An early history of medical translation
David Tracey, Bern, Switzerland
This presentation will explore how Western medicine originated in the Mediterranean island of Kos over 2000 years ago, was lost to Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but was recovered and developed further by translators (many of whom were doctors) in the course of two spectacular translation movements. The first was centred in Baghdad (at that time a major cultural and trade centre in the Middle East), where almost all non-literary Greek books available in the Byzantine Empire were acquired and translated from Greek to Arabic from the 8th to 10th centuries. The second translation movement was located in Spanish centres such as Toledo, where extensive libraries held many of these Arabic translations as well as original texts by Arabic physicians. These texts were translated from Arabic into Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries, often by foreign scholars. These translations (together with others from monasteries and the medical school of Salerno in Italy) formed the basis of medical curricula in the earliest universities in Europe. We will also look at different approaches of mediaeval translators to their work, in particular the choice between literal and interpretive modes of translation – an ever-present dilemma faced by translators throughout history.
David Tracey worked as an academic for many years in medical schools in Australia, Germany, the UK and the USA. He started to translate medical texts while teaching in London, and now works as a freelance translator in Bern, Switzerland, where he lives with his wife Silke (a German doctor and indispensable proofreader) and their two children.