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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Book Reviews  »  Book Review: Science in Translation

Book Review: Science in Translation

By Beverly Adab | Published  06/9/2005 | Book Reviews | Recommendation:
Beverly Adab
Dr. Beverly Adab is Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies and French at Aston University, Birmingham, UK. Her research interests include Cross-cultural problems of Translation, Semiotics and Translation, Corpora and translation, Evaluation and assessmentall within Functionalist approaches with a particular interest in the Translation of Advertising. Forthcoming publications include a special edition of The Translator (St Jerome, November 2004)on the Translation of Advertising Across Cultures, as guest editor with Cristina Valdes of Oviedo, Spain. details publications
Book Review: Science in Translation
Scott L Montgomery, Science in Translation. Movements of Knowledge through Cultures and Time. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press

ISBN 0-226-53480-4

The author set himself two major targets in writing this volume. First, to present the role of translation in the dissemination, throughout history, of scientific knowledge; and second, to underpin this claim for a vital role for translation by means of case studies which illustrate its contribution to the development of Western science. The reader thus expects from the outset a major work involving breadth and depth of reading across not just centuries, but millennia, with examples from all eras. The author does not disappoint the reader, demanding though these expectations may be. There is clear evidence of a sense of mission, of personal commitment, of a long-term wide-ranging devotion to the project, which guarantees the meeting of expectations and the fulfillment of these promises. It is not possible, within the constraints of this review, to do more than hint at the wealth and complexity of the discussions offered for the enlightenment of the reader.

translated texts are sometimes the only evidence of previous texts, which have been replaced through plagiarism.
The author introduces his labour of love through a discussion of how knowledge of astronomy has been disseminated, from different cultures including ancient Greece, Syria, Persia and India, through Arab civilisations and the Roman Empire, into medieval times. According to the author, the translation of astronomy—as the oldest of sciences—constitutes a significant weight of documentary evidence of interlingual transfer, of translational norms which differ according to the receiving culture and the era. Equally importantly, translated texts are sometimes the only evidence of previous texts, which have been replaced through plagiarism; this approach to the dissemination of knowledge often resulted in the disappearance of the original text, although through reconstruction from different (translated) versions a hypothetical model of the original can be constructed. We learn how the translation of technical manuals in the Hellenistic era gave way to the study of rhetoric and the tools of persuasion as the means to humanitas and to social action through oratory, with a concomitant loss of materials conveying scientific knowledge. In the Roman empire, translation through rewriting (inventio) and as contamination (compilation of segments from different works) were two approaches adopted to the transfer of Greek literature and learning, with the aim of replacing these by Roman texts. In their narrow selection of scientific texts for translation, the Romans effectively excluded much of Greek thought—shades of Venuti and translation hegemony! Astronomy represented moral philosophy, descriptions of the universe and astrology, all of which were essential to the maintenance of a strong and far-flung empire. The benefits of enrichment to Latin through translation are not ignored,

The transfer of Greek thought into Syriac (form of Aramaic) was the precursor to its transfer into Arabic via the Syriac versions. This mediating role has been neglected as has the whole question of science in Syriac, which for the author, enjoyed a significant influence and sophistication, contributing to the linguistic diversity of the Near East. For the author, this raises issues of the cultural prestige of a language, with a shift in focus from the translated, Syriac text, back to the Greek source text as the source of 'truth,' particularly in relation to the Bible. It was in reaction to translations of astronomical discourse in Syriac that key translators began to debate the merits of different approaches to translating Greek works into Arabic, as well as, through Severus, consideration of the "local nature of knowledge" (75), with language as the medium for the substance of science.

Texts from Persia and India also contributed to Islamic astronomy, bringing together elements of Greek science, through translation into Arabic from various languages of knowledge already translated from Greek into these languages. Translation facilitated a continual exchange of knowledge. The author discusses the 'Hellenisation of Muslim intellectuals' (89) and the way in which this knowledge was adapted to the needs of Islam. Again, the choice of texts for translation was a privilege of the ruling classes, with astrology enabling prediction, alchemy promising creation and control of wealth and medicine alleviation of suffering; all of these had utilitarian purposes. This focus on 'useful' texts gave way to greater freedom for translators to select the best examples of abstract knowledge (around the 9th century). The author discusses how techniques of translation shifted as the aim and focus similarly shifted, with linguistic changes occurring in Arabic through translation. By the 11th century the major body of knowledge was, for the author, conveyed through the Arabic language.

