The Art of Practical Translation and Al-Razi’s ‘Zīnat al-Kataba’

How to translate the Zīnat al-Kataba (The Ornament of the Scribes), a practical guide for scribes and bookmakers working in the ninth century? And who should translate it?

In 2011, Mahmoud Zaki wrote in “Early Arabic Bookmaking Techniques as Described by al-Rāzī in His Recently Rediscovered Zīnat al-Katabah,” that this manuscript is a find:

When I participated in a manuscript cataloguing project of composite volumes (majāmīʿ) at The National Library and Archives of Egypt (Dār al-Kutub) a colleague consulted me regarding the suitable subject heading of a manuscript entitled Zīnat al-katabah by Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī. It did not take long to realize that this was one of the oldest known treatises on Arabic bookmaking, a real discovery.

Zīnat al-Kataba was influential in the centuries that followed its composition; it was also one of the foundational texts artist and author Joumana Medlej used, recently, when writing her Inks & Paints of the Middle East. Medlej writes in her introduction to her bilingual, facing-page edition of Zīnat al-Kataba that she wanted to translate this influential treatise because “it galled me that this fascinating text remained inaccessible, as a whole, to anyone unable to read Arabic[.]”

Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (d. 925) was, in his time, a well-known physician and chemist. Mahmoud Zaki notes that Al-Nadīm (d. 990) “mentions in his Fihrist that al-Rāzī had the tendency to be constantly at work transcribing; whenever someone visited him, he was seen either working on a draft or on a neat copy.”

Al-Rāzī apparently wanted to share such things as he had learned when transcribing and bookmaking. As Zaki notes, Zīnat al-Katabah is a book explicitly for scribes and their professional (and extra-professional) needs.

It begins with how to make inks and glues, size paper, erase writing, prevent mice and flies from coming near your paper, and other such practicalities. The text also offers advice and recipes for removing ink from your clothing, surely a necessity for any scribe. But the book goes on to hint at slightly more nefarious scribely tasks: reading sealed documents, putting secrets in documents, writing with smoke, artificially yellowing your papyrus so that it appears old, and ways to thwart your fellow scribes.

Then it moves on to other recipes you might not typically think of when considering the daily life of a scribe: recipes for hair dye, how to get sperm stains off your clothing, ways keep your knives from rusting, and protecting your cupping razor from getting notched. As you do.

Some recipes are more distant from us than others. One recipe for hair dye suggests slaughtering a pied crow and burying it in manure for five days. In Medlej’s translation, you then: “Take it out when maggoty. Put the maggots that are [outside] the white areas in an iron scoop. Add olive oil to cover. Light a fire under the scoop until they liquefy and merge with the oil. Transfer to a glass bottle.”

Medlej calls her book, published in August 2020 and available on GumRoad as an ebook, a “practical translation,” rather than an academic or literary one. The idea behind her translation, she says, was not to reproduce sentence structure or linguistic effect, but rather to transfer the knowledge. Although one must note, “Take it out when maggoty” is a delightful sentence.

Medlej’s introduction also makes the argument for why she is the right translator for this book: “Without proper insight into the craftsmanship involved, such technical treatises cannot be approached with any seriousness.”

Find it on Medlej’s GumRoad storefront.


  1. Truly fascinating! The practical problems of his trade and how he solved them, come across from a different world.

    1. Yes! But I don’t think I’ll try that hair-dye recipe.

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