faithful translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq promoted Galenic understanding

How should a text be translated? For readers who have no interest in textual sources, translation is merely manufacturing machinery, and all that counts is the end product. That tends to be how most persons value texts in our modern economies of goods. Yet historically, particular source texts — the Iliad, Hebrew scripture, the Gospels, Galenic medical knowledge, the Qur’an — have been highly valued. Translation trades reduced effort required from a reader to communicate with a valued source text for loss in connection to the source. Translation also enlarges the social influence of a source text and allocates value from that enlarged social influence between the source text and the translator. The ninth-century Baghdadi translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq addressed these allocations of value as a faithful translator of the second-century Roman physician Galen.

Hunayn worked within a tradition of Syriac translations of Greek texts. Most of the Greek New Testament was probably translated into Syriac by early in the fourth century. Many Christian theological texts were translated into Syriac in the fifth century. Sergius of Resh‘aina, who died in 536, apparently was the first person to translate Greek philosophical and medical texts into Syriac.[1] In the preface to his Syriac translation of pseudo-Aristotle’s letter On the Universe {Περὶ Κόσμου}, Sergius told the person (“elect one”) who had ordered the translation:

I urge you, dear sir, that if another copy of this letter is found, in which is anything more or less, please, elect one, do not blame our weakness. That which I have found in the copy that was sent from you, dear sir, I have taken care to preserve completely, neither adding anything to those things written here by the philosopher, nor on the other hand taking away from them according to my ability.[2]

Sergius invocation of “our weakness” expresses a modesty trope standard in Syriac literary prefaces since the fourth century. That modesty trope is consistent with the apostle Paul’s declarations of his weakness. Sergius’s preface to On the Universe also echoes the concluding warning in Revelation not to add or subtract anything from its words.[3]

Sergius described On the Universe as a letter from Aristotle the Philosopher to Alexander the King. Aristotle and Alexander were highly honored historical figures. In translating this letter, Sergius apparently proceeded as he would with a sacred text. He didn’t translate according to the rigid, word-for-word translation practice of seventh-century Syriac translators. He translated both with great respect for the source text and with concern to have his Syriac translation be hospitable to readers accustomed to Syriac literary language. Sergius was a scholar-translator and a Christian priest. Sergius translated Aristotle’s letter to Alexander faithfully.[4]

Within what modern scholars in their ignorance and bigotry have called the Golden Age of Latin literature, eminent authorities disparaged the “faithful translator.” Writing for the Roman elite, Horace in his Art of Poetry {Ars Poetica} counseled the reader against an unprofitable practice:

you take care to render word for word as a faithful translator

{ verbo verbum curabis reddere fidus interpres }[5]

In rendering this disparagement of such translation, the Loeb edition translated fidus interpres as “slavish translator.” In a letter to Romans about the year 55, Paul of Tarsus described himself as a “slave of Jesus Christ {δοῦλος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ}.”[6] Paul meant that he was a faithful servant of Jesus Christ. The ancient Greek historian Polybius described the Aetolians, failing in battle against the Romans, acting according to the sense in which Paul was faithful to Jesus:

The Aetolians, after some further observations about the actual situation, decided to refer the whole matter to Manius Acilius Glabrio, committing themselves “to the faith” of the Romans, not knowing the exact meaning of the phrase, but deceived by the word “faith” as if they would thus obtain more complete pardon. But with the Romans to commit oneself “to the faith” of a victor is equivalent to surrendering unconditionally.

{ οἱ δ᾿ Αἰτωλοὶ καὶ πλείω λόγον ποιησάμενοι περὶ τῶν ὑποπιπτόντων ἔκριναν ἐπιτρέπειν τὰ ὅλα Μανίῳ, δόντες αὑτοὺς εἰς τὴν Ῥωμαίων πίστιν, οὐκ εἰδότες τίνα δύναμιν ἔχει τοῦτο, τῷ δὲ τῆς πίστεως ὀνόματι πλανηθέντες, ὡς ἂν διὰ τοῦτο τελειοτέρου σφίσιν ἐλέους ὑπάρξοντος. παρὰ <δὲ> Ῥωμαίοις ἰσοδυναμεῖ τό τ᾿ εἰς τὴν πίστιν αὑτὸν ἐγχειρίσαι καὶ τὸ τὴν ἐπιτροπὴν δοῦναι περὶ αὑτοῦ τῷ κρατοῦντι. }[7]

