Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.03

Annette Imhausen, Tanja Pommerening (ed.), Translating Writings of Early Scholars in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece and Rome: Methodological Aspects with Examples. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 344​.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. x, 611.  ISBN 9783110447040.  $168.00.  

Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Universiteit van Amsterdam (

Table of Contents

Dedicated to the study of ancient authors, the volume under scrutiny is a sequel to a volume published by De Gruyter in 2010, Writings of Early Scholars in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Rome, and Greece. Translating Ancient Scientific Texts, also edited by Imhausen and Pommerening (see BMCR 2011.10.11). Where that volume primarily dealt with signalling problems encountered during the translation of early scholarly texts, the current volume is aimed at providing ways to resolve such problems, notably in texts in the fields of medicine, arithmetics, and astronomy/astrology (“Himmelskunde”). The contributions to the volume are divided in three sections (I, dedicated to the Ancient Near East; II, pertaining to Ancient Egypt; III, dealing with Ancient Greece and Rome), totalling 11 papers of which 5 are in German, and 6 in English. The editors (rightly, in my view) defend the multilingualism of the volume by stating that there are “trotz zunehmender Anglisierung insbesondere in der Ägyptologie, Assyriologie und Klassischen Philologie starke deutsche und französische Traditionen, die sich auch heute noch in entsprechend sprachigen Wissenschaftskulturen abbilden” (v). The volume is thereby simultaneously linked both to the scholarly past and present and indicates its audience: it appears (even clearly more than the 2010 volume) to be aimed at an audience of specialists. In this respect it is noteworthy that contributions in French (or, for that matter, Italian) are missing. Whether that was a choice or a coincidence remains unclear.

In their introductory chapter, Imhausen and Pommerening remind their audience of the wish, expressed in the 2010 volume, to keep translations of ancient scholarly texts for the general audience in the fields of research under discussion as free as possible of modern professional terminology, but to add independent commentaries in which all relevant contexts can be dealt with (1). In the volume under scrutiny they intend to answer the question of how translations and commentaries of such ancient scholarly sources should be shaped in practice. The editors obviously believe in the need for accessibility, if only because the history of science pre-eminently is a transdisciplinary occupation, demanding knowledge both of the particular field of science as well of the philology and culture of the language in which the ancient text is written. As the number of scholars meeting both qualifications is exceedingly rare, collaboration between scholars in various disciplines is required to further our knowledge. Even then, some serious problems face the researchers, forcing them to question the entirety of the available source material in order to be able to ask the right research questions and provide the modern reader with valid—and specific—answers. The volume is thus intended as a tool to establish a methodology fit for practical use.

Having established that one of the goals of this volume is to serve as a (emphatically not ‘the’ [7]) manual “zu einem reflektierten Umgang beim Konsumieren und Bewerten vorhandener Übersetzungen … anzuregen und Hilfestellungen für das selbständige Übersetzen früher wissenschaftlicher Texte zu bieten” (5), the editors also state they wish this volume to serve a wide audience interested in the history of science. I am not sure how precisely to understand this goal, given the content as well as the nature of the contributions to the volume. On the one hand, the majority of the papers are much too technical to be of any real use for a wide audience. On the other hand, provided scholars adopt the suggestions outlined in the volume (and this should pertain to scholars in fields other than the three in question here), a wider audience ultimately might well benefit from this volume. If that is what the editors intend to convey (and both the description of the targeted audience [6] and the description under “Wege” [7- 11] support that view), there is, indeed, hope for a beneficial result. All contributions similar in format, providing the audience with the source text, translation, and commentary, the latter either on the page facing the translation (see, e.g., the contribution by Cuomo, 439-464) or following the translation, as in the majority of the papers.

The first section starts with a paper by Nils P. Heeßel, ‘Medizinische Texte aus dem Alten Mesopotamien’ (17-73). Heeßel starts with the observation that medical concepts remained largely unchanged in cuneiform writing from their beginnings until the times of Achaemenids and Seleucids, when minor changes started to appear. He also stresses that there is no such thing as “the” one and only right translation of a text (19): all translations necessarily remain interpretations, but they nevertheless should follow the conventions that have been established over time. Moreover, modern medical terminology is to be avoided, and verbatim translation, made grammatically and semantically correct for the target language, a necessity. (Modern terminology, with explanation, is, however, allowed in the commentary). Heeßel illustrates his views with four texts, showing how Mesopotamian medical texts can be made useful for researchers working in other disciplines. In doing so, he provides a photograph of the text (if available), a cuneiform transcription (or drawn picture), a transcription into the Latin alphabet with translation on the facing page, and a comprehensive commentary. In some cases he juxtaposes different translations).

The second contribution in this section is by Jim Ritter ‘Translating Babylonian Mathematical Problem Texts’ (75-123). He, too, observes that “[e]very translation is a partial translation” (75), since the source text is embedded in a distinct cultural matrix. As regards mathematical texts, that context is an educational setting, requiring maximal clarity and minimal ambiguity. The texts Ritter presents are three of “only a few hundred” of this nature (76) (sc. mathematical solved-problem texts) in which the use of the sexagesimal system in Babylonia makes the problems more difficult to understand for modern readers. Like Heeßel, Ritter proceeds in steps: photograph, drawing, transliteration, transcription, algorithm, translation, commentary, and discussion.

