Though the first book in Albanian by Gjon Buzuku (1555) includes vast portions of the Bible, and though there were some other attempts to translate the Holy Scriptures into Albanian, nothing was published until the nineteenth century.
Two big churches, the Catholic and the Orthodox, for complicated reasons, disregarded this very important field and left it uncultivated. It was taken up by the Protestants, who were able to succeed not only because they knew how to till and to sow by using the skill of their experience in other countries, but also because they responded to the hindrances of their rivals with a cultural notion of the work. This notion accepted the local language as a vehicle, and even esteemed and developed it. During the last century, the time of our Renaissance, he who helped the development of the Albanian language, won the battle [for the souls of men].
For about a century and a half Albanian translations have been produced by the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS). The official date of its founding is considered as March 7, 1804. The origins of every human undertaking, after reaching success through long activity, are surrounded with mist of legend and anecdotes. Even the Bible Society is no exception. It is said that a young girl from Wales did not know English, so she asked for a copy of the Bible in Welsh. The leaders of a Protestant missionary society in London discussed her request, and approved it. But one of the members asked, “Why in one language and not in all the languages of the world?” Thus a committee was created with the idea, “the Bible for the whole world”. Without doubt, the historical reason for that beginning was deeper than this anecdote. This was a characteristic English response, a disproportionate response to Napoleon’s campaigns, which were spreading the ideas of the French revolution. The Englishmen, unwilling to accept being eclipsed [by the French] with respect to the strength of their world-wide message, renewed the Biblical message. As for the force of its influence, such an event could be compared with the 16th century Reformation, from whence Protestantism originates.
From their experience, representatives of the Bible Society found it indispensable to gather complete information before they undertook a translation. By my research in the archives of the Bible Society in London in 1972, I have extracted all the materials related to Albanian. The first document in this wealth of material originates in August 1816, and the last one in March 1946. I published the major part of these documents twenty years ago in the magazine “Philological studies”, therefore here I will touch only some of the most important points.
By investigating the Albanian book market, these representatives documented the condition of education and culture in Albania, as well as the breadth of usage and level of development of written Albanian. They even laid out the problems of writing Albanian, and of Albanian education. I turned the pages of these documents with a feeling of gratitude towards those who created and guarded this wealth of material; from the pages of which there stood out some of those figures without whom our language, literature, and culture would not be what they are today.
On August 28, 1816 Robert Pinkerton, the representative of the Moscow branch of the Society, wrote a letter from Vienna, to argue for the need of Albanian translations, and presents therein the very same ideas, which were accepted by Kristoforidhi 45 years later. Some learned Albanians, as soon as they met this important representative in Vienna, welcomed his initiative, and thoroughly convinced him that an Albanian translation should be done. Here is the genesis of this bright idea. As well, Pinkerton’s subsequent ardent passion for Albanians cannot otherwise be explained. He was a man who with the Russian czar’s approval, traveled 7000 km throughout Russia; then came to Vienna, met the famous European arbiter, Prince Metternich, and yet his main preoccupation was with an Albanian New Testament.
In the autumn of 1819 in Istanbul, Pinkerton met Vangjel Meksi, an officer and doctor of Ali Pasha Tepelena, who also had prepared an Albanian grammar. Their full agreement was signed on 19 October 1819. The translation was completed in the beginning of 1821. But in the complicated circumstances of the uprising for the liberation of Greece, Meksi left, and died in 1823. It was decided not to publish the whole New Testament, but to make a test with the first gospel.
Before the publication, and even after it, the people who were working with the Bible, made careful investigation of the level of understanding of the translation, and of its conformity to the real usage of the written language. In this way they accomplished a serious philological work; some among them being people with genuine philological knowledge and competence. Meksi’s handwritten manuscript, a full copy of which I found in 1972 in London, would fall just into this category. The editing and the correction of printing was done by Gregor Gjirokastriti, archbishop of Eubea, a man also with a broad education. On September 1824, 170 years ago, the printing of the Gospel of Matthew was finished, the first full part of the Albanian Bible that we know of today.
