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Translation Movement and Acculturation in the Medieval Islamic World by Labeeb Ahmed Bsoul

Reviewed by Beatrice Bottomley, The Warburg Institute

Translation Movement and Acculturation in the Medieval Islamic World, Labeeb Ahmed Bsoul. Cham: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019. £39.99. ISBN: 9783030217020.


Over the last two decades, new research into the transmission of texts, techniques, and artefacts across the Mediterranean has revived interest in the medieval Translation Movement.  The term ‘Translation Movement’ is most often used in this context to describe the translation of texts from Greek, via Syriac, into Arabic, beginning around the eighth century, and the subsequent translation of these texts from Arabic into Latin, beginning in the tenth century and reaching its peak in the thirteenth. However, it would perhaps be more productive to frame this tendency as a network, rather than a movement. Scholars did not only translate texts from Greek into Arabic, but also from Persian, Sanskrit, and Chinese. Furthermore, these texts were not only translated into Latin, but also into Hebrew and Castilian. These scholars made up a network, which stretched from the Academy of Gondishapur, cultivated by the Sassanid emperor Khosrau I in the sixth century, to the Toledo School, led by Archbishop Raymond of Toledo in the twelfth century. In this way, the network extended not only over a large geographical area, but also over a number of centuries and political dynasties (although the translation of texts into Arabic flourished under the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates). The texts translated into, and from, Arabic were diverse not only in terms of their original source language, but also their subject area. Among them, we find texts of medicine, including translations of works by Galen, astronomy, such as the Zij al-Sindhind astronomical tables, philosophy, including Aristotle’s logic and natural science, and literature, such as the tales Kalilah and Dimnah.

            In Translation Movement and Acculturation in the Medieval Islamic World, Labeeb Bsoul goes some way in describing the complex of actors, institutions, and texts that make up the Translation Movement, retreading much of the ground already covered by scholars such as Dimitri Gutas, George Saliba, and Jim Al-Khalili. He traces the Movement’s evolution not only within the wider socio-political context of shifting caliphates and cultural contact brought about through trade and conquest, but also within the development of techniques, chiefly that of paper-making, which is said to be the result of a (somewhat violent) contact with the Chinese Tang dynasty. Bsoul classifies the periods of the Translation Movement according to four different caliphs or caliphates: the Umayyad caliphate, the era of Abbasid caliphs Al-Mansūr and Hārūn Al-Rashīd, the era of the Abbasid caliph Al-Maʿmūn, and the era following Al-Maʿmūn. In this way, Bsoul places the caliphs at the centre of his examination of the medieval Translation Movement. He further underlines that the caliphs were a key factor in its development through their generous financial patronage — a description of which is enough to make the eyes of any modern freelance translator water. However, Bsoul also notes the important role played by other patrons, for example the physician Jurjīs Ibn Bukhtīshūʿ, or the minister Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbdul Malik al-Zayyāt. These figures were brought together with translators in institutions, such as Bayt al-Ḥikma — “The House of Wisdom” — in Baghdad, which acted as sites of interaction for scholars from diverse linguistic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, many of the key translators (for example Ḥunayn Ibn Isḥāq or Yūḥannā Ibn Māsawayh) were themselves scholars or physicians. The dynamic between translation, the developments of other disciplines, and political change shaped which texts were selected for translation and the approaches undertaken.

