Missing the point

I. Soheil Muhsin Afnan (1958: 19), a grandson of “The Master” and first translator of Aristotle’s Poetics directly from the Greek to Farsi, on the Middle Age Arabic translators* and puzzlers of classical Greek works:

The list of their translations is enumerated in three Arabic source-books1 of great value. And their careful collation of different copies of the text, their faithfulness to the original, and their painstaking effort to find suitable equivalents have won the admiration of modern scholars.2 In some cases they could be used to correct present-day Greek texts the originals of which reached the West by way of Constantinople. But they blundered also, and lamentably sometimes. In the translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy was thought to be panegyric poetry, and comedy was understood as invective; with the result that none of the Islamic commentators, even centuries afterwards, ever realized that tragedy and comedy are acted on a stage. They considered them parts of logic and studied them together with rhetoric. The actor3 was in one rendering translated ‘the hypocrite’ (al-munāfiq), and in another ‘the taker of faces.’ And Avicenna speaks in despair of ‘this thing they call the taking of faces.’ (19)

1 Al-Nadīm: Al-Fihrist, edit. Fluegel, 2 vols.
Ibn al-Qifṭī: Tārikh al-Ḥukamā’, edit. Lippert.
Ibn Abī Uṣaibi’a: Ṭabaqāt al-Aṭibbā’, edit. Muller, 2 vols.
2 Cf. R. Walzer: The Arabic Translations of Aristotle, Oriens, 1953.
3 ὑποκχριτής [sic: ὑποκριτής]

Afnan, S.M. (1958). Avicenna: His Life and Works. London & New York: Routledge.

* Here Afnan draws us to the wrinkle all the least scrupulous touters of the Islamic Golden Age would quietly toe out:

It will be noted that almost all the translators of Greek works into Arabic were Christians … nevertheless the term Islamic philosophy is justified because although its outstanding figures were often of different countries, they were either Muslims by birth or converts from Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. Furthermore their chief aim was the application of reason to revelation, and the reconciliation of Greek thought with the tenets of Islam. None of the Christian thinkers of Baghdad grew to the same stature. (13)

The chief route of Greek learning [to Baghdad] … led through the Christian communities of Syria and northern ‘Irāq. (13–14)


II. Knauer, E.R. (2006: 92–94) gives us another horrible wreck for want of interpretative equipment:

Samuel Edgerton … contrasts several prints: one is an engraving from Agostino Ramelli’s Diverse et artificiose machine of 1588 that depicts an improved technique for lifting a bucket of water from a well with a vertical crank turning an underground windlass (fig. 3.54).91 A copy of this sixteenth-century work was recommended as a model — together with other Renaissance treatises on science and applied mechanics — by the Jesuit missionary Father Johann Schreck (1576–1630) to the mandarin Wang Zheng at the Ming imperial court. Wang translated these works and had them illustrated in 1627 under the title Yuanxi qiqi tushuo (Illustrations of strange devices from the Far West). The work was copied and the illustrations redrawn and cut in the Qing dynasty encyclopedia Gujin tushu jicheng (Compendium of illustrations and books past and present) in 1726, with a further loss of precision (fig. 3.55).92 Chiaroscuro shading and geometric linear perspective, essential to Western art since the Renaissance, were not part of Chinese pictorial tradition. A closer look at the underground part in the copy reveals a total misunderstanding of the mechanics. Instead of the cutaway ground openings, a cloud pattern encroaches only to reveal the massive incomprehension.

Knauer 2006 Figs. 3.54 & 3.55

Knauer, E.R. (2006). The Queen Mother of the West: A Study of the Influence of Western Prototypes on the Iconography of the Taoist Deity. In Mair, V.H. (Ed.), Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World: 62–115. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.


III. As far as bad translation goes, glib spewing not at once caught sets you up for worse embarrassment than stammering and giving yourself away at once. I recall John Brough’s amusing, and then almost cruelly belabored, dissection of a Song Dynasty bluff not called for nearly a millennium — first by Paul Pelliot in 1904:

Our soi-disant translators undoubtedly knew some Sanskrit—a number of Sanskrit words, one should rather say, since on all the evidence they were innocent of any grammar; but they must have been horrified by the incomprehensibility of this Jātaka-mālā which was their task to translate. If in addition they were hard pressed by their superiors for a speedy completion of the work, as seems likely from the lack of revision, we may imagine their relief when they found the colophon to the first story: iti vyāghrī-jātakaṃ prathamam. The Tigress-jātaka was a story they already knew. I-ching’s translation of the Suvarṇabhāsottama-sūtra was there to be to them a ready help in trouble: which to reject would surely be an act of ingratitude and disrespect towards the great T’ang translator. (33)

[…] The method of operation, then, was simple: from their manuscript of the Jātaka-mālā the translators took note of any Sanskrit words (as often as not, wrongly identified) for which they could give a Chinese equivalent; and around these as nuclei they proceeded to build phrases, drawing on their stock of religious clichés in order to put something at least in place of the completely unintelligible pars. Perhaps they were consoled by the thought that they were producing something almost as unintelligible in Chinese, which if need be they could account for as “philosophical” and thus necessarily obscure. Perhaps they did their best to think of a really fitting context for a given nucleus; but it is hard to believe that they even half-convinced themselves that their version reflected anything of Ārya-śūra’s masterpiece. (51)

One example is enough — at left an English rendition of the Sanskrit original, at right of the Chinese pseudo-translation:

Brough 1964 pseudo-translation

Brough, J. (1964). The Chinese pseudo-translation of Ārya-Śūra’s Jātaka-mālā. Asia Major, 11(1): 27–53.

Further reading: Are Sanskrit and Chinese “congenial languages”? (Language Log: Victor Mair, 2013)

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