Translations produced in this time period were the result of well-organised efforts supported by statesmen and elite families, and executed by highly skilled translators. According to Dimitri Gutas, the 'Abbasid caliphs supported the translations partly out of ideological concerns, seeking political legitimisation by adopting the intellectual traditions of the Sassanid Empire that they replaced (Gutas 1998). He further demonstrates that members of the elite paid for translations as they could benefit from them practically. A quote from the Andalusian physician Ibn Juljul (c.944—c.994), where he argues that scholars appear only in states whose kings seek knowledge (Vernet 2008), seems to support this view. On the other hand, George Saliba suggests that it was middle-class administrators competing for governmental positions who were responsible for the increase in translations (Saliba 2007).
We can get an insight into the role of the elite in supporting the translation movement from Hunayn’s Epistle. In this text, Hunayn also gives information about his patrons, who were either related to the ‘Abbasid court or were themselves physicians who wished to enhance their medical knowledge, such as the Bukhtlshu dynasty. This prominent family of physicians spanning six generations over 250 years commissioned medical texts such as Galen’s Book on the Method of Healing. So did the Banü Musa, another family with close ties to the caliph. The caliphs themselves also commissioned translations and patrons generally supported multiple translators. Jibril Bukhtishu' (died 828), for instance, payed both Hunayn and Job of Edessa (died around 835), another translator of Greek into Syriac. Hunayn further reports that at least five other patrons supported him, both Christian and Muslim, physician and courtier. Some works he would first translate into Syriac for one patron and then into Arabic for another, as he did for example with Galen’s works Pulse to Teuthras and Therapeutics to Glaucon. This patronage contributed to the large number of translations created in this era.
Different translators adhered to different approaches in their medical translations. The historian al-Safadî describes two main strategies, one he characterises as word-for-word translation (ad verbum) and the other as focusing on the meaning of the entire sentence (ad sensum) (Rosenthal 2003: 17). Al-Safadî mentions the translator Yahya ibn al-Bitrîq as an example of the first approach. The reputation of this translator was generally not positive (Ullmann 2002-2007: 28-48). His versions were word-for-word translations that did not always pay enough attention to the meaning of the sentence. Manfred Ullmann identified his father, Abu Yahyâ al-Bitrîq, as the translator of an early version of the Aphorisms, of which the later translator Hunayn disapproved (Ullmann 2002-2007: 52-53). These early translators were nevertheless pioneers who did important work in developing Arabic medical terminology. According to al-Safadî, Hunayn ibn Ishaq translated by first grasping the meaning of a sentence and subsequently rendering it into Arabic (or Syriac). Hunayn’s translation approach was precise and had a reputation among historical scholars for being ‘without error’ (Rosenthal 1946: 254), even though he himself thought it necessary to retranslate several of his earlier translations. He would follow particular strategies to render linguistic features such as conjunctions, conditionals, and subjectivity (Vagelpohl 2011: Overwien 2012, 2015; Van Dalen 2017). For instance, when he considered a sentence to be the reflection of Galen’s own views, he would clearly mark this subjectivity by using first-person active voice where Galen had used a passive. He was also aware of the fact that the text was written in a Greek cultural context; when Galen used ‘we’ as a reference to a general subjectivity, Hunayn rendered this as ‘the Greeks’ (Van Dalen 2017). His nephew Hubaysh’s language has been characterised as ‘translation Arabic’, a language that demonstrates clear influence of the source language (Rosenthal 1946: 253).
Another issue Arabic translators dealt with was the polytheistic nature of the texts they translated in a predominantly monotheistic culture. This had consequences for instance in translated references to the Greek gods and can be seen in the way the Hippocratic Oath was translated into Arabic. The beginning of the Greek version of this oath reads in English translation as: ‘I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract’ (for the Greek see Littré 1844: 628-633). In the Arabic this has become: ‘Hippocrates said: I swear by God, the Lord of Life and Death, Giver of Health and Creator of Cures and Treatments; and by Asclepius, and by all men and women who are close to God and whom I take as witnesses’ (Savage-Smith, Swain and Van Gelder 2020: 126.96.36.199). In this translation, the gods and goddesses have become ‘men and women close to God’, and Apollo, Hygieia and Panacea have disappeared. Instead, the translator has included the monotheistic God, and only Asclepius remained (see also Pormann and Savage-Smith 2007: 33; for more examples see Picken 2018: 104).
In terms of vocabulary, Hunayn and his colleagues drew on contemporary medical terms but also had to create new words to translate Greek terms. They sometimes Arabised words by transliterating them in Arabic script, and occasionally added explanations of their meaning to the translation. In other cases, they used Syriac words that we assume were known to contemporary readers. Sometimes Hunayn described the meaning of a Greek term with multiple Arabic words (forexamplessee Picken 2018: 103-104; Overwien 2012: 156-157; Cooper 2016: 12-23). As medical scholarship progressed, some terms were adopted and others were re-interpreted.