            Bsoul also includes the nature of the Arabic language itself and the emphasis placed by Islamic texts on learning as key factors in the development of the Translation Movement. Both these points need further reflection. However, to a certain extent, they allude to an underlying question – that of agency. In early twentieth-century scholarship of medieval Arabic translations, the texts were sometimes reduced to passive storehouses of Classical Greek thought, ignoring the creative processes of dissection, assimilation, and innovation undertaken by Islamicate scholars. Indeed, although Bsoul does refer to some of these developments, he also suggests that ’the Arabs became a receptacle that stored thought and knowledge for the entire known world’ (95).We could perhaps trace the sometimes conflicting views contained within Translation Movement and Acculturation to the sources employed by Bsoul. In addition to referring to a select number of primary sources (chiefly medieval biographies and indices), Bsoul draws on a range of Arabic and European secondary scholarship. Although it is refreshing to see the use of so many modern Arabic sources, which are often neglected in Anglophone scholarship, the selection of European sources is puzzling. Apart from a small number of notable exceptions (Charles Burnett, Emilie Savage Smith, Dimitri Gutas), the European scholars cited by Bsoul include Orientalists that are today considered outdated (Will Durant, Tjitze de Boer) or even controversial (Roger Garaudy, Gustave Le Bon). This indicates, to a certain extent, a lack of critical engagement not only with the sources, but also with the concept of Orientalism, which is foundational to any interaction with European scholarship of Arabic texts, from the medieval to the modern.

            The work is further undermined by a lack of engagement with the complex nature of translation as both a literary process and a negotiation of cultural difference. Bsoul appears to attempt to reconcile this through his use of the term ‘acculturation’, which he endows with a ‘positive impact on humanity’ (5), suggesting that  ‘openness to others and understanding their achievements pave [sic] the way for societies to progress’ (5). The term ‘acculturation’ is most often used to describe the change in beliefs or practices that occurs when the cultural system of one group displaces that of another. This does not accurately describe the complex interactions that took place through the translations, literary and cultural, of the medieval period. Indeed, the approach employed towards questions of cultural identity appears sometimes reductive. For example, when describing the Alexandrian School, Bsoul writes ‘it was the home of Neo-Platonism, which flourished in the second/eighth century in Egypt. Its language was Greek, and the Jews were constantly reading the Septuagint, the Old Testament in its Greek translation’ (186). Or when depicting the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate, he underlines that ‘after the Arabs reached the peak of civilisation, they turned to luxury and idleness. They gave up seeking knowledge and the pursuits of the mind, and suffered from inertia and nostalgia for past achievements and glory. Others took over the torch of civilisation’ (12). After reading both these statements (among others), one might ask – who are these Jews? Or, who are these Arabs? Employing such broad labels minimises the precision and potential weight of the work. Furthermore, these labels do not reflect the complex of identities negotiated by scholars in the medieval Islamicate world – a negotiation which was, in fact, the subject of much work of the period.

            This somewhat reductive approach to cultural identity appears at first surprising, given that the author, before undertaking a doctorate in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal, had studied International Relations at San Francisco State University. However, here we should perhaps acknowledge the differing approaches of the author and the reviewer. In both the introduction and conclusion to Translation Movement and Acculturation, Bsoul outlines the aims that underlie his approach, stating, for example:

It has become obvious that translation in the present era is the bridge that connects Arabs to world cultures. It is a basic building block of their contemporary culture and an effective means to participate in modern life while preserving Arab originality and identity. The age of interaction is necessary and not optional. When two cultures interact, one strong and the other weak, the stronger culture absorbs the weaker. Therefore, the Arabs’ only choice is to accept the challenge and to become a dominant culture and civilisation. Translation is one of the most powerful pillars on which this is based. (21)

The aims underpinning this project are clear – by examining the medieval Translation Movement, Bsoul wishes to encourage the development of translation in the contemporary Arab world(s) and thus revive the perceived glory of the Islamic Golden Age (a concept whose emphasis on a decline narrative has been critiqued in much recent scholarship). The ambitions of this project are undermined by the frequent repetition, syntactic errors, and inconsistent referencing that appear in the book, which could have benefited from stronger editing. Bsoul’s Translation Movement and Acculturation points to the need for further research into the complex linguistic, religious, and cultural interactions at the heart of the medieval transmission of scientific, philosophical, and literary texts. Research, this reviewer hopes, that would build on existing studies in order to engage with primary sources from an original perspective.