Long Forgotten Stories of Translation: Part Two

Those long-dead translators and scholars deserve to be celebrated for what they were, giants on whose shoulders we sometimes still need to climb...

In the second part of this previous post, Brother Anthony of Taizé continues to celebrate the forgotten thinkers of the early Arab world. Although Renaissance Europe turned its back on Arabic writing, two of Spain’s greatest thinkers, Averroes and Maimonides, had produced invaluable commentaries and philosophies based on the works of Aristotle, whilst Toledo became a literary epicenter for re-translations from Arabic into Latin and Spanish. Read on to find out more.

The golden age of Córdoba did not last long. In 997, the military leader Almanzor captured Santiago and soon became the effective ruler of southern Spain. He ordered the destruction of books related to philosophy and astronomy, which he considered contrary to Islam, leaving only those about medicine and mathematics. After his death in 1002, bands of marauding North African Berbers sacked Córdoba, sparking an exodus of Jews, in particular, to other cities. Later in the century, in 1085, the Christian kingdom of Castile captured the great city of Toledo. The Muslim leaders were forced to turn to the Almoravid dynasty in North Africa for help, likewise composed of fierce Berber warriors. In 1089, the Almoravids took complete control of Islamic Spain. Less than a century later, they were replaced by an even fiercer and more fanatical North African dynasty, the Almohads, who were especially intolerant of Jews and Christians.

Strangely, it is this period of upheaval that produced two of Spain’s greatest thinkers, Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), born only ten years apart, both in Córdoba. Averroes (1126-1198) was both the grandson and son of chief judges of Córdoba. In 1169, Averroes was introduced to the Almohad caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf, a remarkably educated man, who asked him to write explanations of the writings of Aristotle. Averroes began writing his massive commentaries on Aristotle in the same year, when he became a judge of Seville. In 1171, he became a qadi (judge) in his hometown of Córdoba and continued to write while working and traveling, similar to the way Avicenna had lived in the Middle East. In 1182, he succeeded his friend Ibn Tufayl as court physician and later, the same year, was appointed the chief qadi of Córdoba. In 1184, Caliph Abu Yaqub died and was succeeded by Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur. In 1195, Averroes’s fortune reversed and he was tried by a tribunal in Córdoba. The tribunal condemned his teachings, ordered the burning of his works, and banished Averroes to nearby Lucena. After a few years, Averroes returned to court in Marrakesh and was again in the caliph’s favor. He died shortly afterwards, on December 11, 1198, and his body was taken back to Córdoba for burial.

The topics covered by his writings include philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, and linguistics. Most of his writings were commentaries on or paraphrasings of the translated works of Aristotle. According to Ernest Renan, Averroes wrote at least sixty-seven original works, including twenty-eight works on philosophy, twenty on medicine, eight on law, five on theology, and four on grammar, in addition to his commentaries on most of Aristotle’s works and his commentary on Plato’s The Republic. Most of the “short commentaries” were written early in his career and contain summaries of Aristotelian doctrines. The “middle commentaries” contain paraphrases that clarify and simplify Aristotle’s original text and the “long commentaries,” or line-by-line commentaries, include the complete text of the works (in Arabic translation) with a detailed, original analysis of each line. Averroes also wrote several philosophical treatises of his own, in an attempt to return to strict Aristotelianism, which according to him had been distorted by the Neoplatonist tendencies of Muslim philosophers such as Al-Farabi and Avicenna. In his Decisive Treatise, Averroes argues that philosophy—which for him represented conclusions reached using reason and careful method—cannot contradict revelations in Islam because they are just two different methods of reaching the truth, and “truth cannot contradict truth.” When conclusions reached by philosophy appear to contradict the text of the revelation, he thought, revelation must be subjected to interpretation or allegorical understanding to remove the contradiction. Thus he is part of the great stream of what is often known as “Islamic Rationalism.” Ironically, he had little influence on Islamic philosophy. It was in the universities of Northern Europe where his name and works had a great impact, thanks to Latin translations which have often survived, while the original Arabic text is lost.

By 1148, strongly anti-Jewish Almohad forces had arrived in Córdoba from northern Africa, and the family of Maimonides (1135-1204), like many other educated Jews, was forced to set off across Spain in quest of refuge. At an early age, he developed an interest in sciences and philosophy, reading the Greek philosophers accessible in Arabic translations, and becoming deeply immersed in the sciences and learning of Islamic culture. Like Avicenna, the quantity of writing he managed in a life of travel and daily work is striking. The family finally left Spain and stayed in Fez in Morocco for some years, then settled in Fustat (Old Cairo) after visiting Jerusalem. Maimonides had trained in medicine from childhood, and after his brother drowned on his way to do business in India, losing the family’s money, he began to practice medicine. He was appointed court physician to the Grand Vizier Al Qadi al Fadil, then to the renowned Sultan Saladin, after whose death he remained a physician to the royal family. He died in 1204 and his remains were buried in Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee.

