By Norman Roth
Emperor of Culture: Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and His Thirteenth-Century Renaissance, edited by Robert I. Burns, S.J. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990)
Introduction: Just as in the Middle Ages, when it was imagined that there was an international “congress” of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scientists, so popular modern mythology has assumed that a “school” of translators existed at Toledo, already under the patronage of the twelfth-century archbishop and then later in the reign of Alfonso X. Less romantic consideration shows that no such school actually existed and that translation activity was taking place all over Spain and was by no means centralized in Toledo.
What is remarkable about the Jewish translators whose work was sponsored by Alfonso, following an already old tradition of Jewish translation activity, was their concentration almost exclusively on scientific literature and their significant contribution to the development of the Spanish language. While Jewish scholars, with the exception of the pioneer Moritz Steinschneider, have totally ignored this aspect, Spanish scholars have demonstrated an increasing awareness of the importance of Alfonso’s Jewish “collaborators” in the scientific corpus. Thus, José Muñoz Sendino has remarked: ‘The Hebrew element was the group of the greatest scientific value because of its great intellectual discipline [and its] mastery of both languages–Arabic and Spanish–[which] guaranteed a faithful reflection of the original thought” of the works translated. This view of the fidelity of the translation, fully substantiated by the careful analysis of J. M. Millas Vallicrosa, invalidates the claim of earlier scholars like Gonzalo Menéndez Pidal, who conjectured that a second translation into Latin from Spanish was necessary because Jewish translators rendering Arabic texts into Spanish used “a very peculiar and archaic dialect, which was barbarous to Castilian ears.”