Arabic, Syriac translations from
Translation from Syriac into Arabic is a well-known phenomenon. This is especially true for the translations of philosophical and scientific works that were made in the first Abbasid period by Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq and others, which have been the object of significant scholarly research (see, e.g., Bergsträsser). Much less attention has, however, been paid to the opposite phenomenon: translations from Arabic into Syriac. It has even been suggested (by Eliya of Nisibis in his discussions with the vizier al-Maghribī) that the absence of such translations are proof of the superiority of Syriac science and culture. As a matter of fact, however, the Syrians already had translations from Arabic some time before Eliya. One may distinguish six different, unrelated fields:
1. The earliest category consists of ascetical and hagiographic material related to the life and spirituality of the monks from the Egyptian desert. Though most of these Syriac texts were translated from a Greek original (e.g the apophthegmata by ʿEnanishoʿ), at least a few seem to have had an Arabic original, which in its turn goes back to a Coptic Vorlage : a panegyric on John the Small by a monk of Dayr al-Suryān and the biography of Shenute by his disciple Besa (10th cent.).
2. The second field covers a few writings pertaining to Syriac entertainment literature, such as the stories of Kalila and Dimna (11th cent., by an E.-Syr. priest, in addition to an earlier Syriac version made from Pahlavi in the 7th cent.), ‘Sindbad the wise’,and the tale of the ‘Ten viziers and the son of King Azad-Bekht’.
3. The next category is constituted by medical texts of Greek origin, which were translated in the first Abbasid period. Though in most cases these texts were translated directly from the Greek original into Syriac (which served as the basis of a subsequent Arabic translation), there are a few instances in which Arabic served as the intermediary between Greek and Syriac. Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq mentions that his co-religionist Yūḥannā b. Māsawayh, the private physician of several caliphs, requested that Ḥunayn’s nephew Ḥubaysh translate into Syriac three medical works by Galen, which were already available in an Arabic version. We may assume that the reason behind this request was that the very critical Ibn Māsawayh held that Syriac was more appropriate than Arabic for expressing scientific idioms. A Syriac version of Ḥunayn’s Arabic treatise al-Masāʾil al-ṭibbiyya ‘Book of medical questions’ is preserved in some late Chald. mss., through there is no information about the translator (for discussion, see Teule, forthcoming).
4. Bar ʿEbroyo had a good knowledge of Muslim-Arabic literature. Many of his works can be characterized as sometimes literal, sometimes paraphrastic translations/adaptations of Arabic philosophical and religious writings, such as the ‘Ethicon’ and the ‘Book of the Dove’ (based on Ghazālī), the Swād supyā (based on Ibn Sinā), etc. In these cases, however, the author did not intend to make translations, and the origin of the source text was not revealed. Nevertheless, Bar ʿEbroyo did also compose several translations that were meant as such: the Kitāb al-išārāt wa-al-tanbīhāt by Ibn Sīna (Syriac Ktobo d-remze wa-mʿironwoto d-Abu ʿAli bar Sīnā), in which he acknowledges the authorship of Ibn Sīnā and does justice to the Islamic context of this work, Athīr al-Dīn al-Abharī’s Zubdat al-Asrār (lost), and possibly Ibn Sinā’s ‘Medical Canon’. Bar ʿEbroyo’s translation activities are to be understood in the context of the growing acceptance of Muslim cultural and religious influences characteristic of the so-called Syriac Renaissance.
In Bar ʿEbroyo’s writings, one can also find several quotations (in Syriac) from verses of the Qurʾān. We have no certainty about a complete Syriac translation of this work, but Dionysios bar Ṣalibi gives literal translations of several sūras in his ‘Treatise against the Muslims’.
5. The most important category is composed of theological writings translated from Latin or other European languages into Arabic by Western missionaries (16th cent. and later) with the help of local Christians, which served as the basis for new translations into Syriac. Examples are the Maḥzitā mriqtā ‘the Polished Mirror’ by the Chald. Patr. Yawsep II (d. 1713), a Uniate apologetic treatise, translated by himself, in defense of the Primacy of the Pope, and the ‘Book of the Magnet’, a popular book of moral theology. The reason for these translations was that the Christian population under the authority of Yawsep II (Northern Mesopotamia) did not have sufficient knowledge of Arabic. This is explicitly mentioned by the Chald. priest Khidr from Mosul (d. 1751), who translated into Syriac Arabic versions of European works or original Arabic treatises composed by Maron. or Syr. Catholic authors. The priest Yawsep Abraham from Rāwandūz (1832) translated the Mizān al-zamān ‘the Balance of Time’ an originally Italian work, which was popular in Uniate circles, as well as some other theological and spiritual treatises. He also made a Syriac translation (from Arabic) of the NT Catholic Letters. An Arabic work by the zealous defender of the Uniate cause, the Melk. author ʿAbdallāh Zākhir (d. 1748) is also extant in a Syriac translation, probably made in Mesopotamia (on the Trinity and Incarnation). This translation activity from Arabic substantially diminished in the 19th cent., when the Chald. clergy had direct access to Latin and Italian theological writings.
6. Some modern works written by authors like Bp. Yuḥanon Dolabani or Patr. Ignatius Afram Barsoum (especially his history of Syriac literature, translated into Syriac under the title Brule bdire) were translated from Arabic into Syriac.
- Abūna, Adab, 531–40.
- Baumstark, Literatur, 283–84.
- G. Bergstrasser, Hunain ibn Ishaq. Übersetzung der syrischen und arabischen Galen-Übersetzungen (1925).
- S. P. Brock, ‘A Syriac Narratio attributed to Abba Daniel of Sketis’, AB 113 (1995), 269–80.
- Macuch, Geschichte, 42–8.
- H. Takahashi, Barhebraeus. A bio-bibliography (2005), 70–1, 86–88.
- H. Teule, ‘The transmission of Islamic culture to the world of Syriac Christianity: Barhebraeus’ translation of Avicenna’s Kitāb al-Išārāt wa l-Tanbīhāt. First soundings’, in Redefining Christian Identity, ed. J. van Ginkel et al. (OLA 134; 2005), 167–84.
- H. Teule, ‘Translations from Syriac into Arabic’, JEastCS . Forthcoming.
How to Cite This Entry
Footnote Style Citation with Date:
Herman G. B. Teule, “Arabic, Syriac translations from,” in Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition, edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay (Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018), https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Arabic-Syriac-translations-from.
Bibliography Entry Citation:
Teule, Herman G. B. “Arabic, Syriac translations from.” In Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage: Electronic Edition. Edited by Sebastian P. Brock, Aaron M. Butts, George A. Kiraz and Lucas Van Rompay. Digital edition prepared by David Michelson, Ute Possekel, and Daniel L. Schwartz. Gorgias Press, 2011; online ed. Beth Mardutho, 2018. https://gedsh.bethmardutho.org/Arabic-Syriac-translations-from.
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