Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.11

Annette Imhausen, Tanja Pommerening (ed.), Writings of Early Scholars in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Rome, and Greece: Translating Ancient Scientific Texts. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, Bd 286.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2010.  Pp. xiii, 436.  ISBN 9783110229929.  $154.00.  

Reviewed by Xianhua Wang, Peking University (


Thanks especially to the pioneering scholars of the 19th century, a substantial proportion of known ancient scientific texts is now available in translations into modern languages. During the last decades, however, it became obvious that ancient science needs to be understood on its own terms, and that the differences between ancient scientific concepts and “analogous” modern ones, which earlier scholars largely glossed over, must be recognized. In order to address questions raised by this new awareness and to “create a space to examine the challenges and related problems and to propose and discuss possible solutions”(p. 4), a symposium entitled “Writings of Early Scholars in the Ancient Near East, Egypt and Greece: Zur Übersetzbarkeit von Wissenschaftssprachen des Altertums” was organized at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz from 27 to 29 July. This volume is the fruit of the symposium. It is divided into five sections, as was the symposium itself.

Section one is entitled “Language as a feature of a scientific discipline”, with four contributions, all of which are written in German (pp. 12-117). The first chapter is by Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum, “Gegenstand und Methode: Sprachliche Erkenntnistechniken in der keilschriftlichen Überlieferung Mesopotamiens”, in which the author tries to demonstrate at a theoretical level the characteristics of ancient scientific enquiry and Erkenntniss, focusing more specifically on ancient Meospotamian texts. The second chapter in this section, “Das Verhältnis von medizinischer Prognose zur religiösen Divinatorik/Mantik in Griechenland” by Jochen Althoff examines stylistic differences between various types of medical prognosis, with a focus on expressions used in the Corpus Hippocraticum and in mantic texts. The third chapter by Joachim Quack, “Präzision in der Prognose oder: Divination als Wissenschaft”, analyzes ancient divinatory texts and points out that, from an Egyptian perspective, divination was seen as a scientific subject, much as it was in the traditions of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece. The last contribution in this section, “Zur Rolle des Fachwortschatzes in der Naturalis historia des Älteren Plinius” by Thorsten Fögen focuses on the terminology used in the Naturalis historia by Pliny the Elder. Fögen studies Pliny’s motivations in choosing scientific terms, discusses possible variations, and reflects on the use of Greek in Latin science.

The second section, “Translations of ancient scholars” (pp. 118-151), begins with Liba Taub’s chapter, entitled “Translating the Phainomena across genre, language and culture”. The Phainomena by Eudoxus of Cnidus was originally a prose work in Greek but was reworked as poetry by Aratus of Soli and translated into Latin by others after him. Taub shows how the Latin authors in particular went about translating technical terms, and how they dealt with scientific style and content. The second chapter in this section is “Translating the Fundamentals of the Course of the Stars” by Alexandra von Lieven, focusing on a Demotic translation and commentary of the first two chapters of the Egyptian astronomical text, the Book of Nut. Von Lieven asks who were the recipients and target audience of translations of this kind.

Section three looks at “The problem of translating ancient medical texts and possible solutions” (pp. 152-239). Tanja Pommerening’s opening chapter, which was originally part of the introduction to the Symposium, “Von Impotenz und Migräne — eine kritische Auseinandersetzung mit Übersetzungen des Papyrus Ebers”, discusses the dissemination of translations of the Ebers papyrus in various disciplines. Pommerening calls for a detailed commentary upon the papyrus that looks at lexical issues as well as issues of content both synchronically and diachronically. In the second chapter in this section, “Rechts oder links — wörtlich oder dem Sinn nach? Zum Problem der kulturellen Gebundenheit bei der Überzetzung von medizinischen Keilschrifttexten”, Nils P. Heeßel discusses examples of current translations of the Babylonian Diagnostic Handbook, concluding that a good translation needs to attend to the cultural background of the texts. Heeßel advocates a middle course between completely adapting ancient scientific texts to modern terminology on the one hand and forcing the reader to study in depth their cultural background on the other. The paper by Martin Worthington, “The lamp and the mirror, or: Some comments on the ancient understanding of Mesopotamian medical manuscripts”, demonstrates that certain Mesopotamian medical texts may be the products of a long tradition, during which mistakes may have crept in. Making the situation worse, the ancient scribes who copied these texts did not necessarily understand them. Worthington therefore stresses the need for textual criticism when dealing with these texts, and for careful attention to the scribes behind the texts. Friedhelm Hoffmann in the next chapter, “Zur Neuedition des hieratisch-demotischen Papyrus Wien D 6257 aus römischer Zeit”, argues for the inclusion of all formal features of the text when preparing a new edition. The final chapter in this section is “A recipe for a headache: Translating and interpreting ancient Greek and Roman remedies” by Laurence M. V. Totelin. Totelin considers ways of exploring Greek and Latin pharmacological recipes, advocating both philological-historical and ethno-botanical pharmacological approaches.

