Baylor Lecturer Speaks of his "Good Struggle" - Translating the New Testament into Arabic from the Original Texts

Abduh-Massih Saadi

A former monk/civil engineer/business manager - who now teaches Arabic at Baylor University - has turned his talents in a different direction: translating the New Testament for the first time ever into Arabic directly from the language that Jesus spoke.

The Arabic language is the fastest-growing language on Twitter and the world's fifth most common language, according to Wikipedia. Abdul-Massih Saadi, Ph.D., a lecturer in Arabic and a native of Aleppo, Syria, said it has been "a good struggle" to translate the text into two versions -Modern Standard Arabic, as well as a Colloquial Arabic of Levant (Qulto dialect).

The 800-page project meant not only poring over original texts rather than the English of the King James Version or the New International Version, but holding the colloquial version up for scrutiny by people ranging from educated to illiterate to be certain it corresponded with what they speak and understand - including idioms.

"It would be very difficult to over-emphasize the scholarly and spiritual significance of this," said Heidi Bostic, Ph.D., chair of the department of modern and foreign languages in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences. "Dr. Saadi's scholarly work, and indeed his own life story, highlight the significance of Arabic-speaking Christians around the world."

Here is a question-and-answer session with Saadi about his volume (United Bible Societies and Aramaic Bible Translation, 2012):

Q: Aside from using original texts rather than English translations of those texts, what makes your work unique?

A: Our translation is the first Arabic Bible based on Eastern Bible tradition, namely the Syriac. Most unique in this project is the Colloquial Arabic Version. It is not only the first time to introduce the Bible in colloquial Arabic, but also it is the first time ever to produce such decent literature in a colloquial version to Arabic literature. This colloquial is known as Mardini. Both compare the Greek counterpart in footnotes when necessary.

Q: What is the difference between Syriac and Aramaic? I had read that Aramaic is a dead or dying language.

A: Aramaic is still a living language in Syria, Turkey and Iraq; many Christian families in these regions, including my wife's family and mine, speak it as their first language. There are even Muslims and Jews who still speak it as their first language. The term Syriac refers to one Aramaic dialect in which the Christian literature was written. Evidences from the second century A.D. indicate that the Aramaic-speaking Christians undertook the translation of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament into Syriac . . . The Syriac translation of the Greek New Testament restores many of Jesus' expressions in the language He spoke. The Lord's Prayer, for instance, is as close as it possibly can be to the very words of Jesus Himself. It is natural to think that those early Aramaic-speaking Christians had memorized the Lord's Prayer in its original form, and that the translators wrote their memorized Aramaic version as they were consulting the written version in Greek.

Q: What was this 12-year undertaking like for you as a scholar?

A: This translation was kind of "homemade" dedicated work, and my mother deserves the biggest credit, especially for the colloquial version. Next is my brother, then I. The translation was a learning process and struggle toward understanding both obvious and hidden meaning of the original text in forms of poetical devices or local idioms; then transferring these same meanings in clear expressions, carrying modern poetical devices and modern local idioms when it was feasible. In order to secure the understanding of laity, we invested considerable time for a community check to the whole translation with Mardini speakers. For example, after reading a passage to a group of speakers of Mardini, we asked them to repeat or comment on that passage. Their response was valuable for checking the accuracy and naturalness of the translation.

Q: Tell about your background.

A: My first name is Abdul-Massih, which is translated as "the Servant of the Messiah." For many in the Middle East, the name is not merely identification but rather identity and responsibility. Thus my name became a statement of faith and responsibility. Even in my childhood, when I did something wrong, people would reproach me saying, "Either change your behavior or change your name." Among other factors, it was because of my name that I joined the monastic order while I was 12 years old. I functioned in the monastic order for almost 20 years; I got a diploma in theology from St. Ephrem Theological Seminary, a B.A. in civil engineering from Aleppo University, a B.A. in business management from the University of Damascus; and, from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, I got two master's degrees in theology and Eastern Christianity, a Th.M. in New Testament, and a Ph.D. in New Testament and Syriac Studies.

In 2002, God called me to marry and raise a family. A few weeks later, I was introduced to Naila my wife and we got married. God blessed us with two sons: Isaac and Gadiel. My recent call was to come to Baylor and be part of it serving the community after teaching for 10 years at the University of Notre Dame.

Q: Given the growing interest in Arabic, are you seeing a difference in the numbers of students who take your classes?

A: Until the year 2001, the students in my Arabic and Syriac classes averaged around 10. A few years later, the students of Arabic jumped to 300, while the students of Syriac remain 10.

Q: What was this like for you spiritually?

A: What is more blessed than dealing with God's Word with family and friends in God's world? God was the first translator of His Word to the world in an easy, natural, accurate and communicative way.

To interview Dr. Saadi, contact Terry Goodrich, 254-710-3321, or the Office of Media Communications at (254) 710-1961.