Rev. Anton Tien: Interpreter and Language Instructor

It’s interesting how often I come across language textbooks from over a hundred years ago which are in truly excellent condition.  I’ve just found a lovely little copy of the fifth edition of Anton Tien’s Manual of Colloquial Arabic, from the 1890s.  Its owner was a Captain in the British Army in Jerusalem in 1918, who seems to have opened it only to write his name, and then given up on the project.  Crisp pages, and not a dog-ear or an ink-blot in sight.  The road to learning Arabic is paved with good intentions.

For language nerds, there are also plenty of distractions before you even reach the title page of manuals like this: two tempting double page spreads of advertisements for other language books by the same publisher.


Perhaps our British Army Captain decided that Andamanese was more to his taste.

One name recurs among the authors of these language textbooks: Rev. Dr. Anton Tien (1834-?).  He appears as the author of the Manual of Colloquial ArabicModern Greek Manual and Turkish Grammar.  Who was he, and how did he acquire his languages?

The early life of Anton or Antonio Tien is recounted in brief in A History of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, by the wonderfully-named Reverend R. J. E. Boggis, B.D. (1907):

Anton Tien’s history is one that savours almost of romance, if told in its entirety. The parts that chiefly bear on his connection with St. Augustine’s are as follows. A member of one of the most ancient families of the Lebanon Maronites, he was in early life selected to succeed to the patriarchate, and with this intent was sent to Rome to pursue his studies at the Propaganda, where he remained for several years. The course of events however led to his taking a sea- voyage as tutor to a devout Englishman, and the result of their reading their bibles and praying together was that Tien recognised the superior purity of the Anglican faith, and, sacrificing his prospects of becoming Patriarch of the Maronites, came to England, bearing letters of introduction to Mr. Gladstone. It was the counsel of that loyal churchman that he should study at one of our theological colleges rather than enter the university ; and after taking a survey of the situation, the convert made choice of St. Augustine’s. Here he spent two years in retirement, and then, having received ordination en route in the island of Malta, he went out in 1860 to Constantinople, where he found that his knowledge of oriental languages and religions equipped him with a store of arguments to be used in controversy with the Turks. 

In Constantinople, Rev. Tien found that instruction in English and other European languages was a great enticement to Muslim Turkish parents to send their sons to Mission schools – where they might be evangelised.

Before arriving in Constantinople – something which the history of St. Augustine’s College curiously fails to mention – Rev. Tien served as Oriental Secretary on Lord Baglan’s staff during the Crimean War (1853-56).  He appears to have had some contact with Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, to whom the Manual of Colloquial Arabic is dedicated.

It is difficult to find much further information on Rev. Tien’s life and career.  He spent some time in London, working with the resident Muslim community there.  In 1878, he reported to the General Conference on Foreign Missions on his efforts.  The University of St. Andrew’s holds in its archives two letters from him to George Hay Forbes, regarding an Arabic translation which he undertook for Forbes.  At that time, he lived at 109 Queen’s Street in Dalston, London.

Rev. Tien’s publications include his guides to Arabic, Turkish and Modern Greek, translations from Arabic into English (notably the Apology of al-Kindi), and translations from English into Arabic (the Book of Common Prayer or کتاب الصلوة العامة).  For those of a less grammatical or scholarly disposition, he also wrote two simpler phrasebooks: The Egyptian, Syrian, and North-African Hand-Book: A simple phrase-book in English and Arabic for the use of the British forces, civilians and residents in Egypt (1882) and The Levant Interpreter: A polyglot dialogue book for English travellers in the Levant (1879).

The title page to the latter bills him as ‘Formerly first-class interpreter to the Allied force in the Crimea’.  Inside, the reader finds the necessary languages for navigating the Ottoman Empire arranged in three columns next to the English: Turkish, Italian and Greek – but not Arabic.  The layout is simple and elegant.  The book concludes with several Bible passages rendered into the relevant languages.

Tien Polyglot

On 16 July 1871, a curious report about Rev. Tien appeared in, of all places, the Courier-Journal, Lousiville, Kentucky.  It made a scandalous claim, which is, as far as I can see, unsubstantiated in any other source:

Tien Courier 1871

It seems all the less likely to be true, given that Rev. Tien later acted as interpreter between a visiting Omani dignitary and representatives of Queen Victoria (The Times, 2 December 1886):

Tien Sultan 1886

Anton Tien’s career as language mediator ranged across languages, empires and media.  He had experience as an oral interpreter for some very high-profile clients.  He also produced written translations, into his L1 and his L2, of complex philosophical and religious texts.  The owner of my pristine copy of his Manual of Colloquial Arabic can have appreciated little of this.

Further reading:

Hilary M. Carey (2011) God’s Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, c.1801–1908.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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