The Greek-to-Arabic translation movement: no expense spared

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 12, 2020

Scholars at a library in the Abbasid caliphate. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

The 200-year-old Greek-to-Arabic translation movement begun by the Abbasid Caliph Al Mansur (r.754-775) has no equivalent in world history.

Never before and never since has one culture tried to import the knowledge of another in so sustained a manner as the Arabs did with Hellenic thought.

It was an expensive business too, creating its own supply and demand price structure.

The demand for translation from Greek into Arabia via Syriac required fluency and facility in at least two, if not three languages.

Knowledge of Greek especially, had to be good enough to turn out decent approximations of the original Hellenic text. Generally the Greek would be translated into Syriac, which would then be further translated into Arabic.

Accordingly, good translators were able to command their own price.

Just as young people today invest in an education that has job prospects, translators in eighth and ninth century Baghdad sought to shore up their linguistic skills. The story is told that Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, one of the more famous translators from the period, was rebuffed by Persian physician Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh for his work. Hunayn disappeared for three years and returned with good enough Greek to be able to recite Homer.

The time and effort invested in Greek paid off.

Translation had become a lucrative profession. For instance, it’s told that 500 dinars were paid to one translator per month, which would have been the equivalent of 24,000 dollars in 1999. (A dinar was nearly 75 ounces of gold so, pricing it at $320 per ounce brings us to that princely sum.)

So why was the translation movement initiated and sustained?

Tomorrow: What was the logic of the Greek-to-Arabic translation movement?