Translation theory and practice in the Abbasid era
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This paper explores the theoretical approaches to translation and the dynamics of language politics during the ʻAbbāsid-era translation movement through the lens of three prominent figures of the ʿAbbāsid era, Ḥunayn ibn Isʹhāq, Mattā bin Yūnus and al-Jāḥiẓ. In conversation with Emily Apter's concept of untranslatability and current concerns about translation into and out of Arabic, this paper examines the cultural implications of claims to translatability and untranslatability. The ʿAbbāsid era presents a particularly useful comparison to the present because rather than being marginal, Arabic was the language of an expanding empire, and also because the ʿAbbāsid era was a kind of 'Golden Age' of translation. The ʿAbbāsid era was an enormously productive period, with translators rendering nearly the entirely corpus of available Greek manuscripts into Arabic. This outpouring of translation activity not only provided an influx of new ideas but provoked a wide-ranging debate among the literati of the time about the possibilities and problems of translation. Examining the figures of al-Jāḥiẓ, Mattā bin Yūnus and Ḥunayn ibn Is'hāq provides a window into this theoretical conversation. Al-Jāḥiẓ, as one of the foremost authorities on Arabic rhetoric, gave voice to more than one view of translation, in part defining Arabic writing as too unique to be translated while elsewhere claiming translations from other languages as the inheritance of the Arab culture. The Aristotelian translator Mattā bin Yūnus provides an example of backlash against translation in which foreign ideas were seen as a threat to Arab identity. Ḥunayn ibn Is'hāq, one of most highly regarded translators of his day, reveals a pragmatic approach to translation which integrated Greek works into Arab society. These three figures reorient the poles of translatability and untranslatability, revealing the potential of both to strengthen hegemony, and show the positive and negative aspects of an Arabocentric and Islamocentric universalism.