Transcript: 150 - Charles Burnett and Dag N. Hasse on Arabic-Latin Translations

A special 150th double interview episode on the transmission of philosophy from Arabic into Latin.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: So I thought, Charles, I would ask you first to say something general about the translation movement, the Arabic-Latin translation movement. When did it happen and what sorts of texts did they translate? 

Charles Burnett : Well, it started off at the end of the 10th century and built up momentum during the 11th century, but the apogee, really, was in the 12th and early 13th century. And then it started to tear off towards the end of the 13th century. When, one might say, most of the things which had to be translated were translated. And we could say that Latin culture, we're talking about culture in which the language of academic communication was Latin, had caught up with Arabic culture. The kinds of texts that were translated were those that were perceived to be lacking in the Latin West after the early Middle Ages, a period in which classical culture, which was expressed largely in Greek, had died out in the West. The texts were no longer there. The Latin scholars were looking to fill in gaps in their knowledge. They knew roughly, what the range of learning in science, especially in theoretical science was, and they wanted to fill in the gaps. For example, in the mathematical sciences, in geometry and in astronomy in particular, and in philosophy- the whole range of philosophy. They knew that Aristotle had written on many aspects of philosophy. They were lacking his works. They also wanted to fill in on medicine. They knew that Galen was the great authority on medicine. They wanted to catch up with a text on Galen and they found these texts amongst the Arabs.

PA: Actually, one thing that I did cover quite a long time ago, although I haven't gotten to Latin medieval philosophy yet, is what happened at the very end of late antiquity in Latin. The audience knows, for example, that there's Boethius, who's done some work on Aristotelian logic and there's some other minor texts on the liberal arts and so on. But basically, until the Arabic-Latin translation movement, they had almost no access to the rest of Aristotle and in fact, the whole kind of legacy of Greek philosophy from antiquity. Is that right?

CB: That's right, yes. But in looking for these works of the Greeks, they found that the Arabs too had written works on the same subjects. They had developed this Greek learning. They added their own slants or in fact, even discoveries to what the Greeks had produced. And so in looking for Galen, they also found Avicenna, Razi and other Arabic doctors who had, using Galen and Hippocrates as their sources, developed medicine over the centuries. In looking for Aristotle, they found other Arabic philosophers who, having inherited the rich and philosophical tradition of the Greeks had developed it in their own ways. And certainly in mathematics and astronomy in particular, the Arabs had made such strides forward in observation, in theoretical calculations of movements of the planets and so on, that the Latins were able to build their own astronomy on Arabic works. 

PA: I guess an obvious comparison here is to the Greek-Arabic translation movement. However, what you've just said is already one big difference. So it's not as if you have the same group of texts- Galen, Aristotle, Ptolemy- coming into Arabic from Greek and then from Arabic into Latin. Because the Arabic-Latin translation movement brings with it a bunch of all new texts that only exist because of Islamic culture. But is that the main difference, would you say, how do the two translation movements compare? 

CB: Well, another way of putting it, I suppose, is to say that what the Latins found amongst the Greeks, for example in Byzantine sources, were texts. What the Latins experienced in regard to the Arabs were masters, were teachers. They had not only the texts in Arabic, but they also had teachers, not always Arabs, sometimes Jews who were educated in the Arabic system, who were able to explain the texts. The Latin scholars who were working in the context of Arabic learning, adjacent to Arabic centers of learning, were able to continue where the Arabs had left off, as it were, in commentary, in development, in the particular sciences or philosophy that they were involved in. 

PA: Right. Well, that gives us an idea of what happened and also when. Dag, where did this happen? Obviously, this is not something that was going on in Scandinavia. So it's presumably at points of contact between the Islamic world and the Christian world. Is that right? 

Dag Nicholas Hasse: Yeah. Well, in particular, three zones of contact between the two worlds: Andalusia in Spain, Southern Italy and Sicily, and the Crusader states. In these three zones, we have in different phases, different translation movements. Roughly speaking, we have a translation movement in the 11th century in southern Italy, in the 12th century in Spain, and again in the 13th century in southern Italy at the court of the Hohenstaufen. Also, Charles knows more about this, and he insists that there's some activity in the Crusader states. But this has only recently been really known that the Crusaders not only were slaying people, but also translating.