Europe of the 13th century began to acquire scientific knowledge in part through Arabic texts, with the increase of trade with Islam and the centres of Muslim life in Toledo, Granada and Cordova, with their activities in Translation. The import of paper and writing instruments triggered a major change in reading trends and a further source for translation flourished, in the form of letters, diaries, poems etc. Linguistic and cultural enrichment ensued, although translation in Europe was more a case of individual choices, and less of royal patronage, and translators from Latin reflected more consciously on their techniques than did Arabic translators. Consistency of choices was not the norm, techniques and methods varied according to individual competences Medieval traditions and their origins, from Boethius and St Jerome, and methods ranged from literalism to interpretation. The Almagest (Arabic title of Ptolemy's Syntaxis Mathematica) is taken as a significant case study of translation from Greek into Arabic and then into Latin. Bacon (1269) reacted against the trend of translation of Greek knowledge from Arabic, preferring the original sources and querying the possibility of full transfer of knowledge into any target language. Arabic translations came to be seen as derivative and Greek sources regained an authoritative status.

The section on Science in the non-Western world takes into consideration the origins of science in modern Japan and how translators contributed to the introduction of Western knowledge, a transfer which took place under foreign influences during the 19th century in particular, by a process of adaptation and adoption, with split allegiances to different sources (e.g. both German and English for chemistry). The author situates this development in a discussion of the evolution of the Japanese language, and the influence of China in this, followed by exposure to Western languages which resulted in changes in punctuation, range of ideograms and direction of writing, what the author describes as an 'overlap of graphic-historical deposits' (198). The main interest of Japanese scientific discourse, for the author, is its accessibility to the average college-educated person, due to the nature of ideographs which highlight the etymology of the term through its components. Style and graphic richness of scientific discourse are discussed, together with cultural context and the status of European literature being translated into Japanese, mainly of scientific texts, with a concomitant attempt to 'nativise' this knowledge. The author touches on the influence of the Jesuits in the choice of texts for translation. By the early 1900s Japanese scholars were beginning to rely on knowledge of other languages for the pursuit of knowledge and by 1920 English was becoming the lingua franca for this purpose.

A chapter on Japanese Science in the making looks at different Western influences on the body of knowledge in Japanese, including Dutch, which the Japanese, through trade contacts, saw as a source language, but which was in fact a repository of translated texts from English, Latin and other languages. The need to render new concepts drove the creation of new character combinations—neologisms—based on semantic equivalents. Chemistry, botany and anatomy all inspired new translation strategies. The author concludes this chapter with a reminder of the political, literary, philosophical and scientific issues that drove linguistic change through translation.

The third section looks at the Contemporary Context, seeking to address the question of translation as "a continuing formative influence in the making of scientific knowledge" (253). The presumed universalism of scientific discourse may be an obstacle to the development of translation techniques; conversely, to consider the cultural and philosophical aspects, and the determining role of linguistic frameworks, is to accord translation of scientific texts its true weight of influence. The question of 'world Englishes' as a lingua franca for science, with the differing norms related to different forms of English, is illustrated by reference to scientific English in India, to Internet science and to geology (the latter being compared across English and French to see different stylistic features). Comparison of citation behaviour in English and Chinese highlights differences in approach, from respect of authority (greater borrowing, seen as plagiarism in the West) to textual structure and use of critical evaluation.

Finally, the author concludes with a discussion of the extent of the contribution of translation to the existing body of scientific knowledge. The history of language is seen as integral to the history of science, and the transfer of scientific knowledge across borders has generated language evolution and adaptation.

So what is gained in translation? For the author, 'no area of knowledge is entirely separable from its forms' (272). Thus linguistic change, driven by the need to transfer knowledge through translation, is a major 'gain.' Technical discourse is a language for a specific purpose, and one might expect the translator not to have to deal with issues of culture and psychology. However, as the author has demonstrated, translation of scientific knowledge over the ages has been dependent on far more than simple recreation of LSP and has given rise to shifts in styles, techniques, strategies and perceptions of the role of translation. The power of translation lies in its role as a force for innovation and adaptation, with the possibility of many texts, multiple versions and the question of the role of the 'original,' as of the role of translated text as a new 'original.' Translation has 'multiplied' science by increasing the scope and diversity of texts and discourses.

The author ends this erudite, complex and far-ranging history with a series of questions which relate to concepts of reception and interpretation, of effects and contributing factors to the process of translation, all of which continue to be central to the discipline of contemporary Translation Studies.

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