Volume 15, No. 4 
October 2011

  Hossein Bahri


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Index 1997-2011

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by Rina Ne’eman

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Translators Around the World
The Role of Translation Movements in the Cultural Maintenance of Iran from the Era of Cyrus the Great up to the Constitutional Revolution
by Hossein Bahri

Cultural Aspects of Translation
When American Culture Floats Adrift: A case study of two versions of Brown's "The Da Vinci Code"
by Orges Selmani

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Tradução de palavras compostas de Alemão para português—o caso dos textos médicos
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Textología contrastiva, derecho comparado y traducción jurídica: Las sentencias de divorcio alemanas y españolas
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Bridging Worlds Through Language and Translation
Baris Bilgen, Ph.D. Candidate

Isso vai dar merda: implicações do conhecimento do significado de expressões idiomáticas na tradução de uma entrevista do ex-presidente Lula
Ana Karla Pereira de Miranda e Dra Elizabete Aparecida Marques

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The Role of Translation Movements in the Cultural Maintenance of Iran

from the Era of Cyrus the Great up to the Constitutional Revolution

by Hossein Bahri,
Tarbiat Moallem University, Tehran, Iran


The present paper attempts to portray the role of four translation movements in the shaping and maintenance of Iranian culture by touching upon decisive periods in the translation history of Iran from the era of Cyrus the Great (576-530 BC), the founder of the Persian Empire, up to the Constitutional Revolution in 1905. These efforts, which were conducive to Iranian cultural maintenance, are called Foundation, Revival, Survival and Modernization Movements respectively. The fact that translation activity has always contributed to the establishment and preservation of Iranian culture cannot be neglected. Through the ages Iranian culture has thrived and evolved. Invading cultures and forces have influenced it. However, as we see, translation movements have played a significant role in perpetuating and promoting the Iranian culture and identity in the past and will continue to play more in the future.

Key words: Translation movements, cultural maintenance, Iran, Cyrus the Great, Constitutional Revolution


1. Introduction

he effort to sustain a culture by the way of life of a people (ideology, life style, arts, language, etc.) and preserving its material embodiment (landscapes, architecture, and other artifacts) is defined as cultural maintenance (Glossary of Education, 2011). Early mention of survival and maintenance through translation activity can be found in the Jewish history. Rajak, referring to the Jewish culture of the Diaspora, states in her new book Translation and Survival (2009:7-8) that "an important thread in the present study ... is how the Septuagint worked to achieve accommodation for a colonized group, how the nature and uses of translation enabled them to define their own hybrid identity, and to retain control over their essential values in relation to the powers. This recipe for cultural survival, and even a degree of sly subversion, are inherent in the text-centered Jewish culture of the Greco-Roman Diaspora."

There is no doubt that the Greek Bible sustained Jews who spoke Greek and made the survival of the first Jewish Diaspora possible. The translations were a tool for the preservation of group identity and for the expression of resistance. Similarly, the present paper attempts to represent the role of translation movements in the cultural maintenance of Iran by touching upon decisive periods in the translation history of this country.

The fact that translation activity has always contributed to the establishment and preservation of Iranian culture cannot be neglected.
It goes without saying that each culture will have its own particular translation history according to the historical and political events that have shaped it. Even-Zohar's (1978:1) remark that "in spite of the broad recognition among historians of culture of the major role translation has played in the crystallization of national cultures, relatively little research has been carried out so far in this area." was an extremely important statement, for the implications of his theory of cultural change were enormous. He also suggested "the historical situation would determine the quantity and type of translations that might be undertaken (ibid)."

What translation scholars should discuss are translation histories, since the term in the singular suggests that there is a fixed sequence of events from which we can draw universally applicable conclusions, and this is not the case. Translation history scholars, mostly from Western countries, have normally focused on Western translation trends and traditions. The histories of translation in Eastern countries like Iran, India, and China were not of primary concern to Western theoreticians and practitioners. Lefevere (1992:3) states "whereas translators in the West have held Greek and Latin works in high esteem, as representing the expression of prestigious cultures within the Western worldview, they have treated other cultures, not thought to enjoy a similar prestige, in a very different manner indeed."

Today it is self-evident that translation activity is one of a cultural nature. However the extent to which translation interplays with culture is still a matter of investigation. Bassnett & Lefevere (1998:6) argue that "if translation is, indeed, as everybody believes, vital to the interaction between cultures, why not take the next step and study translation, not just to train translators, but also precisely to study cultural interaction." This proposition seems to transcend the usual boundaries of the "Cultural Turn" portrayed by Snell-Hornby (1990:79-86) for the cultural move in translation studies. Whereas many scholars believe that translation studies is an independent and interdisciplinary field of study, there are some who propose that it should be incorporated into different fields among which is the realm of cultural studies and cross-cultural communication. Munday (2008:197) also warns us of a "possible fragmentation due to the persistent tension between what one might determine linguistic and cultural theories." That debate is not the concern of this study, however. The present paper attempts to portray the role of translation movements in the shaping and maintenance of Iranian culture by touching upon decisive periods in the translation history of Iran from the era of Cyrus the Great (576-530 BC), the founder of the Persian Empire, up to the beginning of the 20th century, which coincided with the Constitutional Revolution in Iran in 1905.

