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  • The Spacious Ironies of Translation
  • Thomas E. Burman (bio)

translation history, Ramon Martí, medieval religious polemic, medieval Qur’ān, Robert of Ketton, Pugio fidei

I confess that I have not been able to take my eyes off translation since at least 1978 when, as a 17-year old, I read an article in the National Geographic called “Ebla: Splendor of an Unknown Empire.” Here I met with the astounding discoveries Italian archeologists were pulling from the rubble of that ancient Near Eastern city, but more importantly with the work of a Semitic language expert who had successfully deciphered the third-millennium BCE, Eblaite language that appears on some 15,000 clay tablets that were among those discoveries (La Far 1978). I can still feel the visceral amazement that welled up in me at that feat—painstakingly working out the meaning of an utterly forgotten language based on millennia-old documents buried beneath the soil of western Syria. By six or seven years later, early on in graduate school, I had come obscurely to conceive of what I was doing in studying the languages and cultures of medieval Latin Christendom and Arab [End Page 87] Islam as somehow an extension of that work on the Ebla tablets—at least that’s what I remember saying in a letter to my parents, trying to account (surely in vain) for what seemed an unpromising career choice.

I did not, however, set out consciously to become a scholar of translation, though in many ways that is what I have become. Indeed, I have always thought of myself primarily as a historian of ideas, religion, and culture. Yet, while doing historical work, I kept finding myself staring at acts of translation and their surprising consequences. In an undergraduate independent study on the history of the Spanish language, I learned about what I still consider the most amazing Castilian loan word from Arabic: the temporal and spatial preposition hasta, “until, up to, as far as,” which, followed by que, functions commonly also as a conjunction. Remarkable enough that Castilian speakers adopted thousands of nouns from the Arabs (Arabic al-qaṣr > Castilian alcázar = “palace, fortress”), but that in large numbers they understood enough of Arabic grammar and syntax to borrow a preposition and conjunction (Arabic hattá), using it almost identically with how it functions in that language astonished me, the result of an amazing ability to move between two profoundly different languages—an amazing feat of translation.

After reading the beautifully written classic work of my field, Norman Daniel’s Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (Daniel 1993), I set out as PhD student to explore how medieval Latin Christians thought about Islam and engaged its texts but kept finding my eyes lingering over other remarkable philological feats. Sometimes they were impressive in their insufficiency. As I edited and translated a medieval Latin work against Islam, itself a translation of a now lost Arabic original, I reveled in detecting the Arabic constructions and conventions that had worked their way into the Latin as the translator opted for literal translation where he lacked comprehension. After an opening paragraph, in which the usual pious declarations and requests for divine aid were mouthed, the Latin text’s next paragraph begins with the phrase Et infra, “and afterwards,” an incomprehensible utterance in the context until I imagined what the corresponding Arabic might have been. Wa-ba‘du literally means “and afterwards” as well but is also a conventional phrase used at just such junctions in medieval Arabic texts, marking the point of transition between the flowery introductory talk and the getting down to business [End Page 88] (Burman 1994, 240–41). Years later I could not stop watching as the Sicilian Jewish convert to Catholicism, Flavius Mithridates (fl. 1475–85), who seems to have known Arabic very well indeed, slapped together a Latin translation of two Qur’ānic surahs that is so catastrophically bad that we can only assume that he was consciously passing off lousy work—work he knew virtually no one else in fifteenth-century Italy could check—to make some quick cash. But then Mithridates is thought to have trucked in linguistic...


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