P. Manning u.a. (Hrsg.): Knowledge in Translation

Knowledge in Translation. Global Patterns of Scientific Exchange, 1000-1800 CE

Manning, Patrick; Owen, Abigail
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Oury Goldman, Le Mans Université

For a long-time the history of science has been dominated by positivist and diffusionist approaches in which translations played a key role in documenting the transmission of knowledge between cultures and societies. In this framework, translations were often studied as simple vehicles for the dissemination of science, and there was not enough attention being paid to the creative nature of its process. For some decades now, criticism has been addressed to this simplified narrative and framework, in particular in world and global history that have focused on the complexity of interactions and circulations between cultures. The recent volume Knowledge in Translation. Global Patterns of Scientific Exchange, 1000-1800 CE, edited by Patrick Manning and Abigail Owen, re-examines the role of translations in the dynamics of scientific exchanges by showing how the process of translation cannot be reduced to a passive operation of transmission, but instead must be considered as an ongoing process and studied through multi-scaled frameworks of analysis.

The volume is divided in four parts and sixteenth chapters, that cover large fields of knowledge (medicine, astrology, engineering, cartography, etc.), a wide geographical range (from Japan to America, with a large focus on Eurasia) and a long-time frame that challenges traditional chronological divisions. Despite this apparent broad perspective, most chapters deal with Euro-Asiatic societies that were caught in previous networks of communication that expanded and grew in breath and depth across the eight centuries considered by the book.

Each essay embraces a different framework of interpretation, but they all consider translation a key to explore how ideas, technologies or discoveries have been communicated and appropriated outside of the society where they first emerge. This diversity reflects per se the different appropriations that historians of science have of the « global turn » in historical studies. In order to investigate the role played by translations in scientific exchanges, some chapters analyse how one question was addressed and modified across centuries in different societies: chapter 3 about the cartography of the Bengal river; chapter 8 about the medical proprieties of the elk's nail; chapter 12 about the Ptolemaic system of nested planetary orbs), while others focus on one place such as chapter 13 on the Maragha observatory in 13th century Tabriz; chapter 7 on the Yellow River. One objet is in focus in chapter 1 on the catalan mappamundi; in chapter 6 on the Bingata textiles in East China Sea ; in chapter 5 on an English translation of a 13th century Chinese geographical treaty; in chapter 10 on Ottoman plague treatises; in chapter 14 on Latin marginalia in an Arabic astrological treaty; chapter 14 the reception of arabo-persian astronomy in 14th century China ) or one domain (a similar focus guides chapter 4 on maritime cartography; chapter 9 on divination during the Yuan dynasty; and chapter 16 on celestial navigation). These chapters prove again that case studies methodology provide an ideal site for the dialogue and interaction of global history and science studies. Two chapters adopt a more comparative approach (chapter 2 on Islamic Christian cartographic translation in Norman Sicily and Andalusi Arab and chapter 11 offering a comparison of Islamic and Japanese medical encyclopaedias).

This diversity prevents any attempt to summarise the methodology, hypothesis, contents and results of each chapter. However, some transversal issues emerge from this collective enterprise. For instance, the crucial role played by the Mediterranean medieval world in the circulation and translations of texts and ideas across Islamic, Christian and Jewish societies lies at the heart of several contributions. Yet this situation, already well documented by a rich historiography, benefits from new points of view that reject the traditional portrayal of medieval Arabic translations as simple agents of preservation and transmission of Greco-Roman knowledge for Europe, and different chapters underline the transformation of scientific debates that occurred during the translation process, and the diversity of linguistic trajectories and actors involved. Other geographical regions appear as nexus of entangled exchanges, such as Central Asiatic cities after the Mongolian conquest, or the East Asian shores integrated to an old and well connected Indian Ocean system. However, the volume focuses mainly in an Euro-Asiatic frame, as America and Africa are less present, and thus does not fully gives space to the vitality of new approaches that Atlantic and colonial studies could offer for re-examining the globalisation of science in the early modern era.

Another transversal subject is the role played by political powers in the patronage of translations practices insured by institutions, diplomats, travellers, or other go-betweens, in order to ensure their legitimacy and rule. In the wake of the « science and empire » trend in recent historical scholarship, some Euro-Asiatic empires that rule over different cultures, ethnic and religious groups, such as the Ottoman, the Chinese, the Mongolian's, appear to have sponsored and favoured translations and other practices that contributed to scientific exchanges. The strategic role granted by these empires’ political elites to certain branches of knowledge such as astrology, astronomy, cartography or medicine, offered some actors, possessing scientific expertise and linguistic skills, opportunities that in return contributed to the advancement of learning. Other contributions deal with the question of scientific evolutions, and try to combine endogenous and exogenous interpretations. Translations offer an ideal site of investigation as they involve the study of the socio-cultural context that allows their emergence and require that the concrete linguistic operations be examined as well. They also engage scholars in close readings of the texts and scientific debates.

By combining approaches drawn from history of science and global history, but also literary and translation studies, the volume addresses the issue of scientific exchange and advance over time, by combining multiple factors and stressing the decisive role played by translation and communication in this regard. If each chapter could be read per se, the assemblage of the volume offers a good sample of the richeness that characterizes this kind of methodological dialogue between the dynamic fields of scholarship.

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