Translation Movements in Iran; Sassanian Era, to Year 2000, Expansion, Preservation and Modernization

By Massoume Price

Translation in the Middle & Near East has existed ever since the second millennium BC. Administrative documents plus literary and religious texts were translated back and forth from Sumerian, Akkadian, Elamite, and Babylonian throughout the area. Achaemenian had their documents and texts translated into all the languages of the Empire including Aramaic that was used parallel to ancient Persian as the language of the court and administration. In Seleucid, Parthian and Sassanian time Greek plays were translated; performed and Greek philosophy and sciences were well known by the Iranian scholars. Iranian artists participated and performed at the major art festivals in Rome, India, Alexandria in Egypt and Byzantium cultural centers such as Constantinople (Istanbul). Such cultural exchanges created an international class of artists, intellectuals, and performers well versed in a number of languages and traditions.

Such activities reached their peak in Sassanian period (226-642 AD), especially at the time of Khosro I (Anoushiravan, 531-578). An imposing succession of Sassanian emperors actively engaged in collecting, recording and editing the historical, scientific and religious records of their civilization and the neighboring countries. The Sassanian Imperial Ideology was based on the Zoroastrian doctrine. In this religion Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom (Khodavand i Kherad) is the origin of all learning, therefore, all knowledge is regarded as sacred. According to Dinkard, the Zoroastrian canon in Pahlavi, Book IV, “all knowledge and sciences was received by Zoroaster from Ahura Mazda and transmitted through Avesta. Destruction of Persia by the wicked Alexander dispersed the texts throughout the world. The Greeks, the Egyptians derived all their knowledge and science from these dispersed texts. Subsequently, Sassanian emperors took it upon themselves to collect all these texts from all over”. The sources name, Byzantium, India, and China as the main centers where book collecting was taking place.

Greek Philosophers, Syriac speaking Christians and Nestorians fleeing persecution by Byzantines (Orthodox Christians of Constantinople) were received by Anoushiravan and were commissioned to translate Greek and Syriac texts into Pahlavi. Paul the Persian dedicated Works of logic to the king. The Greek philosopher Priscianus Lydus wrote a book in response to the king’s questions on a number of subjects in Aristotelian physics, the theory of the soul, meteorology, and biology. Dinkard itself shows familiarity with all these topics, especially Aristotelian physics. It is apparent from the text that Aristotle’s famous article ‘On coming to be and Passing away’ was well known by the compilers of Dinkard. Becoming, decay and transformation the three fundamental concepts in the article are mentioned and discussed. Books in medicine, astronomy, Ptolemy’s Almagest, Aristotle’s Organon and a number of texts in crafts and skills were translated from Greek sources.

Indian scientific material in astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine were also translated into Pahlavi along with Chinese Herbal medicine and religion. Indian popular literature was also translated; Kalila va Dimna and Sinbad have survived. Traces of ancient Indian tales are preserved in Medieval Persian literature such as Shireen and Farhad. The story is from Sassanian origin and closely resembles one of the ancient erotic stories of Kama Sutra. In the Indian version, the Royal sculptor and the Kings’ favorite courtesan fall in love. Once the affair is discovered he is chained to the mountain, he recites love poetry and carves his lover’s face on the rocks before he is put to death.

The later Muslim historians refer to the Sassanian Imperial library as the House of Knowledge (Bayt al Hikmat). The same name was applied to the Royal Library in Baghdad after the Muslim conquest. The library functioned as both a place where accounts of Iranian history and literature were transcribed and preserved. At the same time, it was a place where qualified hired translators, bookbinders and others worked to preserve, purchase, copy, illustrate, write and translate books. Persia and Byzantium dominated the area at the time. The later was a continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire and the seat of Greco-Roman art, culture, and civilization. Alexandria and Constantinople though constantly at conflict were major centers of intellectual activities with theaters, libraries, and universities. In 525,
Justinian the Byzantine Emperor fell in love and married his future Empress Theodora, an actor in Alexandria. The two created a grand court in Constantinople with intellectuals, artists, and performers unprecedented till the Renaissance movement in the 16th century Western Europe. In addition to Major cities like Alexandria Constantinople and Jerusalem, intellectuals and scientists moved and carried ideas from Edessa in the west, through Nisibis and Mosul (Iraq) to Marv and Gundishapur in Western Persia.

Sassanian was very much part of the international scene. They send performers to the religious and art festivals all over including Hagia Sophia, the oldest standing grand church that still exists (built in 360 and converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople). The Sassanian translation movement was part of their attempt to remain and be active in this climax of international cultural exchange. It was used to widen their horizon and at the same time introduce Iranian culture, art, and ideology to the other nations and therefore expand Iranian cultural influence.

