Linguae Francae and the Role of Translation: Historical Paradoxes

Juan Manuel Cid

El Legado Andalusí Foundation

At the beginning of April, there appeared in the English language publication International Herald Tribune a news item that soon would be reproduced in other similar publications, including the daily newspaper El País. The headline of the item appeared thus: “The English Language Will Never Be Dethroned”. This categorical statement was articulated by the English linguist David Crystal, in English as a Global Language and would be reiterated by John McWhorter in his book The Power of Babel, which also sought to declare the supremacy of the language of Shakespeare in the same terms. For the former, the English language “will never be dethroned as the queen of languages.” For McWhorter, a linguist from the Manhattan Institute, “English dominates in a way that heretofore no other language ever has,” and he emphasizes: “In the present circumstances, I do not very well see how any other mechanism could uproot English.”

According to the two authors, and granted we do not know the reasoning behind this thesis statement, the English language will not suffer the same fate as that encountered by different languages which at specific times throughout history dominated as the lingua franca: Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, etc.

For decades, one of the most widely-held opinions has been that all languages are equal or, to put it differently, they are deemed equally important in value as “a vehicle for the communication of knowledge”. This ecumenical position that today is so widespread certainly has not always been as popular, and even now one should wonder just how much truth it contains given the English language’s outstanding role of linguistic champion in the world. This should cause no surprise as, in a sense, in every era there has always been a lingua franca that stood out from the rest and which served as a beacon for producing thought which, to put it this way, was “superior” to the rest.

What has always surprised me is not the existence of these languages that had a “superior status” in given historical periods, but rather assertions of the type that “only certain languages have the ability to develop philosophical and scientific thought,” argued by certain supporters of the supremacy of some cultures over others. As far as we know, Messrs Crystal and McWhorter did not arrive at the point of pronouncing this verdict, at least up to now, but then again they do not seem to be too far off drawing such a conclusion. History holds various significant examples. One is the celebrated French Orientalist, Ernest Renan. In the 19th century, Renan was established almost as a philological demiurge, positioning the philologist in the space previously occupied by God as the author-authority of sacred texts. As Edward W. Said notes in The World, the Text and the Critic, Renan, in Vie de Jésus, “would go so far as to insinuate that the so-called holy texts, transmitted through Moses, Jesus or Mohammed, could not contain anything divine if the very medium of their supposedly divine nature, as well as the message contained within them for the world, were made up of such comparatively dull and mundane material.” The French author, through desacralizing sacred texts and converting holy texts of a divine nature into historical material, according to Said, would position philology as a textual authority and thus overthrow the position previously held by divine authority.

Ernest Renan, through desacralising sacred texts, would position philology as a textual authority and thus overthrow the position previously held by divine authority

We need to remember, following the recently deceased Palestinian author, that Vie de Jésus was written by Renan after his renowned 1855 work Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques [General History and Comparative System of the Semitic Languages]. These two books, as we know, would give rise to a new scientific discipline – Oriental Studies – that would generate a debate centred on the sense of superiority of European culture over non-western cultures. This is aptly reflected in Renan’s work in which he classifies Semitic tongues as inferior to Indo-European languages.

Despite the force of Edward W. Said’s theories, whose works and especially his classic Orientalism still today remain wrought with controversy, the full weight of our criticism should not fall on the works of Orientalists such as Renan or Gobineau. Certainly, these authors helped to create a prevailing decaying image of Oriental culture, encompassing the Arab and Semitic worlds in general. However, it is also necessary to consider the situation of Arab culture since the 14th century. We can certainly agree with authors such as Juan Vernet and Ahmed Djebbar when they state that Arab science underwent a glorious era lasting almost eight centuries, and that scientific advances in the Arab-Islamic world contributed in a positive manner to the scientific evolution of the European Renaissance. However, it is no less certain that from the 14th-15th centuries, Arab-Islamic civilization suffered a collapse and decline that causes Arab authors still to debate about when this prolonged lethargy will be finally put to rest.

