The History of Translation in the Arab World – an Overview
“Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”
In his book “On Comparative Literature,” Dr. Abd al-Salam Kafafi, Professor of Islamic Arts, Cairo University, points out that Arabs “traveled the old world in summer and winter [for their commercial business] and were influenced by their neighbors in various aspects of life since the Golden Age of Islam. Farsi was translated into Arabic, and it appeared in the poetry of the great poets, and Al-A’sha was one of the most famous who used Persian words in their poetry.
Therefore, the Arabs have been in contact since time immemorial with the three nations surrounding them back then, namely, the Romans in the north, the Persians in the east, and the Abyssinians in the south.
History of Translation in the Arab World
The cultural and scientific renaissance that dawned upon the Arab and Islamic world represented a major push that paved the way for the influx of non-Arabic speaking elements to the Arab countries. This opened the door to the emergence of linguistic pluralism and encouraged the emergence of types of bilingualism (Persian/Syriac/Greek). However, the decision to Arabize the public bureaus in the emerging Islamic states during the first century AH remains one of the most prominent decisions that supported and helped to increase interest in translation. As a result, the awareness of the different languages and the need to employ a mediator to achieve the necessary understanding amongst speakers of different languages.
Thus began the involvement of the Arab people and their direct active participation in a distinguished translation activity in terms of both quality and type, and the reason for this is mainly due to the direct association with its utilitarian and strategic function. The construction of Baghdad and the transfer of the capital of the caliphate to Iraq was considered a major breakthrough that changed the intellectual trends of the Arab community as a whole, and the society moved away from the Byzantine influence that prevailed in Damascus. A multicultural society formed in Baghdad, affected by the demographic and ethnically diversified population mix. A mixture of Aramaic-speaking Christians and Jews formed most of the settled population, as well as Persian speakers. As for Arabs, they spread in the cities and were divided; some of them settled in the city and some lived in the desert and were known as “the residents of Al-Hira.”
An Emerging Translation Movement
It was in the time of the Umayyad dynasty, that the Arab bureaus were Arabized, and Prince Khalid bin Yazid bin Muawiyah bin Abi Sufyan was the leader of the translation movement at the time.
Indeed, Arab and foreign historians agree, that Prince Khalid bin Yazid was the first to order the transfer of Greek and Syriac works into the Arabic language. Those works were a wide selection of many different fields, including medicine, astronomy, and chemistry. The Umayyad Caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz was the first caliph of Bani Umayyah, who showed appreciation for translation, as evident by his commissioning of the Jewish physician Maserjweh to translate some prominent medical references from Syriac to Arabic. Such an endeavor paved the way for the following dynasty, Bani al-Abbas, to follow in the footsteps of nurturing translation activities.
And what an era that was for translation! It gained great favor in the Abbasid era, as this era is considered the golden period for the development and prosperity of translation, both in terms of organization and the abundance and quality of production, especially during the caliphate of three Abbasids, respectively: Caliph Al-Mansur, Harun Al-Rashid, and most prominently Caliph al-Ma’mun.
New Leaders of a Long Standing Endeavour
The Caliph Abu Jaafar al-Mansur is considered the first caliph to direct the efforts of the state to the science of translation. Therefore, he commanded that Euclid’s “The Book of Fundamentals of the Elements” and “Al-Hind and the Sind” – which is written by an Indian author interested in astrology – to be translated into Arabic, and later the wonderful book by Abdullah Ibn Al-Qaf, “Kalila and Dimna,” from Hindi into Arabic. Later, al-Mansur moved to another level, which was to translate the most prominent Greek works of philosophy and literature, especially those written by great philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato.
Then came the period of the rule of the two Caliphs Al-Mahdi and Al-Hadi, but they did not pursue translation and did not fulfill the role they were expected to play and have thus infamously neglected this cultural progression.
Fast forward to a more intellectual boom, when Caliph Al-Mamoun assumed the reins of power, the lost glory returned to translation. During his reign, a well-known scientific school known as “Bait Al-Hikma” (House of Wisdom) was established, which was based in Baghdad and concerned with distinguished scientific research as well as translation and authorship in various fields. Great scholars emerged in this era, who constituted a safe reference of language and thought such as Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Jahiz, Al-Kindi, and Hanin Ibn Ishaq Al-Abadi, who possessed great skill in medicine and excelled in translation and classification.
New Topics and Fields
What distinguishes the translation movement during this era is the exploration of new topics and fields, such as mathematics, natural history, ethics, psychology, philosophies, and medicine. The field of philosophy gained vast importance in this part of the world, more than ever before, as Arabs studied and understood the works of ‘Aristotle’ and grasped the books of Greek historians like Alexander of Aphrodite, which were circulated and developed into Islamic philosophical concepts and theories emerging in the 4th century AH, all because of translation.
The House of Wisdom and its Role in the Cultural Uproar
Speaking of the Baghdad School (House of Wisdom), it must be mentioned that it is considered one of the most important and prominent Arab schools of translation. Before that, the Syriac school was founded. Its production was abundant, as it issued several books in medicine and philosophy translated from Greek. It is known that the Syriac language was the language of communication and the linguistic and cultural link between the eastern nations. It is a language originating from Aramaic and belongs to a group of Semitic languages preceding the advent of Christianity.
Later, another prominent translation house was founded. The Toledo School of Translation, established in Andalusia in the 12th century AD, and it included a group of great European translators. This is what George Monan mentions in his “Histoire de la linguistique: Des origines au xxe siècle,” as he indicated that it was the first real school of translation. The Arabs settled in the Iberian Peninsula in the year 711 AD and remained there for about 7 centuries. During this period, the political and social atmosphere of Andalusia fluctuated.
The lingual and cultural bridges all those linguists had to build and cross were not an easy feat. Despite the absence of bilingual and specialized dictionaries, the translators of that era strived to fill this void, by relying on fruitful teamwork between the masters of all disciplines and specializations. To a large extent, the results were impressive and positive, leading to a great deal of accurate scientific translations that were of high quality.