that he was carrying throughout his employment with the missionaries. Under no legal obligation to honour his contract upon the death of one of the signatory parties, al-Bustani left the Bible unfinished, in the care of Cornelius Van Dyck, his friend and colleague, who would carry out the task of the full translation of the continuous text mostly alone, aided only by the Muslim sheikh Yusuf al-Asir, as copyeditor. Al-Bustani went on to build a literary legacy that he envisioned as part of modernising Arab society and a propellor for its progress. This legacy included newspapers, lexicons and literary translations. In all these endeavours, translation was the primary tool that was deployed for the production of texts.

Smith’s death interrupted al-Bustani’s trajectory so he could transform his biblical interests and his skill in translation to the root and method that anchored his secular endeavours. Al-Bustani’s later work embodies one of the great paradoxes of modernity, in how he decided to base his secular thinking on religious thought. The secular inversion, as I show, represses the extent to which the modernity he advocated for was based on religious assumptions. Al-Bustani is often celebrated for his anti-sectarian pronouncements and is identified by academics as the seminal author for a radical rethinking of Lebanese identity outside the sectarian divide. I examine how al-Bustani readjusted concepts like adab and tarikh within a discourse of modernity as a secularisation that leads to progress, and showcase how these two concepts were given a biblical genealogy as the basis for his participation in their definition. Translation was for al-Bustani not merely an intellectual activity of the technical kind. Rather for him translation carried an epistemic value; emerging as the very model of knowledge production and social commitment. His investment in translation complicates a reading of local translators as postcolonial tricksters, searching for ways to appropriate Western culture in order to subvert it. Al-Bustani’s agency as a translator was turned inwards, towards his own society, and what he laboured to subvert was not the power the missionaries exerted on his culture. Rather, he celebrated the missionary intervention and berated his society for its lethargy in catching up with them.

Upon his death on the 2 May 1883, the team that was assisting al-Bustani in writing the encyclopaedia decided to bury him in it, in the entry on ( دائرة المعارف Dairat-el-Ma’arif). As they mention ‘We were asked to fix an entry on the deceased under the keyword “Daʼirat al-Ma‘arif” because the B volume had been completed during his lifetime, God rest his soul. So we decided to copy it (naqlaha) or translate it (tarjamataha) from his eulogy in al-Muqtataf’. Significantly this entry valorises translation as the single most important contribution of the deceased, alongside his lexicons. As the entry summarises, after he left his employment as a teacher in the school of Ayn Waraqa, the deceased began to work as a translator for the English military power that defeated Ibrahim Pasha and drove him out of the Levant. Then he went into employment with the American missionaries as a teacher and translator, then worked as a dragoman for the American consulate in Beirut, in conjunction with his work as a translator, educator and preacher. He began working on translating the Bible with Eli Smith but left the work unfinished to embark on his lexical projects. His legacy was remembered for how ‘he included many colloquial words [in his dictionary] that could be of use to foreigners learning Arabic . . . Between 1843 and 1866, he spent much time in translation and writing’. In addition to his several authorial achievements in lexicography and journalism, the entry goes on to mention his work in ‘translating Pilgrim’s Progress, The History of the Reformation, Salvation History, the Bible, and Robinson Crusoe’. This chapter explores the Bible as it shapes the legacy of Butrus al- Bustani. By making direct references to the Bible and the world views that have emanated from it, al-Bustani reformulated the project of Arab modernity embodied by the nahda by asserting that a rupture was needed with the Arabo-Islamic tradition to interpolate Western knowledge for modern speakers of Arabic. As he repeatedly suggested, translation ‘compresses time’, and brings Arabs up to speed with European civilisation.

Al-Bustani sought a synchronisation with the West that would align knowledge temporally and identify it with modernity. The Eurocentric axis of this desired synchronicity rested on two temporal points of origin: one is the moment of creation, which he traced back to Genesis, and the second is the moment of truth, which he situated in the nativity of Christ. Through structuring Arabic linguistic and literary history around those two temporalities, al-Bustani replaced the stable force that kept the Arabic language in orbit around the Qur’an with an alternative narrative that emphasised the role of translation in enriching Islamicate culture across time. The shift in the temporal axis of Arabic permeates all of al-Bustani’s works, and its impact was at its most ambitious in his two lexical projects, his Muhit al-Muhit, a two volume dictionary that was written in the classical style typical of Arabic lexicons, and his Daʼirat al-Ma‘arif, an enclyopedia that is largely comprised of translating English, French and Italian modern encyclopaedias in an aggregate that deliberately synchronises Arabic civilisation with a Western standard of knowledge. Prior to embarking on these laborious texts.

From the outset, al-Bustani introduced the Bible as a principal text in the construction of an alternative history of the Arabic language and asserted the role of translation in the production of valuable knowledge. Al-Bustani desired to establish contemporaneity with the West, which his translations aimed to achieve through their textual signposts and contexts of enunciation. His worldview made no room for the untranslatable, and whenever he encountered it, he cut it out. In his Khutba he demanded that words be deleted from the copious Arabic lexicon, and in his translations of Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim’s Progress, he left out whole passages that might have offended his local readers. These deletions served his ambitions for contemporaneity. For the symbolic potency of this ambition, he has been acknowledged as the mu‘allim, the teacher whose body of work centred around the dissemination and popularisation of knowledge. Whether in his lexicons, newspapers, translations, grammars, or the short-lived school that he founded in 1863, al-Bustani’s pedagogical commitment was fundamentally translational – with lessons from biblical translation providing the framing assumptions and the tools for knowledge production and dissemination […]

Al-Bustani typified an era that cultivated its cultural specificities and ideological aspirations within a context that was acutely aware of the superiority of Western modes of production. His cultural contributions were produced through a double consciousness of a contemporaneous Western Other, and an othering of the past Islamo-Arabic self. This double consciousness was not unique to al-Bustani. In the changing material conditions of knowledge production, this double consciousness and the tools for its expression were a shared feature, and were not specific to an individual author or school of thought, but constituted ‘an autogenetic response’ to historical materialist conditions, that swept across the regions associated with the nahda, as well as shared ‘its dynamics with many other places in the world, including the West, but crucially also the modernities of Southwest Asia and North Africa.’ The translation of the Bible specifically embodied those material transformations in knowledge production, synchronising worlds and languages. Inasmuch as this was a shared feature, al-Bustani also cultivated individual difference, brought about by the unique geographical location that he occupied. Unlike other modernists and nahdawis, he emphasised the Syro-Arabic inflections of Levantine history through etymological sedimentations. These sediments became his witness for the enduring presence of Arabic-speaking Christians throughout the region’s history. This assertion of presence was forged through translation and under its influence.