Dominant Language

by Mark Herman

A lingua franca—that is, a second language learned by many people who speak many different first languages—is not just an arbitrarily chosen convenient means of communication. It is also almost always the first language of whatever polity is currently (or, in the case of Latin, was formerly) dominant, and is, in fact, one means by which that dominant polity exerts (or exerted) its dominance.

An interesting article by Hayrettin Yücesoy discusses the shifting dominances of Arabic and Persian in the medieval Middle East.1 According to Yücesoy:

Realizing that their empire was taking root in the meeting point of religious and imperial traditions of Afro-Eurasia, the caliphs … enlisted Arabic to reorder the past … The Abbasid project of translating ancient scholarship into Arabic assisted … the task of structuring world knowledge to better define caliphal and communal identity … [I]t aimed at matching, substituting, and ultimately displacing the rivals’ knowledge claims in order to facilitate caliphal discretion of the acquired intellectual capital of the late antique world … [T]ranslation was an intercultural and inter-imperial political confrontation intended to … define, position, and deploy their own ideological, cultural, artistic, and literary taste in describing the world anew. (386)

From the viewpoint of our somewhat provincial Western history, at least as I learned it in school, the principal rival of the Arabic Middle East was Christian Europe. But the Arabs had another rival to the east, Persia:

The [10th-11th-century] Samanid dynasty’s language policy took shape once the ruling class saw Arabic as hindering their ideological and cultural priorities. They embarked on sponsoring the translation of important works of scholarship and practical manuals from Arabic into … Persian … [But] they recognized the necessity of multilinguality as a reflection of their identity and a form of compromise with the Abbasid tradition. (387-88)

Multilinguality, however, extended only so far:

[They] marginaliz[ed] Arabic in high culture, engag[ed] primarily, perhaps solely, the Persian-speaking literate nobility and thus … sever[ed] the links with the Arabicspeaking elite. (388)

Perhaps with the same mindset that causes some Americans to believe that Jesus spoke English, in the introduction to a work translated into Persian, probably during the tenth century, the translators state that:

the Persian language was known from the earliest times. From the time of Adam until the days of Ishmael the prophet, all divine messengers and all rulers on earth spoke in Persian. (389)

The translators further state that, contrary to most modern practice, they did not simply translate the text. Rather, they had no qualms about completely subordinating the text to the Persian Imperium by:

modifying, embellishing, expanding, or summarizing the original work to render a version suitable for the target language and cultural expectations. (389)

Discussions of the possible colonizing effects of translation continue to the present day. In fact, the subject is currently a hot topic, with many books and articles devoted to it.2

Another interesting article, in the same issue of the journal as the Arabic-Persian article, discusses the cultural influence of Chinese translation.3 Though funny or mistranslations into Chinese comprise only a minuscule part of this article, I will conclude this column by quoting them here:

  • Rip van Winkle became Uncle Lee’s Big Dream
  • “the heroes of ’76” became “the 76 Martyrs”
  • at a banquet, somebody “raised a piece of toast” (495)


  1. Yücesoy, Hayrettin. “Language of Empire: Politics of Arabic and Persian in the Abbasid World,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (Volume 130 #2, March 2015), 384-92.
  2. See, for example, Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan (Oxford University Press, 1990).
  3. Change, Eileen. “Chinese Translation: A Vehicle of Cultural Influence,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (Volume 130 #2, March 2015), 488-98.


Submit items for future columns via e-mail to Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.


  1. Jaimeplups says:

    Good post! I read your blog often and you always post excellent content. I posted this article on Facebook and my followers like it. Thanks for writing this!

  2. says:

    As with serious prose, it’s no coincidence that the best translators are among the most enthusiastic readers.

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