Available in the public domain through Hindawi, the 1945 masters thesis The History of Translation in Egypt in the Time of the French Campaign by Gamaleddin Al-Shayyal is a remarkable book to return to. A 1936 graduate of the Egyptian (later Fouad I, and now Cairo) University’s Faculty of Arts, the Damietta-born Al-Shayyal taught at Alexandria University and went on to earn his PhD on Jamal Al-Din Ibn Wasil’s book Mufarrij Al-Kurub fi Akhbar Bani Ayyub in 1948, eventually becoming dean of the Faculty of Arts in 1965, three years before he died. An eminent scholar of Islamic history, his contribution is acknowledged as essential across the Arab and Muslim world.
The History of Translation opens with an account of the crucial importance of intercultural exchange throughout history, backed up by evidence and quotations from all kinds of sources. A civilisation that remains isolated, Al-Shayyal persuasively argues, will sooner or later become a week civilisation, since it is by interaction and crossbreeding that cultures gain strength and grow. He goes on to discuss methods of exchange, reviewing travel and war but settling on translation as the most constant and reliable among them. Islamic civilisation, for example, did not reach its apogee until the Arabs had conquered Persia and Byzantium (as well as Egypt), and a thorough intermingling of cultures and epistemologies had taken place. The Arabs drew on ancient Greek sources, and as the Arabs became masters of science and medicine, they in turn transmitted that knowledge back to Europe in the Middle Ages.
Under the Ottomans, Al-Shayyal goes on to argue, Egypt was isolated and weakened, since the Mamelukes who still controlled the country allowed little exchange. When Bonaparte’s Campaign arrived, therefore, they were shocked to encounter Europeans unlike those with whom they had grown familiar in the age of the Crusades. And, despite the military failure of the campaign, the encounter permitted new strains of knowledge to take root in the country. The famed Description de l’Égypte was one huge achievement, but Bonaparte’s need for interpreters and dragomans also resulted in a large-scale translation movement that was to enrich Egyptian cultural life for decades and centuries to come.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.