Isaac Lowndes in Corfu kept track of the acceptance of the book among the Albanians, and one Albanian who came from the homeland on May 1825 told him, “The joy and pleasure of the people were so great that when the day to read the Gospel of Matthew came, it was thereafter read regularly throughout the churches.” This is a very important fact, because here for the first time we have documentation that a Gospel in Albanian was read in Albanian churches. Even others notified Lowndes that many people had a burning desire to possess the work.
With the practical ability of I. Lowndes, and the care of G. Gjirokastriti, the first Albanian New Testament was published in Corfu in 1827. This was a cultural event of such importance for the Albanian language, that its light shone throughout all the past century. By this publication of the Bible Society, our language was elevated to the world standard of the printed page, taking its previously non-existent place on the map. Its publication aroused a special interest of European philological and cultural opinion about our language. I will mention only the words of J. Ksilander, who in 1835 republished the whole Gospel of Mark. He said that “with this translation, the time of doubt and uncertainty about the Albanian language is over; through it the other people of the world have a sure basis…[to accept it as a full language].” After Ksilander, there is a long list of distinguished scholars, who made use of the publication of the New Testament in Albanian in their scientific work, like J. P. Famillmerayer, J. G. von Hahn, F. Bope, D. Kamarada, G. Mayer, etc.
From 1833 to 1856 the documents of the Bible Society record nothing about Albania. But I want to mention a remark made to A. Thompson, who was told that in 1853, after having been in Paris, Vienna, and Venice; the patriot, Said Toptani, came back home, that he preached Protestantism in Tirana, and that in 1864 was interned in Akra [Turkey].
At the end of 1856 the Bible Society’s interest was kindled again for a new publication of the Albanian Testament. At the same time even the American Foreign Missionary Board in Istanbul began to have an interest in the Albanian language. Unfortunately, during these past twenty years I have not had the possibility to get acquaintance with the archives of the American Societies, which preserve valuable surprises. Therefore, I will mention only that in March 1857 Dr. Hamlin invited Kristoforidhi from Smyrna to begin a new translation. Kristoforidhi was accepted as a student in the American College of the Missionaries in Bebek, whereas in July he passed to the Protestant College in Malta, Where he continued translating. The new edition of the New Testament in 1858 was unsuccessful.
In 1860 Alexander Thompson came to Istanbul as a representative of the Bible Society in Turkey. This noble, devoted, and generous Scotsman worked for 35 years in this mission, making an unusual contribution not only with regard to Albanian publications, but also by leaving us a wealth of documentation. His relations with Kristoforidhi were complicated and lasted for a long time. I am writing a whole book, the major part of which is about the cooperation between these two men, who were equally handsome and clever, hard working and educated, restless travelers, and fond of books, language and school. The fruits of their cooperation were the Gospels and the Acts in 1866, the Psalms on 1868, and the whole New Testament in the Gheg dialect in 1869. I want to emphasize that again for the first time we have an Albanian New Testament in the northern dialect. Kristoforidhi translated only the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus into the Gheg dialect, which were never published. But I have found the complete handwritten manuscripts of them in London.
After 1872, publications were done only in the Tosk dialect; the Psalms were published in 1868, the whole New Testament in 1879, Genesis and Exodus in 1880, Deuteronomy in 1882, Proverbs and Isaiah in 1884. Kristoforidhi left in handwriting five other books of the Old Testament. With the publications of these translations, as Thompson said in 1867, “This interesting people soon will no more be accused of not having a written language.” It is worthy to point out that A. Thompson gave unsparingly to help Kritoforidhi, even going beyond the obligations of the Bible Society, to publish the first Primer in Gheg in 1866 (in Tosk in 1868), a Catechism in Gheg in 1867, a History of the Holy Scriptures in Gheg in 1870 (in Tosk in 1872), and especially the Grammar of the Albanian language in 1882, for which money was collected and paid personally by Thompson.