2. The Achaemenid Era (550 - 330 BC) and the Foundation Movement

Documented proof of translation activity in the Iranian Plateau dates back to 550 BC. This was the time when Cyrus the Great ruled over the huge Persian (Iranian) Empire. Cyrus the Great (600 or 576 BC-530 BC) was the founder of the Persian Empire and the Achaemenid dynasty. Under his rule, the empire embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Middle East, expanded vastly and eventually conquered most of Southwest Asia and much of Central Asia, parts of Europe and the Caucasia. From the Mediterranean sea in the west to the Indus River in the east, Cyrus the Great created the largest empire the world had yet seen (Kuhrt, 1995:647). Cyrus built his empire by conquering first the Median Empire, then the Lydian Empire, and eventually the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

Wilcox and MacBride (1986:14) believe that Cyrus's conquests began "a new era in the age of empire building, where a vast superstate, comprising many dozens of countries, races, religions, and languages, were ruled under a single administration headed by a central government." It is obvious that the transmission and diffusion of culture among different cultures and peoples of such a vast empire could not have been achieved without sophisticated communication tools and experts. They further mention that "this system [of governance] lasted for centuries, and was retained both by the invading Seleucid dynasty during their control of Persia, and later Iranian dynasties including the Parthians and Sassanids (ibid)."

Cyrus founded the empire as a multistate, multilingual territory governed by four capital states; Pasargadae, where people spoke Old Persian; Babylon, where people spoke Babylonian (mostly Akkadian); Susa, where people spoke Elamite, and Ekbatana, where people spoke Median (a dialect of Old Persian). He allowed a certain amount of regional autonomy in each state (Briant, 2002:18). His liberal and tolerant views towards other religions, cultures and languages have made some scholars consider Cyrus a Zoroastrian king. The Jewish people at the time regarded him as their Messiah, while many current Muslims believe that the Koranic figure of Dhul-Qarnayn was Cyrus the Great. The religious and cultural policies of Cyrus are well documented on his Cylinder, a document in the form of a clay cylinder inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform. This indicates that Cyrus's commands were translated into other languages of the Persian Empire. It also confirms the existence of translation activity in Iran since 25 centuries ago.1

The inscription "I am Cyrus the king, an Achaemenian." in Old Persian, Elamite and and Babylonian is carved in a column in the capital city of Pasargadae. By order of Cyrus the Great, the Achaemenids translated their documents and texts in all the major languages of the empire including Elamite, and Babylonian (a later form of Akkadian) that were used parallel to Old Persian as the language of the court and administration. "Dabiran", a group of educated people whose positions were as secretaries, teachers, and counselors, carried out the translation profession (Nadim, 1994:268-70).

Another indication of translation activity in ancient Iran is the Behistun inscription, which is a multi-lingual inscription located on Mount Behistun near the city of Kermanshah in western Iran. Authored by Darius the Great sometime between his coronation as king of the Persian Empire in the summer of 522 BC and his death in autumn of 486 BC, the inscription begins with a brief autobiography of Darius, including his ancestry and lineage. Later in the inscription, Darius provides a lengthy sequence of events following the deaths of Cyrus the Great and Cambyses II, Cyrus's son and his successor, in which he fought nineteen battles in a period of one year (ending in December of 521 BC) to put down multiple rebellions throughout the Persian Empire. The inscription, along with its two translations, was written in three different cuneiform script languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. The Old Persian text contains 414 lines in five columns; the Elamite translation includes 593 lines in eight columns, and the Babylonian translation is in 112 lines (Campbell, 1937:760-7).

The first translation movement in Iran that was triggered by the order of Cyrus the Great helped him establish the Persian Empire and its identity, expand his territory and deliver Cyrus's liberal message not only to the people of Persia but also to the peoples of all states under his realm. Cyrus's successors used this movement for communication and propagation in the huge empire.

3. The Greek Seleucid and the Parthian Era (330 BC - 224 AD)

The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great dispersed the Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian texts throughout the ancient world. The Greeks and the Egyptians derived part of their knowledge and science from translations of these dispersed texts. In the era of the Greek Seleucids, who were successors to Alexander the Great, and also during the reign of the Parthian dynasty, Iranian scholars became more familiar with Greek philosophy and sciences. They even translated Greek plays and Iranian artists performed at many art festivals in Athens and Alexandria and other cultural centers. Translation at that time provided mutual benefits to both Persians and the conquering nations. The major event from the second half of this period was the revival of Persian art and culture. However, many translators who themselves were Aramaean, incorporated many Aramaic words into Persian texts. Nadim (1994:271) attributes the emergence of Huzwaresh to the end of this period. Huzwaresh is a term describing the use of Semitic word masks in Middle Persian texts, which was "a new development in language and translation fully-fledged in the later Sassanid era (ibid)."

