I Travels of medicine from ancient to modern times

Medical translations from Greek into Arabic and Hebrew

Elaine van Dalen

This chapter will consider a wave of Greco-Arabic translations that experienced their peak in the ninth century CE, and the Arabic-Hebrew translations that took place in the 12th and 14th centuries. The two movements had wide-ranging implications for medical research and practice both during their own era and subsequent ones. The chapter will briefly discuss the methods and techniques of pioneer translators such as al-Bitrîq (active around 800), as well as those of the prolific translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873) and his colleagues, including his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn (c. 830-C.910) and nephew Hubaysh ibn al-Hasan (died in late ninth century). In addition, the chapter will introduce leading views on the increased demand and production of medical translations between the 8th and 10th centuries, highlighting practices of patronage that involved both wealthy families and the caliphs. It will also explain patrons’ and translators’ preferences for particular Greek medical texts, and the influence of translations on medical education and scholarship. Lastly, the chapter will look at the practices of Hebrew translation in Italy and Southern France, including the work of the Tibbonide family, Shem Tov ben Isaac (born in 1196) and Nathan ha-Me’ati (1279-1283), and discuss the role of medical translations in Jewish communities in Southern Europe.

Greco-Arabic translations: beginnings

The majority of translations from Greek into Arabic in the Middle East were conducted in the 7th to 10th centuries CE, in an era characterised by wide-ranging political and linguistic reconfigurations. The Arabs, arriving from the Arabian Peninsula, established vast empires that stretched from Southern Europe and North Africa to the Middle East and South East Asia, regions previously ruled by the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanid dynasty. The scholarly languages in these regions had been predominantly Syriac, Greek and Persian, and this did not change immediately. Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, was an important language among Christian intellectual communities in late antiquity. In the centuries prior to the Muslim conquests, Syriac scholars translated Greek works into Syriac and produced Syriac scholarship (Tannous 2010). Such activities continued, as will be illustrated below, after the conquests. Gradually, the use of Arabic spread; it officially replaced Greek as an administrative language in the 7th century, and increasingly took the place of Syriac and other languages as the main scholarly language in the 9th and 10th centuries. With this Arabisation came the demand for Arabic translations of scholarly texts written in Greek, Syriac, Persian and other languages.

The first of these Arab empires, the Umayyad Empire, lasted from 661 until 750 and had its capital in Damascus in modern day Syria. Not many translations into Arabic were produced during this time, possibly because Greek and Syriac continued to be used by intellectuals even though Arabic had been made the official administrative language. The main translations from this era that are alluded to in Classical Islamic records are alchemical texts. According to the bookseller Ibn al-Nadîm (died c.995 CE), the first Umayyad caliph Mu'âwiya, who ruled between 661680, asked a group of Egyptian scholars to translate alchemical works from Coptic and classical Greek (Ibn al-Nadîm 1970: 581; Saliba 2007: 45). Medical books seem to have been sporadic among these Umayyad translations. According to the Islamic scholars Ibn Juljul and Ibn al-Qiftl, an 8th-century Jewish scholar called Mâsarjawayh translated a Syriac medical compendium, written by the Christian Ahrun ibn A'yun, into Arabic during the reign of the Umayyad caliph 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz (ruled 717-720) (quoted in Van Koningsveld 1998: 351-352). Most Greco-Arabic translations however took place in later eras, after the ‘Abbasids took over from the Umayyads in the 750s.

Medical translations in the .Abbasid Empire

In the 750s, a revolution brought a new family into power in the Middle East, the Abbasids. They founded a new capital, called Baghdad, in what is today’s Iraq, which had a more central location than the previous capital Damascus. The early ‘Abbasid Empire flourished politically and economically, and brought together Persians, Syrians, Copts, Arabs and others. Although each of these groups had their own language, Arabic became increasingly important as a unifying political and scholarly language, much more so than during the Umayyad Empire. This era was characterised by a large-scale translation effort originating in Baghdad, and the most commonly translated languages were Persian, Syriac, and Greek. Translators from Greek first focused on medicine and applied sciences such as astrology and geometry, later followed by philosophy. By the end of the 10th century, translators had rendered nearly all available Greek works of science, medicine, and philosophy into Arabic.

