Found in Translation
Though it is common to lament the shortcomings of reading an important work in any language other than the original and of the “impossibility” of translation, I am convinced that works of philosophy (or literature for that matter —are they different ?) in fact gain far more than they lose in translation.
Consider Heidegger. Had it not been for his French translators and commentators, German philosophy of his time would have remained an obscure metaphysical thicket. And it was not until Derrida’s own take on Heidegger found an English readership in the United States and Britain that the whole Heidegger-Derridian undermining of metaphysics began to shake the foundations of the Greek philosophical heritage. One can in fact argue that much of contemporary Continental philosophy originates in German with significant French and Italian glosses before it is globalized in the dominant American English and assumes a whole new global readership and reality. This has nothing to do with the philosophical wherewithal of German, French or English. It is entirely a function of the imperial power and reach of one language as opposed to others.
I. The Mother Tongue
At various points in history, one language or another — Latin, Persian, Arabic — was the lingua franca of philosophical thinking. Now it is English. And for all we know it might again turn around and become Chinese.
In 11th century Iran, the influential philosopher Avicenna wrote most of his work in Arabic. One day his patron prince, who did not read Arabic, asked whether Avicenna would mind writing his works in Persian instead, so that he could understand them. Avicenna obliged and wrote an entire encyclopedia on philosophy for the prince and named it after him, “Danesh-nameh Ala’i.”
Avicenna was of course not the only who had opted to write his philosophical work in Arabic. So did al-Ghazali (circa 1058-1111) and Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi (circa 1155-1208) — who were both perfectly capable of writing in their mother tongue of Persian and had in fact occasionally done so, notably al-Ghazali in his “Kimiya-ye Sa’adat” (a book on moral philosophy) and As-Suhrawardi in his magnificent short allegorical treatises. But in Avicenna’s time, Arabic was so solidly established in its rich and triumphant philosophical vocabulary that no serious philosopher would opt to write his major works in any other language. Persian philosophical prose had to wait for a couple of generations after Avicenna. With the magnificent work of Afdal al-din Kashani (died circa 1214) and that of Avicenna’s follower Khwajah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Tusi (1201-1274) — particularly “Asas al-Iqtibas” — Persian philosophical prose achieved its zenith.
It is Amir Hossein Aryanpour’s magnificent Persian translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia” (1908), which he rendered as “Seyr-e Falsafeh dar Iran (“The Course of Philosophy in Iran,” 1968), that stands now in my mind as the paramount example of excellence in Persian philosophical prose and a testimony to how philosophical translation is a key component of our contemporary intellectual history. If there were a world for philosophy, or if philosophy were to be worldly, these two men, philosopher and translator, having graced two adjacent philosophical worlds, would be among its most honored citizens.
II. Two Teachers
It is impossible to exaggerate the enduring debt of gratitude that my generation of Iranians have to Aryanpour (1925-2001), one of the most influential social theorists, literary critics, philosophers and translators of his time and for us a wide and inviting window to the rich and emancipatory world of critical thinking in my homeland. He is today remembered for generations of students he taught at Tehran University and beyond and for a rich array of his path-breaking books he wrote or translated and that enabled and paved the way for us to wider philosophical imagination.
Having been exposed to both scholastic and modern educational systems, and widely and deeply educated in Iran (Tehran University), Lebanon (American University in Beirut), England (Cambridge) and the United States (Princeton), Aryanpour was a cosmopolitan thinker and a pioneering figure who promoted a dialectical (jadali) disposition between the material world and the world of ideas. Today, more than 40 years after I arrived in Tehran from my hometown of Ahvaz in late summer 1970 to attend college, I still feel under my skin the excitement and joy of finding out how much there was to learn from a man whose name was synonymous with critical thinking, theorizing social movements and above all with the discipline of sociology.
