Translation or the Art of Carrying Across*

By Hartmut Fähndrich

Translated by Martin Striegel

When speakers of German and Arabic meet to discuss translation, there are likely to be shining eyes on both sides. After all, some of the “highlights” in the history of both cultures are indissolubly linked with the activities of translators. Two of them, in fact, represent turning points in the history of human civilisation as a whole.

The first is the translation period that can be dubbed “Baghdad”. After the Mesopotamian area had been conquered by Arab Muslims in the 7th and 8th century, the new holders of power felt compelled to have the region’s rich cultural records translated in order to understand them and thereby consolidate their rule. The need to line up arguments in support of their new religion, the conviction that the Quran encourages the pursuit of knowledge, and the assurance that the study of astrology, astronomy, medicine and alchemy brings practical benefits as well – all this induced the rulers in the newly founded city of Baghdad to promote translation work on a large scale, especially in the early 9th century. From Greek, sometimes via Aramaic, the works of Hippocrates and Galen, philosophers such as Aristotle and Plotinus, and many others were translated into the new language of power. This flood of translation slowed to a trickle only towards the end of the 10th century. By then, available documents had largely been dealt with, and the new culture had gained sufficient momentum in creating written work of its own.

The second crucial translation phase could be entitled “Toledo”. Once again, the ground was prepared by political and military conflict. European expansion at the time of the crusades (12th and 13th century) included the Reconquista in Spain, by which the Arabs on the Iberian Peninsula were gradually pushed back and ultimately driven out. Soldiers, adventurers, religiously motivated individuals and scholars from Western and Central Europe took part and formed one element of the conflict’s transnational nature. Another was the very structure of the Iberian society, consisting at the time of three religious communities (rather than cultures, as one would say today) – Christian, Muslim and Jewish. This meant that different languages were being used: Arabic (in written and dialect form), different Romanic dialects spoken according to region, Latin as the language of scholars and the church, and also Hebrew. This constellation was a natural breeding ground for large amounts of translation work, involving especially scientific (medical and astronomical in particular) and philosophical texts. They had either been translated from Greek into Arabic some centuries before, or were original pieces written in Arabic. This is, to a large extent, how Aristotle and Galen, Ptolemy and Dioscorides, as well as Rhazes, Avicenna and Averroes were put into Latin, disseminated to other parts of Europe, and added momentum to the modernization process underway there.