After the break in relations with Kristoforidhi, the Bible Society continued with new editions, adapting them to the evolving Albanian language, including alphabet and style. Only Job an Ecclesiastes were published as new translations. This activity of endless perfecting involved some of the most well-known names of the Albanian Renaissance, and of our culture in general. Every publication was a real struggle for an Albanian book, surmounting the brutality of the ottoman invaders, the intrigue prepared by the chauvinists in religious clothes, the difficulties of this very serious activity, human weaknesses and ambitions, and even bad luck. All of this very interesting story is the theme of a second book about the translation of the Bible into the Albanian language which I am writing now. Since 1868 the editing of the Psalms in the Tosk dialect was done by Jani Vreto. I will not use lofty phrases to describe those saints, who were wholly devoted to their country and culture, who with these high ideals thus approached the books of the Bible.
Luke and Matthew were published in 1886, revised by Pandeli Sotiri. After Gerasim Qiriazi took Kristoforidhi’s position in 1884, he began to prepare Matthew and Psalms with the Albanian alphabet established in Istanbul, but at Naim Frasheri’s suggestion, he turned his attention to Genesis and Matthew, which came out in Bucharest in 1889. In 1894 he took Athanas Sina as his assistant, and with the work of both of them the Psalms were republished in 1895. In September 1897 Faik Konica asked the Bible Society if he could undertake the translation of the whole Bible, whereas the Arbaresh publicist Anselmo Lorekio proposed to them in 1899 to do a translation in the Arbaresh dialect [used in southern Italy].
For ten years the Ottoman government forbade any publications in Albanian, until the proclamation of their constitution in 1908. Meanwhile, in 1895 Thompson was replaced by Thomas Hodgson, who secured the help of Naim Frasheri for the gospels of Mark, Luke, John, and the Psalms. Only in 1909 did A. Sina start anew the publications in Manastir, helped by Gjergj Qiriazi with the gospel of Mark, the first book reprinted using the present Albanian alphabet. In 1910 Matthew and Luke came out, in 1911 John was published, and the four Gospels came out together in 1911.
On the eve of the declaration of independence of Albania a new situation was created. We have the first sign of it in a letter dated October 20, 1911 by James Barton of Boston. Seeing the vigor of the awakening of the Albanians, the American Board of Christians Foreign Missions (ABCFM) sought to hasten the completion of the translations by including Gregor Cilka and Kristo Dako in this work. After a month Phineas Kennedy from Korça also proposed the creation of a new commission to produce a new version based upon the Elbasan dialect. At the same time, A. Sina began work on the Old Testament with the book of Proverbs, Changing it to the present alphabet. He sought to hire Simon Shuteriqi as his assistant, and to translate the whole Bible within three years. Thought he was against the inclusion of Cilka and Dako, Sina could not avoid the new idea of commission, therefore he proposed, besides Shuteriqi, Mithat Frasheri or N. Naçi also. Beginning by envisioning that they would produce three versions in Albanian, Telford Erickson from Elbasan suggested on March 18, 1912 that the commission be composed of F. Konica, Luigj Gurakuqi and S. Shuteriqi. On his part, as a counter-proposal, T. Hodgson included the name of Josif Haxhi Mima. However, Erickson insisted on the Elbasan dialect, and in a new variant of the commission he included G. Cilka, Lef Nosi, and a certain Jovani.
The beginning of the Balkan War, then the outbreak of the World War I, hindered the creation of any commission. A. Sina continued the work with the publication of the New Testament in 1913, helped by Gjergj Qiriazi (George Kyrias) and Shuteriqi, then with Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and finally finishing his work with Job and Ecclesiastes in Manastir in 1914. I cannot help pointing out a special fact about Albania immediately after its declaration of independence. On May 1913, the President of the first Albanian government, Ismail Qemali, was in London together with Mehmet Konica and Philip Noga, as a delegation of the Ambassadors’ Conference. On May 17, he asked if he could make a visit to the BFBS “in order to thank them for the help they have rendered in the Albanian question by producing the Bible and other things.” The visit was made on May 20, and the newsman Charles Woods, who was the mediator, two days later wrote that visit confirmed the sympathetic attitude of Ismail Qemali towards the work of the Protestants in Albania, and that he was very grateful for the interest they had shown, offering them any kind of help in the future.
