Translation: An Arabic perspective [Archives:2007/1030/Education]

March 5 2007

Moneer Al-Omari
[email protected]

Translation is a newly established science and a very old art. It is as old as the human history. However, we can not fix a definite date for the early start of translation and the same thing can be said in case of translation from and into Arabic.

For sure, there had been translation prior to the establishment of Dar Al-Hikma; however, it was not a systematic one and we know very little about it.

Under the Abbasids Caliphate (750 – 1200), translation, like other sciences, witnessed a strong boost and it was made a systemic one. Translation progressed at that time as a result of the progress achieved in all aspects of life and due to the prevalence of stability. Caliphates were interested in all subjects and used to pay scientists and thinkers handsomely for their outcomes. It is even said that some Caliphates like Harun Al-Rasheed and Al-Mamun (813 – 833) used to give gold against the weight of the book written or translated.

Dar Al-Hikma, a school of translation, was established under Caliphate Al-Mamun's rule who delegated the scientist Hunain bin Isaac to establish and supervise its work.

In Dar Al-Hikma, and under the supervision of Hunain and the auspices of the Caliphates, translators used to translate Greek and Latin books according to their interests and specializations. The translation, most of the time, was a literary one, particularly with scientific works. Translators rendered a large number of Latin and Greek classics on different subjects ranging from medicine, astronomy, science and physics to philosophy, logic and even literature.

Additionally, there had been translations of Indian and Persian classics and many Arab writers got influenced by them when writing their own masterpieces as of Ibn Al-Muq'fa and Al-Ja'hiz.

However, most of these translations did not reach our hands as they had been thrown into Tigris River when Moguls invaded Baghdad and overthrew the weak Abbasids Caliphate in 1258.

Later on, translation started to decline due to the collapse of the Islamic state in Baghdad and, earlier to that, there had existed independent state countries. These state countries were weak and subject to wars and internal problems and coups. Being busy with wars and problems, they gave up their encouragement to science and its people.

Since then, Arabs have been dormant, forgetting everything about their glorious past. They have just confined themselves to chanting the names of those celebrated scientists, thinkers and forefathers.

Towards the end of the medieval period, Europe started to witness what was known to be the Renaissance. The western nation then woke up and opened their eyes to what had been left by Arab, Greek and other nations. They contacted the Arab-Islamic culture via the Moorish Spain. They established the Teldo School of Translation, the place where most Arabic classics were translated.

For ages, most Arabic Classics had been reference materials in colleges and universities Europe wide. The best example to be cited here is Ibn Sinna, known in the west as Avicenna (980 – 1037), whose Kitab Al-Shifa (The Book of Healing) was a reference material in European universities for hundreds of years.

He further introduced medieval Europe to the principles of logic and the way to gain knowledge and placed science and religion on equal footing as sources of knowledge and understanding of the universe. Another major contribution was made by Ibn-Rushd (Averroes, 1126 – 1198), whose writings and commentaries influenced medieval Europe a lot and further introduced the Aristotelian approach to studying nature by observation and reasoning.

Thus, Arabic culture influenced other languages and cultures and a large numbers of Arabic words have been introduced to those languages. Additionally, the contact of the western culture with the Arabic culture resulted in the progress of the former. West and other cultures also adopted the Arabic counting system instead of the Roman one which is long and tire some. The concept of Zero was introduced by an Arab mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi.

We do find an echo of the Arabic literature in many European literatures. There are many examples of this. Many European writers have been influenced by the book of the Thousand Nights and a Night and further Qais and Lila Story influenced many a writer including Shakespeare and his masterpiece Romeo and Juliet and several others.

Translation was brought back into focus during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. The translation wheel started to move once again during the early part of the 19th century under the rule of Mohammed Ali Pasha.

Pasha was ambitious and aspired to dominate the whole Islamic world. To achieve this end, Pasha exerted his efforts to upgrade his army and military equipment through the help of countries that were superior to him at that time in terms of power. He used to send missions to the then developed countries. Upon their return, Pasha asked them to translate new scientific and military books into Arabic. However, translations were confined to books needed by the army and no more.

Towards the end of the 19th century, translation started to bloom and there existed fine translations of many European plays, stories, and novels. However, the whole process was not regulated and some translations were undertaken for material profit.

Recently, there has been a great interest in translation, though most of the translations so far were made out of personal interest or under the stress of need as for the scientific books. In fact, there exists no system to define what to translate and why.

In the long run, we can not overlook the great role played by what is known to be the National Project for the Book in Egypt that translated hundreds of books from English and some other languages. Still, the path is too long and translation should cover all languages and cultures that can be of help for Arabs to develop.

Unlike the status of translators in Europe and America, Arab translators are underpaid and their job is considered secondary. This reflects itself in the amount of the translated works. It is said that what has been translated by Arabs since the dawn of the Islamic civilization may not be equal to what is translated in Spain over a single year.

In order for Arab to develop, they should pay a prime attention to translation and translators. There should be a body to define and specify the priorities and the translations we need at the present time. Translation, over the ages, has been a source for development and progress for nations and I assume so with the Islamic nation.