The School of Translators of Toledo

Enrique Gallud Jardiel
Byword, núm. 10, Nueva Delhi, 1992

         The historians of philosophy and science in the Middle Ages, specially Jourdain, Haskins and Sarton, gave the name of the School of Translators of Toledo to a group of scholars in the 12th century, who dedicated themselves to the translation of the most important classic and medieval works of thought from Latin to Arabic. Instead of a School, at the beginning, it was a group of people dedicated to translation, with the help and sponsorship of important people of the City, like the Archbi­shop of Toledo, Don Raimundo (1126-1152). In the evolution of this work we find two well-defined periods the first one is covered by the patronage of Don Raimundo; the second was during the time of the King Alfonso the Tenth, called “The Wise”, when translations from Arabic into Romance languages began.

         This activity flourished in these periods, but in the 10th century there was already in Catalonia a precedent of the same, and the Spanish peninsula became the centre and the meet­ing point of several cultures. The famous manuscript of Ripoll show their great dependence on Arabic works. The monk Gerberto is the most representative figure of this time, and he was deeply interested in the Arabic translations. Two cen­turies later, the centre of activities shifted to Toledo, the capital of one of the oldest Visigothic kingdoms and a great cultural centre of the Muslim period. Its cultural tradition continued after its conquest by the Christians in 1085. From this year Toledo inherited the glorious legacy of the Caliphate of Cordova and became a point of attraction for the scholars of the West and the centre of transmission of the Arabic culture. A high number of philosophical and scientific works in Arabic reached Toledo through various routes and the city had a magnificent collection of manuscripts. Christians, Jews and Muslims, living together harmoni­ously, united their efforts to work of these translations which would change the direction of Latin science. In Toledo, a new age began for the medieval thought, which was radically changed after coming in contact with the Arab science.

         The initiator of the School in its first phase was the Toledan priest Domingo Gonzalbo or Gundisalvo, who worked between 1130 and 1170. Working together with the converted Jew Juan Hispano –Ibn Dawud or Abendehut– he translated important books of thought about Neo-Plato­nism, Sufism and mysticism. His translations of Arabic works into Latin were capital for the preservation of Muslim science, since many of the works of science written in those days are not available nowadays in its original Arabic version, and only the Latin one, translated by Gundi­salvo, has been preserved. If had not been for his activity, the works of Avempace, Ibn Tufayl, Averroes and Maimonides –the great com­mentators of Aristotle– would have remained unknown to the West as they were unknown to the Muslims of the East.

         The translators of the Toledan School were not only from the penin­sula. Many foreigners came to Toledo to study Arab science, and some of them established themselves in the city and translated many books about various sciences, although mathematics and geometry were the most chosen subjects.

         The procedure for translation was usually the following: the Jew trans­lated into common Spanish the Arabic text, which was read out aloud to him, and the Christian trans­lated this Spanish version into Latin through the same procedure. The quality of the translations of this time was quite irregular, since the cultural level of the translators was not always adequate. Moreover, the technical vocabulary of the various scientific subjects became an added difficulty to the translation of Arabic texts. Hence, there are some errors in the translations which sometimes make the texts unintelligible.

         The second phase of the Toledan School begins in the 13th century, without breaking the continuity of the previous phase. The important factor is that more translations into Spanish were done and Latin lost some of its popularity. The School had important members in this period. Miguel Scoto translated the books of Aristotle, commented on by Avicena; Marcos de Toledo gave several versions of the Quran and of religious Muslim treatises; Herman Aleman and Alvaro de Oviedo translated the works of criticism written by Averroes. The Archbishop Gonzalo García Gudiel (1230-1299) is the last promoter of translations into Latin, started by Don Raimundo a century before.

         Alfonso the Wise brought a new modality into the translation of Arabic works. Although translations into Latin continued being done, there was a new interest in having those books translated into Spanish. The Jews Rabi Zag, Juda ben Mose Hacohen, Don Abraham and Samuel Halevi were the main masters of this period, and they contributed to this change of orientation, since they had no liking for Latin. Moreover, this was the time when the Romance languages started having a literature, and the old Castilian language, called “romance”, gained popularity.

         The scientific activity of King Alfonso the Wise was determined by the politics of those times. Around 1254 he started the work of adaptation of translations of Arabic works into Spanish. He ordered the translation of Calilah wa Digna, based on the Panchatantra. His brother, Don Fadrique, ordered the translation of another classic, Sendebar, of which the original Arabic version is lost. In 1254 an Institute of Arabic and Latin Studies was established in Seville, but the real work was done, as before, in Toledo.

         In the first period of the patronage of Alfonso, from 1254 to 1260, there was an interaction between the senior and the junior translators. Thus, the same book was translated both into Spanish and Latin. The book Azafeha, by Azarquiel, and the Libro de la ochave esfera (Book of the Eight Sphere) were the most impor­tant works translated during this period.

         Nevertheless, Alfonso’s major contribution was in the field of exact sciences, medicine and, above all, astronomy. Knowing the difficulties of using only Spanish for such technical works, he ordered versions of the scientific books in various languages, in order to disseminate the said sciences. A good proof of the suc­cess of his efforts is the European astrolabe, known through these books; the same can be said about the astronomical tables, which were calculated in Toledo and came to be known as Tabulae Alphonsi (Tables of Alphonso). Another interesting example is the Arabic sources of the Divine Comedy, by Dante, which came through the translations of these School.

         The French writer Renan wrote in 1852 that the introduction of Arabic texts in the Western studies was the milestone from which the history of science and philosophy of the Middle Ages can be divided. Before this introduction of Arab science –made possible, thanks to the work of the School of Toledo–we only find some residues of culture; after the dissemi­nation of these books, the thought, the methods and thesis characteristic of the Arabs were introduced in the Christian kingdoms of the 13th century, enormously enriching the knowledge of Europe.