09.10.09, Goyens, De Leemans, and Smets, Science Translated

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Michael McVaugh

The Medieval Review 09.10.09

Goyens, Michèle, Pieter De Leemans, and An Smets (eds.). Science Translated: Latin and Vernacular Translations of Scientific Treatises in Medieval Europe. Mediaevalia Lovaniensia 40. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2008. Pp. 480. ISBN: 978-90-5867-671-9.

Reviewed by:
Michael McVaugh
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (emeritus)

Science Translated assembles a series of papers given at a conference held under that title in May 2004 at the University of Leuven, which has a long association with the study of medieval translations, and where several groups are presently at work on research projects concerning the translation of scientific materials; this conference was designed, in part, to supply a broader context of discussion and interaction for their research. And the papers do certainly provide that hoped-for breadth, dealing with medieval translations of scientific work both into Latin (from Greek or Arabic) and from Latin (into the European vernaculars). The European language most strikingly absent from consideration here is Hebrew, into which, and from which, a considerable number of Latin scientific works were translated in the Middle Ages, and it would have been fascinating to have had a paper or papers on this subject as well.

The editors have arranged their volume so that studies of translations into Latin are grouped together at the beginning, followed by translations into the vernacular, which prepares the reader to think about unifying themes within the two groups--just as well, perhaps, since the introduction by José Lambert addresses general issues within the field of Translation Studies and its cultural implications without really relating them to the studies that follow, and its allusions to Bakhtine and Bourdieu are not characteristic of their approach. One thing likely to strike the reader is that both these groups divide into two distinguishable subgroups: some study the process by which a scientific treatise was translated, examining a translator's technical devices and choices and motives. Others are further removed from the translator and his actions: they consider the fate of the translation, the use to which it was put at various historical moments and settings. I will exemplify these two subgroups with a selection of particularly illustrative instances, rather than merely give an exhaustive list of the volume's contents.

To the first group belong Charles Burnett's examination of the ways in which Latin translators of Arabic-language works (in particular) revised their efforts, and the implications that such revisions might have for text editors. The widespread word-for-word ideal of medieval translators has its consequences for these studies: Pieter Beullens shows the different tactics employed by medieval and Renaissance translators of Aristotle's Greek text of the Historia animalium to produce equivalents for the Greek names of fishes, and Craig Martin offers a similar account of the ways in which they tried to deal with the confusing technical terminology of Meteorology IV. Michelle Reichert looks at the famous translating pair of Hermann of Dalmatia and Robert of Ketton--not at the techniques they employed in translating the Koran and other Islamic texts, on the one hand, and a variety of "hermetic" texts, on the other, but at the motives and institutional connections that may have led them to these very different groups of materials.

These papers all deal with the act or process of translation; the other subgroup deals rather with what we might call the "fact" of translation, and treats the history of a text. In these the process or act of translation, considered as a link between two intellectual worlds, can sometime recede into the background, especially when medieval readers did not reflect that what they were reading might not be what Aristotle (say) had written. Iolanda Ventura's study of reactions to Latin translations of the "Aristotelian" Problemata indicates that its medieval readers, including its famous commentator Pietro d'Abano, complained of the obscurity of its language without acknowledging that it was a translated text. It might be said, indeed, that for Pietro it was not a translation in the same way that it certainly was for its Renaissance commentators, who interpreted it by constantly comparing it to the Greek version. In discussing the history of the pseudo-Galenic De spermate , Outi Merisalo and Païvi Pahta carry this tendency to an extreme: a brief reference to the original Greek text is buried in an early footnote, and their paper is a study of the textual tradition of the Latin version, to which it is irrelevant that it was a translation rather than an original composition.

The studies of medieval vernacular translations of scientific works published here display something of the same thematic divergence. The majority examine the act of translation itself, which for vernacular translators often involved a loosening of the old word-for-word model. Joëlle Ducos's admirable overview of (French) vernacular translation from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century presents a number of suggestive considerations, reminding the reader of the range of translations that were produced, from authoritative treatises (often with a translator's self-conscious prologue) to fragments and abridgments, where selection and summary were in effect an integral part of translation. Translators aimed at faithfulness, and spoke of literalness, but their various experiments in turning Latin terms into a meaningful French show us the degree to which French itself was in flux, and might still coexist with Latin in these translations.

