Cyrus Translation Cornucopia

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The History of Translation

"Without translation, there is no history of the world."

L. G. Kelly

Studying the history of translation helps those who are interested in translation, literature, and cultural studies to better understand the contribution of translation to civilization and to the development of all cultural and intellectual life. Translation is closely related to progress in that all the awakening periods in the history of nations have started with translations. Translation introduces nations to various perspectives on their paths to modernization and intellectual advancement.

In order to justify translation as an independent discipline, it is necessary to first construct a history of translation. By doing so, we bring to light how the cultural and intellectual interactions between people and civilizations took place throughout history. Regarding this, French theorist Antoine Berman wrote: "The construction of a history of translation is the first task of a modern theory of translation."

Translators through History
The ancient Greek word for translator-interpreter is Hermêneus, directly related to the name of the god Hermes. The verb Hermêneuo means to interpret foreign tongues, translate, explain, expound, put into words, express, describe, write about. The many further meanings of the Greek word for translator-interpreter (mediator, go-between, deal-broker, marriage-broker) suggest that interpreters almost certainly had to exist during prehistory - the period before writing was even invented.

In ancient times, ideas and insights used to be transferred from culture to culture primarily through travelers and tradesmen. Gradually, translation began to play, and continues to play, a key role in the development of world culture. For example, translation has played a major part in the movement of knowledge from Ancient Greece to Persia, from India to Arab nations, from Islam into Christianity, and from Europe to China and Japan.

There have been two great historical examples of how translation introduced one culture to another. One is the translation of the Buddhist scriptures from various Indian languages into Chinese. The second is the translation of Greek philosophical and scientific works from Greek and Syriac into Arabic, thereby introducing them to the Islamic world.

A history of world culture from the perspective of translation reveals a constant movement of ideas and forms, and of cultures constantly absorbing new influences because of the work of translators. It dispels the assumption that everything starts in the West and undermines the idea of rigid boundaries between East and West.

"Translators have invented alphabets, helped build languages and written dictionaries. They have contributed to the emergence of national literatures, the dissemination of knowledge, and the spread of religions. Importers of foreign cultural values and key players at some of the great moments of history, translators and interpreters have played a determining role in the development of their societies and have been fundamental to the unfolding of intellectual history itself." ("Translators through History", Jean Delisle and Judith Woodsworth, John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1995)

"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."
-Sir Winston Churchill

National Translation Movements
Major periods in the history of translation tend to coincide with eras when a major differential or inequality exists - or is perceived to exist - between two cultures or two peoples speaking different languages. One of these peoples perceives the need to absorb greater or higher knowledge from another, whether this knowledge is conceived in political, religious, or scientific terms.

All throughout history, the task accomplished by translators has acquired an extraordinary importance in the development and transmission of the cultural heritage of humankind. European culture, with all of its great wealth of knowledge, could not have been possible without the significant translation efforts of just a handful of countries: China, Greece, Iran, India, Iraq, Spain, and Ireland. The following national translation movements are considered by historians to have played a major role in the developmental path of world culture:
Prehistory: predominance of interpreting and mediating (marriage-brokers, deal-makers, peace-seekers, etc.)

Sumerians, Akadians, Assyrians: the need to make laws, creation tales and other scriptures, and economic norms known among peoples using different languages

Egyptians: the need to communicate with the Hittites and peoples in Southern Egypt

Greeks: the need to understand Egyptian civilization

Romans: the need to understand Greek civilization

Chinese (Seventh Century AD): the need to understand Indian civilization, especially Sanskrit and Pali scriptures

Arab and Persian World: (Jundishapur and Baghdad, Eighth to Tenth Centuries): the need to absorb and integrate Sanskrit, Hebrew, Syriac, and Greek knowledge into Persian and Arabic cultures

Irish (Eighth Century AD): the need for a decisive mediator between late antiquity and the Western Middle Ages, after the conquest of Spain by the Muslims resulted in the decline of Latin influence in Europe

Japanese (Ninth to Tenth Centuries): the need to understand and absorb Chinese culture, with Korea as an important intermediary

