Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sale, George

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SALE, GEORGE (1697?–1736), orientalist, son of Samuel Sale, citizen and merchant of London, was probably born about 1697. Kent is said to have been his native county, but the further statement that he was educated at King's School, Canterbury, is not corroborated by the school archives. On 24 Oct. 1720 he was admitted a student of the Inner Temple. He does not seem to have been called to the bar, but practised as a solicitor. At an early period he turned his attention to the study of Arabic, but Voltaire's statements in the ‘Dictionnaire Philosophique’ (arts. ‘Alcoran,’ ‘Arot and Marot’), that he spent ‘twenty-five years among the Arabs’ or ‘twenty-four years near Arabia,’ are quite erroneous. He never left his native country. Gibbon was probably following Voltaire when (chap. xlvi.) he called ‘our honest and learned translator, Sale … half a Mussulman.’ In 1720 the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, whose offices were in the Middle Temple, undertook to print an Arabic translation of the New Testament for the use of the Syrian Christians. Solomon Negri of Damascus had been sent over by the patriarch of Antioch to press the scheme on the society's attention, and it is not improbable that Sale engaged Negri as his first instructor in Arabic. A learned Greek, named Dadichi, of Aleppo, who arrived in England in the summer of 1723, also gave him tuition. Sale so perfected himself in Arabic that on 30 Aug. 1726 he consented, at the society's request, to give his services as one of the correctors of the Arabic New Testament. In November of the same year he was elected a corresponding (i.e. non-subscribing) member, and thenceforward, until 1734, took an active part in the labours of the society. Not only was he the principal worker in the completion of the Arabic New Testament, but he acted as honorary solicitor, auditor, steward at the annual festivals, and general adviser to the society. His relations with the association brought him the acquaintance of many men of note, including John Wesley and Sir Hans Sloane.

Sale did not apparently relinquish his legal work while pursuing his literary labours. His biographer, Davenport, seems to be in error in asserting the contrary. But there is no doubt that, owing to his devotion to oriental studies, his legal business declined. Disraeli says of him, but on what authority does not appear, that he ‘pursued his studies through a life of want … and when he quitted his studies, too often wanted a change of linen, and often wandered in the streets in search of some compassionate friend who would supply him with the meal of the day’ (Miscell. of Lit. ed. 1853, p. 130 n.). This seems an exaggeration. He was, at any rate, able to acquire a small library of ‘rare and beautiful manuscripts in the Persian, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages.’ These he doubtless purchased of the distressed orientals in London, whom he constantly recommended for employment or relief to the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.

Sale's chief work, on which his claim to remembrance principally rests, is his version of the Koran. This first appeared in November 1734, in a quarto volume, and was dedicated to Lord Carteret. While apologising for delay in its publication, he stated that the work ‘was carried on at leisure times only, amidst the necessary avocations of a troublesome profession.’ As a translator, he had the field almost entirely to himself. The only full translation of the Koran in any modern language previously published was the despicable French version by André Du Ryer, issued in 1649. A very poor English rendering of Du Ryer's from French was issued by Alexander Ross (1590–1654) [q. v.] in London in the same year. Despite a few errors, Sale's translation is remarkably accurate. Throughout he has made full use of native commentators, as regards both the interpretation of the text and its illustration in the notes. It may perhaps be regretted that he did not preserve the division into verses, as Savary has since done, instead of connecting them into a continuous narrative. Some of the poetical spirit is unavoidably lost by Sale's method. But his version remains the best in any language. His translation was reprinted in octavo in 1764, 1795, 1801, and frequently afterwards. ‘A Comprehensive Commentary on the Qurán, comprising Sale's Translation and preliminary Discourse. … By E. M. Wherry,’ 4 vols. London, appeared between 1882 and 1886, 8vo. ‘Selections from the Kurán … chiefly from Sale's edition,’ was issued by E. W. Lane in 1843, 8vo, and a new edition of this was revised and enlarged with introduction by Mr. Stanley Lane-Poole in 1879. A German translation of Sale's book, by Tho. Arnold, appeared at Lemgo in 1746, 4to.