When the ancient Roman historian Livy translated into Latin Polybius’s account of the Aetolians’ surrender, Livy wrote that the Aetolians resolved that their best choice “would be to surrender themselves into the faith of the Romans {in fidem se permitterent Romanorum}.” When the Aetolians subsequently perceived the Romans to be treating them unjustly, the Aetolians protested, “we entrusted ourselves not into slavery, but into your faith {non in servitutem … sed in fidem tuam nos tradidimus}.”[8] Horace’s adjective fidus in fidus interpres is cognate to the Latin noun fides. In ancient Roman understanding, faithful translators entrust themselves completely to another.

Who was Horace’s prototypical faithful translator? Writing perhaps a half-century before Horace’s disparagement of the faithful translator, the classically revered Roman orator Cicero declared:

It is not necessary to squeeze out a text word by word, as ineloquent translators do, when there is a more familiar single word that would indicate the same overall meaning. Actually, for what the Greek text puts forth in one word, if I am unable to do anything else, I tend to use several words. However, I think we are obliged to concede to employ a Greek word when no Latin one will muster for use.

{ Nec tamen exprimi verbum e verbo necesse erit, ut interpretes indiserti solent, cum sit verbum quod idem declaret magis usitatum; equidem soleo etiam, quod uno Graeci, si aliter non possum, idem pluribus verbis exponere. Et tamen puto concedi nobis oportere ut Graeco verbo utamur, si quando minus occurret Latinum. }[9]

Cicero’s low-status “ineloquent translator {indisertus interpres}” apparently became Horace’s scorned “faithful translator {fidus interpres}.” Horace perhaps picked up a subtle allusion in another of Cicero’s descriptions of his translation pragmatics:

Indeed, I transferred the most famous orations of the two most eloquent Attic orators, Aeschines and Demosthenes, orations that they delivered against each other. I did not transfer them as a translator, but as an orator. I kept the same ideas and forms, or figures, so to speak. However, I used language that conforms to our usage. In doing so, I did not hold to be necessary to render word for word, but I preserved every category and the force of the words. Indeed, I did not think I was obliged to count words out to the reader, but to pay them by weight, so to speak.

{ Converti enim ex Atticis duorum eloquentissimorum nobilissimas orationes inter seque contrarias, Aeschinis et Demosthenis; nec converti ut interpres, sed ut orator, sententiis isdem et earum formis tamquam figuris, verbis ad nostram consuetudinem aptis. In quibus non verbum pro verbo necesse habui reddere, sed genus omne verborum vimque servavi. Non enim ea me adnumerare lectori putavi oportere, sed tamquam appendere. }[10]

In describing translation, Cicero repeatedly used “language of monetary exchange and correct (aristocratic) payment of debts.” He described “the interpreter’s process of translation as resembling an individual counting out of coins.” Cicero distinguished translations in terms of broad distinctions in social status:

Cicero is no petty merchant clinking coins together; unlike the fumbling interpres, he works in a large-scale economy and knows that true debt must be paid out in a grand manner, not coin by coin.[11]

While Cicero disparaged Catius, Amafinius, Rabirius and other Epicurean translators as pandering to the masses, elite Romans greatly respected Lucretius’s magnificent Epicurean epic, De rerum natura.[12] Epicureans weren’t a low-status Roman group associated with distrustful, coin-testing merchants. Jews, however, were such a group in the eyes of the Roman elite. Horace’s faithful translator is a Jew translating or interpreting sacred Hebrew texts while entrusting himself in faith to God.[13]

Jerome pondering translation

Faithful translation came to be practiced far beyond Jews. Jerome of Stridon (Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus), a Christian priest and theologian, translated Hebrew scripture and the New Testament into Latin at the end of the fourth century. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) was used in Western European liturgy for more than a millennium. Christians around the world came to regard him as a saint. Jerome surely should be called a faithful translator.

