Translating Medicine in the Premodern World

Translating Medicine in the Premodern World

Elaine Leong, Tara Alberts (University of York), Elma Brenner (Wellcome Library London), Sandra Cavallo (Royal Holloway), Sietske Fransen (University of Cambridge)


"Kruid Boek getrokken uyt Dodoneaus," "Herbal extracted from Dodoneaus." Seventeenth century. Hand-colored drawing of plant (allium genus?) pasted onto Japanese paper. The book is bound in a European fashion. The plant's name is written in Chinese characters and in Latin script, with notes in Dutch and transliterations of the Latin and Dutch name into Japanese katakana. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

In recent years, translation (broadly defined) has emerged as a central research strand. Explorations of the epistemic process and impact of knowledge translation across linguistic, geographical, and spatial boundaries are crucial in our understandings of knowledge making. Premodern medical and health-related knowledge provides a distinct and compelling case in histories of translation, knowledge transfer, and appropriation.

Understandings of the human body, and of diseases and their cure, are shaped and informed by a range of religious, cultural, environmental, and intellectual factors. Medical theories, practices, and materials, therefore, rarely cross over linguistic, cultural, or other boundaries unchanged. Communicating the concepts underpinning a medical theory in a new linguistic and cultural space means not only translating these ideas into a new language, but also explaining them so that they make sense within existing local systems of medical belief. Materials—including drugs, amulets, and surgical tools—can also change as they cross cultural boundaries: varied and changing beliefs about their meaning, proper use, and effectiveness cause them to be reimagined and reused in a range of new situations. As a result, complex systems of translation developed to enable the flow of knowledge about the human body across the global world. What kinds of knowledge easily crossed linguistic and geographical borders? What were the points of resistance and tension? How did epistemic, social, political, and economic structures impact upon “translation”? How did our historical actors “translate” embodied knowledge and hands-on practices? What roles did visual images and material objects play in the transfer and appropriation of health-related knowledge?

“Translating Medicine in the Premodern World,” a new multi-site collaborative project, aims to investigate and interrogate these questions by bringing together scholars with specialisms in the histories of scientific and medical exchange across the world c. 1350–1800. Coming together in two workshops organized around the themes “Knowledge and Practice” and "Materials, Images, Texts,” we will examine comparatively the variety of ways in which ideas about health, sickness, and the body traveled between cultures. By doing so, we will collectively explore new strategies to understand the connections and divergences between various strategies of medical translation and transmission.