The American Bible Society (ABS) in 1915 published Mark in Albanian- English parallel texts, using the British Society’s Albanian translation. During the war, Athanas (Thanas) Sina finished translating (hand-written) the whole Bible, and in 1921 relocated from Manastir to Korça together with all his materials. In 1981 I sought these materials in Korça, which must have included some manuscripts of great value, but with deep regret I found that they were sold as mere paper for cardboard. Later Sina was taken ill. By his work, with the help of his son-in-law Loni Kristo, Mark and Proverbs were printed in Korça in 1928, and as far as I know, also Leviticus and Numbers in 1933, and John in 1937, but I have not seen these books.
After the War, the Society appealed to the Minister of Education, Kristo Floqi, to undertake the reprinting of the Bible with the present alphabet. He thanked them for their interest in the good of the country. Concerning Sinas;s manuscripts, the idea of an editing commission was revived. It was proposed that P. Kennedy cooperate with Mithat Frasheri and K. Dako in Tirana for the review. M. Frasheri accepted with pleasure, but later he had no free time for that work. Dako did not accepted working with the manuscripts, because he considered them immature, and proposed to do a new work together with Mihal Sherko, Karl Gurakuqi, Mati Lorenci, and a secretary. The New Testament was republished in Berlin in 1930, with some corrections of Loni Kristo. It is not mentioned in the London documentation, but finally in 1930, even the Albanian Autocephalous Orthodox Church published the Gospels according to Kristoforidhi’s translation. From Sina’s manuscripts, the book of Samuel was sent to F. Konica in America in 1935, but he could not come to agreement with F. Noli, and the project was discontinued. Six months after his appointment as Metropolitan of Korça in 1937, Evllogji Korilla sought to edit Sina’s translation, but a year later he changed his mind and wanted to do the whole translation from the beginning by himself. The London committee decided to postpone this matter, and as it is known, two months later Albania was occupied,
In August 1945 Edwin Jacques from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, asked London for a new version of the Gospels. He also talked with Fan Noli, without receiving any encouragement, therefore he proposed that a new revision be done by Koçi Treska from Korça. Jacques hoped to come to Albania as a missionary of the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Board, which had chosen Albania as its field. He was expecting the recognition of Albania by the USA within few days, and he ends a letter dated January 19, 1946 with the words, “Let us use this time wisely that we not be found unprepared when the door is opened again.” But with the ideological catastrophe that took place in Albania, 45 years had to pass until the door was open again. The last document is dated March 26, 1946. I have no data or documents abut what was done from that time until today.
From this sketchy presentation, we can draw at least two important conclusions. First, the Bible Society has carried out a long and successful activity, because it has done a work of high quality, with a profound knowledge of the country, culture, education, and matters of the Albanian language, by tracing the phases of its evolution, and by choosing the most prepared people, with patriotic ideas. Second, these distinguished Albanians, greatly inspired, were included in this activity, making it an inseparable part of their lives and commitment for the spiritual awakening of their compatriots, for the restoration of Albanian education, for the cultivation of Albanian culture and literature, and for the progress of Albanian as a rich literary language. Being included in this process, they themselves learned and further perfected their abilities, ascending higher as intellectuals of this nation. The nation always expressed honor and gratitude towards them, and towards the Bible Society and others. For those who have begun again the publication of the Bible in Albanian according to the contemporary requirements, it will be very useful to know this twofold tradition of the Bible Society and Albanian culture, because it gives them the know-how, and shows them what is the key of success to the soul of this people.
Through the centuries the Bible is the pinnacle of revered literature; It has been the Book. Even today, when books are produced and reproduced as any other consumer product, it is the Bible that preserves the holiness of unsullied literature. It already has its place in Albanian culture, and will proceed together with it.
Prof. Dr. Xhevat Lloshi
written January 1994, Tirana, Albania, and submitted to the IAPS for publication