PA: Presumably, not at exactly at the same time. So when you say the Crusader states, Charles, do you want to come in and say a bit more about that?

CB: Well, Antioch in particular was an important center, partly because of its cosmopolitan nature. Before, it had been in Byzantine hands for 100 years in the 11th century. At the very end of the 11th century, it was conquered by the Crusaders who then went on to conquer Jerusalem. In the wake of the Crusaders, it seems, there were also scholars who were going there to help the Crusaders in establishing the monasteries, establish the local legal courts and that sort of thing. And we have evidence of a particular scholar called Stephen of Antioch who came from Pisa, and was the treasurer of the main Benedictine monastery in Antioch, that of St. Paul's. Stephen was interested first of all in medicine. But he said very specifically that he wanted to introduce to the Latins the Arabic works on the body, on the medicine, in order to progress later, when he had actually practiced his translating skill, to go onto the higher reaches of philosophy. 

PA: Okay, so that's Antioch, but I gather that's not one of the main translation centers, right? So really we're thinking mostly about Italy, Spain, Sicily, and in that order, is that right? 

CB: Yes, yes.

DNH: Yes.

PA: Okay, general agreement on that! All right, so maybe Dag, if I come back to you on that, can you tell us something about the translations that were executed in southern Italy? 

DNH: Yeah, the first substantial translation movement was in the last quarter of the 11th century. And the context is Greek-speaking communities in southern Italy, Arabic-speaking communities in Sicily, and travel between North Africa and southern Italy. So one of the key figures is “Constantinus Africanus,” Constantine the African, who comes from what is today Tunisia to southern Italy, brings Arabic manuscripts, he's Arabic-speaking, and translates medical sources, but these sources contain much philosophical material, which then later becomes very important for what we then call the school of charter or the French cathedral schools, the natural philosophy of the 12th century.

PA: So this is basically then someone whose origins are in the Islamic world, but is a Christian presumably, and that means that he would have spoken Greek, Arabic, and Latin, is that right?

DNH: Well I'm not sure about the Greek. I don't think he knew Greek, but he got acquainted with Greek communities in southern Italy, and these people there were already translating from Greek into Latin, and there was a translation culture already existing. And this person, Constantine the African, obviously offered further material, which was then translated into Latin from Arabic. And one peculiar thing about this is that he's trying to hide his Arabic sources. The texts look Greek from their Latin surface, but there are no Arabic transcriptions in there. The titles of these works often sound “Greekizing”, and something like the Pantegni. And...

PA: What's the Pantegni?

CB: It's a medical work which consists of 20 books, 10 books of theory, and 10 books of practice.

PA: So these are basically Arabic-Latin translations that are, as it were, trying to pass as Greek-Latin translations.

CB: Well...

PA: Or at least, you can't tell the difference, let's put it that way.

CB: It is, as you say, written and these translations are made in a context in which translations are also being made of medical texts and works of philosophy (in them) from Greek into Latin (e.g. the Nemesius was, On the Nature of Man). And one curious thing, for example, is that in the very first chapter of this translation of the Pantegni, Constantine situates himself in the history of medical writings, starting from Hippocrates going through Galen. He mentions a whole series of Greek doctors, and then he misses out the Arabs altogether, and then comes to himself and says, I, Constantine, I'm the author of this book in the sense that I have put together this book from many sources.

PA: So no Razi, no Avicenna, just Constantine.

CB: Right.

PA: So this is interesting because it suggests maybe another parallel to the Greek-Arabic translation movement earlier, which is that philosophy comes into this culture on the back of other disciplines that we would maybe broadly consider as scientific, so things like medicine and astronomy and so on.

DNH: It's in fact an important feature of the Arabic into Latin translation movements as a whole, that philosophy is translated rather late. They start with the sciences, there are, as Charles said, these gaps… they realize there are gaps in the works on sciences they have. E.g. they know the name of Ptolemy but don't have texts by Ptolemy. And also then if you move on to Spain, in Andalusia, in the first half of the 12th century, a major translator like John of Seville translates many astrological treatises. Translators translate treatises on magic or on alchemy, on medicine and so on. And philosophy gets transported in these treatises too, but the proper great translations that then influence European philosophy so much- by Avicenna, by Averroes, by Aristotle, come later in the second half of the 12th century, roughly speaking.