Jerome was also a highly sophisticated writer. In a letter to his dear friend and fellow monk Pammachius, Jerome vibrantly and memorably explained his practices of translation. He ridiculed those whom he claimed charged him with criminal mistakes in translating from Greek to Latin a letter from Pope Epiphanius to John, Bishop of Jerusalem. Jerome declared:

Now my enemies, ranting against me, preach among the unlearned that I have falsified, that I have not expressed word for word, that I have written “dear friend” in place of “honorable sir,” and that — more disgraceful still! — I have maliciously translated by omitting to convey “most reverend father” into my Latin text. These and similar trifles constitute my criminal acts.

{ deditque adversariis latrandi contra me occasionem, ut inter imperitos concionentur, me falsarium, me verbum non expressisse de verbo: pro honorabili dixisse carissimum, et maligna interpretatione, quod nefas dictu sit, αἰδεσιμώτατον Παππαν, noluisse transferre. Haec et istiusmodi nugae crimina mea sunt. }[14]

Jerome confessed that he doesn’t translate word for word:

I indeed not only admit but freely announce that in translating from the Greek (except of course in the case of Holy Scripture, where even the order of words contains a mystery) I squeeze out not word for word, but sense for sense.

{ Ego enim non solum fateor, sed libera voce profiteor, me in interpretatione Graecorum, absque Scripturis sanctis, ubi et verborum ordo mysterium est, non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu. }

Jerome then quoted in his defense the above-quoted statements of Cicero and Horace. With his great sense of humor, Jerome also aligned himself with the comic poets Menander, Plautus, and Caecilius:

Do they ever stick merely to words? Do they not rather attempt to preserve the beauty and elegance in translation? Such as you call truth in translation, learned men call “pestilent minuteness.” Such were my teachers about twenty years ago, and even then I was wronged by a similar erroneous charge

{ Numquid haerent in verbis: ac non decorem magis et elegantiam in translatione conservant? Quam vos veritatem interpretationis, hanc eruditi κακοζηλίαν nuncupant. Unde et ego doctus a talibus ante annos circiter viginti, et simili tunc quoque errore deceptus }

In his actual translation practice and in his letter to Pammachius, Jerome didn’t actually endorse literally translating scripture word for word.[15] He in fact put forth quotes from Holy Scripture highlighting the non-literal translation practices of Christian scriptural authorities:

The apostle Paul has not expressed his original word for word, but with “paraphrase” he has indicated the same sense in different phrasing. … From all these examples it is clear that in translating the Old Testament, the apostles and evangelists have sought for the sense rather than for the words. They have not with great effort ensured the word order and phrasing, so long as they could make clear the matter for understanding.

{ Apostolus non verbum expressit e verbo, sed παραφρασικῶς, eumdem sensum aliis sermonibus indicavit. … Ex quibus universis perspicuum est, Apostolos et Evangelistas in interpretatione veterum Scripturarum, sensum quaesisse, non verba: nec magnopere de ordine sermonibusque curasse, dum intellectui res pateret. }

In many different contexts, Jerome argued vigorously and robustly for what he regarded to be right. He, however, was modest enough not to assume that he had fully the same freedom in translating Holy Scripture as did the apostles and evangelists. Jerome was not a literal translator, nor a free translator, nor a person without a playful, vibrant sense of the fullness of life. Jerome was a faithful translator.

Nicole Oresme writing

Like Jewish translators in Cicero and Horace’s Rome, like Sergius of Resh‘aina and Jerome of Stridon, Hunayn ibn Ishaq was a faithful translator. A recent study categorized Hunayn ibn Ishaq relative to text-oriented translation and reader-oriented translation:

