Translators played a crucial role in the history of medieval philosophy. Since multilingualism was generally restricted to places in which a direct contact between different languages was possible, such as Byzantium, the Near East, southern Italy or Spain, the dissemination of knowledge into foreign cultures was mainly brought about by means of translation. In this conversion process various kinds of writings were involved, including the Bible, the Qur'an and liturgical and hagiographic works as well as literary and historiographic texts.

  1. Early Greek-Latin translations
  2. The science of the Arabs
  3. The Aristoteles Latinus

1. Early Greek-Latin translations

The tradition of Greek-Latin translations of philosophical and scientific texts goes back to Cicero, whose philosophical works contain some translated fragments (for example, of Plato's Timaeus), but consist for the greater part of free adaptations of some contemporary Greek models. The practice of both translation and paraphrase was continued by early Christian writers such as Marius Victorinus and Ambrose (see Patristic philosophy). As for Plato's Timaeus, the greater part of it was known to medieval thinkers through the Latin translation and commentary of Calcidius in the fourth/fifth century.

The famous debate over translation ad verbum (according to the verbal expression) and ad sensum (according to the meaning) also originated in Roman times. Jerome in the fourth century, following Cicero, was a representative of the latter method but defended literal translation when a highly authoritative text such as the Bible was at issue. Boethius in the sixth century adopted the same position with respect to the works of a renowned philosopher such as Aristotle: he translated 'word for word' the Categories, De interpretatione, Prior Analytics, Topics and Sophistici Elenchi, as well as Porphyry's Isagoge (see Porphyry). Boethius' translation strategy was followed in the Carolingian Renaissance by Johannes Scottus Eriugena, who made the Neoplatonism of the Greek Fathers accessible to Latin readers (see Carolingian Renaissance).

2. The science of the Arabs

The twelfth century was an age of revival in European science and philosophy. This cultural phenomenon was, to a large extent, a consequence of the appearance of Latin translations of a number of Greek works, and also of some writings of the Arabs in which Greek science had been incorporated and developed. The initiator of this movement was Constantine the African, a monk of Monte Cassino in the second half of the eleventh century. He was a contemporary of Alfanus, archbishop of Salerno, who translated from Greek (under the title Premnon physicon) the treatise On the Nature of Man by Nemesius of Emesa. Constantine wrote several Latin versions of Arabic works, or of Arabic translations from Greek, on medicine, the most influential of which was the Pantegni, an adaptation of Haly Abbas' Kitab al-malaki.

An intriguing personality is Adelard of Bath, active in the first half of the twelfth century; his translations include the Elements of Euclid, the Astronomical Tables of al-Khwarizmi and the Shorter Introduction to Astronomy by Abu Ma'shar, and yet he does not seem to have had a profound knowledge of Arabic. Probably these versions were made with the collaboration of Adelard's teacher, the Spanish Jew Petrus Alfonsi. It was actually in Spain that most Arabic-Latin translations originated in the course of the twelfth century. Important translators were John of Seville and Hermann of Carinthia, both of whom produced Latin versions of Abu Ma'shar's Greater Introduction (in 1135 and 1140), and Hugh of Santalla, who shared with his contemporaries a strong interest in astronomy and astrology.

3. The Aristoteles Latinus

In the second half of the twelfth century, the flourishing centre of Arabic-Latin translations was Toledo. It was here that Dominicus Gundissalinus, with the help of the Jewish scholar Avendauth, translated into Latin some parts of Avicenna's Kitab al-shifa' (see Ibn Sina). Gerard of Cremona, probably the most prolific of all medieval translators, also worked in Toledo. Apart from his Latin translations of scientific works in almost every field, Gerard made a substantial contribution to the Aristoteles Latinus, the medieval Latin version of Aristotle's works: Posterior Analytics, Physics, On the Heavens, On Generation and Corruption, Meteora I-III and the pseudo-Aristotelian Liber de causis (see Aristotelianism, medieval; Liber de causis). Meanwhile, probably before 1150, the first two of these works as well as On the Heavens, some of the Parva naturalia and Metaphysics, had been translated directly from Greek by James of Venice. Also known as 'Iacobus Veneticus Grecus', this translator probably lived in Byzantium for at least some time, like his contemporary Burgundio of Pisa, who produced a new version of Nemesius' On the Nature of Man and of several Galenic treatises (see Nemesius; Galen). In addition, Burgundio was probably responsible for the oldest Greek-Latin translations of Aristotle's On Generation and Corruption and Nicomachean Ethics, while the fourth book of the Meteora had been translated from Greek by Henricus Aristippus, archdeacon of Catania, before 1162. To Henricus we owe also a Latin version of Plato's dialogues Phaedo and Meno.