He produced a number of outstanding works, including the Mishneh Torah, a code of Jewish law with the widest-possible scope and depth, written in Hebrew from 1170-1180. The Guide for the Perplexed was originally written around 1190 in Judeo-Arabic. It was first translated in 1204 into Hebrew, then later into Latin and is the work for which he is best known outside of the Jewish community. Educated more by reading the works of Arab Muslim philosophers than by personal contact with Arabian teachers, he acquired an intimate acquaintance not only with Arab Muslim rational philosophy, but with the doctrines of Aristotle. Maimonides strove to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and science with the teachings of the Torah. He, too, was a rationalist. The principle that inspired his philosophical activity was that there can be no contradiction between the truths which God has revealed and the findings of the human mind in science and philosophy. The Treatise on Logic illustrates the essentials of Aristotelian logic to be found in the teachings of the great Islamic rationalist philosophers such as Avicenna and, above all, Al-Farabi.

So far, we have gained a slight idea of the way Greek science and thought reached the Arabs and the impact those translations had on original thought. Baghdad was a key point of contact and transmission in the eighth and ninth centuries. Great figures in the Middle East studied the translations, then wrote works that influenced major figures in Spain. The process was then reversed; western Europe, France, and Italy mainly, with a few pioneers from Britain and western Germany, started to emerge from deep lethargy around the start of the second millennium. A small number of scholars started to realize that the Arabs had preserved and developed further the ancient Greek heritage in medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and science. There is the symbolic example of the Frenchman Gerbert d’Aurillac (946–1003), a very talented youth who spent some years around 960 in a monastery in the Pyrenees, where he learned about the Hindu-Arabic numerals, although without the all-important symbol for zero. He went on to become Pope Sylvester II and remained pope in the year 1000, when the world did not end, as was widely expected. He was an early humanist who promoted the study of Arab and Greco-Roman arithmetic, mathematics, and astronomy, reintroducing to Europe the abacus and armillary sphere, although his admiration for the Indo-Arabic numerals found no followers for several centuries.

The main center for the re-translation from Arabic to Latin or Spanish was the now Christian city of Toledo, although translations were also made in Sicily and Italy, wherever the gulf between Arabic and Latin could be bridged. The great advantage of Toledo was the additional presence of learned Jews and Mozarabic Christians capable of helping translate works composed in Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic. Francis Raymond de Sauvetât (Raymond of Toledo) was the Archbishop of Toledo from 1125 to 1152. He was a French Benedictine monk, born in Gascony, and he encouraged the translation of the many Arabic books in the Cathedral’s library. The translators involved are often called a “school,” although this might suggest a tighter unity than in fact existed. Some truly great translators emerged from among them.

The Italian Gerard of Cremona (Latin: Gerardus Cremonensis, c. 1114–1187) was an outstanding figure. He was in Toledo by 1144 and first began to learn Arabic in order to read Ptolemy’s Almagest, which fascinated him. He then translated it in around 1175. In total, Gerard translated eighty-seven books from Arabic, including originally Greek works as Ptolemy’s Almagest, Archimedes’s On the Measurement of the Circle, Aristotle’s On the Heavens, and Euclid’s Elements of Geometry; he also translated Arabic works such as al-Khwarizmi’s On Algebra and Almucabala, Jabir ibn Aflah’s Elementa astronomica, and works by al-Razi (Rhazes). His great interest in science and mathematics is evident in translations of scientific works originally written in Arabic, including Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine. Gerard also edited the Tables of Toledo, the most accurate compilation of astronomical data ever seen in Europe at the time. Yet he was but one among many.

Other notable Toledo translators include John of Seville, who produced Latin translations of works by Avicenna, Al-Farabi, Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron), Al-Ghazali, and Costa ben Luca’s De differentia spiritus et animae. Another great translator, Michael Scott (1175–1232), was from Britain and first studied at Oxford and in Paris. From Paris he went to Bologna, then, after a stay at Palermo, reached Toledo. There he learned Arabic well enough to translate the Arabic versions of Aristotle and accompanying commentaries, as well as the original works of Avicenna and Averroes. Frederick II later summoned him back to Sicily, where he oversaw a fresh translation of Aristotle and the commentaries. He produced translations of Aristotle’s Historia animalium, De anima (On the Soul), and De caelo, together with the commentaries of Averroes. In 1223, the Pope offered to make him the Archbishop of Cashel in Ireland. Then, in 1227, he was even invited to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, but he refused both positions.