4. The Sassanid Era (224 - 651) and the Revival Movement

The great ideal of Persian Sassanian rulers like Ardashir I, the founder of Sassanid dynasty (224), was to revive the Persian identity and glory of the Achaemenid era, which were partially lost and marginalized during the Seleucids and Parthian reigns. Like the Achaemenids, Persian Sassanians believed in Zoroastrianism, which regarded Ahura Mazda, the God of wisdom, as the origin of all learning. Therefore they considered all branches of knowledge to be sacred. These incentives along with a desire to remain active in the arena of international cultural exchange lead to another translation movement, known as the revival movement.

The revival translation movement was part of the Sassanian attempt to extend the boundaries of their empire as far as the Achaemenid era, and at the same time introduce Iranian culture, art and ideology to the other nations and therefore revive Iranian cultural influence. Such a movement began during the reign of Shapur I (240-271) who ordered the lost information recovered from the translations of Greek and Indian sources to be incorporated in religious texts (Karimi-Hakkak, 1998:514). Shaki (1981:123) quotes from Dinkard, (by Madan, p. 428) "that which was necessary was adopted from foreign lands such as various sciences, teachings, instruments of craftsmanship and know-how (hunar) as well as the treasury of astronomy of the Indians, the Megisti of the Greeks [i.e., Ptolemy's work] and other writings of that sort which were collated with the fundamental book (bun nibig) of the royal treasury; and whatever in them was reasonable . . . was presented to the respective seekers of that knowledge . . . He [i.e., the king of kings] did not neglect or avoid them because of their . . . foreign name."

A major indication of translation activity in this period is the monumental inscriptions on the Cube of Zoroaster walls. The structure is a copy of a sister building at Pasargadae built by Darius I when he moved to Persepolis (Frye, 1974:383). The building at Pasargadae is a few decades older. However, the walls surrounding this edifice date to Sassanid times. The Sassanid-era walls surrounding the Cube of Zoroaster have four inscriptions dating to the 3rd century. These trilingual inscriptions of Shapur I are on the eastern (Middle Persian text), western (Parthian text) and southern (Greek text) walls. A Middle Persian inscription of the high priest Kartir is below Shapur's on the eastern wall (Boyce, 1975:454-465).

The next Sassanian ruler was Yazdegerd I, who reigned in peace from 399 to 420. He allowed the Persian Christians freedom of worship and may even have contemplated becoming a Christian himself. In this period of religious tolerance, during the reign of Yazdagerd I, Nestorian Christian communities flourished, and translations appeared for the use of converted Mazdeans.

A Middle Persian translation of the Syriac Psalter is attributed to this period. Known as Pahlavi Psalter, the translation was a fragment, consisting of twelve pages written on both sides. It was discovered, with a mass of other documents, in eastern Turkistan (present-day Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China) by one of the four German expeditions to Central Asia. In his brief preliminary presentation, Andreas (1910:869-72) dated the somewhat archaic writing of the Pahlavi Psalter to the first quarter of the 5th century (410-20), during the reign of Yazdgerd I.

The movement reached its peak especially at the time of Khosro I (531-578) when a large number of scholars and translators actively engaged in collecting, rewriting and translating the historical, scientific and religious records of their civilization and the neighboring countries. During Khosro's reign, many historical annals were compiled and translated, of which the sole survivor is the Karname-ye Ardashir-e Babakan (Deeds of Ardashir), a mixture of history and romance that served as the basis of the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). When Justinian I (527-565) closed the schools of Athens in 529, seven of their professors fled to Persia and found refuge at Khosro's court in 531. Under Khosro I, the University of Gundishapur, which had been founded in the 5th Century, became "the greatest intellectual center of the time", drawing students and teachers from every quarter of the ancient world. He had the works of Plato and Aristotle translated into Pahlavi and taught at Gundishapur University. Nestorian Christians were received there, and brought Syriac translations of Greek works in medicine and philosophy, which were then translated into Pahlavi (Frye, 2005:464-74).

Indian and Chinese scientific material in astronomy, mathematics and medicine were also translated into Pahlavi. Traces of ancient Indian tales are preserved in Medieval Persian literature such as Sheereen and Farhad. The story is from Sassanian origin and closely resembles one of the ancient love stories of Kama Sutra. A renowned translator of that time was Borzuya, who was also a physician. He traveled to India and on his return brought back The Panchatantra, an Indian collection of stories, and several other works as souvenirs (Blois, 1990:12-22). After being translated into Pahlavi by the order of Khosro I as Kalila wa Demna, it achieved great fame and was quickly translated from Pahlavi into Syriac and several times into Arabic, Persian, and other languages. Kalila wa Demna provided the basis for numerous works in the Persian literature of the Islamic era.