The conquest of Islam in the 7th century transformed every aspect of life in the region. For the first time since Alexander the Great lands as far as Egypt and the fertile crescent were united with Persia and parts of India politically, administratively, and most important economically. Under the banner of Islam, the political division of the Near East between east and west ceased to exist. Goods and raw materials moved back and forth. Trade expanded and the introduction of a sophisticated paper industry by Chinese traders created a boom in the book industry, however, there were setbacks. Performing arts were banned and theaters closed down. Women were excluded from the public domain and visual arts suffered because of religious restriction i.e. human and other living forms could not be portrayed or sculptured.

Zoroastrian ideology regarded all knowledge as sacred; Umar (the second Caliph) believed no knowledge was knowledge unless it originated in Quran. This was his motto when he ordered the burning and destruction of the famous Library and Museum of Alexandria. Built by the Greek rulers of Egypt in the second century BC, the library for almost a millennium endured ravages of time, wars, fires, and looting. Many times damaged, it was rebuilt, restocked and was functional until the last minute. It was finally destroyed by Amrou ibn el-Ass, the conqueror of Syria and Egypt by direct order of Umar in the 7th century. The Imperial library at Ctesiphon had the same fate; the whole city was totally destroyed and never rose again. The destruction of such major libraries with the compulsory use of Arabic as the only language made it clear to the scholars and intellectuals that all pre-Islamic knowledge and national identities were in danger of total destruction and they had to be preserved.

Massive and heroic efforts were made and the result was the formation of a dynamic and significant translation movement for almost two hundred years
till the 10th century. The movement started in Damascus in Umayyad times and flourished in Abbasid Baghdad (754 AD). All major Greek Syriac Persian and some Indian texts were translated into Arabic and Neo Persian. Pre-Abbasid translations from Pahlavi included major religious literary and historical texts. The source books that were used by Ferdowsi in compiling Shahnameh were saved around this time. Greek and Indian texts translated into Pahlavi were re-translated into Arabic and Neo Persian. Ibn-al-Muqaffa (Roozbeh) is the best-known Iranian translator of this period. He was accused of being a Zandaqa (heretic) and was murdered. Popular Manichean and other religious texts were also translated.

With the Abbasid, the translation of scientific texts was added. Nawbakht the court astrologer and his son Abu Sahl and other colleagues al-Farazi and Umar al-Tabari and many others sponsored by the Barmakid family (the chief ministers to the early Abbasids who were murdered later) translated and promoted Pahlavi texts into Arabic and Neo-Persian.  They were all Iranians and aimed to incorporate Sassanian culture into Abbasid ideology and guarantee the continuity of the Iranian heritage. Christian and Jewish learned families of Sassanian Persia such as Bukhtishu and Hunyan families were also great translators of Syriac Greek Pahlavi and other texts into Arabic. Both families had served at Gundishapur University for generations and were instrumental in founding the Adudi Hospital and Medical School in Baghdad.

Baghdad a suburb of Ctesiphon was chosen as the site of the New Abbasid capital (Baghdad is a Persian name and means god given, it was founded in 762 by al-Mansur). The Royal library was based on the Sassanian model and was called the house of knowledge (Bayt al-Hikmat). Even at Caliph Mamun’s time when the persecution of Iranian elements had started, the director of the library was the great Persian nationalist and Pahlavi expert, Musa al-Sahl ibn-Harun (9th century). The famed Iranian mathematician and astronomer Musa al-Khwarizmi were employed full time by the library at this time. Ibn-an-Nadim the author of the Fihrist (the index) and the most famous associate of the library listed all the books and their origins in his famous index. A great part of the index has survived and is a valuable source of information.

The movement ended by 10th century for a number of reasons. It had lost its sponsors and relevance. The Muslim schools were fully established and were dominated by the fundamentalists where political ideology emphasized fate over reason. The Hellenistic cultures of Egypt, Syria and the Holy Land with its’ Greek and Syriac elements and the Byzantine (Turkey) did not survive. They lost their language and their magnificent culture and ancient heritage. Today we know them as Arabs or Turks and it is only recently with the advent of modern historical studies and Archaeology that their rich heritage is being re-discovered. The Greek philosophy and the secular sciences translated made their way into Western Europe, revived such sciences and played a significant role in the formation of one of the most important secular ideological movement in Europe, i.e. the Renaissance.

