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How civilisation today owes a huge debt to Baghdad translators of yore

When we think of the technology behind today’s machine translation, and the science behind the wondrous COVID-19 vaccines, and space travel, it’s hard to believe that none of this would have been possible were it not for a group of expert Arab translators located in Baghdad some 1,000 years ago.

From WordPress translation, localisation services  and multimedia localisation, to transcreation and linguistic testing, today’s language services companies  are the inheritors of a noble tradition that has had a profound effect on the very fabric of civilisation. Read on to discover the surprising history of translation.

The Graeco-Arabic translation movement

The Islamic Golden Age (8th to 13th century) centred on Baghdad, and saw science, economic development and cultural endeavours flourish in the Islamic world at a time when Western Europe was shrouded in the so-called Dark Ages, where most ancient Greek and Roman texts on maths, science and philosophy had been lost and Christianity held sway. The Christian church preached that it wasn’t humankind’s place to probe God’s creation, so inquiry into the nature of the world was effectively discouraged. Indeed, many of these texts were considered heretical, and the penalty for engaging with them was severe.

During this period, Arab translators preserved ancient Greek and Roman texts through translating them into Arabic. It’s estimated that nearly all Greek secular books available in the Near East at the time were translated into Arabic. The subject range was vast, covering alchemy and astrology, the theory of music, philosophy, physics and botany, logic, health science, pharmacology and medicine, to name just a few. Just one edition of commentary on Aristotle comprises 74 volumes. Much of what we know today of Hippocrates, Plato, Socrates, Euclid and many other great thinkers, is the direct result of these Arab translators.

Arab translators preserved ancient Greek and Roman texts through translating them into Arabic.

Arab translators preserved ancient Greek and Roman texts through translating them into Arabic.

Cynics may wonder what significance translating musty old tomes a millennium ago has on today’s scientific and social achievements. The Graeco-Arabic translation movement saw secular Greek and Roman text translated into Arabic and these texts then found their way into Europe, partly through Spain, which was then controlled by a caliphate.

Caliph Al-Mansur launched the Arab translation movement in CE 754, a few years after Chinese paper-making techniques had leaked to Arabs. From here, Arab translators organised into an extensive translation system with vast resources.

The House of Wisdom

Built by Caliph Haround Al-Rasheed (786-809 CE) and located in Baghdad, The House of Wisdom – the size of today’s British Library – was a huge library of ancient texts. These texts outlined concepts like common zero and the numerals we know today. This abstract mathematical language underpins scientific innovation and would go on to transform the world. At the time, Western Europe was still using Roman numerals, which made division and multiplication or any higher forms of mathematics incredibly challenging.

 This abstract mathematical language underpins scientific innovation and would go on to transform the world.

This abstract mathematical language underpins scientific innovation and would go on to transform the world.

The library, which contained Indian and some Chinese works as well as Greek and Roman texts, became a centre for learning. Translators trained in specific areas, like engineering, much like today’s translation agencies do. As the library’s collection grew, the building was extensively extended. It was populated by scientists, scribes, writers, and philosophers, who spoke a wide range of languages, like Farsi, Hebrew and Arabic, much as today’s translation agencies rely on experts in their fields and language area. It was a diverse and learned environment.

At the time, this was the largest transfer of knowledge in history. The model proved successful with other Islamic leaders, who emulated the endeavour and established their own centres of learning, such as Dar al-Hikma in Cairo, which was constructed in 1005 CE by Caliph Al-Hakim.

So, just how did these Arabic texts make their way to Europe and help spark the Renaissance and Enlightenment?

Viva Toledo!

Another massive translation movement took off in Andalusia in Islamic Spain in the 12th century. Here the works that had been translated into Arabic were translated into latin, making them accessible to latin-speakers across the continent. Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars flocked to the city to get involved, which fostered the creation of a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic centre of learning. Though Toledo was the centre, translators were hard at work across the caliphate.

When Christian forces reconquered Spain in 1085, they set about methodically organising the huge body of work they inherited from the caliphate. This acted to accelerate the pace of translation. Under this system, a native speaker would speak the contents of the text to a scholar, who went not to dictate the Latin equivalent to a scribe.

Perhaps the most prolific translator of this era was Italian Gerard of Cremona, who translated some 87 texts, including works on surgery, physics and maths.

A step away

The extent of knowledge that was transferred is staggering. From Spain, this knowledge extended through universities across Europe, where ecclesiastical opposition to studying ancient texts had softened somewhat.

In a vivid example, Al-Zahrawi’s translation of information on surgical instruments helped revolutionise medical intervention. It included information on a drill to dislodge calculus from the urethra, and a technique to remove tonsils. In another example, translations of chemistry texts by Jabir and Al-Razi helped form the basis of modern science. These works comprised information that led to industrial processes like metal refining.

translation of information on surgical instruments

Al-Zahrawi’s translation of information on surgical instruments helped revolutionise medical intervention.

You may have learned about Kepler and his revolutionary telescope at school. Kepler’s achievement was made possible by texts on optics translated by Ibn al-Haytham. There is also evidence to suggest that Copernicus, who determined that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way round, built his model on ancient Greek knowledge translated out of Toledo.

Copernicus, who determined that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way round, built his model on ancient Greek knowledge translated out of Toledo

Copernicus, who determined that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way round, built his model on ancient Greek knowledge translated out of Toledo

This flourishing of knowledge in the Christian world helped spark the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the explosion of scientific discoveries and theories that led us to where we are today.

So, when you next send a text to your expert Translation Agency in Hong Kong , commission a legal document translation  or use AI generated sentences , you’re participating in an endeavour that helped create the modern world. To speak to an expert translator, contact us today.