Translation Movement and Acculturation in the Medieval Islamic World

Translation Movement and Acculturation in the Medieval Islamic World
  • Book Title:
 Translation Movement And Acculturation
  • Book Author:
Labeeb Ahmed Bsoul
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Translation Methods and Factors for Its Advancement

It is vital to discuss the roles played by the translation movement in Islam. Translation in the first/eighth century differs from later translation movements in several ways, including the culture of the translator, material, degree of proficiency, and environment.

Modern researchers have differed regarding the periodisation of the translation movement. Some limit it to the Abbasid era without reference to the Umayyad era.1 Others acknowledge both the Umayyad and Abbasid periods.2 Some divide it into several

stages as follows: pre-Hārūn al-Rashı̄d, al-Rashı̄d, al-Ma’mūn, al- Barmakis, and post-al-Ma’mūn.3 Others divide it into three periods: from the caliph-ate of Manṣūr to the late era of al-Rashı̄d, from the end of the reign of al-Ma’mūn to the end of the third/ninth century, and then, the next stage, which begins in the fourth/tenth century.4 Another classification begins in the Umayyad era and ends with the rise of al-Ma’mūn to the caliphate. The second phase begins with al-Ma’mūn and the successors immediately after him.5

This chapter classifies the evolution of this movement into four main periods:

  1. Translation in the Umayyad period
  2. Translation in the Manṣūr and al-Rashı̄d’s era
  3. Translation in the al-Ma’mūn’s era
  4. Translation in the post-al-Ma’mūn era.

The above four divisions were chosen to represent the reality of the translation movement since the Umayyad period, when it began for the first time, until its end around the middle of the fifth/eleventh century. Other characteristics of this movement, such as the caliphs and others who sponsored it, what was translated, and the approach, also vary.

The beginning of the translation movement dates to the Umayyad era (661–750). Although translation at this stage was primitive and weak when compared to translations in the following three eras, it nevertheless constitutes the cornerstone of the movement. It was also the base from which the Muslim world expanded to both the east and west.

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The translation movement during this era was limited to practical translations of nat-ural sciences, such as chemistry and medicine, and did not include logic, psychology, and other natural sciences.6

It is important to bear in mind that need governed what was translated. As the need for people to learn medicine, for example, to heal themselves from various diseases is more pressing than their need for philosophy and logic, especially during this stage of the history of the translation move-ment, and such is also said for the science of chemistry when compared with psychology, and so on for the rest of the sciences.

Translation in the era of Manṣūr and al-Rashı̄d developed significantly from the Umayyad era in terms of quantity and quality. There was an

active campaign to support translation through public grants and social support.7 Auxiliary services such as those of copyists, publishers, and papermakers also appeared in support of the translation movement. It involved people from different cultures and religions. As O’Leary states, “Many translators have translated a great deal, mostly Christians, Jews and converts who entered Islam from other non-Islamic religions.”8

In al-Ma’mūn times, the translation movement was in full swing and was progressing rapidly with the translation of the intellectual heritage of several civilisations, particularly the Persian, Greek, and Indian. Conquest was followed by translation, which was followed by accul-turation, which came to fruition in the Abbasid period from the al-Manṣūr era (r. 136/754–158/775).9

Here, translation reached a new level of maturity, which contributed to the proficient transfer of the heritage of other nations into Arabic from various languages. This role represents a turning point in the history of translation. Perhaps the most famous translators of this period were

Ḥ unayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 260/873), Yūḥannā ibn Māsawayh (d. 243/857), Ya‘qūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kindı̄ (d. 260/873), and ‘Umar ibn Farrukhān al-Ṭibrı̄ (d. 200/815). According to O’Leary, The work of translation has focused on a newly established school in Baghdad, and a constant effort has been made to make the material nec-essary for philosophical and scientific research within reach of the Arabic speaker.10

In this role, translators from Iraq, the Levant, India and Persia, including the Christian Nestorians, flocked to Baghdad,11 such as the Jacobites,12 the Sabian,13 al-Rūm/Byzantium, and Zoroastrian Persians,14 and al-Barāhimah the Brahmans of India.15

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They translated from Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, and other languages, and many in Baghdad were employed in al-warrāqūn/paper manufacturing and copying manuscripts. There were also many book-sellers and libraries in addition to active debates and numerous regular liter-ary gatherings. They became researchers and readers and translated many important books into Arabic.16

The fourth stage was translation in the post-al-Ma’mūn era (r. 197/ 813–218/833). The translation movement reached its peak in the al-Ma’mūn’s era, but continued, albeit with less intensity in the caliphates of Mu‘taṣim (r. 218/833–230/842), al-Wāthiq (r. 230/842–235/847), and al-Mutawakkil (r. 235/847–247/861).

The first half of the fourth century represents a new stage in the development of the translation movement. Thābit ibn Qurrah (d. 288/901),17 Sinān ibn Thābit ibn Qurrah (d. 331/943),18 Abū Bashir Mattā ibn Yūnus  (d. 328/939),19 Yaḥyā ibn ‘Adı̄, Qusṭā ibn Lūqā al-Ba‘albakkı̄(d. 300/312),20 and Abū ‘Alı̄ Isā ibn Isḥāq ibn Zar‘ah (d. 448/1056)21 were arguably the most famous translators in the translation movement.

In this period, translation focused on Arab medicine, which relied heavily on the range of medical opinions inspired by the writings of physicians who wrote in Arabic. Those medical opinions were inspired by ancient medicine, especially Greek medicine, supplemented with technical additions from Indian and Persian medicine.22

Thus, it is clear from the fore-going that the evolution of this movement differed according to the characteristics of each era of the Islamic state. Of course, it is of interest of the rulers and prominent figures to advance the affairs of this movement. Consequently, its results varied from one era to the next, though its goal was the same in all circumstances.

The translators studied the works before translating them into Arabic. A pertinent question in this regard is what problems these translators

encountered and what points of reference they used to clarify ambiguities. It is worth mentioning here, too, that these transmitters and translators were capable, but did not record their theory of translation alongside their practice.

For example, Ḥ unayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 260/873), Qusṭā ibn Lūqā(d. 286/310),23 Yūḥannā ibn Māsawih (d. 243/857),24 Yaḥyā ibn Baṭrı̄q (d. 200/815),25 Abū Sahl al-Fāḍil ibn Nawbakht (d. 311/923),26 and Abū Muḥammad ‘Abdullah ibn Muqaffa‘ (d. 142/759),27 did not explain how they were transmitting the Persian and Greek languages into Arabic. However, we know the methods and theories of translation from short discussions by those who were neither learned nor practised the profession

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of translation, such as Abū ‘Uthmān ‘Umrū ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/869)28 and Ṣalāḥ al-Dı̄n al-Ṣafadı̄ (d. 764/1363).29 However, what these two scholars wrote does not exceed what has been explained earlier.

When the Arabs began the era of translation and transmission, and transmitted the books of the Greeks, Romans, and Persians into Arabic, they encountered many obstacles, which they resolved one after the other. When they lacked mobility and translators, they resorted to those who knew Syriac and Aramaic, especially Arab-speaking Christians and monks.30 There was no codified approach to translation; translators exercised their discretion with regards to what they felt was a rigorous and truthful trans-lation and communication of ideas.

The transmitters and translators in the Abbasid era were fluent in Arabic and fluent in the language from which they translated. They relied on memorising and maintaining the use of the vocabulary and forms of the foreign language they were translating. They did not have an Arabic-Greek dictionary, an Arabic-Persian dictionary, or an Indian language-Arabic

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