Western Middle Ages: the need to reabsorb and integrate Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek knowledge into medieval Europe

Renaissance: reintegration of Ancient Greek culture in the West

Conquest and colonization: the need to understand American, African, and Asian languages and dialects

Age of Enlightenment and Nineteenth Century: decline of Latin, emergence of modern national languages as the measure of human knowledge

Modern Times: many competing major and minor national languages

The Chang'an School
The earliest historical records show sporadic translation activities in China in the eleventh century BC. Documents from that time indicate that translation was carried out by government clerks, who were concerned primarily with the transmission of ideologies. In a written document from the late Zhou dynasty, Jia Gongyan, an imperial scholar, wrote: "Translation is to replace one written language with another without changing the meaning for mutual understanding."

This definition of translation, although primitive, proves the existence of translation theory in ancient China. Serious discussions on translation, however, did not begin until the introduction of Buddhism into the country during the Six Dynasties (222-589 AD), when Buddhist monks began translating classics of Buddhism into Chinese.

Before coming to China, Buddhism, which is of Indian origin, had already undergone several centuries of development. The translation of Buddhist literature from Pali and Sanskrit into Chinese proved to be a great undertaking and Buddhism became one of China's major religions. It was not only Buddhism, however, that had penetrated into China. Sankhya, tantra sastras, and other Hindu beliefs were also introduced into the thought of that country. The combined impact upon the world was profound, not only helping to reshape man's outlook and way of life, but also adding a written script, unique art, literature, and philosophy to the common wealth of mankind.

By the end of the fourth century, translation was officially organized on a large scale in China. A State School of Translation was founded for this purpose and Dao An, an imperial officer, was appointed its director. In 379, Dao An was abducted to Chang'an (Xi'an), where he started the famous Chang'an School. It was at this time that monks from Kashmir began to enter China in large numbers, bringing with them many texts from their homeland, which they translated into Chinese, and making the school one of the most important translation centers of the time.

Three of the most accomplished translators of the Chang'an school each adopted different theories regarding translation. Dao An insisted on a strict literal translation, i.e., that the source text should be translated word by word. The Indian scholar Kumarajiva, on the other hand, took up an opposite view and advocated a completely free translation method for the sake of elegance and intelligibility in the target language.

In his own translation practice, Chinese Buddhist scholar Xuan Zang combined the advantages of both Dao An's respect for the form of the source text, and Kumarajiva's free style of translation. Xuan Zang aimed to achieve an intelligibility of the translation for the target language readers, and developed his criteria that translation "must be truthful and intelligible to the populace." It might be during this period of time that there was the first discussion on literal translation vs. free translation - a core issue of translation theory.

Eventually, the translation of sutras lost importance in China and rulers directed their attention westward. Arabs began to settle in China, with some even becoming mandarins or merchants. Having learned the Chinese language, some of these erudite high officials began translating scientific works from Arabic or European languages. By the eighth century, conversion to Islam had already started in Central Asia.

"We will not wait to achieve progress; we will start where human knowledge has ended."
-Mary-Jo McConahay

Plato's Academy
The western academic tradition begins with the Greeks. Plato's Academy, established in Greece during the fourth century BC, was based on the ideological conviction that well-trained philosophers could reliably find truth. At that point in human history, philosophy was on the cutting edge of knowledge. For Plato, education was about turning the mind from "the world of becoming" (the world in all its transitory concerns) to the "world of being" (essences and ideals). It involved a shift of consciousness.

Plato founded his Academy in Athens, in about 387 BC. It was on land which had belonged to a man called Academos, and this is where the name Academy (Akademeia) came from. The Academy was an institution devoted to research and instruction in philosophy and the sciences, and Plato presided over it from 387 BC until his death in 347 BC. Many intellectuals were schooled there, the most prominent being Aristotle. The Academy survived for 900 years, until it was closed down in 529 AD, making it the longest surviving university known.

