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Ancient Greeks and Arabs and the translation movement.



Ancient Baghdad, founded in the 8th century, would go on to become the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and a cosmopolitan centre of learning, industry, culture and of course, the Islamic religion. With the formalities and bureaucracy associated with such a metropolis, translators would have been important people helping to bring together the many languages used in the vast area of the Caliphate. I for one can see these ancient linguists armed with a quill and a “Certified Translation” stamp. Although it surely would have looked something a bit more like: "ترجمة معتمدة". I’m deadly serious though, the Islamic Golden age was also the golden age of translation, when the vast and varied knowledge of the ancient Greeks was translated into Arabic in order to further the splendor of the relatively new faith’s religious as well as cultural reach. Perhaps as a means to demonstrate this, there exists the apocryphal story of Al-Ma'mun and his nocturnal encounter with a very famous old Greek. The seventh Abbasid caliph, who reigned from 813 until his death in 833, is said to have awoken one morning and ordered the translation of the ancient Greek texts after Aristotle appeared to him in his dream. Despite the ongoing Arab-Byzantine wars, Al-Ma'mun realized that Islam and the west were not opposed when it came to the realm of knowledge. Many of the ancient Greek texts were of great practical value and the Arabs would go on to put them to use in the fields of medicine, mathematics, engineering and the sciences. The great wealth of the Caliphate meant that hundreds of translators could be paid handsomely for working on Arabic translations of the original texts. Ancient invoices tell us that translators were earning up to 500 gold dinars a month. That’s about £20,000 in today’s money! They were extremely prestigious individuals with skills that were very important for the Caliphate and its success, and that’s why they could command such prices for their work. But aside from the practical value of the translations, there was symbolic value too. These translators were also translating works of metaphysics. Why?! It seems there was also some kind of cultural warfare going on against the Byzantine empire. The Arabs could get one up on their enemies by demonstrating that they understood the works and thoughts of the ancestors of these latter-day Greeks better than the Byzantines did themselves. Working alongside this idea was the belief that the Arabs were in fact reclaiming their own ancient knowledge that Alexander the Great had appropriated and taken back to Greece. Whatever the truth about the origin of the ideas contained within Aristotle and other writers’ works, what is certain is that they were available and read in translation in the Arab world hundreds of years before they came to be widely known in Western Europe. When they did spread into the west it was largely due to Latin translations being made of the Arabic versions held in the great library of Cordoba in Muslim Spain, which became a centre of learning for western scholars and translators. As a modern-day translator with the advantage of lightening-speed internet and a laptop in my bag, I’m lucky enough to be able to work as a digital nomad. As it happens, I’m writing this article in a library in Cordoba, and as a translator I feel a profound link to the place and its history. I feel like I’m continuing the tradition of those ancient translators who worked from here to Baghdad and across the ancient world. The big difference is that these days I’m doing the cheapest certified translations on the market, guaranteed, and can only dream about making those 500 gold dinars for my work. Oh well, at least in the unlikely event that I make a mistake in my work, I won’t have to answer to the Caliph.

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