Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Translation Movement - a Real Step Forward

The Late Antique Aristotelian tradition that was inherited by the world of early Islam in the Near East considered the Rhetoric to be an integral part of one’s training in logic and reasoning. However, thus far there has been little academic interest in it, apart from the ground-breaking monograph of Deborah Black published some two decades ago and the recent edition, translation and study of Averroes’ commentary on the Rhetoric by Maroun Aouad. Vagelpohl’s revised Cambridge dissertation is a careful historical and linguistic study of the translation of the Rhetoric and its naturalisation in Syriac (less so) and Arabic learned culture in the Near East. As such, he considers the text to be a case study that raises wider questions about the whole process of the translation movement, which after a relative absence of interest, is again inspiring a new vague of academic literature. Since translation is a process of cultural exchange, it is important to pay attention to details and formulations. The choice of the Rhetoric requires some justification, as Vagelpohl admits, for two reasons: first, the Aristotelian text was not that significant in the antiquity; more practical manuals were more widely used and taught. Second, the Arabic tradition distinguished between two traditions of rhetoric, an indigenous genre of balāgha (and bayān) that was essential for the training of preachers and functionaries drawing upon classics of the Arabic language, and a more philosophical and hellenizing khiṭāba represented by the Aristotelian text and its commentary such as Averroes’. Clearly the former tradition dominated, and a cursory examination of the manuscript traditions and texts in libraries attests to this imbalance. However, Vagelpohl’s argument is that the challenges posed by the text reveal strategies and approaches used by the translators to deal with the cultural exchange that may assist our understanding of the wider translation movement.

The study is divided into four chapters. The first analyses the translation movement as a whole and locates the Rhetoric within this context. The author argues for a contextualised approach in opposition to a narrow philological isolationism. While positivism has been the order of the day stressing the need for historical transmission and consistently wishing to find the missing links between the Aristotelian text and its translation, Vagelpohl suggests that an element of the oral should not be overlooked. The wider history and sociology of the transmission of knowledge in early and classical Islam suggests that oral transmission occurred alongside the written and cannot be discounted as a serious mode of dissemination (as Schoeler has shown in a work that Vagelpohl translated from German). The rest of the chapter is a summary of the state of research on the translation movement drawing upon Rosenthal, Gutas and Endress, especially on the Kindī-circle and that of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq.

The next chapter is a careful examination of the translation of the Rhetoric with a consideration of the Syriac tradition. The Paris unicum has been edited twice by Badawī and Lyons and Vagelpohl weighs up the relative merits of the editions. The discussion of the Syriac tradition is significant because of Lyons’ hunch that there must have been a Syriac intermediary, an assumption often made for many of the works of Aristotle. However, while the Arabic and Syriac Aristotelian traditions were linked, and the translators themselves often knew both languages, they were formed and perpetuated in pedagogical contexts that were quite distinct. As ever, we are left with a situation in which there is little historical evidence to make firm conclusions.

The third chapter is the longest and most substantial philological examination comparing the Arabic and Greek and raising issues. Around one sixth of the text is sampled using the translation theory of Basim Hatim and Ian Mason. Vagelpohl concludes that the translation must be a fairly early one. The difficulties of the Greek and the literary context from which it arose constituted obstacles. The translator struggled with the text and produced something with significant terminological variation. Assessing the internal terminological evidence in its context, he concludes that it must have been produced in the Kindī-circle in which the language was often preliminary and terms not as fixed as the latter translations of Ḥunayn. This would tally with the assumption that the earliest texts produced in the translation movement were eminently practical elements of logic and argument and some preliminary metaphysics. Given the place of the Rhetoric in the organon, this clearly makes sense.

The final chapter, which is far too brief, analyses the legacy both East and West of the translation. The author recognises the importance; after all the translation itself is only a step in cultural transmission. The three great philosophers of the classical period all engaged with the text in different ways. For al-Fārābī, the text was an inspiration for his own thinking on rhetoric and its logical function. Ibn Sīnā wrote two relevant works: the short sections of al-Ḥikma al-ʿarūḍiyya functions somewhat like a manual of rhetoric and focuses upon the practical elements, while his own work on the rhetoric in al-Shifāʾ is a more extensive and complete contemplation of the Aristotelian text, often responding to the long commentary of Ibn al-Ṭayyib, one of the Baghdadi Christian Peripatetics he often criticised. While some other authors wrote small epitomes, the most significant contribution which signalled (as it did for his whole corpus) a return to Aristotle was the Middle Commentary of Ibn Rushd, so magisterially analysed and translated by Aouad. It is also a controversial text given the attempts by Straussians such as Butterworth to relate Ibn Rushd’s understanding of rhetoric to political philosophy. The Latin afterlife of the influence of Ibn Rushd’s commentary continued interest in the Rhetoric, although it died out (as did formal interest in the works of Aristotle) after the thirteenth century in Islam. It would have been interesting for Vagelpohl to discuss the influence of the rhetoric in balāgha and in other genres of writing and disciplines of the madrasa since the approach of the middle period led to a more holistic vision of intellectual inquiry. But that, in itself, might merit a monograph on its own. The conclusion follows appended with a good, extensive glossary of relevant terms Greek-Arabic and Arabic-Greek, acting as a wonderful complement to the argument.

The author concludes with an important insight: what the Greek into Arabic tradition often sees as mistakes in translation and transcription are in facts attempts by the translator to find a cultural fit. Any translation is a new literary text and needs to be taken seriously as that. This is precisely why it is the Arabic Aristotle that is of relevance to understanding classical philosophy in Islam and not the Greek. Overall the text is well produced although inevitably there are a number of small typographical errors. Vagelpohl has produced an excellent text that contributes to our understanding of the translation movement, even if the title does not entirely indicate it.

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