To assist us in the task of determining how Ḥunayn transformed Galen from Greek into Arabic, a scheme for classifying ancient translations, introduced by the Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock, will be employed. This scheme reflects the attitude of the translator to the source text. If the translator attempts to convey every textual detail of the source text into the target language, as if the revered source text were not to be changed, this is a ‘text-oriented’ translation. On the other hand, if the translator has the reader in the target language as his primary concern, and uses intertextual commentary, definition, or exposition of the cultural context in the target language, to convey the meaning of the source text and to render it as useful as possible, this translation is ‘reader-oriented’. The latter description applies to the translation activities at Baghdad by the mid-ninth century, when translators and scholars, such as Ḥunayn and al-Kindī, approached the Greek corpus with a robust confidence and, although accuracy was their aim, their own research agendas took precedence over strict one-to-one translation. Ḥunayn’s translations certainly fit the latter category, since he occasionally ‘corrected’ his originals, whether Greek or Syriac, and his pervasive textual ‘intrusions’ can be construed as aids for the reader.[16]

“Reader–oriented” and “text-oriented” should be understood not as a binary translation choice, but as a spectrum of choices in connecting the reader to a valued source text. Moreover, that spectrum of translation choices co-exists with the personal interests of the translator and the value of his translation not just to a single reader, but also to the whole social field of potential readers. Just as one might seek to make justice and mercy kiss, a faithful translator both seeks to meet readers where they are and transform their understanding for the better. As a flesh and blood human being who needs material sustenance, a faithful translator may consider how to acquire value for herself in doing her work of translation. But a faithful translator also entrusts himself in faith to a larger project of social good and evangelizes the value of studying a text not of his own making.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq exemplifies characteristics of a faithful translator. He was a Christian Arab from al-Ḥīra (al-Hirah). That was the capital of the Arabic vassal kingdom of the Lakhmids under the Persian Sassanid Empire. Hunayn thus lacked ready connections to the elite Syriac Christian physician-scholars or to the Abbasid court of the ruling Muslim Caliph in Baghdad. He had to make translations that would satisfy readers better than other translators could within a competitive ninth-century Mesopotamian market for translation. At the same time, Hunayn believed deeply in the importance of Galen’s medical learning. Hunayn studied Galen extensively and himself practiced Galenic medicine as a physician. Hunayn entrusted himself and his readers in faith to Galenic medicine, not to medicine of Hunayn’s own creation.

As a faithful translator, Hunayn identified with the evangelic practices of the apostle Paul and Galen. Hunayn strove to make Galenic medical knowledge accessible to all readers. At the request of the Syriac physician Salmawayh ibn Bunān, Hunayn translated Galen’s On Habits from Greek into Syriac. Hunayn recognized in his prefatory letter to that translation that Salmawayh was an expert reader of Galen. Hunayn, however, made a translation that would serve all readers. He explained:

with books, one should not merely aim at what the minds of one or two men from among the people can grasp, but rather out of his love for benefiting people a book’s author should endeavor that the minds of many men grasp his work. This being the case, I decided it was necessary to add a translation of a commentary explaining the meaning of each of the quotations which are included in the book by way of analogy and exemplification. That way, anyone who has not applied his intellect to one of the books from which Galen drew these quotations will be able to understand its meanings rapidly and with ease.[17]

For quotations from Hippocrates, Hunayn translated and added commentary from other works of Galen. For a long quotation from Plato’s Timaeus, Hunayn translated and added commentary by Proclus. These changes to the source text weren’t “reader-oriented” relative to the reader who had ordered the translation. According to Hunayn, Salmawayh had no need of additional commentary. But with the additional commentary Hunayn demonstrated his own expertise and thus enhanced his competitive position as a translator. His additional commentary also served his larger social project of making Galenic medical knowledge readily available to all. Hunayn translated Galen’s On Habits not as a literal translator, but as a faithful translator.[18]

Faithful translation necessarily involves difficult circumstantial judgments. No abstract formula exists for meeting readers in their actual life circumstances and bringing them as close as possible to the valued source text. While prudently serving her own material interests, a faithful translator strives not to have her interests control her translation. Moreover, in making a popularizing translation, the faithful translator seeks to avoid replacing or even devaluing the source text.[19]

Alternatives to faithful translation are unfaithful translation, free translation, or no translation at all. Unfaithful or free translation by definition is easy for anyone to do. No translation is even easier. That latter choice doesn’t necessarily indicate indolence.[20] A very highly valued text  — a sacred text, a text thought to represent the word of God — might be regarded as too precious to risk making the circumstantial judgments necessary for faithful translation. That’s how Muslims view translating the Qur’an from Arabic. An Italian proverb from no later than the nineteenth century declares, “translator — traitor! {traduttore, traditore}.”[21] Those who attempt faithful translation tremble at the thought of betraying their source texts.