Many twelfth-century Greek-Latin translations that have come down to us are still anonymous. Sometimes it is possible, on the basis of certain similarities of style and terminology, to ascribe two or more of these versions to one and the same unknown scholar. Thus both the so-called 'Fragmentum Vaticanum' of the Physics and the 'Metaphysica Media' are probably the work of one person. Likewise, the anonymous Greek-Latin translation of Euclid's Elements seems to go back to the translator of the oldest Latin version of Ptolemy's Almagest, translated from Greek in Sicily about 1160 and so preceding Gerard of Cremona's Arabic-Latin rendering by more than ten years.

Around the turn of the century, Alfred of Sareshel, who may have learned Arabic in Spain, translated the pseudo-Aristotelian De plantis and an extract from Avicenna's Meteora. One of the most influential medieval translators was Michael Scot, active in the early thirteenth century, but the real extent of his work is not well known; attested are his versions of al-Bitruji's On the Sphere (made at Toledo with the help of 'Abuteus levita'), Aristotle's De animalibus in nineteen books (probably executed at the same place), and Avicenna's De animalibus (which must have been done in Italy, since it is dedicated to Emperor Frederick II). We cannot be as certain of his part in the translation of the huge Averroistic corpus. He certainly or probably translated into Latin Averroes' 'great' (that is, long) commentaries on the Physics, On the Heavens, On the Soul and Metaphysics, and these versions were the starting point for intensive study of those Aristotelian treatises (see Ibn Rushd). Averroes' 'middle' commentaries on the logical works were translated about the same time by William of Luna, while those on the Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetoric and Poetics were translated in this period by Hermann the German.

In the field of Greek-Latin translations, it is important to mention Robert Grosseteste for his rendering of the Nicomachean Ethics with commentaries by various authors, and of a fragment of the De caelo with Simplicius' commentary. In the second half of the thirteenth century, a number of pseudo-Aristotelian works were translated by Bartholomew of Messina at the court of Manfred, King of Sicily, while the corpus of Greek-Latin translations of Aristotle's genuine works was revised and completed by William of Moerbeke. This prolific translator, who worked in Greece and at the papal court, was responsible for the first complete Greek-Latin versions of the On the Heavens, Meteora, De animalibus, Metaphysics, Politics and Poetics. Moreover, he produced an impressive series of Latin versions of Greek commentaries on Aristotle, including In Meteora and In de sensu by Alexander of Aphrodisias, In de interpretatione by Ammonius, In de anima by Philoponus, In categorias and In de caelo by Simplicius, and In de anima by Themistius. In addition, William translated Proclus' Elements of Theology (see Proclus), Tria opuscula, In Parmenidem and In Timaeum, Alexander's De fato, several treatises of Archimedes and Eutocius, Heron's Catoptrica, Ptolemy's De analemmate and Quadripartitum and Galen's De virtute alimentorum. The Greek-Latin Galenic corpus was added to by Peter of Abano around the turn of the century and, particularly, by Nicholas of Reggio in the early fourteenth century.

See also: Aristotelianism, medieval; Aristotle Commentators; Averroism; Boethius, A.M.S.; Carolingian renaissance; Chartres, School of; Encyclopedists; Gerard of Cremona; Grosseteste, R.; Islamic philosophy: transmission into Western Europe; Patristic philosophy; Platonism, early and middle; Platonism, medieval

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

d'Alverny, M.-T. (1982) 'Translations and Translators', in R.L. Benson, G. Constable and C.D. Lanham (eds) Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 421-62. (Updates Haskins' work.)

Contamine, G. (ed.) (1989) Traduction et traducteurs au moyen âge (Translation and Translators in the Middle Ages), Paris: Éditions du CNRS. (Various kinds of translations are considered from divergent points of view, such as differences between languages, working conditions of translators and centres of translation.)

Dod, B.G. (1982) 'Aristoteles Latinus', in N. Kretzmann, A. Kenny and J. Pinborg (eds) The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 45-79. (Includes useful table of medieval Latin translations of Aristotle's works and of Greek and Arabic commentaries.)

Hamesse, J. and Fattori, M. (eds) (1990) Rencontres de cultures dans la philosophie médiévale. Traductions et traducteurs de l'antiquité tardive au XIVe siècle (The Meeting of Cultures in Medieval Philosophy: Translations and Translators from Late Antiquity through the Fourteenth Century), Louvain: Université Catholique de Louvain, and Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino. (Concentrates on the methodological problems of medieval translations of philosophical and scientific texts.)

Haskins, C.H. (1924) Studies in the History of Mediaeval Science, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Despite its age, still valuable as a source of information about translators of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries.)

Lindberg, D.C. (1978) 'The Transmission of Greek and Arabic Learning to the West', in Science in the Middle Ages, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 52-90. (A handy survey of the data concerning the translators.)

Minio-Paluello, L. (1972) Opuscula - The Latin Aristotle, Amsterdam: Hakkert. (Contains almost all the articles published before 1969 by the famous specialist in medieval Latin translations of Aristotle's works.)

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