CB: You could say that it is works which have a direct immediate practical value- in medicine and astrology, magic- that are translated first.

PA: I guess one obvious question that arises here, because you mentioned that there are already Greek-Latin translations going on, is why do they have to go to Arabic texts? I mean, why not just get Greek manuscripts from Byzantium and translate directly from Greek into Latin? Why do they need to deal with the Arabic-speaking world at all?

CB: Well, I think it's a matter of understanding the text. You can't understand a text unless someone explains what's going on. We do have cases of very literal translations being made, both from Greek and Arabic, by translators who obviously have not had the experience of knowing the subject matter and have no teacher of the subject matter. And these translations don't make much sense.

PA: Yeah, there are some Greek-Arabic translations like that too, actually, that are very hard to understand.

CB: But one thing which is distinctive of the greatest of the period (and we'll be going on to mention Toledo, becomes the most important center for translating) is that if you look at the translations made there by Gerard of Cremona, by Dominicus Gundisalvi, they are accompanied already in the early Spanish scripts by explanations in the margins, which explain difficulties- sometimes difficult terms, sometimes Arabic terms which have been left in the Arabic language explained in Latin, sometimes difficult doctrines. But you get the impression immediately that there is some teaching going on here, that the texts are being transmitted together with explanations of the subject matter. This is why I think it's so important that the translations were made where there were already important Arabic centers. Toledo was a leading center for astronomy in al-Andalus, in Islamic al-Andalus, before it was conquered by the Christians in 1085. So it's not really surprising that the first astronomical tables which give information that allows you to predict the courses of the planets through the sky, were made in Toledo some 30 years later. Another example of this is that we have in Saragossa in northeast Spain two things. First of all, we have a superb mathematician, one of the kings of Saragossa, al-Mu‘taman Ibn Hud, who wrote a work called the Perfect Work on Mathematics, which includes everything that one could possibly know about geometry and arithmetic. At the same time, this is the early 12th century, you have Ibn Bajja (Avempace), a philosopher who was really developing Arabic philosophy in al-Andalus, basing himself on al-Farabi in the Arabic, Islamic East. And it's not by chance that it is adjacent to this Arabic kingdom of Saragossa, that you have the first interest in astronomy in northeast Spain. Eventually, probably through a transfer of this interest in Arabic philosophy from Saragossa to Córdoba, the works of Averroes were translated. So one has to think of a dynamic society in which you have Arabic scholars and you have Latin scholars who became skilled in the subject matters involved. And there's not so much evidence, in fact, there's very little evidence of this happening in the case of the Greek-Latin translations.

PA: And by the way, we should presumably imagine Jews being involved in this whole process as well, right? It's not just Muslims and Christians.

DNH: Right, there's one important figure, Ibn Daud, who is an Andalusian Jew, who helps Dominicus Gundisalvi to become one of the most important translators in Toledo; he is a canon of the cathedral in Toledo, with his translations, at least with some. On the other hand, let me come back to the question, why not translate only from Greek? Charles mentioned that the Arabs contributed a lot to the Greek sciences and philosophy they had acquired or inherited from the Greeks. And one important factor is that the cultural activity or scientific activity in general of the Arabic world was on a very different scale from that of the Latin culture, also in material respects. When an important monastery like St. Gallien, which was a center of learning in the 10th century, had about 500 titles in its library- we know this from the catalog- a library in Cordoba of the Caliph could have an estimated 100,000 titles. And we know that it had more than 40 volumes of catalog only.

PA: 40 volumes of catalogs, of lists of books, 40 volumes of lists of books.

CB: Yes.

DNH: 40 volumes of lists of books, more than that, between 40 and 50.

PA: So it's like you get to go to the Library of Congress to do your research instead of your local public library, effectively.

