Aristotle: translation as the preservation of classical thought
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is one of the philosophers of ancient Greece most admired throughout the world due to his studies in various areas of knowledge. But how will his thinking have reached the present day?
A small part has survived to today in the original Greek and in the Latin that replaced it as the dominant language with the rise of the Roman Empire in Europe, but it has mainly survived through its translation to Arabic and later translation into other languages.
Translation was therefore largely responsible for the preservation and transmission of the thoughts of this Greek philosopher to the present day. How much of what we attribute to Aristotle was really his – or was it created by successive translators of his work?
Aristotle: the preservation of thought in Classical Antiquity
The culture of ancient Greece and its most important thinkers, particularly those linked to philosophy, had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire and continue to be considered the founders of Western civilization.
Therefore, many of these Greek philosophers were translated and their thoughts spread throughout the empire, adopted and transmitted from generation to generation to the present day.
Although most of Aristotle's texts are lecture notes or student notes, some of his works were lucky enough to be translated into Latin, such as the treatise on logic, translated by Boethius.
Others were lost forever, such as the works he had organised and were destined for publication. This dispersion occurred because the written word did not have the ability to be perpetuated, due to its ephemeral and unique nature.
But other works of his survived, scattered over several locations of the ancient Greek Empire, preserved by disciples of Aristotle and translated into other influential languages of the time, such as Arabic.
It is these 'books' on the various topics he studied, compiled after his death, which only reached the Western world many centuries later and in successive translations, becoming exemplary of the philosopher's thought.
Translating Aristotle: how his writing reached us today
It was only in the twentieth century that scholars of Western Europe had access to the entire treatise of Aristotle on physics, logic, psychology, biology or politics, given the dispersal of his writing.
Most of the texts that survived the fall of the Greek Empire found refuge in some academic communities in the East, among the Syrians, which then came under Arab domain when they conquered Syria in the 7th century A.D.
Aristotle's writings were thus translated into Syriac and Arabic between the 5th and 10th centuries and then disseminated throughout the Islamic world, influencing Arab philosophical thought and never crossing borders to the Western world.
The first encounter with these texts was in the eleventh century with the Christian conquest of some European cities from the Arabs and the translation of part of the Aristotelian thought existing in Arabic into Latin.
The main difficulty was, firstly, the radical difference between the structure of the Arabic language and the Greek language, and then between Arabic and Latin, to which the texts were to be translated.
The conquest of Constantinople in the thirteenth century meant Western scholars gained access to some Greek texts close to the originals of Aristotle, which allowed them to translate those texts to Latin more easily and effectively.
In the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance and during the Protestant Revolution, the Aristotelian theories were frequently challenged by scholars who mostly used the translations of his writings as the basis for new theories.
What exactly did Aristotle write?
Translation assumed, in the specific case of Aristotle and for the culture of Ancient Greece, the role and power of transmitting classical thought. Little has survived from the original Greek to the present day. It has only reached us through successive translations.
Part of this preservation of the memory and doctrine of Aristotle also survived thanks to the role of Aristotle's disciples who took the mission to spread his theories and what they learned with them.
But won’t all the transmission of knowledge and all the translation of a written and read text a construction over the original bases? In this sense, remaining faithful to the true thoughts of Aristotle becomes more complex.
Some scholars even refer to a possible distortion of Aristotelian thought in view of it being impossible to authenticate the origin of the translated texts, on the one hand, and on the other to faithfully transmit what the translator reads.
Translation always involves recreation by the translator, which by itself limits the access to the original work. In the case of language families with disparate semantic and grammatical constructions, the result is even more compromising
As we read Aristotle, we are actually reading the views of various translators and cultures about his theories. In this way, is it correct to assign Aristotelian doctrine to Aristotle himself?