Translators of Traditions

The Sogdian language, which belongs to the middle-Iranian group of Indo-European languages, was the main language of the territory of Sogdiana, its oases, and of the Ferghan valley. At the highest point of the Sogdian commercial activities along the Silk Road, around 6-8th centuries CE, Sogdian was considered the lingua franca of the area. However, the language totally disappeared from circulation around the 10th century CE, when the whole Sogdian community vanishes because of Arabic conquest, melting into either Chinese-speaking populations in Chinese territories or populations of Arab-speaking, Turkic-speaking or Farsi-speaking groups on the territory of Central Asia. Today, the only traces of the Sogdian language are extant written documents and the Yaghnobi language, a distant relative of one of the Sogdian dialects still spoken by a sparse community living in the Yanghnob River valley located north of the Pamir Mountains (Azarpay, 1981, 5).

Christian refutation of Manichaean doctrines

Christian Refutation of Manichean Doctrines Written

in Calligraphic Sogdian (or Sutra) Script 

Of the extant documents written in Sogdian, most were discovered within Sogdiana proper, at Chinese oases, or in the Sogdian outposts. Only a small part of the documents we possess today are trading documents or have connections with the Sogdian business matters that are at the center of most historical interpretations of the Sogdians (De Vaissiere, 2005, 78). Rather, most of these documents are religious, and are connected to the histories of Buddhism, Christianity or Manichaeism.  Furthermore, the linguistic nature of these documents is also diverse, as they all share the Sogdian language as the means of expression, but the script is different depending on the subject matter. Secular documents are written in Sogdian script, as well as Buddhist sūtras. Manichean scribes, too, used sometimes this script, but often they would inscribe their texts in a special Manichean script. Sogdian Christian texts were inscribed in a special kind of a Syriac Nestorian script. Finally, some Sanskrit medicinal translations are inscribed in the Brāhmi script. The variety of scripts used to transcribe the same words today provides great support to linguists engaged in the reconstructions of Sogdian phonetics. The fact that the same words were used in several totally different linguistic communities with their own agendas and terminology provides linguists with abundant lexical material, something that is supplemented by numerous cross-linguistic borrowings and is likely to have resulted from the travelling activities of the Sogdian merchants.  This borrowing is especially notable in relation to the languages of neighboring territories, such as Gandharan, Bactrian, Sanskrit, etc. (Yakubovich, 2009).

The golden era of the study of Sogdian language began at the turn of the last century, when the first expeditions led by archeologists from Russia, France, Germany, England, and Japan discovered documents in Sogdian in locations such as Turfan or Khara-Khoto. While these texts were mainly religious in nature, two accidental discoveries of non-religious documents shed new light on our understanding of the social organization of Sogdiana and its outposts. The first is the discovery of the Ancient Letters, made by Sir Aurel Stein in 1907 in a ruined watch-tower on the Chinese border; these are the earliest existing texts, written around 310 CE. The Ancient Letters were written by the Sogdian merchants residing in western Chinese outposts, such as Guzang (Wuwei) and Dunhuang.  Judging by the nature of the letters we can presume, for example, that there was a mail system specifically dedicated to Sogdian correspondence (De Vaissière, 2005, 46-47). The second find is of the so-called Sogdian documents of Mount Mugh, discovered by a shepherd in 1933 in a very inaccessible location in the Zeravshan valley. The original owner of the Mount Mugh documents, a Penjikent ruler of the 8th century named Dēwāštīč, used the remote locale to hide from the Arab conquests of that period (Hansen, 2015, 130).

The documents that exist today point to the Sogdians as being very active translators, which makes sense since so many Sogdians were bilingual because they began to travel at an early age (Ostler, 2010, 127). Among some of the famous examples are a military interpreter An-Lushan (703-57), whose father was Sogdian and mother Turkic, and who was competent in seven languages; or Kang Seng hui (222-80), who coming from a merchant family, lived and learnt languages in emigration, and therefore could translate from Indian to Chinese without using Sogdian as intermediary. Beginning in the 2nd century CE a whole cohort of translators with Sogdian names worked on translating Indic languages into Chinese, including Kang Senguyan (267-330), Kang Falang (310-420), Zhi-yi (ca 380), and Shi Huiming (427-97). This tradition continued into later periods, with translators such as Fazang (623-712), or Bukung Amoghravajra (705-74), who also came from a mixed background of Indian and Sogdian families, and a Sogdian with the evocative name Adam, who in the 8th century CE helped translate Nestorian Christian texts into Chinese (idem).  This history of translation and cross-cultural communication has led Richard Foltz to call the Sogdians “cultural bees, cross-pollinating ideas and traditions from one civilization to another” (Foltz, 1999, 13). 

