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A Dialogue on Translation from the Abbasid Period
This lecture is the second in the series Ma'aalim al-Turath al-Arabi organized by the Department of Arabic and Translation Studies.
Although translation was the backbone of Islamic civilization, extending from roughly 800 to 1250 AD, very little theory is put forward. Despite the number of books translated from Greek, Persian and Indian sources there is not a single discussion of translation in any treatise. There is one exception to this: There is a dialogue in 920 AD (320 Hjri) on logic initiated by the vizier Ibn Hinzabah between the chief logician at the time Abu Bishr Bin Matta, a Syriac and Al-Serafi , a renowned grammarian. Although the discussion is ostensibly about logic, its meaning, and uses, a major part of the discussion is devoted to translation and its abuses. Al-Tawhidi narrates this discussion, but one has to be careful about his version of the events , since he was one of Al-Serafi's student and expresses deep hatred and disdain towards Abu Bishr Bin Matta . This bias appears clearly in the way the dialogue is directed, in the answers that are delivered, and also in the tone and ambience that prevails. The dialogue underlines the deep intellectual division and ideological polarization that obtained in the Abbasid Period between the positive official attitude to translation and the negative reception and views of intellectuals, grammarians, and men of letters at the time. In fact, the dialogue portrays translation as a negative activity carried out by people who are ignorant of the language and literature of the Arabs, or outright subversive to Arabic language and taste.