Found in Translation: A Conference on the World History of Science, ca. 1200–1600 CE

Found in Translation: A Conference on the World History of Science, ca. 1200–1600 CE

Abigail Owen and Patrick Manning, Word History Center, University of Pittsburgh; Department of History and Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
United States
From - Until
10.10.2015 - 12.10.2015
Manning, Patrick

The conference emphasizes transmission, critical interpretation, and communication, circa 1200–1600 CE. It addresses Islamic, Latin, Hebrew, African, Chinese, South Asian, Eurasian, and American scientific endeavors.

The act of translation, including scientific translation, is not neutral. As in the case of Copernicus, described below, this can include nontranslation, mistranslation, or failure to accredit a translation. Paying attention to problems and opportunities in translation has added new dimensions to the heritage of Ancient Greek, Arabic, and European scientific ties. How can perspectives from translation further change our narratives of the World History of Science?

In 2002, George Saliba, historian of Islamic science, wrote in American Scientist magazine: “medieval Islamic astronomers were not merely translators.” In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Islamic scientists such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Ibn al-Shatir developed fundamental cosmological insights hundreds of years before the European astronomer Copernicus apparently borrowed from them. Copernicus, who did not explicitly credit Arabic scientists, is usually credited with the 1543 “revolution” abolishing Aristotelian geocentrism from scientific astronomy. Beginning with a wave of translation into Arabic in the ninth century, and the founding of a center of study at Baghdad, Islamic scientists not only preserved, but developed further understanding of Ancient Greek science, through translation and critical revision of Aristotle and Galen. Similarly, as Saliba noted in American Scientist, “All of Ptolemy’s writings were critically considered almost immediately upon their introduction to the Islamic world in the ninth century.”

By considering science itself as a type of communication that is subject to translation, with all of its contexts and consequences, we can better situate the history of science within and between communities of language, faith, practice, place, and writing. In 2004, James Secord urged Historians of Science to “come to terms with diversity by understanding science as a form of communication...” [an approach that has] “the potential for creating a more effective dialogue with other historians and the wider public."

The Cambridge History of Science, Volume 2, Medieval Science, appeared in 2013. Editors Michael Shank and David Lindberg see both expanding geographic bounds and new understandings of the directionality of knowledge flows in their field of study: “new research documents the increasing number of contacts among scholars in Islamic, Byzantine, and Latin civilizations of the Middle Ages — to say nothing of Mughal India and China. These interactions — whether personal, textual, or diplomatic — are introducing much complexity into the large-scale narrative of the history of science…”

In October 2015, at the University of Pittsburgh, we continue these lines of inquiry in the fields of History of Science and World History. Topics for this conference, to be held Saturday, October 10– Monday, October 12, 2015 could include, for example:
- Sciences, exact or applied, uniting scientific insights and cultures of knowledge across linguistic or faith communities of the period 1200–1600.
- Critical interventions within historical translation communities of scientists in the medieval and Early Modern world, for example: Baghdad; Samarkand; Istanbul; Toledo; Bologna; or among Jesuits in China, the Indian Ocean, or the Americas.
- Transmission and influence of practical or tacit knowledge into written knowledge: craft-based knowledge; artisans' knowledge; or knowledge of occult natural phenomena.
- A focus on localized knowledge in literate and non-literate communities during the period 1200–1600. Community knowledge-gathering into networks (including imperial
networks) could therefore be considered a continuous process, well before the age of European expansion overseas.
- A historiographical emphasis on the historian's toolkit, including the potential for historical linguistics to assess episodes of borrowing among non-written cultures.

We are particularly interested in contributions highlighting key moments of transmission, translation, and critical interpretation across linguistic and faith communities, or across boundaries of shared practice, or shared knowledge about the natural world.

Papers should be well advanced in their development before the October 2015 conference. Edited papers from this conference will appear in a volume to be published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 2016.

This conference will be held on the campus of University of Pittsburgh, hosted by the World History Center, the Department of History, and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh. This is the third conference on themes in the World History of Science supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation. Travel and lodging costs for selected participants will be covered.

The deadline for paper proposals is March 18, 2015.
E-mail for proposals:

Please submit an abstract of approximately 300 words and a short CV. Paper abstracts should indicate a timeline for research and completing a paper by October 2015, for revision and publication by early 2016.

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