Uighurs and nomadic Turks adopted the Sogdian writing system for their documents and coinage, and it became the first language of the Turkic Empire (De Vaissière, 2005, 202). As a result the Sogdians gained considerable influence among the Turks, causing resentment from the Chinese. Some Chinese expressed a strongly hostile opinion of the Turkic-Sogdian friendship, even accusing the merchants of abusing the simplicity and honesty of the Turks (Ostler, 2010, 129). Despite these accusations, Sogdian had some influence on Chinese language too. At one point, Chinese days of the week phonetically derived from Sogdian names for the sun, moon and planets, although they were later replaced by Chinese equivalents (Ostler, 2010, 129). Borrowings from Sogdian language are also present in Persian and Turkic, with some terms connected with trade (De Vaissière, 2005). There are also numerous “three stage” linguistic connections. For example, the word “doctor”, in Tibetan bitsi, presumably came from the Sogdian by’, which itself originated in India (Sanskrit: vaidya). From these linguistic observations researchers have concluded that Sogdians were among those who introduced medicine in Tibet (De Vaissière, 2005, 148). 

Battle with Amazons  (eastern and western parts)

Scene from an Aesop Fable about a Goose who Laid Golden Eggs Recovered in Panjikent 

Although we don't possess any literary works in Sogdian, one can assume that they were a literary people. A large number of Sogdians seemed to be literate, quite an unusual fact in the early Middle Ages. In fact, Sogdians brought paper production technology from China to the West, and Samarkand was famous all over the world for the quality of its paper (Foltz, 2013, 26). Presumably, they were learning how to write and count from an early age in order to successfully conduct their trading affairs. At the same time, in their art production, such as the wall paintings of Panjikent and Afrasiyab, we find numerous references to literary works, such as Greek Aesop’s fables and other Classical themes (Compareti, 2012), Iranian Rustam epics, and the Indian Pañcatantra and Mahābhārata. Considering the narrative nature of their art and the rectangular shape of the pictures illustrating the scenes from those stories, the artists may have derived inspiration or have copied images from book miniatures, which might have been brought to or produced in Sogdiana but do not survive today (Marshak, 2002, 137; Compareti, 2012, 308).


Blue Hall - Rustam Cycle

Archery Scene from the Rustam Cycle in the Blue Hall in Panjikent 

Many of the professional occupations of the Sogdians were connected with language, including writing necessary for trade and the aforementioned translation activities. Although much attention is devoted to Sogdian linguistic activities in China, they were also active in Arab countries. Beginning with the first conquests of the Ummayads in Central Asia, numerous Sogdians were taken as slaves or prisoners and brought to Arab lands. Another contingent of the Sogdians, although a much smaller one, went to the caliphate as free mawali (Karev, 2013). Although the greatest part of the surviving information concerns Sogdians who performed military service in the caliphate, we have some knowledge about Sogdians who left important traces in Arabic culture as poets, writers and translators. One of these writers was Abu Adnan As-Sulami, whose grandfather was Sogdian and who was brought to the caliphate by the governor of Khorasan As-Sulami between 684-692 CE. Abu Adnan lived in the first half of the 9th century, and was one of the first to write a book about the art of archery, a skill dear to the Sogdian heart. Although he didn't write specifically about Sogdian archery, and by that time probably would have lost his native tongue, the choice of the subject is quite conspicuous. Another famous Arab poet of Sogdian origins was Aluyya/Alavaykh, who served at the court of the caliph Mohammed al-Amin (Karev, 2013, 133).  Coming either from Ferghana or Sogdiana, Khalaf Khayyan al-Akhmar became such a connoisseur of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, that he could compose new poems and pretend they were ancient. Another exceptional case is the poet known as al-Khureimi, a Sogdian from Merv. Al-Khureimi lived in Khorasan, and on many occasions mentioned his Sogdian origins in his poetry: apparently, he was rather proud of it. Thus, he says:

“I am a noble man from Sogd; I was dressed in my skin by a non-Arabic root, and the story of this skin is beautiful” (Karev, 2013, 134) [1].


[1] My translation from a Russian translation by Eberman, 1930. 

Translators of Traditions