What Is a True Translation?

Peter Adamson writes at Aeon about the “well-funded translation movement that unfolded during the Abbasid caliphate,” which “sought to import Greek philosophy and science into Islamic culture”:

[…] A well-heeled Muslim who moved in court circles, al-Kindī oversaw the activity of Christian scholars who could render Greek into Arabic. The results were mixed. The circle’s version of Aristotle’s Metaphysics can be almost incomprehensible at times (to be fair, one could say this of the Greek Metaphysics too), while their ‘translation’ of the writings of Plotinus often takes the form of a free paraphrase with new, added material.

It’s a particularly dramatic example of something that is characteristic of the Greek-Arabic translations more generally – and perhaps of all philosophical translations. Those who have themselves translated philosophy from a foreign language will know that, to attempt it, you need a deep understanding of what you are reading. Along the way, you must make difficult choices about how to render the source text into the target language, and the reader (who might not know, or not be able to access, the original version) will be at the mercy of the translator’s decisions.

Here’s my favourite example. Aristotle uses the Greek word eidos to mean both ‘form’ – as in ‘substances are made of form and matter’ – and ‘species’ – as in ‘human is a species that falls under the genus of animal’. But in Arabic, as in English, there are two different words (‘form’ is ṣūra, ‘species’ is nawʿ). As a result, the Arabic translators had to decide, every time they came across the word eidos, which of these concepts Aristotle had in mind – sometimes it was obvious, but sometimes not. The Arabic Plotinus, however, goes far beyond such necessary decisions of terminology. It makes dramatic interventions into the text, which help to bring out the relevance of Plotinus’ teaching for monotheistic theology, repurposing the Neoplatonic idea of a supreme and utterly simple first principle as the mighty Creator of the Abrahamic faiths.

What was the role of al-Kindī himself in all this? We’re not entirely sure, actually. It seems clear that he did no translating himself, and he might not even have known much Greek. But it is recorded that he ‘corrected’ the Arabic Plotinus, which could have extended to adding his own ideas to the text. Evidently, al-Kindī and his collaborators thought that a ‘true’ translation would be one that conveys truth, not just one that has fidelity to the source text.

Very interesting stuff. Thanks, Paul!


  1. Adamson is also the author-raconteur of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast, which makes great listening while doing the laundry each morning. He often touches on translation- and language-related issues, not just in this context but generally, which is part of why I enjoy it.

    Also, Merry Christmas! I would have put it in the other thread but I missed the brief window before it became a symposium on Bellows.

  2. Where Saul bellows, there’s no space for Christmas?
    Happy Holidays to everybody. 🙂

  3. I would have put it in the other thread but I missed the brief window before it became a symposium on Bellows.

    The other thread; I was confused by “Bellows,” which as it turns out refers to Saul Bellow (as Hans implies).

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