Anyone interested in the history of translation has surely heard of the Toledo School of Translators, referring to several text translations and interpretation that took place in medieval Castile during a period of enormous cultural vibrancy.
Since the 19th century, a literary tradition has spread that tends to highlight the importance of Toledo, after the ‘Reconquest’ of the city in 1085, as a European nucleus of scientific and philosophical knowledge. In this sense, the unique development of the translation activity in the Hispanic context would be directly related to the close coexistence between two different cultures, the Latin-Christian on the one hand, and the Arabic-Muslim on the other. However, it is worth asking to what extent we can judge as true all those stories that have been transmitted to us about this supposed «school». Here we will tell you.
The historical significance of the «School of Toledo»
The first aspect to be taken into account when ‘demystifying’ the story of the Toledo School of Translators is the fact that there is no document in which it is explicitly mentioned, but sources merely describe a group of translators who worked in the city of Toledo. Therefore, we must ask ourselves whether the term «school» is the most appropriate, since everything suggests that there was no institutionalized center of medieval Toledo translators as such, but that the expression «School of Toledo» should be interpreted as the intellectual environment in which, between the 12th and 13th centuries, numerous translations from Arabic into Latin were produced.
However, what does seem to have clear historical evidence is the fact that these translators had an important institutional support from the political power of the time. Thus, the archbishops of the city, from the time of Raimundo de Toledo in the 12th century, would have financially supported those Mozarabs, Arabs and Jews so that they could carry out their work as translators. It is significant that in a context in which the political will to consolidate the Christian faith was a priority, the Church of Toledo became an important leader in the dissemination of the works of pagan Greek and Arabic thought. In the 13th century, King Alfonso 10th the Wise took over from the Archbishopric of Toledo in this role of patronage, producing a true cultural boom under his reign.
The Toledo method of translation
Another interesting aspect is the translation work carried out in Toledo. The historical tradition alludes to the possible existence of a methodology common to all the members of the School of Toledo, and, in this sense, two distinctive features have been highlighted that would have been characteristic of these translators:
– on one hand, the participation of several «interpreters» in the process of translating Arabic works into Latin: the first interpreter would have been a Mozarabic, an Arab or a Jew, who was in charge of translating the Arabic texts into the coarse language that Christians and Arabic speakers shared, that is, Romance; the second interpreter would have been a Christian (usually a cleric) who knew Latin but did not know Arabic, and his function was to translate the work in question from Romance into Latin. Although this process is attested in some sources that refer to the translation of specific works (such as Avicenna’s De anima), its generalization would imply the assumption that no Hispanic Christian was capable of translating a book from Arabic into Latin without the need of an interpreter, a fact that is not implausible.
– on the other hand, the ‘literalism’ that features Toledo translations has been pointed out. In this connection, while it is true that the Toledo translators placed special emphasis on accurately conveying the content of the manuscripts, this ‘literalism’ was certainly the general tendency of medieval European translators, so it should not necessarily be associated with an exclusive regional group.
The development of thought
Having seen this, we can conclude that the Toledo School of Translators —or rather, the group of medieval Toledo translators— did not have such a transcendental significance as we have been led to believe. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the work of these translators was of outstanding importance in the development of thought in the medieval West, as they greatly facilitated the transmission and assimilation of Greek-Arabic thought. Nor should we forget that this translation work was made possible in large part thanks to the real coexistence that took place between Christians, Muslims and Jews, something unusual in a world dominated by religious intolerance. Among these famous translators we would like to highlight some of them, such as Juan Hispalense, Domingo Gundisalvo, Avendauth, Gerardo de Cremona, Marcos de Toledo, Miguel Escoto, Alfredo de Sareshel or Hermán el Alemán.
Carlos Sánchez Luis