We have always used to say that translation is a bridge between cultures, and that translation has become an indicator of progress of nations and a key factor in human development. We can recall what the Dean of Arabic literature, Taha Hussein, said in his speech at UNESCO that translation is the most important sign of the unity of human mind. If we talk about the need for translation and its advantages, we can talk endlessly. Everyone is sure of that fact.
It may be better to try to address what some of us think as negative aspects of translation that make translation a suspect. In our Arab culture, we used to put translation against creativity as translation is a form of conveying ideas and ethics of others. When we translate, we just convey. People then ask a reasonable question: When do we stop conveying and move to creativity? When do we create our own thought and literature? We say that there is no culture without creativity. Culture is an intellectual answer to problems posed by social life. From this point of view, each culture has its own creativity.
When we feel that we lack creativity, we mean specifically creativity that adds to human thought and is recognized by other cultures. From this point of view, we are right when we have concerns because our creativity is limited. However, we make a mistake when we think that translation is responsible for this problem. In fact, what is happening is exactly the opposite: weakness of translation explains weakness in creativity. Translation is a condition for every creativity. In order to understand such fact, we must look at the prosperous period in the history of our Arab-Islamic civilization. Translators translated works of scholars and thinkers of Greece and Alexandria from Greek into Arabic. Also, they translated writings of Galenus in medicine, Ptolemy in astronomy, Euclid in geometry and Apollonius in optics, as well as works of the philosophers Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus.
Then came scientific contributions of Arabs, which occupy a universally recognized position in the history of development of science. Contributions of Al-Razi, Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Tusi and Ibn Al-Haitham came as a result of their comments and discussions on translations of works of Greek and Alexandrian scholars.
If such scientific writings were not translated from Greek, would Muslim scientists be able to accomplish any addition to the history of science? The same thing applies to philosophy. Using rules of philosophical thinking developed by Greek philosophers, Muslim philosophers, who lived under a monotheistic religion, introduced new issues of existence, knowledge and theology that were not raised by Greek philosophers about God’s relationship with creatures, interpretation of the existence of evil in the world, immortality of soul and reckoning. These issues facilitated transfer of philosophy to the Christian European world.
Why does literature need translation? Every nation has its own literature stemming from its culture, which is considered its own creativity, and imitation would corrupt it, wouldn’t it? In this context, the role of translation is necessary and positive. Suffice it to note that the two most important works in the history of international literature of Arab classics are “One Thousand and One Nights” and “Kalila and Dimna” are translated works.
Despite the high status of Arabic literature in the Abbasid era, in the 19th century we were introduced to new literary types that were not familiar in our Arabic literature, such as the novel and the play thanks to translation. Arab writers quickly absorbed such new forms of literature and began to produce their own, and some of them became great men of letters who had their standing on the map of world literature, such as Tawfiq Al-Hakim, who has begun translating his plays into foreign languages since the 1930s and Naguib Mahfouz, who won Nobel Prize for literature.
Our feeling that we lack creativity in a period characterized by the decline of our efforts in translation prompted some people to write works such as: Towards Arab Sociology, Towards Arab Theory in Literary Criticism or Islamic Statistics…etc. The result was only rhetoric that does not benefit Arabs or others. The reason is that all these attempts were lacking direct interaction with deliverables of human sciences. In addition, they were not concerned with making a contribution that benefits mankind and is universally acknowledged, but their purpose was to satisfy national identity and to instill the feeling that we are self-sufficient and we do not need others. We cannot achieve any creativity away from the world, and translation will pump blood into veins of our Arabic language, increase its expressive capacity in various fields and makes it adapt to the spirit of the age.
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