Luke Demaitre

title.none: Richardson and Carman, trans., Andreas Vesalius' On the Fabric of the Human Body (Demaitre )

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.017 00.03.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Luke Demaitre , Univiversity of Virginia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Richardson, William and John Carman, trans. On the Fabric of the Human Body: A Translation of De Humani corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. Book I the Bones and Cartilages. A Translation of De Humani corporis Fabrica Libri Septem Vol. 1. San Fancisco: Norman Publishing, 1998. Pp. iv, 416. $225.00. ISBN: 0-930-40573-0. Richardson, William and John Carman, trans. On the Fabric of the Human Body: Book II: The Ligaments and Muscles. A Translation of De Humani corporis Fabrica Libri Septem Vol. 2. San Fancisco: Norman Publishing, 1999. Pp. iv, 492. $250.00. ISBN: 0-930-40575-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.17

Richardson, William and John Carman, trans. On the Fabric of the Human Body: A Translation of De Humani corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. Book I the Bones and Cartilages. A Translation of De Humani corporis Fabrica Libri Septem Vol. 1. San Fancisco: Norman Publishing, 1998. Pp. iv, 416. $225.00. ISBN: 0-930-40573-0.

Richardson, William and John Carman, trans. On the Fabric of the Human Body: Book II: The Ligaments and Muscles. A Translation of De Humani corporis Fabrica Libri Septem Vol. 2. San Fancisco: Norman Publishing, 1999. Pp. iv, 492. $250.00. ISBN: 0-930-40575-7.

Reviewed by:

Luke Demaitre
Univiversity of Virginia

Medical monuments in "dead" languages, from the Smith Papyrus and Vedic writings to William Harvey's De motu cordis, have long been available in vernacular versions. In an irony of history, however, a vast portion of the most widely recognizable classic became less and less accessible over the centuries. Even though it comprises nine tenths of the volume, the text of De humani corporis fabrica of Andreas Vesalius has suffered increasing neglect. From the first publication in 1543, it was unable to compete with the aesthetic appeal and scientific interest of the illustrations, which continue to amaze us in spite of advanced graphics and "The Visible Human Project." Even though full appreciation of the tabulae depends on the perusal of their captions, explanations, and context, the sheer bulk of nearly 400,000 words may have deterred readers from the start. Before long, much of Vesalius's prose may have seemed expendable because his expositions on the human body were overtaken by the breakthroughs in anatomy and physiology which they triggered. Above all, every passing century made it more challenging to penetrate--let alone vernacularize--the highly technical, studiedly Humanist, and intensely idiosyncratic Latin. Hence, while the woodcuts became almost commonplace, the text was slipping into virtual oblivion or, worse, waiting to be diluted for mass consumption.

An impasse seemed to be reached a few years ago when, at the principal session of their annual meeting, historians of medicine were bemused by the peculiar presentation of a scholarly project to translate De Fabrica into English. A duo of translators-to-be, backed by a distinguished American university press, appeared to undercut the merit of their own enterprise by belittling not only the quality but even the value of the Latin text in contrast with the illustrations. They were soon chastened, and they may one day complete the definitive version, but their project is being overtaken by a less heralded, if no less herculean, endeavor to produce a reliable and accessible English translation in which the text is treated without prejudice and the reader is served without conceit. This goal is pursued with refreshing inquisitiveness and intellectual humility by William Frank Richardson, a classicist, in close collaboration with John Burd Carman, an anatomist. The particular trigger for Richardson's initiative was the mistranslation of one sentence from De Fabrica in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Carman, for his part, confesses that "the book was a treasure trove." From the first to the second of the two volumes under review here (which represent about half of De Fabrica and will be followed by three more), one notes, both in the linguist and the scientist, a growing enthusiasm for the task and deepening admiration for De Fabrica and its author.

This translation can only enhance the general stature of Vesalius who, it should be remembered, completed most of the work in his mid-twenties. It will invite the specialized student to make broader comparisons with preceding and contemporary treatises on anatomy, beyond the restricted thematic inquiries of normal research. Opportunities for comparing have recently been expanded with an electronic edition of De Fabrica (2 CD-Roms; Oakland: Octavo, 1998) which makes consultation more convenient than in the far from ubiquitous 1964 facsimile (Brussels: Culture et Civilisation, 1964); collation is made easier by a nice touch in On the Fabric, markers to corresponding pages in the 1543 original. The comparer, in any language, is likely to be struck by contrast between the vagueness and circumlocution in late-medieval and early-modern anatomical literature on the one hand, and the matter-of-fact attention and economy of speculation in De Fabrica. Only the hasty reader will fail to overcome the initial impression, mentioned by Richardson, that the author was verbose.

