Tracing the wisdom of the world

To be able to communicate the content of the philosophy of Aristotle, the mathematics of Euclid and the message of the Bible, translators have created a wealth of new words and concepts that previously did not exist. A database of historically important texts and their translations – developed at the University of Oslo – is now being used by researchers all over the world.


­EUCLID: The mathematician’s book The Elements has exerted a massive influence on Western thought. This is an excerpt from Sir Henry Billingsley’s first English version of Euclid’s The Elements, from 1570.


“We are studying how concepts and ideas have spread to other languages and cultures through translations. Because when they are translated, entire systems of concepts and knowledge are transferred en bloc to another language,” says Jens Braarvig, Professor of History of Religion at the University of Oslo – himself a translator of literature written in Greek, Sanskrit, Accadian and Sumerian.

Braarvig heads the research project Multilingualism, Linguae Francae and the global history of scientific concepts, which publishes key texts in their original language, along with a growing number of translations, in the form they were made throughout history.

Some texts have been awarded an especially prominent position – and these have been translated numerous times.

Texts that are important to society

“We are studying the groundbreaking texts in world history through their multilingualism – texts that have represented a religious, political, philosophical and scientific interest to those in power, for religious leaders, for scientists and philosophers. Our thesis is that during periods when translations are made, the texts are read thoroughly and understood, they are interpreted and applied, because societies and their leaders need the knowledge embedded in them,” Braarvig points out.

Among the periods of intellectual ferment in world history – and the focus of the researchers’ studies – are the translations from Greek to Arabic in the flourishing intellectual culture of the Arab world from the early ninth century onwards, but also the translations into Old German and Middle German from the year 1000 onwards, as well as translations from both Greek and Arabic into Latin.

Through translations, Europe reclaimed the classical, Latin culture as its own. What is remarkable are all the Latin translations from Arabic, texts that were to have a major impact on European academic life.

The researchers study when the texts were translated and how they have transformed other languages and given rise to new terminologies. For example, they see how translations of the writings of Aristotle into Latin created a particular type of Latin, as we can glean form Cicero’s translation of the famous Platonic dialogue Timaeus. In the late 10th century, the devout German monk Notker Labeo translated Aristotle into Old German, and he created a whole series of new words that came to be part of the later German language right up until today – words that could communicate the sophisticated logic of the philosophers of antiquity. The concepts they used did not exist in the old Germanic languages. The translations of Aristotle into French and English also engendered a plethora of new words in these languages, in the same way the philosophy and science of antiquity influenced and enriched the Arabic language and culture.

TRANSLATIONS: “Using the database we have developed, we can see how concepts and whole knowledge systems have spread through history and how the translated texts give rise to new idea structures in other languages and cultures,” Jens Braarvig says. (Photo: Ola Sæther)

Bibliotheca Polyglotta

About four to five years ago, Braarvig started to produce a text database for the project, for which he did the programming himself. The database, the corpus, which is available online, has been named Bibliotheca Polyglotta.

“Over the last years, the database has been refined by the skilled computer section at our faculty. The texts we have added include The Elements by the Greek mathematician Euclid, who lived in the 4th century BCE. Next to the Bible, the text is assumed to be the most frequently translated work in Europe until the 19th century – it was part of the school curriculum for more than 2000 years and read by Europe’s great scholars. It is self-evident that this text has had an essential impact on Western thinking – especially in terms of the natural sciences, but also for logic and consistent thinking in general, with its clear and rational statements and proofs,” Braarvig points out.

The corpus contains the original version in Greek, translations into Latin from Greek, into Latin from Arabic, into Arabic from Greek and revisions of the Arabic version, into Persian from Arabic, into Sanskrit from Persian and Arabic, into Latin with commentaries from Greek, into Chinese from Latin – and into modern English. Through the translations, we can trace how the conceptual system developed by Euclid, the figures and mathematical knowledge structures have been communicated, as well as the people who did the translating: For example, the translation into Chinese was made in 1602 by the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who wanted to impress the empire so as to persuade them to embrace Christianity. As in this case, religion was often the driving force behind the communication of knowledge.