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[1] Brock (2004) pp. 3-4. Syriac translations of Greek Biblical and patristic texts in the fourth and fifth centuries were relatively free and in some cases amounted to expanded paraphrases. Id. p. 6, Brock  (1979) p. 75.

[2] Sergius of Resh‘aina, Syriac translation from Greek of pseudo-Aristotle, On the universe {De mundo / Περὶ Κόσμου}, translator’s preface, folio 108r in British Library Add. MS 14,658, from Syriac trans. McCollum (2011) p. 167. In citing Syriac and Arabic translations here and elsewhere, I haven’t included the source texts because they aren’t readily accessible in electronic form.

In translating the index of plant names in Galen’s On simple drugs from its original Greek into Syriac, Sergius maintained the Greek collation. About half of the plant names, typically the more rare or obscure ones, Sergius merely transliterated into Syriac. In some cases where he translated the plant name into Syriac, Sergius added the adverb “perhaps,” apparently to suggest his uncertainty about the proper Syriac identification of the plant. Calà & Hawley (2017). For study of a recently recovered copy of Sergius’s translation of Galen’s On simple drugs, Hawley et al. (2013) and Afif et al. (2018).

[3] On the apostle Paul’s declaration of weakness, 2 Corinthians 11:30-12:10. On not adding or subtracting, Revelation 22:18-19.

[4] On characteristics of Sergius’s translation of De mundo, McCallum (2011). With respect to his translating Aristotle’s Categories from Greek into Syriac, Sergius wrote in a preface to Theodore, Bishop of Kark Juddan:

When, therefore, we were translating certain books of the doctor Galen from Greek into Syriac, I, on the one hand, was translating, you, on the other hand, were writing after me while you were amending the Syriac words in accordance with the requirements of the idiom of this language.

From Syriac trans. Bhayro (2017) p. 139. For a similar translation, McCollum (2015) pp. 22-3. See also Brock (2004) p. 4. Late in the seventh century, Phocas bar Sergius of Edessa described Sergius’s translation of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite as lacking fluency in Syriac. McCollum (2015) pp. 25-7. On Sergius’s translation of that text, Perczel (2000) and Perczel (2008).

Sergius did not always follow practices of a faithful translator. In translating Alexander of Aphrodisias’s On the Principles of the Universe, Sergius apparently omitted large portions and Christianized the parts that he translated. He may have been working from a Greek text in which those alterations had already been made. Id. p. 176.

[5] Horace, Art of Poetry {Ars Poetica} vv. 133-4, Latin text from Rushton Fairclough (1926), my English translation. Id. is the Loeb edition cited subsequently above. In translating this and subsequent Latin quotes, I distinguish between various Latin words having meaning within the domain of “translation.” On Latin words for translation, McElduff (2013), Appendix.

In the past, scholars of Arabic literature referred to a Golden Age of classical Arabic literature. The concept of a Golden Age of classical literature has now been largely discredited among scholars of Arabic literature. See, e.g. Cooperson (2017).

[6] Romans 1:1. Similarly, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1. Paul was like Galen in his dedication to his great project.

[7] Polybius, Histories 20.9.11-14, Greek text and English translation from Paton (2012).

[8] Livy, History of Rome 37.28.4, Latin text from Yardley (2018), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The previous short quote is similarly from id. 37.27.8.

[9] Cicero, About Good and Bad Ends {De finibus bonorum et malorum} 3.15, Latin text from Rackham (1914), my English translation benefiting from those of id. and McElduff (2013) pp. 114-5. McElduff provided the translation of indisertus as “ineloquent” and comments, “Indisertus means ineloquent in a particular sense, namely, uneducated in rhetoric, the final stage in a Roman education.” Id. p. 115.