The need for translations can be seen as a sign of flourishing scholarship at the time. The medical translations were often made by scholars who were themselves trained physicians and therefore familiar with many of the concepts in the texts. A prolific translator at this time was Hunayn ibn Ishaq (died around 873), a Syriac speaking Nestorian Christian who learnt Greek. He was himself a physician who practised medicine and translated Greek medical texts into Syriac and Arabic with his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn (died 910), nephew Hubaysh ibn al-Hasan (active around 860), and other colleagues.

According to a legend, the activities of these translators began after caliph al-Ma’mün (ruled 813-833) had a dream about Aristotle. The historians Ibn al-Nadîm (died 990 CE) and Ibn Abî Usaybi'a describe how, in his dream, al-Ma’mün asked Aristotle what the ultimate good was, to which Aristotle replied, ‘that which is considered good to reason’. He explained this as meaning ‘that which is considered good by law’, which in turn means ‘that which people consider good’. Ibn al-Nadîm further recounts that this dream led al-Ma’mün to contact the king of Byzantium and ask permission to send a group of scholars to procure books treasured in Byzantium. After these books were brought back, al-Ma’mun ordered them to be translated (Dodge 1970; Saliba 1970: 48; Gutas 1998; Van Koningsveld 1998: 356). Another account claims that caliph 'Umar ordered all the books in Alexandria to be destroyed when he conquered Egypt.1

These legends make it appear as if the translation efforts were an attempt to import books to an empire which was alien to these scholarly traditions. In fact, however, many of the medical books that were present in the region before the conquests could still be found there under Umayyad and early Abbasid rule, and Alexandrian practices of medical scholarship continued in the early Islamic world. In 6th- and 7th-century Alexandria, scholars such as Palladius, John of Alexandria and Stephen of Athens produced medical commentaries that offered interpretations of earlier Galenic and Hippocratic material. They moreover worked in an academic environment where medicine was taught using a particular collection of Galenic and Hippocratic texts, which became known as the Alexandrian curriculum. These included four works of Hippocrates, four Aristotelian works on logic (the first four of the Organon) and the Sixteen Books of Galen, including On Sects, On the Art of Medicine and On the Pulse for Beginners. Early translators such as Yahyâ ibn al-Bitrîq (died in early 9th century) and his father al-Bitrîq (died around 800) had started translating some of these books into Arabic already before Ma’mun’s mission to Byzantium. A few decades after this mission, the translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq recounts in a letter2 addressed to his patron 'Alï ibn Yahyâ how he searched widely for copies of Greek manuscripts in the former Byzantine cities which were now part of the Islamic Empire, such as Alexandria and Damascus. Hunayn mentions that it was easier to find manuscripts of Galenic texts that were part of the Alexandrian curriculum than of texts that were not; for example, the manuscript of On the Therapeutic Method was difficult to locate ‘as it was not read in the school of the Alexandrians’, according to his comments (Lamoreaux 2016: 48). This illustrates that, rather than having been destroyed with the conquests as the myth of caliph 'Umar suggests, many of the Greek medical and philosophical books central to late-antique Alexandrian medical scholarship continued to be present and possibly used in the early Islamic world, and they did not all have to be brought from Byzantium. Not only were these works still available in Greek, many of them also circulated in the region in Syriac translations.

Hunayn and his colleagues followed in the steps of Syriac scholars who had translated Greek texts into Syriac in previous centuries. An example of these earlier translation activities is the work of Sergius of Resh 'Ayna (died 536), who translated Galen’s Ars Medica (also known as the Tegni or Microtegni), the second of Galen’s Sixteen Books, into Syriac. Such activities continued after the Muslim conquests with the work of Christian scholars such as Jacob of Edessa (died 708) and Hunayn himself, who often first translated texts into Syriac and used them as an intermediary to then translate into Arabic. For instance, Hunayn retranslated the Ars Medica into Syriac three centuries after Sergius’ translation and then also rendered the work into Arabic (Tannous 2010). When studying the Greco-Arabic translations, it is important therefore to keep the central role of Syriac in mind.

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