The consolations of philosophy

“A highly interesting work that we are also preparing for publication online is The Consolations of Philosophy (Consolatio philosophiae), written around 525 CE by the Roman author Boëthius. This book was immensely popular in the Middle Ages, and innumerable translations exist. The knowledge of Greek eroded in the Roman Empire, and Boëthius wanted to preserve classical knowledge, especially philosophy, through translation. It was he who translated Aristotle into Latin. For several centuries, Boëthius was the only source of the philosophy and mythology of antiquity.”

The Bibliotheca Polyglotta contains the original version of the book in Latin, as well as the translation into Old German, which was made in 1022 by Notker Labeo, who also translated Aristotle and parts of the Bible into Old German. The translation into Old French was made just before the year 1300 by the French author Jean de Meun, the translation into Middle English by the poet Geoffrey Chaucer at the same time, and the one into early modern English by Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. The book also exists in a large number of other translations, and it has communicated the concepts of antiquity to the Europeans of the Middle Ages, often with a view to education and enlightenment:

“King Alfred the Great had the book translated into Old English to better enable his functionaries to perform their duties. We can see that those in power have often provided both resources and favourable conditions to scholars, to enable their subjects to participate in what was perceived as the global culture of the era,” Braarvig says.

Buddhist literature

The professor emphasizes that the Bibliotheca Polyglotta and the projects affiliated with the corpus would not be global if they had failed to integrate also the other large linguae francae and their impact on other cultures.

“Classical Buddhist literature is a prime example of a clearly defined knowledge paradigm, conceived through the Old Indian language of Sanskrit. Through translations, the Buddhist philosophical systems have pervaded the entire East Asian culture through the millennia. The Bibliotheca Polyglotta contains a number of key Buddhist manuscripts – original Sanskrit texts translated into or rendered in Chinese, Tibetan and English. This part of the corpus is being used with especial frequency by researchers from all over the world.

 As early as the end of the first century CE, work began on translating the classical Buddhist literature from Sanskrit into Chinese – and it continued for nearly a thousand years. The first translations into Tibetan started around 700 CE, after which they went on for nearly 600 years.

“We are often astounded to see the vast resources that the Chinese and Tibetan kings and emperors devoted to studies, translations and book production. It only serves to emphasize the historical importance of translations.”

The translations had a huge impact on the Chinese and Tibetan languages:

“Tibetan was recast in a completely new mould. Chinese gained masses of new words that remain in use today. I often say that the Chinese are Buddhists – they just don’t know it themselves. Even modern Chinese, as well as Japanese and Korean, are full of Buddhist idioms, meaning expressions and turns of phrase that characterize the language. From the sacred, clerical language of Tibetan, new words have continuously percolated into the vernacular through the ages – concepts with roots in Indian philosophy. We can thus use our methods to monitor how concepts have migrated and how they have created new idea structures in other languages and cultures. In the Bibliotheca Polyglotta, we have an important historical tool we can use to follow human thought through different cultural epochs and geographical regions.”

Through times and landscapes

Braarvig points out that the large web-based corpus of texts and translations is a suitable instrument for communicating the humanities.

“Our corpus is an aid to describing how knowledge has spread through periods and countries; it shows the translation history of the various texts, as well as how the texts were used in the cultures that received them. Our plan is to document these ‘translation movements’ with temporal maps,” he explains.


“Reading multi-language versions as we do is also an efficient way to learn languages. The corpus is thus a publication engine, a search engine and an engine for learning. It can be used in seminars to publish results directly online – provided that you have a password, and anybody who is interested can have one. The Bibliotheca Polyglotta is a kind of phrase encyclopaedia where you can search for any word and find the context where the word is found. As such, this Internet application also provides a number of opportunities for linguists, in terms of grammatical analyses and lexicography, and we are doing our best to develop these further. In this way, we wish to combine the linguistic aspects with corpus studies of historical aspects and cultural analysis. Or in other words: We attempt to combine the grammatical studies of the texts with the understanding of what they mean.”

By Trine Nickelsen
Published June 4, 2013 2:20 PM - Last modified June 4, 2013 2:20 PM