McElduff sets out three stages of Roman education: literary play {ludus litterarius}, the school of the grammarian {schola grammatici}, and the school of the rhetorician {rhetoris schola}. Cicero’s practice of translation favors elite Roman learning: rhetoris schola relative to schola grammatici. Id. pp. 115-9. Copeland argues that in antiquity, grammar and rhetoric shaped different understandings of the translator’s task. Copeland (1995) Ch. 1.

[10] Cicero, On the Best Kind of Orators {De Optimo Genere Oratorum} 14-16, Latin text from Hubbell (1949), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and McElduff (2013) p. 112. For a freely available version of McElduff’s analysis of Cicero on translation, McElduff (2009).

[11] McElduff (2013) p. 114. The two previous short quotes above are from id. p. 113.

[12] Cicero was concerned about low-quality Epicurean translators in the competitive Roman market for translations. Cicero staked out a distinctive position in that market:

Cicero’s control over his sources is absolute — he takes what he wants, as he wants. And this is the point of having Cicero translate, after all: you get the value of his taste and literary ability. If that doesn’t interest you, then you might as well pick up a text translated by Rabirius or Amafinius.

McEldulf (2013) pp. 109-10. Lamenting about faulty philosophical views in bantering correspondence with Cicero, Cassius referred to “all these Catiuses and Amafiniuses, bad translators of words {omnes Catii et Amafinii, mali verborum interpretes}.” Cicero, Letters to Friends 215 (15.19) 2-3, Latin text from Shackleton Bailey (2001), my English translation. Cicero noted the popularity of such Epicurean translators. Cicero, Tusculian Disputations 4.6-7. Cicero and Varro regarded Amafinius and his associates as unsophisticated translators. Cicero, Academica 1.4-6.

[13] As a small minority living within Roman culture that privileged Greek and Latin, translation was of considerable practical importance to Jews. Classicists have trended to view Roman culture in terms of “both tongues {utraque lingua},” meaning Greek and Latin. Copeland (1995) and McElduff (2013) scarcely mention Jews and Hebrew. A considerable record exists of ancient Hebrew literature and Jewish literary activity. Nonetheless, McElduff declared:

Despite the multiplicity of languages in the Roman Empire, it is difficult to discuss linguistic matters there without straying into a binary discussion of Latin and Greek, with a few references to Punic or some other nonclassical language. This is a legacy of our literary sources, which the issues under debate revolved around speaking or writing correct Greek or Latin, both of which were critical to elite identity; these sources ignore other languages unless they cause exceptional problems or the author wants to make a point.

McElduff (2013) p. 17.

[14] Jerome, Letter {Epistula) 56.2, To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating {Ad Pammachium de optimo genere interpretandi}, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 22, my English translation benefiting from those of Freemantle (1892) and Carroll (1956). Jerome wrote this letter in 395 GC. The three subsequent quotes are similarly from Jerome’s letter to Pammachius, paragraphs 5 (I indeed not only admit…; Do they ever stick merely to words? …), and 9 (The apostle Paul…).

[15] How to characterize Jerome’s translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) is a matter of some controversy. The Vulgate can reasonably be characterized as a fairly literal translation. Marlowe (2010). In medieval Europe, translations from Greek to Latin tended to be quite literal. Vaiopoulos (2016).

[16] Cooper (2019) p. 182. On Brock’s distinction, Brock (1979). With respect to his Syriac translation of Galen’s Fullness, Hunayn explained:

I recently translated this for Buḫtīšūʿ in the manner that I usually adopt when translating, namely what I think is the most elegant and expressive language, and closest to the Greek, without, however, violating the laws of Syriac.

English translation from Overwien (2012) p. 167, which also supplies the Arabic text that comes from one of Hunayn’s epistles. For more on Hunayn’s translation style, Overwien (2015).

[17] Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq’s Letter to Salmawayh ibn Bunān C.9-11, originally written in Syriac, Arabic text and English translation (presentation simplified slightly) from Connelly (2020) pp. 187-8. The Arabic text is preserved uniquely in MS Aya Sofya 3725, folios 193v-194v (Süleymaniye Yazma Eser Kütüphanesi, Istanbul). Galen’s On Habits is also known by its Latin title De consuetudinibus.