In the third contribution, ‘Translating Babylonian Astronomical Diaries and Procedure Texts’ (125-172), Mathieu Ossendrijver treats one astronomical diary and two procedure texts. Such texts offer specific problems as well, partly compensated for by the fact that they “usually deal with datable and relatively well-defined phenomena that can be accurately reconstructed for ancient dates with the help of modern computations” (125). The translator should nevertheless not rely too much on such aids: instead, (s)he has to acquire a wealth of background knowledge (126-133) to be able to translate such texts with any confidence, as well as a thorough knowledge of the peculiarities of Late Babylonian Akkadian, making such translation a highly specialized undertaking. Even then some unsolvable problems remain, as Text A, an astronomical diary for year 37 of Nebuchadnezzar II, demonstrates. Ossendrijver presents photographs, drawings, transliteration, translation, and philological and interpretative commentary (for text A), and separate philological and extensive interpretative commentaries (for texts B and C).

Section II focuses on ancient Egypt. Pommerening opens this section with an extensive paper entitled ‘Heilkundliche Texten aus dem Alten Ägypten: Vorschläge zur Kommentierung und Übersetzung’ (176-279). After an introductory essay she discusses four examples (206-273) taken from three papyri, which clearly illustrate the points made. This essay (in spite of its specificity to medicine) is the real methodological heart of this volume and should be noted by anyone translating ancient texts. Imhausen in her contribution, ‘Zum Arbeiten mit hieratischen mathematischen Aufgabentexten’ (281-333) uses similar techniques (including color printing for clarity). Hers is a less theoretical paper, more exclusively confined to practical problems, than Pommerening’s, but illustrative of the problems one encounters translating such texts from the hieratic. As in all contributions up to this point, the examples illustrate the steps from photograph to commentary.

Friedhelm Hoffmann, next, presents ‘Beispiele für Übersetzung und Kommentierung ägyptischer astronomischer Texte: Sonnenuhr, Sonnenaufgang und Dekansterne’ (335-378). His discussion is very practice-based as well, but for three of his four examples (the first a sun clock from Seti I’s cenotaph at Abydos, the latter three from P. Carlsberg) there are no photographs. For the text of Seti I’s cenotaph, though, a drawing and a copy with reconstructions are provided, as for his first example of P. Carlsberg. To illustrate practical procedures, Hoffman presents the reader with different forms of commentary, but his method of transcription and translation on the same page is more difficult to follow than the use of facing pages.

Sarah Symons concludes this section with ‘Challenges of Interpreting Egyptian Astronomical Texts’ (379-401). It is a useful paper, detailing challenges met in the process of translating texts as regards interpretation in their cultural context. She does so by four examples taken from the corpus of Egyptian astronomical texts, concluding that “these … examples show how translation is in many cases only the first step to understanding” (399).

Section III begins with Jochen Althoff’s ‘Übersetzung aus einem griechischen medizinischen Werk (Corpus Hippocraticum, De morbo sacro VI-VII,5)’ (405-438). The Corpus is the oldest collection of ancient Greek medical texts, and the text on the ‘sacred illness’ among the most famous of the collection. After his introduction Althoff presents the text and translation (in parallel columns) and a Commentary, concluding with a synopsis detailing the problems of translating ancient Greek medical texts.

Next, Serafina Cuomo presents ‘A Case-study in Roman Mathematics: The Description of the Analemma in Vitruvius’ De architectura, Book IX’ (439-464). Cuomo first observes that “none of the Latin mathematical texts appears to have acquired Euclid-like canonical status” (439), making it hard to establish a norm—if there is any at all. This requires, therefore, the use of “mathematical techniques or instruments … justifiable in ‘theoretical’ mathematical terms” (ibidem). For example, she uses a passage taken from chapter 7 of book IX, giving text and translation in parallel columns with a (necessarily relatively succinct) commentary on the facing page: obviously, it is a way to work with a text, but in my view it does not contribute to a good impression of the entire text. Next follows the text’s illustration by a diagram drafted by Cuomo, remarks on grammar and style and an observation on “things that are not in the text” (457-462), a very useful addition, but also one that ideally might have been included in a commentary.

Alexander Jones discusses “Translating Greek Astronomy: Theon of Smyrna on the Apparent Motions of the Planets’ (465-505). Theon’s aim probably was that his text was used in the study of Plato’s work. Jones’ goal is “to nudge [the reader] to understand it [sc. Theon’s text] as an artifact whose purpose and expression also deserve study for the light they cast on the cultural and intellectual milieu of which it was a product” (465-466). After a lengthy introduction, covering several aspects of Theon’s text, Jones presents text and translation in parallel columns with a solid commentary.

The final contribution is by Stephan Heilen, ‘Translating Greco-Roman Astrological Texts: The Horoscope of Hadrian by Antigonus of Nicaea’ (507-569). He, too, presents the reader with sufficient information in the introduction, also touching on several research questions, before going to the text and his translation “based on … emic principles” (516), again in parallel columns, followed by an extensive commentary.

An appendix, containing a succinct glossary, the conventions for using brackets in the disciplines under discussion, metrological tables, and introductory literature on writing and language follows (571-582). An excellent index, conveniently divided into several parts, both pertaining to each discipline and to all subjects and historical persons touched upon, concludes the volume (585-611). The volume itself is exceedingly well presented, practically without typos that I noticed. The cohesion of the volume could have been strengthened by a collective bibliography for each section, though the choice for a bibliography for each contribution is understandable. In summary, Imhausen and Pommerening and the other contributing authors (in collaboration with the series-editors and De Gruyter, I presume) have created a book that deserves to be on the desk of anyone working in the field of translating ancient texts—not merely texts on astronomy/astrology, arithmetic, or medicine.

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