Vesalius was keenly conscious how difficult it was to convey his observations and to avoid the misunderstandings inherent in linguistic limitations and, even more, in received visualizations. Already in the Tabulae Sex (1538), a preliminary sketch for his magnum opus, he insisted on naming each single part, "without omitting the barbaric terms which even scholars familiar with most of the literature frequently tend to leave behind." His real predicament, however, lay in dealing with received accounts of anatomy. Though often merciless in correcting such accounts, Vesalius seemed uncharacteristically flustered whenever he felt forced to reject Galen's methods and findings (particularly those based on animal dissection) while being utterly dependent on Galenic theory. He usually tackled his hesitation by focusing almost obsessively on the process of dissection and the shape of objects it yielded. Fortunately, the English translation weakens neither the determination with which De Fabrica changed the course of scientific methodology nor the clarity with which Vesalius distinguished himself as a peerless morphologist. These and other contributions are superbly summarized by Carman in the "Anatomist's Preface" to each volume.

If the introductions will be the principal source of information for the general reader of On the Fabric of the Human Body, there may be cause for mild concern. The introductory survey of anatomy since ancient Greece, while aimed at providing "historical background," reflects a somewhat simplified understanding of history --and a blind spot for the Middle Ages. An occasional archaism betrays the perspective of a classicist who has missed more than one generation of medieval scholarship. Aside from the now quaint notion that "the Dark Ages settled over Europe" after the Fall of Rome, it is more troubling to be abruptly hurried to the Renaissance and its "new spirit of inquiry." While the University of Padua was indisputably "at the forefront" of inquiry in medicine and other sciences in 1537, it is misleading to condense its contribution into one phrase as "the rebirth of scientific studies." No matter how much Galen's authority hampered independent thought among Scholastic physicians, it is exaggerated to claim that "the accuracy of his doctrines was never questioned."

Even though the genius of Vesalius was almost as self-made as he would have us believe, his performance was also the culmination of numerous precedents, whether he disavowed or perpetuated them. The introduction gives no inkling of more than two centuries of preparatory developments in the practice of dissection and in ideas on anatomy, or of the more proximate writings presented in a seminal study by L.R. Lind. Studies in Pre-Vesalian Anatomy; Biography, Translations, Documents (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1975). For the immediate historical setting of Vesalius, Richardson wisely relies on the authoritative biography by Charles D. O'Malley, and seems less secure when following his own preconceptions. What makes him assume, for instance, that an occasional odd Latin expression indicates that the author was "thinking in French" rather than merely adopting an idiom in the learned lingua franca itself or, for that matter, rather than slipping into a daily medium that was just as likely to be Italian, German, or Flemish?

A similarly ahistorical assumption occasionally affects the translation itself. A telling, albeit trivial, case in point is the anachronistic presentation of Vesalius's native land as "Belgium," the hybrid nation-state created in 1830. Thus, in a graphic vignette about a hydrocephalic boy who was paraded by itinerant performers "in nobilissima Belgarum Brabantia", that is, "in Brabant, the most noble [region] of the Belgians", the scene is unduly modernized as "noble Brabant in Belgium". On another occasion the English version takes greater liberty with the localization, and with the expression in which it is imbedded: whereas Vesalius remembered his one-time dissecting assistant, Antonio Succha, as "a great and rare hope of our Brussels and entire Belgian community (nostrae communis Bruxellae, adeoque totius Belgicae, magna et rara spes)," the reminiscence is flattened to " a native of Belgium and of Brussels, who showed rare promise." These are small liberties indeed, and they illustrate the infinite possibilities for pecking at a translation, especially one addressed to a broad public. Richardson has consciously chosen to treat the text with the degree of freedom which he considers necessary for legibility. This degree may be gauged further, and the translator's challenges may be sampled in two brief excerpts, chosen somewhat randomly, with Latin and English juxtaposed and with emphases added. Musculum motus involuntarii [sic], ex nostroque arbitratu pendentis proprium esse instrumentum, omnibus concessum videtur dissectionis proceribus, atque ab omnibus idem musculi constructionis modus enarratur. . . . attamen quum in paucissimis musculis, aut potius in nullis illum observem, secus propemodum atque illi, de musculorum constructione sentire cogor. Quae autem omnium fere sit sententia, nunc quam potero brevissime, et simul explicatissime subjiciam... (De Fabrica 1543, p. 219)Muscle is the proper instrument of voluntary [sic] movement or movement that depends on our own impulse: this seems to be accepted by all the experts in anatomy. They also give identical accounts of the structure of muscle ... but since I can find very few muscles, in fact none at all, that conform to their account, I am forced to reject their views on this matter. I shall give their opinion as briefly, but at the same time as explicitly, as I can... ( On the Fabric Vol. II, pp. 111-112)

