A Brief History of Arabic Translation

Arabic translation has a long, rich history which has enabled communication between nations, and the dissemination of Arabic knowledge and culture around the globe.

Effective interpretation was vital for Arab traders, to enable exchange of goods, improve prosperity, and increase understanding between cultures.

However, with the Prophet Muhammed (570-632), and the rise of Islam, followers were encouraged to actively learn new languages in order to translate the Quran from Arabic into other languages, in order to facilitate the spread of the religion.

One of the most famous Arabic translators of the time was Zaid Ibn Thabet, who played a crucial role in translating the letters which Muhammad sent to the leaders of the Jews, and the establishment in Persia, Rome, and Syria.

During the 1st Abbasid Period (750-1250), the founding of cities such as, Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba, encouraged the growth of academies like ‘Bait Al Hikma’ (House of Wisdom), and the advancement of Arabic intellectual centres, where knowledge of medicine, science, philosophy, and so on, was sought, and ancient works were translated into Arabic and Persian in a bid to increase knowledge.

This knowledge became the basis of Arabic culture, was developed further by them, and then translated into Western languages such as, Latin and Turkish.

During this time of learning and advancement, translators, linguists and interpreters were highly regarded for their skill with languages, and the assistance this gave to learned people. This was true to such an extent that the Caliph rewarded eminent translators with the weight of their translations in gold!

Of course, a huge amount of accuracy and authenticity was required of the translators, who went to great lengths to ensure the validity of their works. They often spent years travelling to far-flung countries in a bid to understand new languages, cultures, and concepts.

Translating works from one language to another, not only helped to promote further learning, but also assisted in preserving knowledge for future generations.

For instance, during the 11th and 12th centuries, Medieval Europe absorbed much knowledge from Arabic culture, who had translated important works such as those by Aristotle. This rediscovery of ancient texts drove the Renaissance period, where Arabic knowledge from early centuries was used to make advances in medicine, algebra, and astronomy, among many others.

The downfall of the Islamic Empire caused centuries of poor economic, social and political circumstances for much of the Arab world.

The art of translation suffered at this time, but with Mohamed Ali’s reign in 1805, translation once again began to be valued, and studied.

Specialist translation schools such as, Al Alsun, a languages school in Egypt, began to emerge, and alongside some worthy Arabic translators like Helmy Morad, they translated some modern European literature which could be shared with Arab readers.

The role of translator has altered over the centuries, but once again it plays a vital part in the spread of information, knowledge and understanding.

It can help improve cultural relations, give assistance in business, support political consultations (through interpreters), and ensure that people around the globe can communicate with one another with ease.

Translation itself has become faster with the aid of AI and machine translation, and advances in technology are likely to help improve efficiency over the coming years.

However, human translators are still an essential part of interactions between people who don’t speak the same language, and they look set to be a valuable asset for many years to come.

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