- Translating Nature: Cross-Cultural Histories of Early Modern Science ed. by Jaime Marroquín Arredondo and Ralph Bauer
As part of University of Pennsylvania Press’s venerable series on The Early Modern Americas, Jaime Marroquín Arredondo and Ralph Bauer have organized a thoughtfully conceived, engaging, and important volume on scientific knowledge in the early modern world. They deftly bring together a selection of new case-studies and new methodological approaches which offer a carefully balanced critique and path forward for historians of science, the environment, and empire. Taken together, Translating Nature is a reminder of what collected volumes could and should be, and will be a welcome addition to world historical scholarship. [End Page 632]
Translating Nature arrives at an opportune historiographical moment, and the editors aim to capitalize on recent trends in indigenous history, environmental studies, and global history to refocus the study of scientific knowledge. As they make clear in the introduction, their volume “contributes to current scholarship in the history of science that has challenged the notion of a scientific revolution that allegedly occurred in seventeenth-century Great Britain as the result of a radical break with tradition” (p. 2). Instead, the volume offers a series of essays which stress Iberian and indigenous roles in the history of science, and make a compelling case for new lines of inquiry which consider the sixteenth century and a transatlantic (and sometimes global) perspective as essential starting points. Though essays by Ralph Bauer, Sarah Rivett, and Christopher Parsons do offer English and French perspectives and comparisons, the heart of the volume is a deliberate attempt by the contributors to put Iberian actors back at the center of the history of science: “One of our claims in this volume is thus that the epistemic developments that led to Francis Bacon’s programmatic elaboration of a ‘new science’ were already a crucial part of the Iberian and, in general, Catholic scientific traditions emerging from their encounters with Native American ones” (p. 4). In decentering an Anglo-French scientific enlightenment and reaffirming the role of Amerindian communities in global knowledge circulation, this volume makes an important contribution to the history of empire and colonization as much as of scientific knowledge.
In their introduction, the editors outline the importance of translation as a framework for understanding cross-cultural encounters and information exchange: “This collection proposes to rethink the history of early modern science as a history not of discovery but of translation” (p. 2). As William Eamon observes in the concluding essay, “Translation is never literal; it is always a retelling” (p. 266) and as he observes, “The chapters in this volume demonstrate that the path from translation to discovery is often circuitous, hampered by imperfect communication, impeded by linguistic ignorance, distorted by religious and colonialist agendas, and thwarted by deliberate suppression of sources” (p. 266). The contributors approach translation both literally (several essays consider cases of translation across languages) and as a way for understanding how knowledge changes across cultural, political, and geographic frontiers. The great strength of the contributions is their careful attention to the production of sources and their limits for historians. Daniela Bleichmar’s essay, for instance, provides an insightful template for understanding both the translation of indigenous histories into Spanish, and the way in which the physical [End Page 633] movement of texts shaped the circulation and translation of knowledge.
To explore the problem of translation, the volume is divided into four parts, bookended by the editors’ introduction (“An Age of Translation”) and a concluding essay by William Eamon (“Lost in Translation”). Part I, “Amerindian Knowledge and Spain’s New World,” and Part II, “Amerindian Knowledge in the Atlantic World,” are not entirely discernible from one another (in practice the Spanish Americas and the Atlantic overlap too much) and provide a series of thematically and methodologically linked essays. Part I includes an excellent study of Balboa’s expedition and the role of indigenous geographic knowledge (Juan Pimentel), a new and thoughtful...