Translating from Arabic into Latin in Medieval Spain

A really important blog post at Quodlibeta on a very neglected subject: how did Arabic scientific knowledge get into circulation in Latin in the Middle Ages?  Read it for yourself.  I have asked for a bibliography, as I certainly want to know more!

Readers of this blog will recall my posts on Galen and Hunain ibn Ishaq; how Greek scientific knowledge got into Arabic, by means of Christian translators, first into Syriac by people like Sergius of Reshaina and Job of Edessa, and then in the 10th century across into Arabic by people like Hunain ibn Ishaq.  But the Quodlibeta post continues this, in asking what happened next!


Massive French site of translations from Latin, Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Georgian…

I’ve just come across this French site,  It contains a simply enormous amount of French translations, often with parallel original text.  Partly the site is a portal; but much is actually at the site itself.  It seems to be the work of a collective, although lots of stuff is by  Marc Szwajcer, and on the site itself.  The Armenian history Agathangelos is there.  Agapius is there — I wish I’d known, for I had to scan this myself for my own English translation.  A work by Severus Sebokht on the Astrolabe is there.  Letters of Jerome are there.

Among the gems are the poems of Claudian, and those of Sidonius Apollinaris, including his panegyric for the emperor Majorian, and his panegyric on his ineffectual successor, Anthemius.  Firmicus Maternus is there.  So is a lot of Photius.

“But what is this to me?” I hear you cry, “I don’t speak French.”  But Google translate is really very good for French.  So you really can make use of this, even so.

Stephen C. Carlson’s blog Hypotyposeis is not updated as often as it might be, so I only look in infrequently.  But I owe this tip to him.  Thank you!


Mingana manuscripts ignored, Korans placed online instead

I saw today an announcement of the Virtual Manuscripts Room at the Mingana collection in Birmingham.  This is now available here.  They’ve scanned 71 mss.  But… disaster; political correctness has struck.  They’ve ignored nearly all the collection, in favour of the stray Islamic items that Mingana picked up.  Only about a dozen Syriac and a handful of Arabic Christian mss have been digitised.  The press release doesn’t even mention non-Islamic items.

I must say that I feel gutted.  Alphone Mingana must be bewailing that he ever left his mss in Birmingham.  Edward Cadbury must be apologising to him and wishing that he had chosen his heirs with more care.

UPDATE: I’ve emailed David Pulford at the library and it seems that JISC — who funded it — is to blame for the way this was presented.  They’re doing some “Digital Islam” thing at the moment, and the press release reflected that pretty much exclusively.  Still wish we had fewer Korans and more digital Dionysius bar Salibi, tho.



Searching for books; Origen, Agapius, and the Didache in Shenouda.

My trip to the University Library at Cambridge was successful, and they did let me in. I was able to get photocopies of the Baehrens GCS edition of Origen’s Homilies on Ezechiel.  Mind you, it cost 15c per page, which made it costly and prevented me from copying the whole volume.  I wish someone with borrowing privileges would scan all these early GCS editions — they’re all out of copyright.

I also took a look at the CSCO edition of Agapius, by L. Cheikho, from 1912.  I’m not all that impressed by this; if it is using al-Makin to supplement the text then it doesn’t really say so.  The apparatus seemed rather feeble to me.  It does seem to me that a modern critical edition of this text is required.  Modern technology such as multi-spectral imaging should allow the material that was illegible in those days to be read with relative ease.

Some time ago I discussed the Arabic life of the 4th century Coptic churchman Shenouda.  This is of interest because it contains, improbably, a version of the Didache.  It was printed with a French translation in several versions by Amelineau, over a century ago.  Unfortunately all of these are offline.  CUL did have the Vie de Schnoudi volume, but had consigned it to the dungeon which is the “rare books” department.  This means that you can’t photocopy it, which makes getting a copy difficult and costly.  However the version printed in the Monuments pour servir a l’histoire de l’Egypte…, t. IV, in 2 vols, was accessible and could be copied.  The text is found on pp. 289-478; which means photocopying over 150 pages, one page at a time.  However the format is Arabic at the top, French at the bottom, and there isn’t actually that much text on each page; less than in the Patrologia Orientalis editions. 

I would have photocopied this, but a call on my mobile cut short my visit, to attend to family business.  I’ll get a copy of this another day.

Wish it didn’t cost so much, tho.