Herman Alemannus (Herman the German) worked in Toledo between 1240-1256 and made a number of translations which have been identified from prologues and colophons in the surviving manuscripts, three of which are dated. They are: the Rhetoric, comprising the almost complete text of Aristotle’s work, with portions of Averroes’s middle commentary and short fragments from Avicenna and Alfarabi; the introductory section of Al-Farabi’s commentary on Aristotle’s Rhetoric; Averroes’s middle commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics (Toledo, 1240); an Arabic summary of the Ethics (1243 or 1244); and the middle commentary on the Poetics (Toledo, 1256).

A second life was given to Toledo as a center for translations in the thirteenth century when Alfonso X (known as “the Wise” despite his political weaknesses) became King of Castile, León and Galicia from 1252 until his death in 1284. He was a truly great scholar and friend of scholars, whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. His scriptorium was given the task of translating mainly scientific texts from Arabic into Castilian (rather than Latin) in a drive to create a standardized national language for Spain, while he himself undertook the final, detailed scrutiny of the translated texts—a learned king indeed!

One sad episode ends this tale. After the final surrender of Granada to the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517) was appointed Archbishop of Toledo and chancellor of Castille in 1495. In 1499, Cisneros accompanied the Inquisition to Granada, and there blocked the Archbishop’s efforts to peacefully convert Muslims to Christianity by explaining doctrines to them. Cisneros said that this was “giving pearls to swine,” and initiated forced mass conversions instead. He then ordered the public burning of all the Arabic manuscripts that could be found in Granada, except those dealing with medicine. Five thousand is the lowest figure that contemporary sources give and some (Violet Moller) quote a figure of two million books destroyed. Certainly, few copies of the Arabic translations from Greek and the books inspired by them have survived in Spain, although when the eunuch-librarian, Talid, catalogued the four hundred thousand or so books the great library of al-Hakkam II (915-976) contained, he is said to have filled four hundred and four volumes with the titles alone.

Having spent so long outlining the heroic efforts by so many great scholars, in the Middle East then in Spain, to transmit, translate, and develop the works inherited from ancient Greece, it seems sad that in the end almost all their efforts were ultimately futile, because virtually none of their translations and works were transmitted in the long term. At the same time, the Arabic world turned away from scholarship, research, and reflection.

At the start of the Italian Renaissance, the rediscovery of long-lost manuscripts of the classical Greek works of philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, combined with the ability of the new techniques of printing to make those texts widely available, led to the obliteration of almost all the work that had been done on those ancient sources in the Arabic world. The works of Arabic scholars and their Latin translators during the Middle Ages failed to find printers and readers in this new era, completely dominated by an antiquarian obsession with ancient Greece. In Europe, it seemed that no thinking, no research, and no worthwhile writing had ever been done in the world since the end of the Roman empire.

As a result, Europe turned its back on all the thinking, writing, and research that had been conducted and expressed in Arabic on the basis of ancient Greek philosophy, science, and medicine. It did so at a time when already most of the Islamic world had lost interest in such learning, except perhaps for medicine, which remained of immediate, practical value. The teaching of Greek and the massive importation of Greek texts from the Byzantine world flooded the western market, starting in Italy, while almost no one showed any interest in studying Arabic. As a result, we today, in our sketchy notions of the world’s intellectual history, rarely give any credit to the Arabic and Jewish thinkers and writers whose unfamiliar names have been evoked in this summary. We do not even realize our lack of knowledge. True, modern science and philosophy and astronomy and medicine are all far removed from what was written then; nonetheless, those long-dead translators and scholars deserve to be remembered and celebrated for what they were, giants on whose shoulders we sometimes still need to climb, if only to know what the Islamic world and the Jewish diaspora were once capable of, and to venerate them accordingly.

Brother Anthony prepared this brief history after visiting Granada, Córdoba, Toledo, Madrid, Avila and Barcelona at the end of 2018, in homage to so many forgotten translators and scholars.

Brother Anthony of Taizé was born in England in 1942. After studying at Oxford he joined the ecumenical Community of Taizé in 1969. He has been living in Korea since 1980, teaching English literature at Sogang University, where he is now an emeritus professor. He is also a chair-professor at Dankook University. He has translated works by many modern Korean writers, mostly poetry, publishing forty-five or more volumes so far, including volumes of poetry by Ko Un, Lee Si-young, Jeong Ho-seung, Kim Seung-Hee, Shim Bo-seon, and Kim Sa-in, as well as novels by Yi Mun-yol and many short stories by a variety of younger writers. He continues to translate and publish work by mostly younger poets. He has been the President of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch since 2011, and has published work on the early western visitors to Korea as well as the early translators of modern Korean literature into English. He was recently awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth for his work in strengthening relations between Britain and Korea and has received a similar award from the Korean President.


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