The translation movement
With the fall of Rome, the cultural heritage of classical Greece was lost to western Europe and next to no Europeans knew how to read Greek. Instead the texts survived in translations into Arabic. The Abbasid Caliphate sponsored these translations and the caliphs took a personal interest in the project. The translations were often carried out by Syrian Christians, who spoke both Greek and Arabic, and they often used Syriac as an intermediary language. The translators would send for manuscripts from Byzantium or they would go there themselves to look for books. They were handsomely rewarded for their efforts – a translator might be paid some 500 golden dinars a month, an astronomical sum at the time.
There were two main circles of translators in Baghdad, centered on the scholars Hunayn ibn Ishaq and al-Kindi. Having mastered Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Persian, Hunayn translated no fewer than 116 works, especially medical and scientific texts, but also the Hebrew Bible. His son and nephews joined him as translators in his workshop. Hunayn was notable for his method which began with literal translations on which he based subsequent, rather loose paraphrases of the original text. Hunayn also wrote his own books, some thirty-six works altogether, of which twenty-one were concerned with medical topics. Hunayn may also be the author of De scientia venandi per aves, a book on falconry much admired in the Middle Ages.
Al-Kindi was Hunayn’s near contemporary and the head of rivaling circle of translators. Although al-Kindi knew no Greek himself, his collaborators did, and he spent time overseeing and editing their work. The members of the al-Kindi circle were the first to translate many titles by Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. But al-Kindi too wrote his own books. In On First Philosophy, he gave an impassioned defense of why translations from Greek were necessary. The truth is the truth, he insisted, regardless of the language in which it is expressed. Al-Kindi is said to have introduced Indian numerals to the Islamic world and he was a pioneer in cryptography. He also devised a scale that allowed doctors to assess the potency of the medication they give patients.