The Malta Independent 12 July 2020, Sunday

Mikiel Anton Vassalli – The Story of Cyrus the Great Found in Translation

Monday, 10 February 2020, 10:48 Last update: about 6 months ago

Writing about Mikiel Anton Vassalli, as Ivan Said frequently and enthusiastically admits during our daily discussions on Maltese literature and language, had always been his dream and ambition and it is precisely these that his recently published book Mikiel Anton Vassalli - It-Traduttur has fulfilled. But the book does not simply accomplish Said's aspirations, it also sheds new light on Vassalli's life and work as a translator.

Several studies have already been dedicated to Vassalli but, to my knowledge, this is the first time a book entirely focuses on Vassalli's role as a translator. And this makes Said's Mikiel Anton Vassalli - It-Traduttur even more valuable and unique to those among us who have at heart the history of Maltese translation work.


The book opens with a detailed and noteworthy summary of Vassalli's chequered life and seminal work but, aside from this, Said's principal aim is to present his readers with a facsimile of Vassalli's original published text of Storja tas-Sultan Ċiru accompanied by a parallel text in modern Maltese. Vassalli's language, which admittedly is still recognisable after two hundred years, has become in certain aspects encrypted in such a way that, actually, few Maltese readers could boast to read it at a glance without expert help. Aware of this, Said undertook to decode painstakingly and rewrite the text himself and consequently, his research in this domain offers the reader a modern day version of Vassalli's 19th century translation. Thus, besides conveniently providing the agreeable opportunity of comparing both texts at a glance, the parallel or mirror text in modern easy-to-read Maltese found in Mikiel Anton Vassalli - It-Traduttur also renders life easier for the interested reader.

It is frequently said that many things are lost in translation but I believe that many things are found in it too. Before reading Said's book, I was under the firm belief that Vassalli translated the Cyropaedia directly from Xenophon, but having read it, I have now learned and am aware that what Vassalli actually did was to translate the Histoire ancienne manipulated version of Charles Rollin's education of Cyrus (which as Said correctly states undeniable bears traces of both the Greek historian Herodotus as well as the Jewish prophet Ezra). By reworking Xenophon's text Rollin was just following the practice of his times when historians, for their own purposes, kept on plagiarising classical authors and each others' works. Undisputably, Said's book manages to explode the myth of Vassalli translating Xenophon from classical Greek, at least as far as I'm concerned, that his translation gives us a faithful rendering into Maltese of Xenophon's Cyropaedia.  

Yet, in spite of not being Xenophon's Cyropaedia, Vassalli's translation still makes fascinating reading. Cyrus served as a model of the ideal ruler both in Xenophon's time as well as during Rollin's lifetime (and here Rollin's approach reminds me of François Fénelon's Télémaque). Both historians use Cyrus for didactic and doctrinal purposes. Cyrus is the beloved conqueror, who frees the enslaved Jews from the yoke of their Assyrian exile in Babylon, acquiring the status of liberator from brutal poignant oppression. Ancient and Biblical texts all present him as the benevolent and compassionate leader in contrast to the notoriously cruel and frequently sadistic Assyrian kings. In a way Cyrus, like Marcus Aurelius, seems to be one of the best candidates to be considered as Plato's philosopher-king.

However, beside the narrative of Cyrus' life, as Said hints in his various commentaries, what is indeed truly very interesting in Storja tas-Sultan Ċiru is that Vassalli's ultimate aim was probably to represent himself symbolically and mythically as a "Maltese Cyrus" trying to liberate his fellow unschooled and, therefore uneducated countrymen, from social oppression. This gives Vassalli's translation not just linguistic value but also an allegorical dimension which must not be neglected especially vis-à-vis the social role that is frequently attributed in modern translation theory to translators and their work.

Seen from the various perspectives given above, Said's initiative to publish Vassalli's translation into Maltese is not only relevant for its verbal value, especially regarding the development of the Maltese language and the field of orthography, but also for its potential usefulness for students of translation studies. With his translation Vassalli clearly wanted to send the unambiguous message that Maltese, though still in its infancy as a written vehicle, was capable of rendering any foreign text to its readers. In his wisdom, Vassalli knew that his beloved vernacular could only take root as a writing tool as long as it availed itself, as other European languages did centuries before, of the written wealth available in other languages. Thus, on one hand, Said's initiative to bring back from the realm of oblivion Vassalli's translation is, for these reasons to say the least, commendable while on the other it superbly opens the way for students of translation studies to delve further into the work of Vassalli as a translator.

Hardbound and beautifully illustrated, Mikiel Anton Vassalli - It-Traduttur reflects Said's commitment and exertions over the years to achieve his dream. And by fulfilling it, Said presents us with a book, which besides being instructive and entertaining to read, is also thought provoking especially by shedding new light on Vassalli's motives to translate the extract from Rollin's Histoire ancienne of Cyrus, King of the Medes and ruler of Asia, and all he stood for. All things considered, Said's book is also a tribute to Vassalli, the great man of letters, linguist and translator who, for his times, inopportunely harboured politically unaccomplished dreams.


Paul Zahra is the awarding winning translator of Marcel Proust and Gustave Flaubert

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