The Sassanian imperial library functioned as a place where accounts of Iranian history and literature were both transcribed and preserved. At the same time it was a place where qualified hired translators, bookbinders and others worked to preserve, purchase, copy, write and translate books. The revival movement in the Sassanian era was a cultural and scientific one aimed at acquiring knowledge, restoring Iranian cultural values, guaranteeing the empire's preservation and approaching proactively towards world affairs.

5. The Islamic Caliphate (651 - 1055) and the Survival Movement

The most important role of translation in this period was the survival of Iranian culture and preservation of Persian literature and identity. This, indeed, was similar to what had happened in earlier times in Europe. We know that the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was the first major translation attempt in Western culture. Its significance was far-reaching but largely neglected. Without a Greek Bible, the European history would have been entirely different - no Western Jewish Diaspora and no Christianity. Rajak (2009:114) contends that "a fundamental determinant of cultural identity was the primary use of the eastern Mediterranean lingua franca, Greek, as spoken and written language, not only in everyday usage, but also for religious purposes. It is not an exaggeration to say that none of these social maneuvers would have been possible without the Greek Bible. Translation was from the second century BC onwards a distinct and important branch of literary activity for the Jewish Diaspora."

It is evident that the Greek Bible sustained Jews who spoke Greek and made the survival of the first Jewish Diaspora possible. This translation-and-survival situation was exactly the same as what happened to the Iranian cultural identity after the Arab invasion. Many Pahlavi and non-Pahlavi texts including religious, literary and scientific books were translated into Arabic, the lingua franca of the Islamic World and the language of the conquering Muslims. Later on these translations were re-translated into Modern Persian, which helped to rank it as the second most important language of the Islamic World and to maintain Iranian culture and identity.

The Muslim takeover in the 7th century transformed every aspect of life in the former Sassanid Empire. It was the first time in history when lands as far as North Africa, Mesopotamia, Persia and parts of India were annexed to Arabia politically, administratively, and most important culturally under the banner of Islam. Moreover, trade with the Romans, the Indians and the Chinese increased. The use of scrolls made of tanned leather or untanned parchment, which had long been used by Persians and Hebrews, gave a sudden rise to the book industry, despite suffering major setbacks.

Many Muslims believed there was no knowledge except what originated in and conformed to the Koran and Islamic law (Sharia). This was the reason for burning and destruction of the famous library and museum of Alexandria and the imperial library at Ctesiphon. In addition, the forceful use of Arabic as the official language of the Muslim Caliphate resolved Iranian scholars and intellectuals that all pre-Islamic knowledge and cultural identities were in danger of annihilation and they had to be survived.

These events lead to huge and concerted efforts made by the emergence of a dynamic and patriotic translation movement for almost three hundred years up to the turn of the 11th century. This translation movement, which had cultural survival as its major concern, started in Damascus in Umayyad times and flourished in Abbasid Baghdad (754). Therefore, a host of Persian and Syrian scholars translated into Arabic and Modern Persian major Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi (Middle Persian) and Indian texts. Pre-Abbasid translations from Pahlavi included major religious literary and historical texts. The source books that were used two centuries later by Ferdowsi (940-1020) in compiling Shahnameh (Book of Kings) were translated around this time. Also Greek and Indian texts already translated into Pahlavi were re-translated into Arabic and Modern Persian.

Karimi-Hakkak (1998:514) praises Ibn-al-Muqaffa (Ruzbeh) for being "the best-known Iranian translator of this period. He was accused of being a Zandaqa [heretic] and was executed about 759. Popular Manichean and other religious texts were also translated. Ruzbeh is also responsible for the translation into Arabic of accounts of the sixth century reformist prophet Mazdak, and those of his followers. Such texts, later translated from Arabic back into New Persian, formed the basis for much of our information about pre-Islamic Iranian culture, particularly its textual tradition. Among the extant Persian texts, the eleventh century Siasat-Nameh (Book on Statecraft), and the twelfth century Fars-Nameh (Book about Fars), give a clear impression of being renditions of earlier works in Persian or Arabic." It is a well-known fact that Khotaynamak was translated by Ibn-al-Muqaffa from Pahlavi into Arabic in the eighth century, however this translation was lost afterwards.

Qazvini (1953:55) mentions Bahram Mardanshah a 9th-century Zoroastrian priest of the town of Shapur in Fars, refering to several Arabic and Persian sources, as a translator of the Khotaynamak from Pahlavi into Arabic. Hamza (in Qazvini 1953:23-24) gives the title of Bahram's translation as Ketab Taarikh Moluk Bani Sasan (History of the Sasanian kings). He states (p. 24) that Bahram referred in it to the existence of numerous Shahnameh manuscripts and great differences between them, and consulted more than twenty manuscripts for his own translation. To judge from the quotations given by Hamza, Biruni, and the compiler of the Mojmal, Bahram's translation differed greatly from Ibn-al-Muqaffa's lost Arabic version and from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh. For example, in Bahram's book, Kayomarth was the first man, not the first king. This suggests that Bahram's translation was based on the texts of the Khotaynamak, which, in some passages, closely followed the Avesta and must therefore have been compiled by Zoroastrian priests rather than court historians.