The Academy played a critical role not only in the preservation of Greek knowledge, but also of Egyptian knowledge. Fueled by an intense desire to understand the coherent, complete and interrelated system of science, religion, art and philosophy of the Egyptian civilization, legendary Greek thinkers like Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, Herodotus (later to become known as the 'father of history'), and Plato himself, derived much of their wisdom and knowledge from the science of Ancient Egypt. Greek and Egyptian cultures became intertwined after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.

When the Christian emperor Justinian closed Plato's Academy during the holy crusade against classical thought, Christian heresy, and paganism, many of its members were forced into exile. As they fled, they took with them precious scrolls of literature, philosophy, and science. These scholar-refugees journeyed to Persia and other places east, looking for sanctuary under the rule of Sassanid King Khusro I, and in academies like the seventh century Academy of Jundishapur in Persia.

The Great Library At Alexandria
During the Greco-Roman era, the intellectual leadership shifted from Athens to Alexandria. Alexander the Great's dream of unifying the world sparked the idea of constructing a great library, which would gather the cultures and civilizations of the whole world. The location of this great library was Alexandria, Egypt, at the crossroads of the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. In this historical moment, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was built on a site near the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The Great Library at Alexandria was the first recorded attempt at making a collection of all the world's recorded knowledge. Records report that it was connected to the Mouseion, or Temple of the Muses, which was an academy of learned men dedicated to the preservation, copying, and cataloging of knowledge. It was founded by the Pharaoh Ptolemy I Soter around 300 BCE, whose great ambition was to possess all known world literature. Later, Ptolemy II Philadelphus gave it the mission of procuring a copy of every book that existed.

In addition to the acquisition of the bulk of Greek literature and a lot of the knowledge of Ancient Egypt, there is evidence that the The Great Library also incorporated the written works of other nations, including Buddhist writings and works from the Jewish, Babylonian, Zoroastrian, and the newly emergent Roman traditions. Ancient historians claim that the library's 700,000 book collection was so comprehensive that no manuscript was available in any library worldwide that was not available in Alexandria.

Demetrius of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle, was the first recorded librarian at Alexandria between 290 - 282 BC. According to Aristeas, writing 100 years after the library's inception, Ptolemy I delegated Demetrius the job of gathering books and scrolls, and of supervising a massive effort to translate works from other cultures into Greek. Because there was a large Jewish community living in Alexandria at the time, Demetrius made his first job the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek (the 'Septuagint') for which the Library hired 72 rabbis.

Ptolemy III Euregetes wrote to all the world's sovereigns asking to borrow their books in order to copy them. As the Greeks lent him the texts he copied them, kept the originals, and sent the copies back. In doing so he forfeited the rich deposit he had laid down, but he had the originals. Ships arriving at Alexandria were searched for books and the same copy and return procedure was inflicted. Works were not accepted as originals without rigorous textual criticism and comparison to other copies of the same work. In this way scribal mistakes could be routed out.

The Great Library at Alexandria was founded at a unique place and time which allowed its scholars to draw on the deductive techniques of Aristotle and Greek thought, in order to apply these methods to the knowledges of Greece, Egypt, Macedonia, Babylonia, and beyond. The location of Alexandria as a center of trade and major exporter of writing material offered vast opportunities for the amassing of information from different cultures and schools of thought.

Entirely new disciplines such as grammar, manuscript preservation, and trigonometry were established. This fortuitious collection of documents in an Egyptian city later allowed the transmission and translation of vital classical texts into Arabic and Hebrew, where they would be preserved long after copies were lost during the Middle Ages in Europe.

Alexandria, together with the Lyceum Academy, and the library at Pergamon, were the prototypes for medieval monasteries and universities. The methods of research, study, and information storage and organization developed in the Library are much the same as those being used today. It was mainly due to the Great Alexandria Library that scholarship in Alexandria flourished, for it was based upon thorough study and an understanding of the value of a past heritage that was deemed worthy of preservation.

The Academy Of Jundishapur
After all, it was the Arabs who brought with them into Spain the Arabic versions of the Greek works, from which translations were made into Latin and spread throughout Europe during its dark ages. This Greek body of knowledge brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance, or rebirth. The question remains, however: by whom, where, and when was the Greek body of knowledge transmitted to the Arabs themselves?