Aside from the possible misreading of "involuntarii" (the dichotomy of involuntary and voluntary movement was conventional), the English differs slightly from the Latin with "experts in anatomy" for the more dynamic "masters of dissection," the muscle's "structure" for the more teleological "design of [its] construction." The divergence widens between Vesalius's original claim that he found the described design "in very few muscles or, rather, in none," and the less dismissive interpretation that he could find no muscles "that conform to their account," inferentially in spite of trying. While the author asserted that he was forced to think differently (" propemodum atque illi ... sentire") about the design of the muscle, the translator sharpens the difference into outright rejection, thereby underscoring the already existing but often ambiguous antagonism between the author and his colleagues. On the other hand, the original characterization of the dissectors' view as nearly universal ("omnium fere sententia") is flattened into "their opinion." The position which Richardson takes on the spectrum between rigid literalness and fluid liberality deserves to be illustrated with a second excerpt, on the so-called "fleshy membrane," which lies under the skin throughout the body. Quod Arabes paulo exactius perpendentes, primi omnium, quod sciam, hanc membranam Carnosam appellavisse videntur. Atque id sane penitius huius nostrae aetatis Medicorum praecipuis indagandum fuerat, qui panniculum carnosum a Barbaris quibusdam non male me Hercules eo nomine appellatum, octo abdominis musculos esse contendunt, et contra Galeni sententiam, ac rei veritatem, cuti membranam in universo corpore, et in ipso demum abdomine (de quo dumtaxat sapere videntur) subtendi inficiantur. Alii et si per universum corpus a me hanc membranam demonstrari conspexerint, adeo ineptiunt, ut hanc non fateantur eam esse, cuius Galenus meminit... (De Fabrica 1543, p. 233)It seems to be the Arabs, as far as I am aware, who first investigated it with some care and called it fleshy. The most distinguished physicians of our own age should have researched this more carefully; they assert that certain of the barbarians applied the expression "the fleshy rag" (which is not, in fact, a bad description!) to the eight muscles of the abdomen. They also deny (against the teaching of Galen and the truth of the matter) that the membrane is stretched under the skin over the whole body and indeed in the abdomen itself (which seems to be the only area they know about). Others, even though they have seen me demonstrate that this membrane covers the whole body, are so stupid that they will not admit that this is what Galen refers to... (On the Fabric Vol. II, p. 143) This collation again reveals a few liberties which, though hardly consequential, tend to blur the historical perspective. Vesalius believed that the Arabs (most notably, Avicenna) were the first, not to investigate the membrane, but to call it fleshy. He criticized contemporary physicians, not for asserting that barbarians applied an expression, but for identifying what the barbarians called "fleshy rag" as the eight muscles of the abdomen. He scoffed at other colleagues who had seen him show this membrane through the whole body, rather than demonstrating (methodically, by implication) what it covers. It may be cavilling to draw attention to the loss of the Humanist touch of "me Hercules" in the more pedestrian "in fact".

There are far more substantial and positive points to be learned from juxtapositions of the Latin and English. For one, Richardson is remarkably successful in untangling convoluted constructions while maintaining the general sense. The most salient feature throughout, and one to which this review cannot do justice, is the painstaking attention to precision and accuracy in anatomical terms and descriptions. Suffice it to mention the systematic effort to avoid terminological anachronisms. In the second excerpt above, for example, the medieval panniculus is rendered as "rag" rather than "pannicle" or "panniculus," both of which have different meanings in current terminology; membrana is retained as "membrane," whereas analogous translations have introduced moderns term such as "fascia." In the same vein,os pectoris is left as "breast bone" rather than becoming overtranslated as "sternum"; the tendo calcaneus remains simply "the most powerful tendon in the whole body" rather than being identified as the "Achilles tendon" (a term that was, surprisingly, foreign to Renaissance anatomy); most chapters are followed by highly informative "Translator's Notes" which alert us to variances in nomenclature.

In conclusion, if the historical warp loses some of its richness in the transmission, the scientific woof is preserved meticulously. Any interested reader can now discover the brilliance of Andreas Vesalius. It is to be hoped that specialists will be guided back to the original De Fabrica. Carman warns that this is "not a book to be assessed by casual inspection or by episodic reading" -- treatments which, paradoxically, the translation may have facilitated. Nevertheless, for giving new life and broad access to the text of a medical masterpiece, we are indebted to Richardson and Carman and to the enlightened aegis of Norman Publishing: Vesalius is well served by his New Zealand interpreters, and Johannes Oporinus has a worthy successor in Jeremy Norman.