DNH: Of course, the background is parchment in the Latin world and paper in the Arabic world, and also a cursive script, which was much more easily written than the book script of the scribes in the Latin world. And, of course, Arabic speaking world was a much more active written culture and a much larger community, from the east in Bukhara, the Silk Road, all the way up to Andalusia. If you are a scholar, there are no fixed boundaries here, you can travel, a Christian can travel in Islamic countries, and see this enormously active written culture and scientific culture. You're not searching for Ptolemy only among Greek manuscripts or Galen or Avicenna or Aristotle, but you hear and see that there's lots of interesting material you can get from the Arabs. One important thing I find that Charles has found out is that the translation movement in Spain had a certain coherence to it, and that the model for this was a text by Farabi, which you may have mentioned, on the ordering of the sciences according to different forms of syllogism. So the model of demonstrative science was very important to Farabi and also to the order of these translation movements. They had a certain blueprint, so to speak, from Arabic, as Charles has shown, and several translators, Dominicus Gundisalvi, Gerard of Cremona, later Alfred of Shereshill, Michael Scot, and in the 13th century, Hermannus Alemannus, continued a program of really translating a whole range of all the sciences that were known at the time, and that's a very impressive accomplishment

PA: And in a way, it shows the long afterlife of the curriculum of the sciences from late antiquity, because of course that was very influential on how al-Farabi thought the sciences would be structured as well. So this just runs and runs throughout all these different cultures, in fact.

DNH: But the high ideal of demonstrative science is something that Farabi somehow ends, I would think, that gets transported with it into the West, and helps also to structure university education, I think.

CB: Well, one might even say that what was put down by al-Farabi as a kind of theoretical description of the relationship of the sciences becomes a blueprint for the university curricula in the West. It's only in the West that it really is put into practice.

PA: I think that something that's very important about what you're saying is that the influence from scholars of the Islamic world on the development of philosophy and science more generally in the Latin-using Christian world wasn't just that they wound up reading Averroes and Avicenna. It was that they were actually having face-to-face communication with scholars and experts on the relevant topics, so that their initial engagement with these topics would already have been shaped by the people who were helping them do the translations and just helping them understand the text they were looking at.

CB: This is quite true. We're not talking about a large number of Muslims actually living with the Christians, but as Dag has already mentioned, we have Jews, we have Christian Arabs, called Mozarabs in al-Andalus who were crossing the borders. Also we must think not only of the books but also the instruments. In astronomy, for example, you would have the astrolabe and other astronomical instruments. In medicine, we have this wonderful medical book on surgery by al-Zahrawi who is named after the Madinat al-Zahra, which is just outside Cordoba, living there in the 11th century, who gives descriptions of a whole range of medical instruments, surgical instruments that you use. And these instruments too would have been well known, would have been conveyed to Christian doctors on the other side of the border. 

DNH: And you have the numerals. That's a big topic obviously, but it's another channel because the merchants, of course, in the Mediterranean area, they got to know their Arabic merchant colleagues that had different ways to calculate. And with the Arabic numerals and with algebra, it was much easier and obviously had many advantages in a practical side. This was another contact that helped to get to know Arabic sciences and philosophy.

PA: So we've said something about southern Italy and Spain. I think we should just touch on Sicily, at least briefly, before we move on to some general concluding remarks. Do you want to say something about that?

DNH: Well, Sicily is a special place. It, as Charles mentioned, has been taken by the Normans after a longer rule by Arabs. And with the Normans and with the Norman kings and later the Hohenstaufen kings, there was always an Arabic speaking community there and also influential people at the court who spoke Arabic. And I think we have to mention an important figure here, King Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, who is exceptionally interested in the sciences of the Jews, the Arabs and the Muslims, and he didn't have any contact problems. I mean, he's a very interesting person in that respect. We know that he was writing letters to scholars, Jewish scholars, Muslim scholars, and he attracted people to his court. We know this also from Arabic sources. And some of these people, a good number of them, actually translated. One of them was Michael Scot, a Scottish person who had traveled to Andalusia, became a canon of Toledo, the old big center of translation, and then for some reason came to Italy. He didn't always stay in the vicinity of the emperor, but he translated in Italy a large number of texts, and Averroes in particular, and that's important for European philosophical history, the commentator on Aristotle.

