Beginning with the Word

January 4, 2016

My Shakespeare in Swahililand project started a little over five years ago, when I was helping to organize an event to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Several of the key translators of the Bible were associated with my College - both James Montagu, the first Master, and Samuel Ward, the second, worked were part of one of the Cambridge teams that met as a group to read through the classical texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin, and modern translations in European languages, to attempt to arrive at the most accurate and authoritative translation possible. The extraordinary lectures delivered on that day, by historians John Morrill and David McKitterick, musicologist Kerry McCarthy, and Oxford Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill, can be listened to here.

 

My small part in the day was to read out part of the translation of John's Gospel into Swahili, as part of the celebration of translation and language exchange of which the King James Bible was a part and which it in turn provoked. 'Mwanzo palikuwa na neno, neno akawa kwa muungu, neno akawa muungu': 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'. I became fascinated by the odd character who translated them -- Edward Steere, the third Missionary Bishop to Central Africa -- and this fascination only deepened when I discovered that one of the first texts he printed on the press that he brought with him to Zanzibar was a Shakespearean one.

 

While the Swahili element of the King James Bible celebrations were pursued in one part of my life, the idea of introductory lectures to great books also led my colleague Clive Wilmer and me to institute a lecture series (the 'Sidney Greats') designed to provide Sidney students (and the general public) with accessible introductions to great books, ideas, figures and events. Those lectures, which over the years have featured such luminaries as Sir Geoffrey Lloyd (speaking on Chinese Science) and Lord Rowan Williams (speaking on Dostoevsky) can be listened to here.

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© 2016 by Edward Wilson-Lee.