From Baghdad to Barcelona: The Anxiety of Influence in the Transmission of the Greek and Arabic Sciences

From Baghdad to Barcelona: The Anxiety of Influence in the Transmission of the Greek and Arabic Sciences

Drawing on Harold Bloom’s model of poetic influence and supersession in his famous book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” and considering several historical cases of cross-cultural reception of the natural sciences from the Middle Ages that involved translation, this paper sketches a dynamic for understanding how one culture receives the intellectual riches of another. It argues further that the relative or perceived power relationship of the translator to the source culture can significantly affect the quality and usefulness of the translations. For example, a translator within a victorious culture, with an imperial language, tends to handle the source materials that he acquired from a vanquished culture with greater confidence than a translator in a self-perceived position of inferiority, who may be trying to imitate, catch up, or is defensively preserving a heritage that he fears will be lost. The former is exemplified by the 9th-century translations from Greek into Arabic that took place in Baghdad, and the latter by the earliest phase of the translations from Arabic into Latin that took place in Europe, 12th/13th centuries. Lastly, “anxieties of influence” are adduced as a partial explanation for the systematic attempts to purge Greek thought from Islamic civilization associated with al-Ghazali et al., and to erase Arabic thinkers from the intellectual genealogy of the West, beginning in the Renaissance.

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