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Cultural Exchange and Conservation through Translation
Thread poster: Parrot

Parrot  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:23
Member (2002)
Spanish to English
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Aug 27, 2004

This was written in response to a posting on the Professional Development forum:

Federica D'Alessio wrote:

Thank you Parrot and everybody

...for making me think once more the importance of saving cultures, and how proud I am to be a translator (although not paid in gold!).


Please, Parrot or anybody, go on telling us about the History of translation and the history of translators, 'cause it's really hidden, and maybe for this reason, very very amazing.

Thank you!


The discussion developed in the original thread:

(Please bear with the ambitious title. I am counting on the possibility that others may want to contribute what they know about the topic. Likewise, pending the issue of the need for a forum on Translation Studies – where this probably more appropriately belongs – I have posted this in Linguistics, knowing Marcus won’t mind).

The Role of the Bait al-Hikma

As I previously mentioned, my tangential encounters with the Bait al-Hikma are limited to two or three limited and specific subjects, but I'll try to give an idea of how this "house of translation" saved the legacy of mankind in a period that has otherwise been given the name of the "dark ages".

It is generally known that the Church Fathers frowned upon much of what was contained in classical letters – they had too much to do with "other gods". Also, that the first "successors" (since this is what "Caliph" means) were not so far behind, burning down the library of Alexandria (where Eratosthenes, among others, had worked); for if the "one book" contained all the necessary truths, then all the others must be superficial. In relation to our previous topic about the "myths and legends" revolving around the Bait al-Hikma, it has been said that this institution was an act of atonement precisely for that cultural crime, and that Al Mamun had founded it, inspired by Aristotle in a dream to do so. (Aristotle is the literary figure most often associated to Al Mamun in tradition).

In this panorama, the spirit of cultural conservation and the drive to preserve human knowledge would almost seem a freak phenomenon that occurs only in certain isolated circumstances. We may not want to think so, and yet, as a rule, we – perhaps unwittingly – tend to destroy the things we consider outdated, disparage them as so much superstition, or at best, relegate them to oblivion. Thus, hundreds of years after the Greek scientist had proven that the world was round, that information had to be rediscovered and redemonstrated: by Al Mamun for the Arabs and Columbus, Magellan and Elcano for the western world. This is where we probably can draw the moral lesson that UNESCO has been preaching: knowledge is not the exclusive patrimony of anybody or any country. At best, nations are custodians. And in the profoundest principle of the profession, the translator is not an agent for vested interests, but rather works for the whole of humanity (no politics).

It has likewise been pointed out (in this very link, for example: ) that translation indirectly reflects relationships of power, in which a "client" decrees what he wishes to happen. I would like to qualify that, because sometimes, the "client" also shuts up and listens. The oldest bilingual document known is not, by far, the decrees of Ashoka (orders engraved in stone in the four most widely-spoken languages of India, c. 250 B.C.), but a bilateral peace treaty between Ramses II and "his brother Hattusil", emperor of the Hittites, as primus inter pares.

The golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate may have been one of those isolated circumstances. The era itself (c. 800 A.D.) reflected chaos, and was in need of wisdom. Al Mamun sought that wisdom wherever it was to be found: from the Greeks (philosophy), the Jews (medicine), the Persians (astronomy), the Indians (mathematics), etc.. I am unable to specify further, but in my studies on the history, symbology and transmission of traditions regarding astronomy (as reflected in art), the Bait al-Hikma proved indispensable. Ptolemy's Almagest was one of the books that Al Mamun considered worth a kingdom. Perhaps the authority in this field of research is a German author, Franz Boll, who, before the turn of the 20th century, published Sphaera, a treatise on these traditions (Leipzig, 1903). The word "sphaera" refers to the celestial sphere, the map of the heavens. The title is taken in the plural because classical tradition admits a sphaera graecanica and a sphaera barbarica; i.e., the heavens according to the Greeks and their successors, and the heavens according to the so-called "barbarians".

If Boll's sphaera graecanica was fascinating, his elucidations on the sphaera barbarica floored me. The provenance of sources went as far back as Ptolemaic Egypt and Babylon (now Baghdad). How had these traditions survived, if it took Champollion his entire life to "resuscitate" the language on the Rosetta stone? In translation. Some of the data had been hidden in Persian manuscripts, which were translated into Arabic; to be re-done later on into Latin, and even later glossed over and declassified by the Vatican mythographers (oh, yes, those four mythographers also deserve a round of applause). Other sources that I cross-checked in that particular investigation, such as poetic treatises on Indian mathematics (yes, Virginia, there was a time when equations were written in poetry, from Benares to Byzantium), had travelled other paths. And there were also Chinese records – all in all, an amazing story of inheritance and the transmission of wealth, for what nation can say that it owns the heavens?

That was only one book. The rest of the subject matter (traditions in astronomy) would find no room here. But anybody interested in Aristotle, Neoplatonism or any other philosophical school that has survived in some form down to this day will find there the hand of the Bait al-Hikma. Studies on the transmission of medical lore and botany, from Galen to Ibn Rushid, refer back directly to the humble "translator's footnote" – probably the only part of the work in which the specialist's hand is visible.

It is a great profession, ennobling, and indeed one that we can all be proud of.

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