Extensive cultural exchange took place from 800 to 1900. As empires expanded and borders shifted, trade and travel flourished across land and sea. Travelers and merchants moving along trade routes were frequently exposed to new environments, new ailments, and new challenges to preserving their health.
The influx of travel fostered the widespread exchange of medical approaches, practices, and treatments in response. As medical knowledge and technologies moved throughout the premodern world, concepts were translated into different languages and adapted to more suitably meet the needs of new populations.
In the newest volume of Osiris, entitled Translating Medicine across Premodern Worlds, volume editors Tara Alberts, Sietske Fransen, and Elaine Leong present a compilation of scholarship that offers a myriad of perspectives and approaches for examining translation processes in medicine. These case studies analyze translation across various cultures, regions, and time periods. As the articles show, the translation of medical knowledge was not merely a linguistic process: Translating Medicine across Premodern Worlds moves beyond textual works and their adaptation to reveal complex processes of transformation where concepts were reconstructed to fit new contexts.
Importantly, the essays advocate for a broader interpretation of translation, arguing that the acts prior to and following episodes of translation are also significant. In addition, the contributors highlight the importance of vernacular language and oral history for the practicing of medicine, and they challenge the material history of medical objects by redefining their origins or illustrating how the objects were repurposed. The final section of essays examines the experiences of the translators and healers who facilitated this type of work and its expansion.
Ultimately, each contribution—as well as the volume as a whole—is structured around the concepts of articulation and disarticulation. Articulation occurs when connections are formed or when certain aspects of a concept or text are emphasized. Conversely, disarticulation is the means by which certain information or perspectives are purposely excluded. By engaging these themes in their analyses, the volume contributors reveal inherent power structures at play in instances of medical translation as well as the interwoven nature of scientific pursuits. Some medical concepts were plainly visible while others were obscured. Collectively, the articles demonstrate how translating texts and technologies led to the erasure of certain voices, narratives, and practices.
“Translation, we contend, was at once a process of creation and destruction which formulated new hybrids, even new languages, of cure and medical practice,” the volume editors write. “By bringing into focus the importance of the diverse translation practices undertaken by a wide range of groups and individuals, and of languages and concepts hitherto marginalized in grand narratives, our volume offers new ways to think about the creation and blurring of boundaries of knowledge in moments of intercultural contact.”