PA: Actually, before we leave the topic of Michael Scot, I have to ask you to explain something that you did in a piece of research a few years ago where you showed the identity of the translator of several anonymous translations of Averroes. So can you tell us how you did that and what you found out?

DNH: Well, I had hoped that at some time I would identify these anonymous translations. The big commentaries on the metaphysics by Aristotle, for example, or on De Anima by Aristotle, don't bear a translator's name. But we knew that they come from this translation culture in the context of King Frederick II Hohenstaufen. And the idea was perhaps we can do it not with technical vocabulary like substancia or quiditas, but by looking at small words, like therefore- in Latin quapropter- is a particle distinctive of Michael Scot. Other translators use other particles, and with a statistical analysis of a particle usage, you can really see the handwriting, so to speak, the stylistic handwriting of the translators and systematize and group them. So since then, it was always an old assumption that Michael Scot was responsible for a large number of commentaries, but it was successful.

PA: You actually proved it.

DNH: I proved it, yes.

PA: Let's not be bashful and modest.

DNH: Yes, you can say this.

PA: So actually that brings us on to a more general issue, which is about the methodology that was being used by these translators. I mean, a naive idea about this is someone hands you a text in Arabic and you just have to translate it into Latin and you know both languages, so there's no problem, but presumably there's more to it than that, Charles.

CB: Well, indeed there is. There are different methodologies that would be followed and that were followed. We've already mentioned that Constantine the African, disguising his Arabic source, he was writing in a Latin which did not follow slavishly the Arabic original. But during the course of the 12th century, especially in regard to the great translating centre of Toledo, it became the norm to translate very literally, word for word, from the Arabic to such an extent that the Latin syntax followed the Arabic syntax. Very often Arabic words were included in the Latin and had to be explained by marginal annotations. It was regarded, in fact both in respect to translating from Arabic and translating from Greek into Latin, that it was a sin to put anything of your own into the translation and that included changing the word order at your will, as you had to be absolutely faithful to the original translator. This literal translation became the norm in the mid-12th century and remained the norm until the mid-13th century. The other thing that's got to be said about these translations, again we've hinted at this, is that very often they were not made by a single person. That the Arabic text would be translated, often by a Jew, sometimes by an Arabic Christian, a Mozarab, into perhaps a vernacular which was common between that Jew and the Latin translator, Spanish, a form of Spanish, or a Romance language. And then the translator would put that into good Latin. This doesn't go against what I've said about literal translations because even going through the vernacular you would, there's this famous quotation at the beginning of a translation of Avicenna’s book On the Soul, this Avendauth (Abraham ibn Daud), this Jew who came from Cordoba to Toledo, translated the words singularita, one by one into the vernacular language and then Dominicus Gundisalvi, we translated them again one by one into Latin.

PA: So does it make any sense when it comes out of the far end?

CB: Strangely, well, yes it does. Partly because there was also an understanding of the subject matter, partly because people who read these translations, I'm thinking across the board really, got used to this “translation-ese” Latin as it were. I think one might say that Dominicus Gundisalvi 's Latin was actually quite good, but in certain astronomical works, for example, you have a very strange kind of Latin which then is followed by Latin authors who are not making translations simply because it becomes the way of writing a technical work.

PA: So they write in Latin as if they were writing something that had been translated from Arabic. That's really interesting.

CB: Well, the style becomes established and you follow the same style.

PA: Dag, can you give us an example of some of the distinctive philosophical theories that actually become influential, so not just text but actual ideas or theories that circulate into the Latin-using world from the Arabic-using world?

DNH: Well, I can take Avicenna as an example. Avicenna's De Anima was translated and Avicenna's Metaphysics among other texts from al-Shifa and one doctrine that was very influential among the scholastic philosophers was the distinction between essence and existence in different ways. I don't want to explain it now, but it was in different areas of philosophy, for instance, in the thinking on universals, in the thinking about individuation, also in the thinking about God as the necessary existent, was very influential. Then the necesse esse per se is a concept that influenced also authors like William of Auvergne or Thomas Aquinas. And there we have also essence and existence because it's God's essence to exist. And in other areas such as psychology, there are very influential intellect theories that many scholastics discuss such as Averroes’ theory that there's only one intellect for all human beings and that becomes a famous or even infamous theory.