The Arabs acquired Greek science from two sources:
directly from the Greeks of the Byzantine empire

from Syriac-speaking Nestorian Christians of Eastern Persia

By the third century AD, Syriac had already replaced Greek as the literary language of Western Asia. In Jundishapur, the Syriac texts were translated into Arabic, and by the tenth century, almost all the available texts of Greek science were available in Arabic. In his book "How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs", historian De Lacy O'Leary explains:

"Greek scientific thought had been in the world for a long time before it reached the Arabs, and during that period it had already spread abroad in various directions. So it is not surprising that it reached the Arabs by more than one route. It came first and in the plainest line through Christian Syriac writers, scholars, and scientists. Then the Arabs applied themselves directly to the original Greek sources and learned over again all they had already learned, correcting and verifying earlier knowledge."

In his book "Science in Translation", Scott L. Montgomery writes: "To assume that Greek was translated into Arabic still essentially erases centuries of history. What was translated into Arabic was usually Syriac, and the translators were neither Arabs (as the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun admitted) nor Muslims. The real story involves Sanskrit compilers of ancient Babylonian astronomy, Nestorian Christian Syriac-speaking scholars of Greek in the Persian city of Jundishapur, and Arabic and Pahlavi-speaking Muslim scholars of Syriac."

According to tradition, the Academy of Jundishapur in Persia (modern-day Iran) began with the founding of the city by King Shapur I in the third century AD. He is said to have ordered the collection of Greek works on philosophy and medicine, and had them translated into Pahlavi for the academy's library. King Shapur married a Christian princess, the daughter of the Roman Emperor. She arrived with artisans to build and decorate in the style of Constantinople, and with physicians, to assist her in case of illness.

This cosmopolitan city continued to develop as a center of learning and culture for several centuries. In the sixth century, shortly before the rise of Islam, the Academy of Jundishapur reached its peak. In many ways, the center at Jundishapur combined the sum of ancient wisdom at the time, bringing together knowledge from Greek, Roman, Jewish, Syrian, Christian, Persian and Hindu sources. Even Chinese thought, through the Silk Road connection, may have reached there.

Among the scholars at the center were Greek philosophers and teachers who had fled the closed Plato's Academy at Athens. Among the works they brought with them were Euclid's work in mathematics, the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, works by Ptolemy and others. Along with Nestorian scholar-refugees, they held discussions with the king, wrote, taught and translated. These Syriac translators thought it was essential to get as close to the original meaning of the Greek as possible. But, this method led to a style of translation that was virtually word-for-word, doing great injustice to Syriac word order, and later also to Arabic word order when the same technique was used for the first translations into Arabic.

Also brought to the school were Indian scholars working in Sanskrit who discussed moral and ethical teachings, Indian astronomy, and Indian mathematics with its Hindi numerals, which came to the Academy on its way to Muslim lands and later to Renaissance Europe. Combining the scientific traditions of the Greeks, Persians and Indians, it became the most important medical center in the world, continuing its influence into the eleventh century, even during the height of Baghdad's reign as an intellectual center. In fact, the first generation of the Baghdad school were all graduates and scholars of Jundishapur.

When the city of Jundishapur surrendered to Muslim military leaders in 636 AD, the Academy was left undisturbed. After the establishment of the great House Of Wisdom at Baghdad, the importance of Jundishapur was overshadowed and it gradually disappeared.

The House Of Wisdom
By the year 529, the Roman and Byzantine emperors had already destroyed much of the Greek knowledge because of its alleged paganism and differences with Christianity. Great librairies were burnt to the ground: the library in Carthage with 500,000 manuscripts, the library at Pergamus with 200,000 texts, the famous library in Alexandria, Egypt with 700,000 manuscripts, and the Pisistratus in Athens, where only Homer's "Epics" was salvaged. Even the Vatican libraries were raided and Plato's original Academy in Athens closed because it was a hotbed of 'pagan' philosophy.