Due to these significant efforts hopefully major aspects of Iranian culture and Persian literature survived the Arab invasion. An impressive way to survive Persian language was the adoption of the Arabic alphabet (Aramaic in origin) with minor changes in the characters to accommodate Persian sounds. The script was changed but the phonetics remained the same. Therefore, Pre-Islamic Persian literature thrived on a new orthography in Modern Persian texts and was eternalized by the likes of Daqiqi, Ferdowsi, Gorgani and Nezami.

Kraemer (1992:92) points out that Abu-Mansur Daqiqi (935-980), a contemporary of Ferdowsi (940-1020) and poet at the court of the Samanids, supported the nationalistic tendencies in Persian literature and attempted to create an epic history of Iran which began with the history of Zarathushtra and Gashtasb. A large number of couplets by him were included in the epic Shahname by the Persian epic poet Ferdowsi. He started his composition of the Shahnameh in 977 A.D and completed it on 8 March 1010.2

The Shahnameh is an epic poem of over 50,000 couplets, written in early Modern Persian. It is based mainly on a prose work of the same name compiled in Ferdowsi's earlier life in his native Tus. This prose Shahnameh was in turn and for the most part the translation of a Pahlavi (Middle Persian) work, known as the Khotaynamak (Book of Kings), a late Sassanid compilation of the history of the kings and heroes of Persia from mythical times down to the reign of Khosro II (590-628). The Khotaynamak contained historical information on the later Sassanid period, but it does not appear to have drawn on any historical sources for the earlier Sassanid period, i.e. 3rd to 4th centuries (Zaehner, 1955:232-49). Ferdowsi added material continuing the story to the overthrow of the Sassanids by the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century.

Many other Pahlavi sources were used in composing the epic, prominent being the Karname-ye Ardashir-e Babakan, which was originally written during the late Sassanid era, and gave accounts of how Ardashir I came to power which, because of its historical proximity, is thought to be highly accurate. Besides, the text is written in the late Middle Persian, which was the immediate ancestor of Modern Persian. Hence, a great portion of the historical chronicles given in Shahnameh are based on this epic and there are in fact various phrases and words which can be matched between these two sources (Safa, 1945: 12-35).

As Nöldeke puts it (1920:36-41) "the poet's attachment to Iran is clear in every line of the Shahnameh. The effects of Ferdowsi's love for Iran must be considered not only in the transmission of the culture, mores, customs, and literature of ancient Iran to Islamic Persia but also in the spread of Persian as the national language. In this way the struggle for the preservation of Iranian identity while Persia was in danger of being Arabized in the name of the Islamic community finally bore fruit through Ferdowsi's efforts. In this way Persia is deeply indebted to Ferdowsi, both as regards its historical continuity and its national and cultural identity."

Fakhruddin As'ad Gorgani (11th century) versified the story of Vis and Ramin. The story dates from pre-Islamic Persia. Gorgani claimed a Sassanid origin for it, however it is now being regarded as a Parthian dynastic origin, probably the 1st century AD.

Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209) used Shahnameh as a source in his three epics of Haft Paykar, Khosro and Shirin and Eskandar-nameh. The story of Vis and Ramin also had an immense influence on Nezami. Although Nezami takes the bases for most of his plots from Ferdowsi, but the basis for his rhetoric comes from Gorgani. This is especially noticeable in Khosro and Shirin, which is of the same meter and imitates some scenes from Vis and Ramin (Davis, 2008:30-32).

Karimi-Hakkak (1998:515) maintains that "under courtly patronage, works originating in Greek and Latin, Syriac and Aramaic, even Chinese and Sanskrit, began to appear in Persian, often through previous translations in Arabic. In all these activities, the approach to translation was essentially utilitarian and pragmatic in nature. Translators thought it necessary, important or useful to translate certain works, and they did so efficiently and without much pretension." The Greek philosophy and the secular sciences, which had once entered Iran through translation and later promoted and preserved by Persians at the time of Sassanids, were re-translated into Modern Persian and Arabic. Eventually they made their way into Europe, revived such sciences, and marked the end of the Middle Ages by the formation of one of the most important secular ideological movements in Europe, i.e. the Renaissance.

Unfortunately, many scholars in the West attribute translation attempts in the 7th to 11th centuries solely to Arab translators. This can be seen in many textbooks and it has even found its way through many encyclopedias like the following:

"Large-scale efforts at translation were undertaken by the Arabs. Having conquered the Greek world, they made Arabic versions of its philosophical and scientific works. During the Middle Ages, some translations of these Arabic versions were made into Latin, chiefly at Córdoba in Spain. Such Latin translations of Greek and original Arab works of scholarship and science helped advance the development of European Scholasticism." J.M. Cohen, "Translation", (Encyclopedia Americana, 1986, vol. 27, p. 13).