[18] Based on close study of Hunayn’s translations of Galen’s Crises {De crisibus} and Critical Days {De diebus decretoriis}, Cooper judged, “Ḥunayn was generally an accurate translator, and sometimes even an exceptional one.” Cooper (2016) p. 6. At the same time, Hunayn “added whatever he thought necessary to help his reader understand the text and its complex subject matter.” Id., from abstract.

In translating Galen, Hunayn filled in gaps or smoothed our contradictions or mistakes in his source text based on his knowledge of the subject matter and closely related Galenic texts. He omitted passages that wouldn’t benefit his readers. He also occasionally added substantial explanations of obscure terms. In short, “the Greek original was not sacrosanct to Ḥunayn.” Overwien (2012) p. 155, drawing upon Vagelpolh (2011).

[19] Cicero argued for elite translation of Greek texts so as to make Greek libraries unnecessary in Rome. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 2.5. For discussion of this aim, McEldulf (2013) pp. 103-4, 119-20. The Latin reception of Parthenius of Nicaea’s Greek text Sufferings in Love {Ἐρωτικὰ Παθήματα} regrettably lost vital insights into love and gender.

Medieval authors invoked “faithful translator” in sophisticated ways. In translating Porphyry’s Isagoge from Greek into Latin, Boethius, an early sixth–century Christian theological author and public figure, ironically embraced Horace’s “blame” for being a faithful translator and claimed that he, like Cicero, was eliminating the need for the Greek source text:

I indeed fear that I have incurred the blame of the faithful translator, as I have rendered it word for word, plainly and equally. The reason for that begins with this: for writings in which knowledge of the matter is sought, it is necessary to express, not the charm of a sparkling oration, but the uncorrupted truth. About this I would see myself as very successful, if with philosophical texts composed into the Latin language by complete and genuine translations, Greek texts are no longer desired.

{ quidem vereor ne subierim fidi interpretis culpam, cum verbum verbo espressum comparatumque reddiderim. Cuius incepti ratio est quod in his scriptis in quibus rerum cognitio quaeritur, non luculentae orationis lepos sed incorrupta veritas exprimenda est. Quocirca multum profecisse videor, si philosophiae libris Latina oratione compositis per integerrimae translationis sinceritatem nihil in Graecorum litteris amplius desideretur. }

Boethius, introduction to his translation of Isagoge {Εἰσαγωγή} (introduction to Aristotle’s Categories), Latin text from Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 48, p. 135, and English translation (modified slightly) from Copeland (1995) p. 52. Boethius made this translation c. 508.

In his preface to his translation of the mystical and obscure neo-Platonic corpus attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Christian poet, philosopher, and theologian John Scotus Eriugena also embraced blame as a faithful translator:

If one would judge the before-said translation series truly obscure or lacking explicitness, let that person regard me not as this work’s expositor, but as its translator. In that I greatly fear that I run strongly into the blame of being a faithful translator. And if one supposes that something superfluous has been added, or that something is lacking in the integrity of the Greek constructions, let him refer to the Greek codex, from which I have translated. He will perhaps discover, whether or not it is so.

{ Sin vero obscuram minusque apertam praedictae interpretationis seriem iudicaverit, videat me interpretem huius operis esse, non expositorem. Ubi valde pertimesco, ne forte culpam fidi interpretis incurram. At, si aut superflua quaedam superadiecta esse aut de integritate Grecae constructionis quaedam deesse arbitratus fuerit, recurrat ad codicem Grecum, under ego interpretatus sum: ibi fortasse iveniet, itane est necne. }

Latin text from MGH Epistolae 6, no. 14, 24-32, p. 159 (PL 122: 1032C), my English translation benefiting from that of Copeland (1995) p. 52 and Rorem (2005) p. 49. John Scotus Eriugena wrote this prefatory disclaimer at the Carolingian royal school at Aachen about 860. On this work, Budde (2011). To his nearly word-for-word translation of the Greek Eriugena added his own paraphrase / commentary. Rorem (2005) p. 49.

