Though it is common to lament the shortcomings of reading an important work in any language other than the original and 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.
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 Heideggerian–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.
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. For all we know, it might again turn around and become Chinese.
In eleventh-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 one who had opted to write his philosophical work in Arabic. So did al-Ghazali (c. 1058–1111) and Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi (c. 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 (d. c. 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.
Today the term “Persian philosophy” is not easily separated from “Islamic philosophy,” much of which is in Arabic. This was the case even in the sixteenth century, when Mulla Sadra wrote almost his entire major opus in Arabic. Although some major philosophers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did write occasionally in Persian, it was not until Allameh Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) opted to write his major philosophical works in the language that Persian philosophical prose resumed serious significance in the larger Muslim context. (Iqbal also wrote major treatises on Persian philosophy in English.)
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 now stands in my mind as the paramount example of excellence in Persian philosophical prose and 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 realms, would be among its most honored citizens.
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 the generations of students he taught at Tehran University and beyond, and for the rich array of path-breaking books he wrote or translated, which enabled us to develop a broader philosophical imagination.
Having been exposed to both scholastic and modern educational systems, as well as widely and deeply educated in Iran (Tehran University), Lebanon (American University in Beirut), Britain (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 forty 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, the theorizing of social movements and, above all, 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 CIA-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 thorn in the side of both the Pahlavi monarchy and 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 the millions of others (like me) who benefited from his work from a distance.
Aryanpour was sacked from his teaching position in the theology faculty in 1976. He retired in 1980. 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.
Aryanpour’s legendary translation of and expanded critical commentary on Iqbal’s Development of Metaphysics in Persia not only became the first and foremost text of my generation’s encounter with a learned history of philosophy in our homeland, but also brought about a far broader and more expansive awareness of the world of philosophy. It is impossible to overstate the effect of the beautiful, overwhelming, exciting and liberating first reading of that magnificent text on a wide-eyed provincial boy who had come to the capital of his moral and intellectual imagination.
Iqbal was born and raised in Punjab, British India (Pakistan today), to a devout Muslim family, educated by Muslim teachers and at the Scotch Mission College in Sialkot, growing 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 Thomas Arnold, who became a conduit for his exposure to European thought, an exposure that ultimately resulted in his traveling to Europe for further study.
While in England, Iqbal received a Bachelor’s degree from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1907, around the time his first Persian poems began to surface. As he became increasingly attracted to politics, he managed to write his doctoral thesis 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, eager to discover 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 way 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 superlative Persian prose from a Pakistani philosopher who had come to fruition in both colonial subcontinent and postcolonial cosmopolis. There was a palpable worldliness in that philosophical prose that became definitive for my generation.
Beyond East and West
When today I read a vacuous phrase like “the Western mind” – or “the Iranian mind,” “the Arab Mind,” “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 is “the Eastern mind”? What could the terms 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.” The only effective way to make the foreign echoes of that idea familiar is to make the familiar tropes of “Western philosophy” foreign.