As said earlier, it is clear that non-Arab Muslims, who were mostly Iranian Persians, Jews and Assyrians, carried out most of these translations. We know that before the advent of Islam in Arabia very few people could read and write. Although over the ensuing years many Muslims learned the basics of literacy, the probability of acquiring translation knowledge, requiring the ability to read and write fluently in two languages, by the then Arabs seems very unlikely, especially when we consider the fact that most of the fundamental rules of the syntax and semantics of the Arabic language were laid down and formulated by Persian linguists and translators.3

6. The Turkish and Mongol Era (1055 - 1501)

By the 10th century Arabic had turned into lingua franca of the Islamic world and many scholars including Persians and other non-Arabs had to compose their works in Arabic or translate previous works in that language. Karimi-Hakkak (1998:516) names many Persian scholars, who bore Arabic names, like the historian Tabari and physician and philosopher Avicenna, and some of the greatest Islamic theologians, Mohammad Tusi (1076), Mohammad al-Ghazali (1111), and Zamakhshari (1144) and the philosopher Fakhr al-Din Razi (1209) who wrote mostly in Arabic. "These men sometimes prepared Persian versions (not actual translations) of their works or supervised their students in such tasks (ibid)."

In the late 11th or early 12th century, Persian Zoroastrians fleeing from Muslem persecution to India (called the Parsis or Persians in diaspora) began translating Avestan or Middle Persian texts into Sanskrit and Gujarati. Some Middle Persian texts were also transcribed into the Avestan alphabet. This latter process, being a form of interpretation, was known as Pazand. Pazand's principal use was for writing the commentaries or translations of the Avesta, the primary collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism (Boyce, 1984:5). A very important book on comparative theology, written by Mardan-Farrukh, one of the Parsis forefathers in the 9th century, was Shikand-gumanic Vichar. The book was then translated into Sanskrit in 1100, for the benefit of the Parsis (Boyce, 1979:152). These efforts, to some extent, helped preserve the Zoroasterian heritage from being destroyed by Muslem conquerors.

The approach in the 10th century continued through the 11th to 14th centuries despite the economic fall during the Turkic, Mongol and Tamerlane invasions. Karimi-Hakkak (1998:516) finds a trend in this period: "before Mongol invasions, Persian was the language of literature and Arabic was the language of science. After Mongol invasions, Persian became the language of science. This made Persian the second most important language in the Islamic World, a position that has been retained so far. Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274) translated the Greek basic manuals of mathematics and geometry, including Euclid's Elements and Theodosius's Spherica into Arabic, and the astrological judgments of Ptolemy from Arabic into Persian. In each case, he added his own comments to his translations. He also wrote Persian treatises on arithmetics based on Indian works unknown to us."

By the thirteenth century, Persian was becoming well established in India as the language of religious, literary and legal learning and communication. A number of important translations were made from Sanskrit and other Indian languages into Persian, like Abdol Aziz Nuri-Dehlavi's fourteenth century translation of an astronomical work by Varahra Mehera (587). Persian became the court language of the Mongols and the Turks and Persian cultural influences remained in present-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and even parts of India.

7. The Safavid Era (1501 - 1722)

During the socio-economic unrest in 1449, a large number of Iranian scholars emigrated from Khorasan and Transoxiana to Anatolia, seeking refuge in Ottoman lands. They obtained positions as advisers or physicians to the Ottoman sultans or as judges, translators or teachers at madrasas. These people contributed a great deal to the transference of knowledge to the Ottoman and European lands. Notable among them is Shemseddin Itaqi (born in Shirvan, Iran, 1570) who arrived in Istanbul during the reign of Murad IV (1623-32). He wrote medical books in Turkish based on his translations of Persian and Arabic sources (Burke & Hsia, 2007:199).

Economic and cultural decline continued from 15th to 17th centuries, although some translation works were carried out mostly from Indian sources. These were actually done by emigrant translators into the Indian courts. The most significant effort is represented by the translations of Lilavati (1587, on arithmetic, by Fa'ezi) and Bijaganita (1635, on algebra, by Ata-Allah Rashidi), both Sanskrit works by Bhaskara (12th century). In medicine too a remarkable amount of literature in Persian was produced. The first known text of the so-called Yunani (Greek) medicine was the Persian translation of Biruni's pharmacopoeia Kitab al-saydana, by Abu Bakr Otman of Kashan under Iltutmesh.

Abd-al-Sattar Lahuri, was a famous author and translator in the reigns of Akbar and Jahangir. He was a pupil of the Jesuit missionary at the Mughal court, Father Jerome Xavier (1549-1617), and collaborated in the latter's Merat al-qods, or a life of Christ. The work's preface gives a date of completion in 1602, and the translation may have been done some time between 1598 to 1601 (Camps 1957:14).