Many of Ducos's themes prove to be embodied in other more particular studies in this volume, which occasionally reveal that they can be applied to other vernaculars than French. An Smets and Magali Toulan examine certain technical accessory terms in the Latin falconry texts of Frederick II and Albertus Magnus and their French translations, concluding that the Latin and French terminologies were both still in flux in the thirteenth century, influencing each other, and that the French translators must thus have understood their originals very well. Sara Marruncheddu demonstrates that the French version of the Moamin (itself a Latin translation of an Arabic work on falconry) introduced a number of rubrications and calques for "pedagogical" reasons, and again implies the translator's understanding of the work; Francesco Capaccioni reveals that the first Italian translator of Pietro de' Crescenzi's Ruralia commoda did much the same thing, maintaining in general a very literal translation, but sometimes compressing the text or opting for a different word to express his comprehension of the content. The Old French translation of the surgical "Four Masters" commentary that Tony Hunt discusses is similarly faithful to its Latin original, not infrequently preserving some Latin terms untranslated or finding vernacular equivalents, but glossing numerous words as well. Hunt, incidentally, prefaces his study with a lucid summary of the technical problems that face students of medieval translations, one that anyone who has never edited a text should read. Géraldine Veysseyre takes a considerably broader look at a translator's techniques in her analysis of Jean Corbechon's French translation of Bartholomeus Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum , begun in 1372. She argues that while basically literal, it employed a variety of devices designed to make the text smooth and continuous for the court of Charles V: it expanded ellipses and compressed repetition for clarity, supplied concrete exempla, simplified vocabulary, and emphasized the sequence of its argument.

But a few of these papers, too, are more concerned with the "fact" than the "act" of translation, and with describing an emerging vernacular scientific culture in a manner that includes but enlarges upon a focus on the role of specific translations. Much of Laurence Moulinier-Brogi's paper, exceptional in this volume for its wholly praiseworthy willingness to consider vernacular culture across national lines, delineates for us a medieval uroscopy in the period after its vernacularization: basing herself on a wide range of manuscript evidence, she evokes a by no means unlearned vernacular society where uroscopical translations and abridgments coexisted with original compositions that were sometimes back-translated into Latin. This contextualizes her concluding examination of the Italian translation of the Salernitan Maurus's De urinis , which leads her to question the soundness of the Latin text as published. In a more restricted framework, Erwin Huizenga makes many similar points in his study of Middle-Dutch surgical culture, showing how its literature included original works, direct translations from Latin, and compilations--a literature that was marked at all levels by an unselfconscious bilingualism that reveals a scientific vernacular in the process of evolution. Orlanda S. H. Lie offers a somewhat comparable approach, this time surveying Middle Dutch literature on women's medicine, but she is less concerned to study closely the original translations of Latin (and German!) writings--e.g., Trotula, pseudo-Albertus Magnus--and their linguistic character than she is to describe the way in which the resultant vernacular texts were adapted and merged both with each other and with other gynecological material; these texts, she concludes, made it possible for literate males to appropriate women's medicine in the later Middle Ages. Indeed, all these last authors try to supply a social setting of craft or trade that can begin to explain the diffusion of such materials. (So too, I should say, does Alessandro Vitale-Brovarone, in his much narrower study of the agencies by which certain drug names passed from Latin into the European vernaculars.)

In the end, therefore, the scope of Science Translated goes beyond the "translations of scientific treatises" of its subtitle. It is bound to lead the reflective reader on to ponder the ways in which a science, as an intellectual and social system for understanding and dealing with the natural world, may be passed--translated--from one culture to another, as indeed happened more than once in the Middle Ages.

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Author Biography

Michael McVaugh

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (emeritus)