Brian Long’s “Symeon Seth between Islamicate Culture and Eleventh-century Byzantium” tells a story familiar to Chaucerians: a multilingual polymath associated with the seats of power translates works from a dominant language into the court vernacular; sometimes he acknowledges both the source text and source author, sometimes he acknowledges one but not the other, and sometimes he acknowledges neither. Wandering between close translation and free adaptation, his texts allow him to bring new learning in a variety of guises. As his title reveals, Long’s subject is not Chaucer but Symeon Seth, an 11th-century Byzantine translator of medical, scientific, and natural philosophy texts from Arabic into Greek.
One of Long’s concerns is the way Symeon Seth uses un- or mis-attributed translations and the guise of classical modes of discourse to transmit the new knowledge associated with Islamicate scholars. Long suggests the motivation behind that strategy is the deeply conservative nature of Byzantine intellectual life. To make the new learning palatable, he had to dress it in the clothing of the classical style. Symeon Seth’s translations seem to imagine a resistance to Arabic modern learning—even if that resistance seems not to have materialized.
Seminar discussion raised several other possible motivations behind Symeon Seth’s strategy, including greater control of content, the sense of a unified or universal set of knowledge (that erases the Christian/Islamic distinction), a softening of his critique of Greek traditional knowledge, and an (apparent) denial of the superiority of Arabic learning. In other words, these strategies either create distance between Symeon Seth and his sources or they close that distance. Whatever his motives for recalibrating his relationship to the Arabic source texts, the translations provide clues for understanding the cultural politics of 11th-century Byzantine elite culture.
Whether studying Chaucer’s translations of European texts or non-Anglophone translations of the Tales, we’ve found the translations providing a similar window into the receiving culture. The interpretive function of translation does not end with the translator’s interpretation of the source text. Indeed, the translation weaves together interpretations of both the source text and the receiving culture, giving us a text that shines a light on both the source text and the receiving culture.