The fourth section, with three contributions, considers “Problems and methods in translating astronomical- astrological texts” (pp. 240-331). Leo Depuydt in his “Ancient Egyptian star tables: A reinterpretation of their fundamental structure”, provides a new reading of the earliest Egyptian astronomical writings, the star tables or star clocks as they are also known. Depuydt shows that the empirical property of a certain type of star tables, namely the reappearance of the same stars at the bottom of the table, was actually based on the reality of ancient recordings of star risings. Such an authentic characteristic has to be represented in translation. He prefers to describe them as they were without taking recourse to later concepts. In “Methods for understanding and reconstructing Babylonian predicting rules”, Lis Brack-Bernsen illustrates how Assyriologists and historians of science, here the author and Herman Hunger, can collaborate to understand and translate first millennium Mesopotamian astronomical texts, with TU 11 as an illustration. The final chapter of this section, “Problems in translating ancient Greek astrological texts”, by Stephan Heilen, recognizes five categories of problems when translating ancient Greek astrological/astronomical texts: textual transmission, stylistic problems, terminological problems, conceptual problems, and problems of genre in didactic poetry. Heilen recommends various types of commentary to present an insider’s perspective on the ancient writers.

The last section of the book discusses “Ways to express ancient mathematical concepts in modern language” (pp. 332-417). Annette Imhausen in her “From the cave to reality: Mathematics and cultures”, originally also part of the introduction to the Symposium, provides an overview of changes in the study of ancient mathematics especially from the seventies of the last century. The realization that individual cultures create their own mathematics broadens the scope for research while at the same time forcing the historian of mathematics to understand more fully the cultural setting of his or her texts and to explain it to a modern audience. Imhausen connects this new awareness with a view of mathematical education that is increasingly shaped by the Humanities. In the second chapter in this section, “Translating rational-practice texts”, Jim Ritter discusses ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian mathematical texts with particular attention to their procedural aspects, which Ritter compares with those of other scientific and especially medical texts. For Ritter, the ways in which the ancient mathematical texts make sense to ancient and modern audiences are even more important than the contents of these texts. The final chapter in this section, and in the entire volume, is “How to transfer the conceptual structure of Old Babylonian mathematics: Solutions and inherent problems. With an Italian parallel” by Jens Høyrup. Reviewing representative translations of Old Babylonian mathematical texts, Høyrup argues for translating them without jettisoning information about the relevant mathematical operations. Høyrup establishes the existence of conceptually differentiated arithmetic operations, and provides a list of translations for Old Baylonian mathematical terminologies.

At a theoretical level, the contributors to the volume broadly agree that culture specific contextual information is crucial when it comes to translating ancient scientific texts. At a more practical level, several contributions explicitly suggest the use of commentaries instead of simple word-for-word translations to accommodate information of this kind. All contributors are experienced specialists in their fields of enquiry, and several of the chapters are especially rich in information. Advanced readers will find much to stimulate further reflection, though the uninitiated may find the collection rather more forbidding. To this reviewer, the volume as a whole represents a major contribution to the cultural study of ancient sciences, which is only beginning to receive proper attention. The volume is well produced, and has extensive indices to help the reader.

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