Monday, October 15, 2012

Remembering A Great Translation Educator


Long-time followers of this blog know that its normal course is occasionally diverted to make space for an anniversary. This time it's being done to commemorate the birthday of a thoroughly Professional Expert Translator. Furthermore he was a pioneer teacher of translation. His name was Rifaa’a Raafi’ al-Tahtawi (here Tahtawi for short), and he was born on October 15, 1801, in the prosperous town of Tahta (hence his surname), on the Nile about 500 km south of Cairo (see the Bahig Edwards entry in References).

In the 19th century a radical intellectual Arab Awakening (al-nahda) took place with lasting effect in Egypt and the Lebanon. (For a classic history of the movement, see the Antonius book in References.) Tahtawi was one of the leading figures of its Egyptian branch.
”Tahtawi was among the first Egyptian scholars to write about Western cultures in an attempt to bring about a reconciliation and an understanding between Islamic and Christian civilizations... It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the contribution made by Tahtawi to Egyptian society in the century, and the impact he had on the further development of the modern nation. He symbolized the best of the syncretism between East and West, tradition and modernity.”
His life was so full and active that it’s impossible to do him justice in a blog post. There are short, perceptive biographies of him here and here. I’ll have to make do with just one of his activities as translator and educator, namely his school of translators.

Tahtawi was a technical and legal translator, not a literary one. (He did translate Fénelon's Télémaque, but that was for its political allusions.) Indeed he was arguably the most influential Arabic technical translator and translator trainer since Hunayn Ibn Ishaq in the 9th century. One of his most important translations, for instance, was of the French Code Civil (Cairo, 1866). His school of translators, the madrasat al-alsun (School of Languages), was intended to train translators of this kind.

He set it up in 1833-34, not long after his return to Cairo from five years of study in Paris. It was one of the first schools of translators on modern lines anywhere, a century before such schools began to spread in Europe and other parts of the world. (There are now hundreds of them.) Where did he get the idea? How did he get the support?

The second question is the simpler to answer. Egypt had been taken over by an ambitious Ottoman governor, Mehmet Ali. His priority, once his power was secure, was modernization, especially of his armed forces, and technical education was well funded by him. It needed technical translations, the translating needed a constant supply of competent translators, and it was less expensive and less controversial to train them in Egypt than to send them abroad.

As for the idea, al-Alsun was just one of a range of schools that Mehmet Ali set up to train technicians. There was already a medical school (madrasat al-­tibb) and a military academy (madrasat al-tobjiyya) – Tahtawi taught at both of them for a while – as well as a preparatory school (madrasa tajhiziyya) attached to the medical school. Still, the idea of a school of translators was novel and pioneering. Tahtawi himself didn't learn translating at a school. He learnt it by mentorship under the direction of the geographer Edme-François Jomard, a member of Napoleon's ill-fated expedition to Egypt in 1798 and subsequently editor of Description de l'Égypte, the monumental publication that resulted from it.

Yet there was one other such school – languages-cum-translation – already in operation in Tahtawi's day, and it was in Paris. This was the École Nationale des Langues Orientales (known popularly as Langues O and today called Institut National des Langues et Cultures Orientales or INALCO). It was founded in 1795, taught Arabic, and there had been an Egyptian, the lexicographer Ellious Bocthor, teaching there. Tahtawi must have known about it from his Paris stay. I speculate, therefore, that it was one of his sources of inspiration.
"The venue of the Language School was a splendid palace in the sophisticated Ezbekiyya quarter. [It may be the one that appears at the bottom of the History page on the Kulliyyat al-Alsun website.] Tahtawi wasted no time in shaping the establishment to his own ideas and aspirations. The set-up was in many ways rather exceptional for the time... all of the students at the school were native Egyptians, as opposed to Turks (or Circassians, etc.) who made up the student population in other government schools. Initially, the number of students was limited to 50, and later on to 150, with the course of study being set at four years, .. most of them came, like their principal, from the south. The students were recruited from the ‘preparatory’ schools. Their ages varied between fourteen and eighteen. Tahtawi was determined to provide a broad education and in addition to languages (French, English, Italian, Turkish, Arabic), the curriculum contained subjects like geography, mathematics, history, as well as French and Islamic law. As a result, it was the only school at that time which offered a truly general education, without a direct link with military affairs. Naturally, all depended on the quality of the teaching and Tahtawi took great pains in putting together a faculty that was up to the task.
"Tahtawi displayed the same zeal and unflagging commitment and enthusiasm to his new task as he had done during his Paris student days. In addition to his duties as director (nazir), he launched himself headlong into his teaching, with classes sometimes lasting up to three or four hours, where he would sometimes teach late in the evening, or before dawn... the responsibility of producing manuals for the school also fell on his shoulders. In 1841, a translation adjunct (qalam al-tarjama) was added to the School, which was naturally also headed by Tahtawi, whereas its fifty-strong faculty consisted mainly of graduates from the Language School. His enthusiasm and the overall quality of the teaching at the Language School meant that very soon after its foundation, students began publishing their translations, albeit under the careful supervision of Tahtawi. In total, the school would produce 2,000 translations of foreign (European and Turkish) works. The choice of books clearly reflected both the latter’s predilections (with a clear dominance of historical works) and French training inasmuch as it involved works he had read in Paris.
"As the topics moved away from the purely scientific and military, Egypt witnessed the emergence of a veritable translation movement."
To be concluded. The References will accompany the Conclusion.


  1. I would like to have the references, beacause i want to use this information for my research

    1. I'm glad, Anonymous, that you found this post useful.
      The references are already in the blog, at the end of the post ("Tahtawi: Conclusion") immediately following this one.
      What's your research on?
      I wonder what Tahtawi would think of the events in Egypt today.

  2. hi , i recently finished my research on tahtawi's contributions to the modernization of the arabic language and education. your post was very useful, thanks!

  3. Interesting Article. Hoping that you will continue posting an article having a useful information. Technical Arabic translation