Voltaire wrote in the ‘Dictionnaire Philosophique’ that ‘the learned Sale had at last enlightened us by a faithful translation of the Alcoran, and a most instructive preface to it.’ Sale's preliminary discourse and notes display a remarkable acquaintance not only with the works of European writers upon mohammedanism and its history, but also with native Arab literature. The preface and notes are still reckoned among the best sources of information with regard to the faith of Islam and the mohammedan peoples. ‘The Preliminary Discourse’ was twice translated into French. The first version, an anonymous one, was published at Geneva in 1751, and has been reprinted several times; the second, by Ch. Solvet, appeared in Paris in 1846. An abridged Polish version of the preface was published at Warsaw in 1858.

Meanwhile, to the ‘General Dictionary,’ a translation of Bayle (10 vols. fol. 1734), Sale contributed the whole of the oriental biographies which were published up to the time of his death; and when the ‘Universal History’ was first planned, Sale was one of those who were selected to carry it out. His coadjutors were the Rev. John Swinton, Dr. J. Campbell, Captain Shelvocke, Archibald Bower, and the impostor, George Psalmanazar [q. v.] Sale's part in the work was the portion dealing with the history of the world from the creation to the flood, which was published in 1739, after his death.

After the publication of the Koran in 1734, Sale attended with less regularity the meetings of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, and he received payment for work which he had formerly done gratuitously. It is possible that the society did not view his translation of the Koran in a favourable light, and suspected his orthodoxy. His last recorded visit to the society is on 6 Aug. 1734, but directions were issued to him about some legal matters down to 6 July 1736. At this time he was occupied with the foundation of a publishing society called the Society for the Encouragement of Learning, to which belonged many noblemen and some of the most eminent literary men of the day. Sale served on the original committee. The meetings were held weekly, and the committee decided what works should be printed at the expense of the society, or with its assistance, and what should be the price of them. When the cost of printing had been repaid, the property of the work was to revert to the author [see Carte, Thomas, and Roe, Sir Thomas].

Sale died of fever at his house in Surrey Street, Strand, on 13 Nov. 1736, and was buried at St. Clement Danes on 16 Nov. No stone marks the grave. Sale is described by his biographer as having ‘a healthy constitution and a communicative mind in a comely person.’ On 30 Nov. the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge resolved, in recognition of Sale's services, to give twenty guineas to his wife and children, who were left in necessitous circumstances.

Sale married Marianne d'Argent, of French extraction (possibly related to a Huguenot family of this name). By her he had seven children. The eldest son, George James Sale (1728–1773), fellow of New College, Oxford (1748–65), was elected fellow of Winchester in 1765, and was rector of Bradford Peverel from 1768 to 1773, when he died without issue. Like his next brother, William Mitchell, he was distinguished for literary talents. William Mitchell Sale married Martha Pennington of Canterbury, and had an only daughter, who married Thomas Pennington, A.M., rector of Thorley. The third son, Samuel Sale, perished in the great earthquake at Lisbon. A daughter, Marianne Sale, married Edward Arkell, by whom she had an only child, Edward. Sale's three remaining children died young (manuscript notes by Pennington in 1734 edition of Sale's Koran, belonging to the Rev. H. S. Pennington, rector of St. Clement Danes). Sale's manuscripts passed into the possession of Hamerton, the administrator of his will, who printed a catalogue of them in French as well as in English, containing eighty-six items. They were eventually bought by Professor Thomas Hunt of Oxford for the Radcliffe Library, and are now in the Bodleian. Some of the manuscripts seem to have come from Aleppo, and in the Makamat of Hariri and in one or two other books Sale's name will be found scribbled in Arabic characters. In 1739 Hamerton published ‘The Lives and Memorable Actions of many Illustrious Persons of the Eastern Nations.’ In the title it states that the work was designed and begun by Sale, and completed by a gentleman who resided in Turkey nearly twenty years.

[Davenport's Sketch of the Life of George Sale; Books of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.]

H. L. T.