For the history of Western civilization, the demise of Rome was a turning point. Having reached a high level of classical culture and learning, the fall of Rome was seen as a great decline. In Europe, the time of tumult and so-called barbarian invasions turned a sparkling civilization into forgotten ruins. Learning and culture retreated into fortress-like monasteries, where it moldered for centuries with little improvement. Libraries suffered the same fate. Scrolls and books were lost, and those that were saved from ruin ended up uncataloged and forgotten in dark rooms of monasteries.

Much of the remaining Classical Greek writing did not survive the centuries of neglect that followed. But, while Europe wallowed in the mire of the Dark Ages, Arab scholars translated into Arabic the few Greek texts that remained. Also translated were texts in other languages like Syriac, into which the Greek originals had previously been translated by political and religious refugees who had left Greece for India, Persia and other parts east, including some who had been expelled from Plato's Academy in Athens.

It was in Baghdad that the Muslims founded their great school of translation known as the House of Wisdom. Their formidable ambition was to translate as much as they could find of mathematics, astronomy, astrology, ethics, geography, mechanics, music, medicine, physics, philosophy, the construction of scientific instruments - whatever remained of Classical Greek knowledge.

The first Arabic translations used the same literal style of the Syriac translators. Syriac had evolved as a written language through translations of the New Testament, where it was thought to be essential to get as close to the original meaning of the Greek as possible. This led to a style that was virtually word-for-word translation. The Arabs later abandoned the tradition of literal translation and concentrated on making the sense of the Greek writers comprehensible to the reader. They went back to the original Greek texts and translated them directly into Arabic, revising earlier translations into Syriac and Aramaic.

The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) was started by Caliph al-Mamun in 830 AD. It was the center of Islamic learning, where great translation projects took place to convert the great works of different cultures into Arabic, which went on to become the language of knowledge and learning for many centuries. During Baghdad's golden age there was no censorship or religious bigotry and the Arab elite welcomed influences equally from Indians, Chinese, Christians, Jews and Pagans. The Baghdad school employed a diverse team of Christian and Muslim translators to help translate books from around the world.

One of the House of Wisdom's most famous scholars was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who eventually translated the entire canon of Greek medical works into Arabic, including the Hippocratic oath. Later becoming the director of the school, Hunayn also wrote at least twenty-nine original treatises of his own on medical topics. One of these was the first known medical work to include anatomical drawings. The book was translated into Latin and for centuries was the authoritative treatment of the subject in both Western and Eastern universities.

Some translators were paid an equal weight of gold to their translated manuscripts. It meant sometimes traveling as far as India to look for original manuscripts and study the mathematics and philosophy of those who had written in classical Sanskrit centuries earlier. The first great advance on the inherited mathematical tradition was the introduction of 'Arabic numerals', which actually originated in India and which simplified calculation of all sorts and made possible the development of algerbra.

This translation of knowledge is considered to be one of the main events of the Middle Ages. The House of Wisdom's main concern was foreign knowledge, and around it the Baghdad School evolved. Great libraries and schools thrived on the works that the translators contributed. The House of Wisdom restored the continuity of human knowledge by learning and translating from the older cultures. Without the ancient knowledge that was preserved and translated through the dark ages of medieval Europe, the Renaissance would not have been possible.

A Passage To India
In "How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs", O'Leary continues his account: "Then there came a second channel of transmission indirectly through India, mathematical and astronomical work, all a good deal developed by Indian scholars, but certainly developed from material obtained from Alexandria in the first place. This material had passed to India by the sea route which connected Alexandria with northwest India. Then there was also another line of passage through India which seems to have had its beginnings in the Greek kingdom of Bactria, one of the Asiatic states founded by Alexander the Great, and a land route long kept open between the Greek world and Central Asia."

The most notable of the Indian translators was the scholar-monk Kumarajiva. By the end of the fourth century, Indian culture had penetrated into China from both the north and south of India, giving Kumarajiva the opportunity to learn Chinese as well as his native Sanskrit. Kumarajiva began working to correct the imperfections of the provincial dialect and later to translating Buddhist texts and correcting earlier translations. A Bureau of Translators was set up under his supervision, with over 800 scholars on staff.