PA: One thing that's interesting is that not only do they treat these Muslim thinkers as great authorities, but sometimes they become notorious for really appalling doctrines. The one you just mentioned, which is the idea that there's only one intellect for all of mankind, but a stranger one though is that Avicenna becomes famous for having thought that humans could be spontaneously generated, just like worms from rotting meat.

DNH: Yes, out of mud or out of rotten matter. Yes, but that's something Aristotle is responsible for this. I mean, he has already thought that spontaneously generated beings are possible and Avicenna thought there's no reason to restrict this to lower animals like worms, which we have in the fridge, but also human beings. And Averroes on the other hand thought, well, this is impossible. These are monsters. So this is an example from natural philosophy, basically, which is, I like it, which is linked to the ontology of forms also and to theories of generation. So it's philosophically interesting and it links up with many different other topics in the history of philosophy. But spontaneous generation remains a topic that people discuss because until modern theories about microorganisms, it was difficult to explain how life originates from matter without any parents. And I like one author here, Tiberio Russiliano of the early 16th century, and he said, well, these new islands, the American islands, it's clear that these people cannot have gone there with boats. So clearly Americans must have been created spontaneously, generated spontaneously from mud, basically.

PA: That would be news to my parents.

DNH: Yes.

PA: Do you want to add anything, Charles?

CB: I think one ought to emphasize that the heyday of the translations coincided, not without cause, with the beginnings of the universities. And so the university art courses in the seven liberal arts, especially in mathematical arts and the philosophy courses, were provided with the books for their curriculum on the translations which were being made, especially in Spain. And we can see this in the case of the early books, which would be read in Oxford and Paris already by the end of the 12th century and in Bologna and eventually in a university in Spain.

PA: Although this is something I'll get on to covering in great detail, many episodes in the future, I thought we should at least talk a little bit about the influence that these translations had in Latin-using Europe. Anyone who picks up, say, Thomas Aquinas, we'll see that he's constantly quoting Avicenna and Averroes. So you get a kind of superficial idea that major and probably also minor Christian authors writing in Latin in Europe in the, say, 12th, 13th, 14th century were influenced by philosophy from the Islamic world. But could you maybe say something more general than that? I mean, is it just that they occasionally quote them, or what kind of impact did it have and how fast did the impact happen?

CB: Can I say one general thing here? That's the works of Aristotle , although at first were translated both from Arabic and from Greek, eventually in the course of the 13th century, it was the Greek-Latin translations which became used by Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas and so on. But it was always the Arabic commentators that were used to explain these Greek philosophical works. And that's why you see so many quotations of Averroes, Avicenna, al-Farabi, al-Kindi, and so on, because the Greek works were interpreted through their Arabic commentators.

DNH: If we take a very general view of the whole influence, you can say in some disciplines the influence was not as strong than in others. For instance, in logic it was not as strong as in psychology, De Anima, metaphysics and natural philosophy. In ethics it wasn't that strong. One could say metaphysics, natural philosophy, psychology are these areas where the influence of Arabic philosophy was particularly strong. Also, if we look at the centuries, the influence was particularly strong in the 12th century at certain centers, in French cathedral schools. Then in the 13th century we certainly have a high point, climax of the influence of Arabic philosophical theories. But it stretches all the way until the 1700s, I could say, until Averroes as the commentator, the commentator you read becomes out of fashion for certain complicated reasons that you have to address at some point in your podcast. But for a long time every student would get in contact with these names, with Averroes and some other Arabic philosophers like al-Kindi and al-Farabi, but they were not that influential. Some texts were copied extremely often because they were on the syllabus of the universities. For instance, the Liber De Causis.

PA: This is the version of Proclus that was translated into Arabic and then from there translated into Latin as the Book of Causes or the Liber De Causis.

DNH: And since you Peter are an expert on the Neoplatonic tradition, I presume that your readers know very well how important the Liber De Causis was. And in fact, there are more than 200 Latin manuscripts of the treatise and it was one of the most often copied Arabic treatises by the large commentaries by Averroes as well, very influential.


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