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Adam Olearius (1599-1671) and Haq Virdi's Persian-Latin Dictionary

Posted 22/6/2015

The State Library in Berlin, Oriental Department, owns a manuscript dictionary, MS orient. fol. 100, whose title ascribed it to Olearius as the author and Haq Virdi as the helpmate. It is a precious document of a seventeenth-century cooperation between the German scholar and court librarian Adam Olearius and Haq Virdi, the secretary of an embassy sent by the Safavid Shah Safi' (r. 1629-1642)

Shah Safi, IranShah Safi, Iran

 to the Duke of Holstein who decided to stay in Holstein and to convert to Christianity. 

Although the dictionary is a Persian-Latin dictionary, the man who decided on its content and the order of its words was Olearius. The 368-pages do not follow the Persian order from 'back' to 'beginning', but the 'western' sequence. Some Persian words like the name of the Timurid ruler Timur the Lame (r. 1370-1405) are spelled according to the Latin form as Tamar. Several word clusters present Latin scientific concepts, which are translated into Persian vernacular, but not into the scientific terms of the early modern period. The content of the vocabulary is Christian, medieval and personal. No traces of the new scientific debates can be found, but also no traces of Iranian literature, history or society. The few Islamic terms included in the dictionary are nor always well translated.

Despite this recognizable dominance of Olearius as the main actor in this dictionary, the work itself apparently was compiled for Haq Virdi. Numerous Latin words contain pronunciation marks, but no Persian vocalization. The content is an introduction into Olearius' society, not into Safavid Iran. The social hierarchies, which are taught, are mainly those of German lands. The many Christian exclamations teach Haq Virdi what to say in which kind of situation. 

Adam OleariusAdam Olearius

Fascinating are also the many imbalances between the Persian and the Latin words. As in the case of the scientific terminology, the imbalances are mainly found on the Persian side like in the two following cases: ars liberalis (liberal art) = pisheh-yi sharif (the noble business/profession) and ars mechanica (mechanical art=mechanics) = pisheh-yi zabun o-haqir (the ignoble/vulgar business/ profession). The first concept does not exist in the intellectual world of Islamicate societies before 1900. The second concept should have been rendered as 'ilm al-hiyal (knowledge of tricks/automata), one of the two standard labels for mechanical knowledge in those societies. The other label was 'ilm jarr-i athqal (knowledge of lifting heavy bodies/loads).


                                                Sonja Brentjes

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