13th-century illustration depicting a public library in Baghdad, from the Maqamat Hariri. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Iranians survived and managed to preserve their culture. The brilliant and ingenious adaptation of the Arabic alphabet (Aramaic in origin) guaranteed the survival of the Persian language. The script was changed but the phonetics remained the same. Pre-Islamic Persian literature flourished in neo-Persian texts and was immortalized by the likes of Ferdowsi, Nezami, and Attar. One thousand and one night originally Hazar Afsanak became Arabian nights and Shahrazad inspired European writers and composers. Children of the world came to know the legendary Barmakid minister Jafar through Walt Disney’s Aladdin. Persian became the court language of the Moguls and the Turks and Persian cultural influences remained in Pakistan Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics.

By far the most important work re-written and translated in the 10th century was Shahnameh. The Persian language at its’ best, the book contains elements of Persian history survived from the Sassanian period plus a magnificent collection of Avestan mythology. Avestan characters such as Feraydon, Jamshid, Tahmoureth, Kiomarth and the legendary bird Seemourgh etc., were forever engraved in the psyche of Iranians. As correctly put by Ferdowsi himself, the nation was revived through Shahnameh’s language. In Reza Shah’s period when Arabic names were replaced this book was used as the source book to find the equivalent in Persian!

The second millennium witnessed the demise of the Iranian culture and civilization as a whole. Towards the end of this period, another major translation movement would make its mark. The second half of the 19th century is the beginning of major political and ideological transformations in the country and the start of modernization processes. Modern sciences and western ideas of democratic civil society enlightenment human rights and emancipation of women were introduced through translation of European texts into Persian. The Armenians of Isfahan for their exclusive use imported the first printing machine in 1641. However, the first printing machine in Persian started work in Tabriz in 1813 and the book industry was changed forever. The first modern school Dar ul Fonoun (the Institute of technology) 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.

Educated Iranians joined and in no time tens of books in Geography, Engineering, Medicine, Military, Biology, Mathematics and other disciplines were translated. The school had a theater as well and for the first time since pre-Islamic times plays by western writers (Moliere) were performed in the school. Translations of historical and literary work followed. Voltaire’s Histories of Peter the Great, Charles the VII, Alexander of Macedonia and Sir John Malcolm’s History of Iran were translated. Along with Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Cristo, Queen Margo, Adventures of Telemaque, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s travels James Maurier’s the Story of Hajji Baba of Isfahan and Jules Vern’s science fictions.

The early translations were clumsy inaccurate and Persian poetry and anecdotes were added in between the lines. Nevertheless, they opened the way to the modern world and introduced new ideas. The introductions talked about the importance of modernization, new sciences, new literary concepts and they significantly changed the old and pompous literary style of the local writers. Translators wanted to remain true to the originals, as a result, a simpler and more natural language was adopted. The pleasantries and unnecessary commentaries common till 19th century were abandoned and modern Persian literature and poetry were born. Amin Dulah, Rezagholi e Hedayat, Yousof e Mostashar Dulah, Prince Taher Mirza, Etemad Saltaneh, Malcom Khan, Talebof and Akhond Zadeh are amongst the first popular translators of the period.

The modernization movement resulted in the constitutional revolution (1906) and for the first time since the conquest of Islam secularization began in the country. During the Pahlavi era translation became an art. All major international texts, literary and otherwise were translated into modern Persian from a number of languages and the translation culture was amongst the best in the continent. Books from a variety of subjects from Nobel Prize authors to popular romance, detective stories, history, health, philosophy etc. were translated. Censorship existed and it was mainly applied to political and erotic literature.  The religious sector remained behind and few attempts were made to translate major Islamic texts especially from the Middle Ages into modern Persian. Universities, academics and government institutions such as the Organization for translation and Publication of Books carried out such translations.

The second decade of the Islamic Republic has seen an explosion in book publishing. This is despite the high cost, low readership, political instability, pressure groups and contradictory policies by the Ministry of guidance with respect to censorship. Translated books about New Age and modern spirituality are appearing in great numbers. Feminist literature has a strong presence and all the major books and biographies from western sources are translated along with historical and fictional accounts of the goddesses of the ancient times. Ancient Iranian history has made a strong comeback and all recently published books in the field are translated despite the government’s unwillingness. Popular romance and other escapist literature are amongst the best selling books. The government’s sponsorship and financial aid are mainly directed towards religious texts particularly translations of Medieval texts in Arabic and Shiite literature.
The translation culture at the present reflects the struggles and contradictions in the country at large. Its aim appears to be preserving the Persian history and heritage, encouraging the flow of information from the west and at the same time provides temporary relief. It is hard to get any reliable statistics from Iran but Daniel Steel’s books seem to be one the best sellers in the country!

Massoume Price is an Ecologist and a Social Anthropologist educated in Iran and England, Kings and University Colleges, London University. She currently lives and works in Canada and is a freelance writer.