[20] A variant of the “no translation” alternative is academic self-fashioning. The status market in academic humanities favors grandiloquent claims. Academic competition particularly rewards deconstructing true-false and related binaries, condemning power and domination, and emphasizing the liberating importance of academic word-work in constructing all of reality. Implicitly playing to dominant academic values, Robinson thus argued:

Certainly the importance of asceticism for the history of Western translatology cannot be over-emphasized. ‘Normal’ translation as it has been imagined in the West for sixteen centuries, and continues to be imagined today, is hegemonically ascetic (although humanistic strains from Cicero and the other classical theorists survive even within Christian asceticism, encouraging the translator to develop, to grow, through translation). Indeed it is difficult to recall (or even to imagine) a Western definition of translation, simple or complex, old or new, that does not immediately betray its ascetic aims. Consider only the ‘renunciations’ that are now and have long been expected of the translator: the renunciation of source-language syntax and ‘colour’ or ‘feel’ or ‘mood’, in the reduction of the source-language text to an abstract ‘sense’; the renunciation of personal biases, predilections, preferences, and opinions in the education of the translator into a neutral transfer-machine. Consider the diatribes launched at ‘word-for-word’ and ‘free’ translations, and the temptation good translators feel and resist to indulge those pleasures: to cling ‘too’ closely to the source-language text, to trace its contours lovingly in the target language, by translating word for word; or to strike off ‘too’ boldly in a new direction, to sever ideologically-controlled ties with source language meaning, by translating freely. Consider the discipline required of the translator to renounce all this, to resist such temptations, and the institutional support (translator training, translator organizations and conferences, legal and financial sanctions) provided to back up that discipline. The history of Western translatology is many things, but above all it is a history of ascetic discipline. After Jerome and Augustine, even the worldly rebels against ascetic translatology typically only modify the prescribed ascesis.

Robinson (1992) pp. 5-6. Concluding his many vigorous words against ascesis, Robinson revealed:

But this is simplistic. Translation remains normatively a cenobitic discipline; but in the repressive dualism of Western thought, norms are predicated upon deviations, and therefore depend on them for their impact. Cenobitic translation, bound as it is by the subtracted self’s dialectics of success and failure and of the familiar and the alien, is built upon the repression of eremitism. Eremitic translation, bound as it is by the isolated self’s dialectics of brilliance and heresy, mystical oneness with the source-language author and audience response, is built upon the repression of cenobitism. Ascetic translation itself, eremitic and cenobitic, is built upon the repression of classical humanism, which was bound by the created self’s dialectics of passive reception and anxious appropriation, other- and inner-direction.

And the key to the complexity of Western translation theory is this: what is repressed in each successive theory does not thereby vanish, but survives in the resistance that maintains the repression, survives in a vital enough form to anticipate and in some sense engineer its own return. Cicero and Luther sound in Jerome. Quintilian and Goethe sound in Augustine. Repressed echoes striate each theory, every voice. It is only by listening to those echoes and tracing those striations that we can begin to move beyond the hegemonic repetition – Cicero and Jerome and Luther and Dryden and everybody between and since calling for sense-for-sense rather than word-for-word translation – to which the history of Western translation theory has conventionally been, and continues today to be, reduced.

Id. p. 24. Such work ultimately reduces thousands of years of human culture to facile dismissal through indolent self-assurance of one’s own ideologically superior, totalitarian vision.

[21] On the textual history of “traduttore, traditore,” Davie (2012). The Italian phrase benefits from very similar-sounding words (a near-pun). An Italian proverb of men’s sexed protest, “Who said woman, said damage {Chi disse donna disse danno}” has a similar linguistic structure.

[images] (1) Saint Jerome pondering translation. Detail from fresco that Domenico Ghirlandaio painted in 1480 in the Church of the Savior of All Saints {Chiesa di San Salvatore di Ognissanti} in Florence, Italy. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Fourteenth-century philosopher Nicole Oresme, who translated Aristotle, writing at his desk. Detail from illustration on folio 1r of instance of Nicole Oresme, Treatise of the Sphere {Traité de la sphère}, Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Français 565.


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