Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 February 2006
Issue No. 782
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Spirit of Toledo

Serene Assir speaks with Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla, director of the Toledo School of Translators

Mitigating resistance

In the shrinking, supposedly connected world we now inhabit stereotypes have become so pervasive they are viewed not only as acceptable but have been institutionalised. The process gained momentum following the attacks of 11 September 2001, to the extent that Samuel Huntington's thesis of the clash of civilisations appears in danger of becoming a self fulfilling prophesy as parties directly interested in creating and maximising gaps between so-called civilisations came increasingly to the fore.

One institution that has managed to maintain an edge of rationalism and calm amid all this clamour is the Toledo School of Translators, based at the Spanish University of Castilla-La Mancha. The school's core activity is the translation of texts from Arabic into Spanish though it also offers courses and seminars on Hebrew-Spanish translation and introductions to Arabic language. Meanwhile, it functions as a base for research into the inextricably linked cultures of the Mediterranean region and often plays host to international symposia on all things cultural. But the focus of the centre is language -- that cultural barrier par excellence. Only in Toledo the barrier is broken down and transformed.

"Given the international context of Huntington's thesis on the clash of civilisations -- which was certainly echoed in certain sectors of our society -- we decided that, in order to combat such a proliferation of ideas, we needed to recreate real, concrete examples of cooperation and collaboration, such as that of Toledo in the 12th and 13th centuries," says Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla, director of the Toledo School of Translators.

Reborn in 1994, in collaboration with the European Cultural Foundation, the school harks back to the Middle Ages when, according to the school's website, it began not so much as an institution but rather a "group of people who worked together or shared methods to bring to Europe the wisdom of the East and, in particular, that of the ancient Greeks and the Arabs". The venture was of particular importance because, although Western European scholars acknowledged the significance of Greek and Arabic works in philosophy and the sciences, they had no access to translations and therefore relied almost entirely on secondary Latin sources.

Further tightening the link between Toledo and the Arab world is the fact that this was the first major city to be reconquered by the Christians as, in 1085, the Arab empire began to fall apart. The school's website stresses that it was the Arabs who brought to Spain and the West many works of the ancient Greeks, translating them and making them available to a wider audience.

Today the Toledo School of Translators has taken up the roles of both the Christian scholars who started working in the 12th century and the Muslim academics who preceded them. And in our culturally confused world the mantle now assumed by the school is vital.

"There is a very obvious need for positive initiatives that enable us to get to know each other better," Fernandez Parrilla told the Weekly. "Because knowledge -- and note the key importance of translation in transmitting this knowledge -- dissipates fear and stereotypes, both of which are based on ignorance."

By maintaining a sharp focus on cultural, rather than so-called civilisational exchange, the Toledo School of Translators renders positive communication its main goal. "Mind you," Fernandez Parrilla adds, "I don't think much of civilisational discourse because you always end up talking about religion," which more often than not leads to dead ends, and in fact tells us precious little about people. "I prefer the concept of culture, one that exists outside the margins of language, creed and nationality," he said, "that relates to the effort made at overcoming difference, to travel, to the learning of languages, and even to meeting people and creating common workplaces."

In other words the school aims to take all aspects of our increasingly multicultural world -- and all its possibilities if techniques are applied correctly and knowledge is shared -- into account. Supermarket and university, primary school and government, they all constitute arenas that provide valuable avenues for discourse if approached with sensitivity and insight.

"We do not translate for specialists but rather for the general Spanish public who on the whole love good literature," says Fernandez Parrilla. "In addition, the artistic aspects of the text are prioritised by the translators rather than linguistic exactness. Our philosophy of translation is based on the idea that the Spanish version should be as artistic[ally rich] as the Arabic original."

By following such a strategy the school hopes that its translations will be read on as wide a scale as possible, and not just as Arabic -- ie alien -- productions. "We translate from Arabic because we believe in the quality of the original and in its usefulness for readers and students in their attempts to get to know the Arab world a little better."

For now the Toledo School of Translators only manages to translate about 10 works a year. "We need to work more," admits Fernandez Parrilla. But the very fact that such a project exists and is growing, not to mention its location at a key historical crossroads between the conceptual East and West, provides some hope that the world will not crumble under the pressure of invented clashes.

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