The wealth of India, with its fine cities and prosperous villages, attracted the attention of foreign invaders, including Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia. This was a period of great scientific discovery and intellectual triumph for Sanskrit learning. Brahman language scholars worked out all the major rules regarding the science of language and sounds (phonetics). Sanskrit grammar was standardized and Indian script was formalized, well able to represent all the sounds produced by the human voice.

Some linguists claim that ancient Indian script old Brahmi (or Indus), is a thousand years older than the Phoenician script, currently believed to be the origin of all alphabetic writing. Alphabets believed to be derived from old-Brahmi include Phoenician, Semitic, Aramaic of Taxila, Sabien Hemyaretic, and Greek. In India, Indus developed in two divergent directions: Devanagari in the north, and Ashokan Brahmi, from which derived Bhattiprolu Brahmi in the south. Devanagari is considered one of the most perfect writing systems ever devised.

Indian mathematicians used the number zero (0), and developed the decimal system and the concept of negative numbers. The Hindu numerical notation was then carried to Arabia about 770 AD by a Hindu scholar named Kanka, who taught Hindu astronomy and mathematics to Arabian scholars and, with his help, they translated the material into Arabic. From Arabia, the numerals slowly marched towards the West through Egypt and Northern Arabia, finally entering Europe in the eleventh century.

Art, literature, and philosophy also flourished, providing many fine examples of the genius of ancient India. Indeed, Sanskrit culture was greatly influenced by Western thought and civilization, through contacts with the Greeks, Romans, and Persians. All of these systems eventually came to the attention of the Arab scholars.

The School Of Toledo
In 1085, Toledo, Spain was taken from the Muslims by Alfonso VI of Leon. It soon became the capital of Castile and a community of scholars. There, the transmission of ancient knowledge reached it peak through the School of Toledo where translations were made from Arabic to Latin and later to Spanish, and helped the scientific and technological development for the European Renaissance. Toledo took the place of Baghdad as the new great translation center of the world.

Under the leadership of French Archbishop Raymond, who reigned from 1126 until his death in 1152, the Toledo School's Bureau of Translation attracted first rate scholars from all over Europe. Raymond knew the wealth of knowledge and scientific expertise, which the Muslim world possessed, and desired that Christendom gain access to its riches. Archdeacon Dominic Gundisalvi undertook many translations and directed the Bureau of Translation that Raymond had founded. Among the school's great scholars were Gherard of Cremona, John of Seville, Adelard of Bath, Robert of Chester, Rudolf of Bruges, Hermann of Carinthia, and Michael Scot. The twelfth century came to be known as the Age of Translation.

By the middle of the thirteenth century, scholars such as these had translated the bulk of ancient science into Latin, including the writings of such greats as Aristotle, Ptolemy, Euclid and Hippocrates, which had been preserved in Arabic for hundreds of years. These writings were either Arabic translations from Greek, Persian and Indian books or they were written by Muslim scientists themselves as new works.

Also translated were the writings of Muslim intellectual giants who, for generations, had expanded on the Ancient Greek works and written extensive glosses (marginal notes) and commentaries about their translations in their manuscripts. The School of Toledo represented the intellectual door through which this incredible storehouse of knowledge would become known to the West.

Many translators from Arabic into Latin worked alone, however, the usual method of translation was for two scholars to work in tandem. The basic procedure was for one scholar to translate aloud from the Arabic text into the vernacular, and for the second to translate from the vernacular, producing a Latin draft. For example, the translator from Arabic into Castilian (or Catalan) might be a Jew, in which case the other member of the team would be a Christian, typically a cleric. This practice, known as cross-language translation lent characteristic social coloring to the process.