Aryanpour was the product of many factors: Reza Shah’s heavy-handed, state-sponsored “modernization”; the brief post-World War II intellectual flowering; travels and higher education in Iran, the Arab world, Europe and the United States; the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s; and finally the C.I.A.-sponsored coup of 1953, after which university campuses in his homeland became the primary site of his intellectual leadership of a whole new generation. He was a pain in the neck of both the Pahlavi monarchy and of the Islamic Republic that succeeded it, making him at times dogmatic in his own positions, but always path-breaking in a mode of dialectical thinking that became the staple of his students, both those who were fortunate enough to have known and worked with him directly and of millions of others (like me) who benefited from his work from a distance.
Aryanpour was sacked from his teaching position at the theology faculty in 1976, retired in 1980, and just before his death on July 30, 2001, one of his last public acts was to sign a letter denouncing censorship in the Islamic republic.
Born and raised in Punjab, British India (Pakistan today), to a devout Muslim family, educated by both Muslim teachers and at the Scotch Mission College in Sialkot, Iqbal grew up multilingual and polycultural. After an unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce, Iqbal studied philosophy, English, Arabic and Persian literatures at the Government College in Lahore, where he was deeply influenced by Sir Thomas Arnold, who became a conduit for his exposure to European thought, an exposure that ultimately resulted in his traveling to Europe for further studies.
While in England, Allameh Iqbal received a bachelor’s degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1907, around when his first Persian poems began to surface. As he became increasingly attracted to politics, he also managed to write his doctoral dissertation on “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia,” with Friedrich Hommel. Reading “Seyr-e Falsafeh dar Iran,” Aryanpour’s Persian translation of Iqbal’s seminal work, became a rite of passage for my generation of college students attracted to discovering our philosophical heritage.
We grew up and matured into a much wider circle of learning about Islamic philosophy and the place of Iranians in that tradition. There were greener pastures, more learned philosophers who beckoned to our minds and souls. We learned of the majestic writings of Seyyed Jalal Ashtiani, chief among many other philosophical sages of our time, who began to guide our ways into the thicket of Persian and Arabic philosophical thinking. But the decidedly different disposition of Allameh Iqbal in Aryanpour’s translation was summoned precisely in the fact that it had not reached us through conventional scholastic routes and was deeply informed by the worldly disposition of our own defiant time. In this text we were reading a superlative Persian prose from a Pakistani philosopher who had come to fruition in both colonial subcontinent and the postcolonial cosmopolis. There was a palpable worldliness in that philosophical prose that became definitive to my generation.
III. Beyond East and West
When today I read a vacuous phrase like “the Western mind” — or “the Iranian mind,” “the Arab Mind” or “the Muslim Mind,” for that matter — I cringe. I wonder what “the Western mind” can mean when reading the Persian version of a Pakistani philosopher’s English prose composed in Germany on an aspect of Islamic philosophy that was particular to Iran? Look at the itinerary of a philosopher like Allameh Iqbal; think about a vastly learned and deeply caring intellect like Amir Hossein Aryanpour. Where is “the Western mind” in those variegated geographies of learning, and where “the Eastern mind”? What could they possibly mean?
The case of “Seyr-e Falsafeh dar Iran” was prototypical of my generation’s philosophical education — we read left, right and center, then north and south from the Indian subcontinent to Western Europe and North America, Latin America and postcolonial Africa with a voracious worldliness that had no patience for the East or West of any colonial geography. We were philosophically “in the world,” and our world was made philosophical by an imaginative geography that knew neither East nor West.
Works of philosophy — and their readers — gain in translation not just because their authors begin to breathe in a new language but because the text signals a world alien to its initial composition. Above all they gain because these authors and their texts have to face a new audience. Plato and Aristotle have had a life in Arabic and Persian entirely alien to the colonial codification of “Western philosophy” — and the only effective way to make the foreign echoes of that idea familiar is to make the familiar tropes of “Western philosophy” foreign.
Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York, where he lives with his family. He is the author of numerous books on the social and intellectual history of Iran and Islam, including “The World of Persian Literary Humanism.”