Despite these efforts translation activity in the ensuing years was in decline due to several reasons. Among other factors Karimi-Hakkak (1998:517) considers "the supremacy of Shiism in Iran in the sixteenth century to be a major source of shift for the emphasis in translation from science back to religious texts, particularly those of the prophetic tradition and the sayings of the Imams, collectively known as Hadith." Another was due to the last 72 years of power transition from Safavid to Qajarid dynasties, which was marked by Afghan invasion and Nader Shah and Karim Khan's rule that featured political instability and social turmoil and hence no considerable translation activity. Hence these years are regarded as the "Dark Ages" in the Iranian translation history.

8. The Qajarid Era (1794 - 1905) and the Modernization Movement

In the 19th century, Persian, which had once become the official language of India in the 16th century, suffered major setbacks in India and Transoxiana. In 1832, the British initiated the process that resulted in the virtual obliteration of Persian from the Indian subcontinent. Similarly, with the fall of Central Asia to Russia in the latter part of the nineteenth century, almost all translation activity in Persian speaking Central Asia was realigned with Chaghatay (later Uzbek) and Russian languages. All this affected translation activities in Persian, seriously undermining the international character of the language (Karimi-Hakkak, 1998:518).

Towards the second half of the 19th century another major translation movement was initiated, which is widely regarded as a "Translation Renaissance" in Iran. This was the beginning of great political and ideological changes in Iran and the start of the modernization process. Modern sciences and Western values regarding the enlightenment movement and liberation of women from their traditional roles were introduced through translation of European texts into Persian.

Among a group of Persian students sent to England to study in 1815, Emami (1993:182-8) mentions two graduates who engaged in translation work on their return. One was Mirza Saleh Shirazi, whose diary of his stay in England is well known. He established one of the first printing presses in Tabriz, shortly after 1819, and in 1837 began publishing in Tehran a newspaper entitled Kaqaz-e akhbar (a calque of "newspaper"). The other was Mirza Reza Mohandes, who became an army engineer and translated a few works from English into Persian, including Walter Scott's Life of Napoleon Bonaparte and a portion of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Books on history and geography were understandably in greater demand in 19th-century Persia than were works of literature.

It was during the long reign of Naser-al-Din Shah (1848-96) particularly under the direction of his Grand Vizier, Amir Kabir (1848-51) that the first steps toward modernization were taken in Iran. The number of printing presses in the major cities increased, and a modest number of books were published, especially by the government printing and translation house. The first modern school, Dar al-Fonun (House of Techniques), started work in 1851 with a few European instructors and texts were translated from a number of European languages to introduce Iranian pupils to modern sciences. The establishment of Dar al-Fonun and other modern schools required tens of translations on technical and scientific subjects, as well as on literary works. These were made from the French because, for political reasons, the teaching staff had been recruited mostly from central Europe where French was the language of diplomacy and culture (Rouhbakhshan, 1987:33-54). The establishment of Dar al-Fonun also generated a demand for European textbooks and scientific manuals, but most were translated from French or German. (for a list of translators in Dar al-Fonun, see Waqaye Ettefaqiya newspaper, 98, 17 December 1852; Nabavi, 1990:99-103).

Many early Iranian translators of European works were graduates of that school. Chief among them was Mohammad Hasan Khan, better known as Etemad-al-Saltana, a learned courtier who had also served in the Persian legation in Paris for three years. From 1871 to 1896 Etemad-al-Saltana headed a new government office called the Royal Office of Translation, designed to coordinate government sponsored translation and interpreting activities. He directed its operations for a quarter-century (1871-96), but most of the translations undertaken at his behest were nonfiction titles from French. French remained the dominant European language among the educated Persian elite until the end of World War II, and most translations were of French works.

From the outset French theater occupied a special place in the choice of translators. This was due to the development of the modern education system in which French classical drama was read as part of the curriculum, as well as to occasional performances in Tehran and Rasht. For example, Molière's Le médecin malgré lui, the first French play to be performed in Persian, was published by the office of translations at the Dar al-Fonun.

Another famous translator and editor at the time of constitutional movement was Mohammad Hossein Khan Forughi, called Zoka-al-Molk who was born in Isfahan in 1839. After traveling to India for trade purposes and Iraq for studying religion, he came back to Tehran in 1872, where his knowledge of Arabic and French helped him find employment as the head of the Bureau of Publications with additional responsibilities at the Royal Office of Translation, both under Mohammad Hasan Khan Etemad-al-Saltana, the minister of press and publications, who was a hub of the intellectuals of the time. Forughi's main task was the translation of articles and news from Arabic and French. His major translations include: George Rawlinson's The Seventh Great Monarchy 1895-98; Jules Verne's Le tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours 1898; Jacque-Henri Bernardin de Saint Pierre's La Chaumière indienne1904; Françios Chateaubriand's Les aventures du dernier Abencerage 1906. Notable among some dozen works edited by him was a translation of George W. M. Reynolds' The Bronze Statue; or the Virgin's Kiss, because of its political tone (Adamiyat, 1974:76-8).

