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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 95-96

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Book Review

Science in Translation:
Movements of Knowledge through Cultures and Time

Science in Translation: Movements of Knowledge through Cultures and Time. By Scott L. Montgomery (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000) 325 pp. $28.00

This ambitious and wide-ranging book argues for the "crucial role [of translation] in the history of scientific knowledge—ancient, medieval, modern—as a subject worthy of diverse inquiry" (ix). Drawing on case studies from six cultures, Montgomery gives translation causal agency: His main theme is that translation transforms texts and cultures. He might well have said "transsubstantiates," since translation, on his account, alters the substance and the form of a text. It is nothing less than "the creation of a true cultural product" (4). In Europe, for example, translation not only was "perhaps the major force" that completed "the movement from oral to written culture," but also "helped establish . . . the very idea of the author" (289).

The book has three parts. Part 1, "A History of Translating Astronomy in the West," is a valuable and up-to-date synthesis of recent scholarship on the leading early cultures that admired Greek science and philosophy. The most novel chapter is probably that on Syriac, Persian, and Indian material, often treated as a mere link between Greek and Arabic civilizations. Montgomery, however, makes a compelling case for the lengthy and thorough appropriation of Greek science by Syriac culture.

Part II is oddly titled "Science in the Non-Western World," since it treats the fundamental role of translation in the development of modern Japanese science. It opens with a discussion of written Japanese, a language that Montgomery himself translates, stressing its complex range of symbols, from Chinese ideograms to phonetic characters, and, especially, its possibilities for word formation. He argues that the history of early modern Japanese science is a history of translation. Chinese and Dutch made the initial inroads; French and German followed; English now dominates scientific teaching, research, and publication.

Part III raises important theoretical questions about the relationship between translation, science, and culture, while pointing to the wider ramifications of this inquiry. Unfortunately, Montgomery touches only superficially (and often unconvincingly) on large issues that demand more care than he provides (notably the incommensurability of translation, authorship, originality, the nature of scientific writing, and the connection between formal languages and natural ones). For example, quoting two densely formal paragraphs from an article in mathematical physics, he argues that "written English plays a crucial role here." But pace Montgomery, the highest competence in English will not suffice to understand the topic of the quotation, whereas familiarity with normed vector spaces will, even in ignorance of English.

Montgomery rightly emphasizes the pitfalls and complexities of translation, which most people do not appreciate. But he tends to overstate the extent to which the problems of Part III are specific to translation [End Page 95] rather than to communication, language itself, or representation generally. Indeed, since context is so crucial to meaning, change of context (even within the "same" language) arguably has a greater impact on meaning than change of language (see Borges' story, "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote"). 1

The book is clear and well written, notwithstanding the author's urge to split infinitives and linguistic snafus (in Greek script, Greek and Latin grammar, Arabic vocabulary, etc.). Just the same, with its interdisciplinary bibliography, the book offers a valuable resource for, and historical introduction to, the place of translation in the history of science.


Michael H. Shank
University of Wisconsin, Madison


1. Jorges Luis Borges, "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote," in idem (ed. Anthony Kerrigan), Ficciones (New York, 1962), 45-56.



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