Orientalists took advantage of the weakness experienced by the Arab world at the end of the 19th century to declare rashly and insidiously the inferiority of a culture and, therefore, of a language – Arabic – which they deemed devoid of power. Arabic belonged now to the European languages, which furthermore assumed the right to colonize Semitic languages.

However, in the 19th century, critical voices from the Arab world emerged that were more authoritative than that of the outstanding Orientalists. Facing “culturalist” criticism voiced by the latter, certain 19th-century Arab intellectuals anchored the Arabic intellectual and scientific crisis in a precise context, namely socities where, as Abd el-Rahman al-Kawakibi (the 19th-century Syrian author) states in his work Umm al-Qura, “the main disaster is the lack of liberties, the lack of freedom to speak and to publish, and to take forward scientific investigation.” This critique seems more relevant to us, as it is grounded in easily identifiable historical premises, and not merely in “Eurocentric” criticism, lacking the scientific rigour which, however, the Orientalist academics strove to propound. As indicated above, from the 14th century, the Arab world suffered a decline in intellectual output that did not escape the notice of Arab authors such as al-Kawakibi, Mohamed Abdu, al-Afgani and Ali Abdelrrazak. The great Arab thinkers belong to the past; the key figures in Arab thought – the Avicennas, Averroes, al-Farabis and Ibn Khalduns – belong to a “golden” bygone era.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the importance of translation in the emergence and vitality of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. Arabic is being referred to here not as an ethnic group, but rather as a language used by Arabs, Persians, Turks, Jews and Spaniards during the Middle Ages and as a vehicle for transferring knowledge from Antiquity – both Classic (Greek) and Oriental (Hindu) – to what became known as Islamic civilization.

The authority of the language was due not only to the vitality of the new faith but also to the ease with which it spread over a vast area encompassing China, India and that which is modern-day Tunisia. It brought forth an abundance of knowledge to be added to that which had already accumulated in areas conquered by Muslim troops (from the Roman and Byzantine periods, on the one hand, and on the other Hindu and Persian knowledge).

History has taught us that the strength of a language is always associated with the power and dominion of the civilisation to which it has recourse

In Pensée grecque, culture arabe, Dimitri Gutas states that, after Greek and before Latin, Arabic is the second Classic language. The re-draftings, re-readings and translations of works by Classic authors undertaken by Muslim scientists resulted in a highly rich and diverse scientific legacy. These authors used Arabic as a lingua franca in a vast area encompassing the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the region of Caucasus and India. Their translations were later used for the works to be transmitted to Christianity via new translations from the Arabic into Latin and Romance languages. These were the new “languages of knowlege”, to put it that way, which would come to replace Arabic in terms of dominion and influence. This trend lasted more or less until the 14th century. From then on, internal struggles, the disintegration of Islamic societies, together with other problems such as the Black Plague, described by the thinker Ibn Khaldun, and in combination with the cultural endogamy suffered by regions dominated by the Arabic language, all led to the stagnation and the crisis of a civilization that had reigned supreme in centuries past. The decline of Arabic has persisted until the present day. Professor Rima Khalaf Humaidi, the chief instigator of the Arab Human Development Report (2002), captured the situation aptly, declaring that in Arab countries “only 330 books are translated per year, which is less than a fifth of what Greece translates annually.” The example is highly significant and informative. Now it is time for the Arab intellectuals to analyze the reasons behind such a cultural crisis.

History has taught us that the strength of a language is always associated with the power and dominion of the civilization to which it has recourse. In this sense, the transfer of knowledge is a reflection of the vitality of the social components of that civilization. The example of Arab civilization and the dominance of the Arabic language as a “language of knowledge” during an important period in history can serve as an example of what could happen to the English language. We know that in specific periods throughout history, the Greek, Latin and Arabic languages dominated owing to the supremacy of the cultures that dominated successively in the Mediterranean geographical region. However, none of these languages reigned forever and, at specific times, one was ousted by another.