Soon educated Iranians joined in and tens of books in History, Geography, Military, Mathematics, Engineering, Medicine and other disciplines were translated. Translations of historical and literary works came to prominence as avenues towards modernity and enlightenment. Voltaire's Historical narratives of Peter the Great, Charles XII, and Alexander the Great and John Malcolm's History of Persia were translated as well as works by some of the renowned European authors of the time, including Dumas the Elder, Fénelon, Le Sage, Bernardin de Saint Pierre, Jules Verne and Daniel Defoe.

An important feature of translations in this period was the simplification of the old and pompous literary style of the Persian writers. Hence, modern style Persian literature and poetry was born. Akhond Zadeh, Amin al-Dowla, Etemad al-Saltana, Mohammad Hossein Khan Forughi, Mirza Habibe Esfahani, Prince Taher Mirza, Rezagholie Hedayat, Talebof, and Yousof Mostashar al-Dowla are amongst the first popular translators of the time just to be mentioned alphabetically.

Most of the translations prior to Constitutional Revolution (1905-11) remain in manuscript form and a large collection of these unedited manuscripts are preserved in the National Library in Tehran. About half of these texts are works of fiction, a quarter are history books, and the rest are memoirs or scientific works. At first there does not seem to be any underlying logic behind the choice of texts for translation. Authors as widely different as René Lesage, Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Comtesse de Ségur, and Fénelon were all translated. Yet, within the intellectual and historical context of the time, an underlying concept of knowledge can be detected as the common denominator among these authors. The choice was not primarily based on the work's inherent literary quality or merit. Increasingly mindful of their technological backwardness, the Iranians of the time preferred texts that they thought would enhance their knowledge of the outside world, i.e., of history and geography or, more generally, any text which would lead them to a better understanding of Europe which was to serve henceforth as their model for modernization.

Karimi-Hakkak (1998:519) concludes that Iran entered the twentieth century with "an insatiable appetite for translation brought about by a deep thirst for restructuring its state, society and culture along European lines. Translated accounts of the French revolution played a significant part in driving forth the constitutional movement (1905-11), and the Persian translation of the Belgian constitution of 1831 served as a draft document for the Iranian constitution ratified in 1906." Taking all these events into account, it is no exaggeration to say that Iran's modernization process, which resulted in the constitutional revolution in 1905 owes a great deal to the late 19th century translation movement.

9. Conclusion

The fact that translation activity has always contributed to the maintenance and sustainability of Iranian culture cannot be neglected. The main objective of this paper was to highlight four decisive movements in the translation history of Iran, which played vital roles in the cultural maintenance of this country.

The first translation movement in Iran, "the Foundation Movement", which was triggered by the order of Cyrus the Great, helped him establish the Persian Empire and its identity, expand his territory and deliver Cyrus's liberal message to the peoples of ancient world. The second translation movement, called "the Revival Movement", in the Sassanian era was a cultural and scientific one aimed at acquiring knowledge, guaranteeing the empire's preservation and approaching proactively towards world affairs. It was used to introduce Iranian culture, art and ideology to the other nations and therefore revive Iranian cultural influence. After the Arab invasion, the third translation movement or "the Survival Movement", was initiated by massive and heroic efforts by Iranian scholars and men of letters to sustain the Iranian culture and resulted in the formation of a dynamic and patriotic translation movement for almost three hundred years. The fourth and final translation movement, called "the Modernization Movement", which is widely regarded as a translation Renaissance in Iran started in the second half of the 19th century and was the beginning of great political and ideological transformations in the country that triggered the modernization process and the constitutional revolution.

Through the ages the Iranian culture has thrived and evolved. Invading cultures and external forces have influenced it. However, as we see, translation movements have played a significant role in the preservation and maintenance of the Iranian culture in the past and will continue to play more in the future.


1. In 1971 the UN Seretary General, U Thant, said "in creating the ancient Persian Empire 25 hundred years ago, Cyrus displayed the wisdom of respecting the civilizations and peoples whom he 'unified' under his sway." (UN Press Release, HQ/264, 14 Oct. 1971).

2. In Encyclopedia Iranica, Ferdowsi, Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh states "the poet refers to... date of the Shahnameh's completion as the day of Ard (i.e., 25th) of Esfand in the year 378 S. (400 Lunar)/8 March 1010..." http://www.iranica.com/articles/ferdowsi-i

3. Another important point that Arab Muslims themselves were not tolerant of Greek philosophical and scientific works and it was the secular non-Arab scholars who were under the guardianship of a few open-minded Abbasid Caliphs helped survive these works. On the contrary, the major concern for the Muslim Arabs was to disseminate the Islamic laws and for this purpose they made use of translations.


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