The following text is quoted from Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man", the award-winning 13-part BBC television series covering the history of civilization and science: "When Christianity came to win back Spain, the excitement of the struggle was on the frontier. Here Moors and Christians, and Jews too, mingled and made an extraordinary culture of different faiths. In 1085 the centre of this mixed culture was fixed for a time in the city of Toledo. Toledo was the intellectual port of entry into Christian Europe of all the classics that the Arabs had brought together from Greece, from the Middle East, from Asia."

"We think of Italy as the birthplace of the Renaissance. But the conception was in Spain in the twelfth century, and it is symbolised and expressed by the famous school of translators at Toledo, where the ancient texts were turned from Greek (which Europe had forgotten) through Arabic and Hebrew into Latin..."

A school for translation was also founded in Palermo, Sicily in the thirteenth century similar to the school at Toledo. The two schools established close relations and exchanged books, translations and scientists. Some of the most prominent translators at the Palermo School of Translation were Eugenius of Palermo and Leonardo Pisano. As in Toledo, the translation work at Palermo was mainly concerned with works in mathematics, philosophy and the natural sciences. A result of this scientific activity are the thousands of Arabic manuscripts still held today in the Vatican Library in Rome.

The Long Seventh Century
"As the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature - everything they could lay their hands on. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one - a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be." ("How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe", Thomas Cahill, New York: Doubleday, 1995)

In his book "Ireland and Her Neighbours in the Seventh Century", historian Michael Richter writes: "Irish society was the first outside the Roman empire to receive Christianity, and to do so in Latin, as was to become customary elsewhere in the West. Since Ireland was spared the upheavals which characterized the post-Roman centuries in Western Europe, Latin learning unfolded there within a context of a vibrant native Irish culture. Because of the use of Latin, Irish Christian culture was accessible to non-Irish scholars."

"Ireland and Spain were the societies with the most dynamic Latin culture during the long seventh century (563-731). Where they differed was that Spain was conquered by the Muslims in the early eighth century with a consequent decline of influence in Europe, whereas Ireland remained largely undisturbed for another 100 years. In this way Ireland emerged as the decisive mediator between late antiquity and the Western Middle Ages."

In 432 AD, Patrick of Ireland arrived from Britain with several of his loyal followers and, for the remainder of his life, worked to convert the natives to Christianity. One of the most profound introductions brought to Ireland by Patrick was the Latin alphabet. Latin had become extinct in Britain as a spoken language, but the shadow of the Roman Empire had never extended to Ireland.

Patrick established monasteries across the country where language and theology could be studied. During the Dark Ages these monasteries served as sanctuaries to many of the Continent's great scholars and theologians. Learning was prized, and the monks had plenty of time for personal study or to learn Latin, and sometimes even Greek. The craft of the written word would be used by Irish monks to translate many important literary works, and to record a great wealth of oral traditions and history.

Great centers of learning were established and students from every corner of Europe flocked to Irish universities to receive their education, including the sons of many of the Anglo-Saxon kings. It was here that the lamp of Latin learning was preserved for the ages. During this age, the great illuminated manuscripts of Ireland were produced. It was the long seventh century; Europe was in the Dark Ages and Ireland was in a period of 'Golden Enlightenment'.

But Ireland's contribution was two-fold. At the same time that Christians were coming to Ireland from abroad, thousands of Irish missionaries - male and female - were leaving their native country to live in Britain and the Continent, in an effort to reconvert a pagan Europe to Christianity. These pilgrims spread classical learning and influence into France, Lombardy and England. From the sixth century onward, Irishmen were busy founding centers of learning, churches, and monasteries all over Europe, and as far east as the Ukraine, as far north as the Faroes, and as far south as Italy. Ireland became synonymous with literacy and learning.

The final linguistic process in Irish took place after Arabic learning was introduced to Ireland in the twelfth century, carried there by returning Irish religious leaders and scholars who had been teaching in the great universities of Europe such as Bologna, Padua and Montpellier. By this time, Irish medical practitioners, who were renown throughout Europe, had adopted Arabic medical ideas. Before 1800, the Irish language actually contained the largest collection of medical manuscript literature surviving in any one language.

