Hebrew translation techniques

Just as Arabic translators before them, Hebrew translators had to develop new Hebrew vocabulary to render medical terminology. They resorted to Biblical and Rabbinical Hebrew terms and used loan translations, employing existing Hebrew terms with a different meaning. They also created neologisms, used transliterations of Arabic and Romance words, or explained terms (see for instance Zonta 2003, Bos 2008 and 2013, and Ferre and Martinez Delgado 2015). Ferre has drawn attention to the fact that not all translators had the necessary language skills, and some were physicians who felt ill prepared for translation (Ferre 1998). This is illustrated by a quote from Samuel Ben Judah, saying T have left many places blank and free of one or more words and lines because of my limited knowledge and insufficient grasp of the Arabic language in addition to its uncommon subject matter’ (Berman 1967: 305). In turn, both he and his son Samuel ‘criticised their rival translators for subordinating meaning to language and style, failing to accurately reproduce difficult philosophical notions in their paraphrastic translations’ (Robinson 2005: 822). Shem Tov in the introduction of his translation of the Arabic Pseudo-Palladius commentary (written in 1268) apologises that he translated this text when he was old, which may have led to errors (Pormann et al. 2007: 303). This is not to say that the translation is of poor quality; in fact, it follows the Arabic closely. An anonymous translator made a different Hebrew translation of the same Pseudo-Palladius commentary which is preserved in Vatican Library manuscript ebr.567, perhaps because they disliked the first translation, but no evidence for this exists. The medical vocabulary of these two translations differs in some instances.

Future directions

Each of the different aspects of medical translation into Arabic and Hebrew introduced in this chapter represent avenues for further research. For instance, we can learn more about how medical translations influenced medical research, and how evolving medical understanding affected the use of medical terms that had entered medical discourse during the translation period. In terms of translation technique, the work that has been done on some Greco-Arabic translators can be expanded further to include more translators and translations, and also to make comparisons with contemporary translations from other languages such as Persian. The same goes for the translation techniques in translations into Hebrew, and the effects of those translations on scholarship. These medical translations offer rich sources for the study of the development of medieval scholarly Hebrew. Some of the work ahead is of a philological nature, as many translations are preserved in manuscripts that have not yet been edited and have unidentified authorship. Here scholars first need to engage in textual criticism before they can continue to address questions of translation techniques and impact, while knowledge of such techniques also aids in the establishing of the text and authorship attribution.


The translations discussed in this chapter show the relationship between medical scholarship and translation in the Middle East and Europe throughout history. On the one hand, the presence of committed medical scholars and intellectual activities in both Baghdad and Southern France required translation activity in places where the use of language had changed. On the other hand, these translations also encouraged such activities and stimulated medical scholarship to an unparalleled extent. In Southern Europe, Jewish physicians were able to access Arabic texts in Hebrew translations which their Christian colleagues had already been able to use in Latin translation. This in turn allowed them to provide medical services to Jewish patients who previously may have relied on Christian physicians. Where in the case of Southern France, scholarly works were imported from Andalusia and tended to be new material for the Jewish communities, the situation was different in the classical Islamic world. Here, unlike myths such as those about caliph al-Ma’mûn that made it seem that the medical scholarship was foreign to the new Islamic Empire, the medical texts were already present inside the ‘Abbasid Empire in the ancient centres of learning, such as Alexandria and Damascus, and physicians in the region had already been using them in Greek and Syriac. The Arabic translations thus enabled a continuation of medical practices rather than the import of a new tradition. Greek medical texts, especially those that were part of the so-called Alexandrian curriculum, became of central importance in classical Islamic medical education. Medical students in Baghdad studied the works of Hippocrates and Galen in Arabic with their teachers, and physicians used them as reference works and also contributed to them with new medical findings presented for instance in commentaries, such as those on Hippocrates’ Epidemics and Aphorisms. Greek medical ideas, such as Hippocrates’ humoural pathology and Galenic physiology, continued to be influential in the region through the translation of Greek texts and the inclusion of this translated material in new Arabic scholarship. Islamic scholars incorporated this material, sometimes improving on the Galenic theories and at other times rejecting them completely when new empirical evidence turned out to contradict them. The medieval translations of Arabic medical texts and Arabic translations of Greek medical texts into Latin and Hebrew made this scholarship accessible to European students and practitioners of medicine.

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