Posts filed under 'translation philosophy'

Classic Philosophy Meets Arabic Language: A Dialogue with Professor Peter Adamson

A tenth-century resident of Baghdad could read Arabic versions of just about everything by Aristotle that we can read today.

The great Islamic conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries changed the Near East and beyond politically, culturally, and, in a particularly profound and lasting way, linguistically, resulting in the near hegemony of the Arabic language. This new Islamic world took shape around an original and powerful new religion, but the consolidation of an Islamic civilisation was also a period of immense cultural exchange and mutual influence, not only from fellow Abrahamic traditions such as Judaism and Christianity, but also from the world of classical Mediterranean antiquity. Indeed, while knowledge of classical Greek science and philosophy fell into virtual oblivion in the Christian West, Islamic scholars kept the tradition alive by means of large scale translation projects and sophisticated philosophical works, from the Persian Avicenna to Baghdad’s legendary house of learning and the Andalusian polymath Averroes. In this interview, Professor Peter Adamson of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München talks us through this fascinating and often overlooked period in philosophical history by exploring the works of translation that made it possible.

Jonathan Egid (JE): By the time the grand translation projects of the early Islamic world began, the wonders of classical Greek philosophy had attained the status of ancient wisdom, almost one thousand years old and already much discussed and much translated. How did the works of Greek thinkers come to be translated into Arabic, and what was the interest in these ancient and foreign ideas?

Peter Adamson (PA): This was a process that unfolded over the course of centuries. The translation movement begins already in the eighth century CE and continues well into the tenth century. It was basically an initiative of the elites under the Abbasid caliphate, including even caliphs themselves and the caliphal family, who also had philosophers as court scholars. For instance, al-Kindī, the first philosopher to make explicit use of Hellenic materials in his own writing, was tutor to a caliph’s son and dedicated his most important work to the caliph himself. The translators were well paid experts, so this was a very deliberate and expensive undertaking managed from the top down. It should, however, be said that it was not something that was undertaken in a vacuum. For quite a long time there had already been translations made from Greek into Syriac and other Semitic languages, and these were a model for the Arabic translations (sometimes literally: it was known for works to be translated first into Syriac for the purpose of making an Arabic version on that basis). Also I would say the translation movement had a kind of momentum of its own: whereas at first the texts to be translated were really selected by the elite and for a variety of practical or political motives, eventually they get to the stage where they are translating the entire output of certain thinkers, or at least everything they can get their hands on, in a kind of completist project. So for instance, one of the greatest translators, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, was clearly trying to translate whatever he could by Galen, the most important Greek medical authority, while his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn worked his way through Aristotle.

READ MORE…

Translator’s Profile: Peter McCambridge

My first favourite writer was Roddy Doyle. I’d also enjoy sitting down for a pint of Guinness with Roddy.

Originally from Ireland, award-winning translator Peter McCambridge holds a BA in modern languages from Cambridge University, England, and has lived in Quebec City since 2003. He runs Québec Reads and now QC Fiction, which recently published Eric Dupont‘s Life in the Court of Matane, excerpted in Asymptote’s Translation Tuesday showcase on the blog and at The Guardian here.

Who is your favorite fictional character of all time?

At the risk of starting off a little lowbrow, I’d have to say Bernard Samson, the glass-half-full spy of Len Deighton’s “airport thriller” series. Nobody else comes remotely close, off the top of my head. I first read more or less everything Len Deighton had ever written when I was 11 to 14 and I’ve recently gone back to them in the new audio version. They go down perfectly after a hard day’s work. A hearty German meal in Berlin with Bernie and Werner and I’d be a very happy man, I think.

Who was your first favorite writer and how old were you when you discovered them?

In high school, the only thing I read and really loved was Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Thomas Hardy and a lot of other writers who were forced upon me left me cold. It’s funny: I’ve spent a lot of my life reading books that I’ve had to read. At university, I studied French and German literature, which didn’t leave much time for reading for fun. Looking back, a very small percentage of those books were ones that I really enjoyed and would happily read again. When I was younger, around 10 or 11, I remember reading The Secret Seven and a Hardy Boys adventure every night. To answer your question, I think my first favourite writer was Roddy Doyle. I’d also enjoy sitting down for a pint of Guinness with Roddy.

What is your favorite word in any language? Which word do you find most difficult to translate?

I’ve always liked tamisé in French, just for the way it sounds. I always think it sounds soft, like the lighting it describes.

What 5 books would you want with you if you were stranded on a desert island?

To the Lighthouse and The Age of Innocence were both amazing and really left a mark on me. I’d also bring Ulysses and finish working my way through it with the help of Frank Delaney’s wonderful Re:Joyce podcasts. The next two books on my hopelessly long to-read list would make up the five.

Which under-translated author do you think deserves wider recognition worldwide?

The obvious, truthful answer is Eric Dupont. He’s been compared in Québec to our very own Gabriel García Márquez and John Irving. I’m working hard to raise his profile through QC Fiction and Québec Reads.

Do you have a translation philosophy that guides your work?

I worked for a few years translating advertising copy, legal contracts, recipes, and healthcare leaflets before thinking about translating a novel. More importantly, I was revised the whole time and I learned a lot. My employer’s philosophy rubbed off on me and that was to write what the author would have put had they been writing in English. It’s harder than it sounds. “The original sentence tells the translator what the sentence should say but not how exactly to say it,” Lazer Lederhendler told me recently, and I think that sums it up well.

Which of the translations that you’ve worked on was the most challenging? Why?

I felt a lot of pressure translating Lori Saint-Martin’s The Closed Door. But Lori is one of Canada’s best and best-known translators into French so she was a big help along the way.

How did you learn your foreign language and how did you begin working as a literary translator?

I learned French and German in high school in Ireland, then studied French and German literature at Cambridge. But I like to say that I began speaking French when I moved to Québec City in 2003. Moving to Québec meant I forgot all my German. Only for me to meet and marry a German girl here. Which meant I suddenly had to relearn everything. And then try to understand Schwäbisch. Now we speak German at home and French to our friends and children.

If you could have been born in a culture other than your own which would you choose to be a member of? Why?

That’s an easy one: Québec. I moved here so that my children would have that chance.

If you hadn’t been a translator what profession would you like to have tried?

At the minute, I’m kind of switching professions as I try to devote more time to being a fiction editor. But otherwise I think I’d be writing for a magazine somewhere (since soccer goalie is probably not a very realistic answer).

Finally, in your bio, you mentioned that Life in the Court of Matane is the book that made you want to be a literary translator. Could you explain briefly why?

It’s hard to explain. I read Bestiaire, as it’s known in the original French, when it first came out and just fell in love with it. I still love it today—even after spending a year translating it! Now it’s like living with someone: you can’t quite explain what attracted you in the first place, you just know your life is better with them in it.