"I have never met a person who is not interested in language."
-Steven Pinker

Ten Years That Changed The Perception Of The Translator
(From "The ATA Chronicle", December, 1995) -During the ten years between 1536 and 1546, three famous translators met their death. One was tortured first and then burned at the stake in Paris, the great center of civilization. The second was strangled and then burnt in the city of Antwerp. And even though the third died a natural death, half of Europe longed to see him executed.

In the most dramatic of these cases, the ostensible reason for the translator's execution at the stake was that he had dared to insert three extra words into one of his translations, words which were not clearly present in the original. Étienne Dolet (1509–1546), a French humanist was tried for translating one of Plato's "Dialogues" in such a way as to imply disbelief in immortality. Dolet did in fact add three extra words to a text he was translating from Greek, though many scholars defend their use as adding to the clarity. He was condemned as an atheist, tortured and strangled at the age of thirty-seven; his body was burned with copies of his books at his feet.

The second translator to die for his transgressions was Bible translator and reformer William Tyndale (1494-1536), who was so impressed by Martin Luther's teachings that he created English versions of the Christian texts and the Torah, which he then smuggled into England without the knowledge of King Henry VII. Tyndale was forced to flee England but was eventually arrested in Belgium in 1535, and then imprisoned for a year and a half before being strangled and burned at the stake.

As a translator, Tyndale coined many everyday phrases, including: "Let there be light", "Eat, drink and be merry", "The powers that be", "Ye of little faith", "Am I my brother's keeper", "A man after his own heart", and "Signs of the times". His translation of the Bible is credited with influencing the later "King James" version.

The last of the three 'translator-warriors' was the charismatic and successful Martin Luther (1483-1546) himself, who dared to translate the Bible into German, and the one man so many would have rejoiced to see crucified. In 1540, Luther wrote the self-promoting and nationalistic Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, in which he criticized Latin, Hebrew and other languages for being full of "stones and stumps", compared to his 'smooth' German writing.

As a poet, writer and translator, Luther reformed the German language in ways that can still be felt today. He is often considered the "father of the modern German language." Still, Luther was constantly forced to defend his principles of meaning-oriented translation and he was eventually put under the ban of the Empire. Fearing for his safety, his own friends once kidnapped him to protect him.

Until the passage of these ten pivotal years, translators in the West had been viewed more as heroes than as villains. They had opened all the ancient arts and sciences to the world around them, not only philosophy, astronomy, and geometry but the more advanced range of Arab mathematics, not to mention medicine, optics, and other sciences. They had even opened the door to the enormously popular studies of alchemy, geomancy, and astrology. As Giordano Bruno himself would say: "From translation all science had its off-spring."

After 1546, public attitude began to change and translators were no longer viewed as heroes. Increasing emphasis would be placed on the inadequacy of translators and even the translation process itself, a view which has largely prevailed until the present day.

"When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language."
-John Donne

Ancient Wisdom For The Modern World
Most of the world's past comes to us in translation. "It may not overstate the case," writes L. G. Kelly, "to claim that the history of the world could be told through the history of translation." Some of this history is well charted, as with the translation of the Bible, the work of missionaries, and the Orientalist translators in India, but there remain vast unknown territories. Only recently have scholars begun to write about the role of individual translators."

"At a time when people and ideas, and culture and business, seem to increasingly cross the barriers of language, translation from one language to another becomes a necessary part of the action, with that action being neither transparent nor automatic. Translators make choices about how to move the text across the barriers behind which cultures have evolved characteristic linguistic ways of seeing and thinking, of encoding and protecting their cultures. All throughout history, we can see the creativity of individual translators as they sought to push their texts through filters of culture and language." ("The Journal of American History", Willi Paul Adams and David Thelen, March, 1999)

Indeed, translators have an ancient wisdom.


  • At 6:56 AM, Blogger PRAGYAN said…

    It's great write up! will you permit us to publish it in our journal Pragyan? It has both wed and hard edition, published by teachers of Tinsukia College ,Assam, India. You can check our blog for details. If you allow I'd love to translate it in Bengali
    Sushanta Kar


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