An new hero takes on the ancient astronomical works

I’ve just discovered  This site deals with Mathematics, and Mathematical Astronomy in the works of ancient writers.  It does so by getting hold of whatever texts exist and fixing the errors in the Google scans and so forth.  If you want the complete works of Hero of Alexandria, they’re here.  Archimedes, Ptolemy… likewise.  Arabic writers?  They too.  The author, Joe Leichter, writes:

I hope to make available public domain materials that are essential for the study of ancient and early modern mathematics and mathematical astronomy. Google, for example, has done some things to achieve this through its project. However, like most other efforts at digitally copying non digital materials, “mistakes were made”. For example, Google currently has several (all incomplete) versions of Teubner’s’s edition of Euclid available for download. Most of these unfortunately contain page after page that are illegible, missing, out of order or otherwise unusable.

The man is a hero.  Ancient scientific works are a horrendously neglected part of the ancient world, because they require skills and interest in both the humanities and the sciences.  Still more neglected are the Byzantine writers on this subject.

All this from a blog that I had not seen before, opuculuk by Nick Nicholas, reporting on a search that he did on the works of Chioniades.  (Nick works for the TLG, and was working on their lemmatizer, when he started to come across chunks of untranslated Arabic in the scientific works of Chioniades.  Mr. C., a 12th century writer, had been taking lessons from some Persian, so had got a whole load of jargon for his pains!)


Using to get copies of books

Once I got interested in Arabic Christian Literature, I quickly found that the only book of use was Georg Graf’s 5 volume Geschichte der arabischen christlichen Literatur, published 50 years ago by the Vatican library.  I was able to buy volumes 2-5 online, but not volume 1.  The first two volumes deal with literature up to 1500, so are really the only part that would interest readers of this blog.

In this post, I mentioned that I intended to try using the print-on-demand service,, to make a personal copy of volume 1.  Indeed I did so, and perhaps my experience will be of use to others.

My first step was to borrow the book from the library, and run it through a scanner to create a directory of images, one per page.  This took quite a while, because it’s 700-odd pages!  I used Finereader 8.0 OCR software, not to do OCR but simply to manage the scanning.  I used an OpticBook 3600 book scanner (very cheap and very fast) to scan each page. 

In FineReader you can crop the pages to the same size, and erase dots etc.  I did this, producing images with only small margins.  You can also export all the pages to create an image-only PDF, and so I did, getting a 50mb PDF.

At this point I got rather ahead of myself, and omitted a crucial step, but I found this out later. 

I opened an account on (which is free), and started to create a book.  To do this, you choose a paper size and binding.  In my case this was 7.44″ x 9.68″, perfect binding.  The site prompts you to upload a PDF, which is pretty awkward and fails a lot.  I found that I had to follow the alternative path given on the site ‘for large files’ and upload my PDF using FTP.

When I had uploaded it, the site warned me that my PDF pages were smaller than the paper size.  This meant that it would resize them.  Foolish chap that I was, I presumed they would add white space.  But this was wrong… they stretched the pages.  They were still readable, but looked a bit odd.

You’re also asked whether your book should be made available to the public for sale (with whatever markup on cost you choose); only available on a private URL; or only available to you.  I chose the latter, in case there were copyright issues.

The site allows you to design your own cover — I did this in a basic way.  You then get to see the PDF that results from all of this, which they send to a printer.  You save, and that’s it.  A link appears, offering you the chance to buy a copy yourself, which I did.  For this volume the cost price was about $22, and the postage was extra of course.  Manufacture of the book takes 3-5 days, and then the post office do their thing for however long they like.

In my case it was three weeks before it arrived.  It looked perfectly acceptable; except for the slightly stretched letters.

What I should have done, after scanning the images and cleaning and cropping them, was to pad them with whitespace myself before making the PDF.  This is something that Finereader doesn’t let you do.  But it stores the images in .tif format, so you can use other tools on them. 

Since there were 700-odd files, I wasn’t going to do this by hand!  I used a free command-line tool called ImageMagick.  I don’t know it well, but it did the trick.  I found that I needed an up-to-date version.

Now the TIF files from Finereader all include a thumbnail.  This makes them hard to work with.  What I did was write a little .com file containing a series of commands:

convert 0001.tif 0001.png

convert 0002.tif 0002.png

convert 0003.tif 0003.png


This gave errors, but converted all the pages to png format.  I had to do this, because the next step wouldn’t work if I did it on the TIF files directly.

I then wrote another batch file:

convert 0001-0.png -background white -gravity center -extent 2978x3872   0001-ok.png

convert 0002-0.png -background white -gravity center -extent 2978x3872   0002-ok.png

convert 0003-0.png -background white -gravity center -extent 2978x3872   0003-ok.png


This took all the pages and plonked each of them in the middle of a white background sized 2978 by 3872 pixels.  I knew that this was the size of the pages in the ‘print ready’ PDF that had generated (because I downloaded it, opened it in Finereader, and got the size of the image of page 1 in pixels).

Then I created a new Finereader project, read in all those PNG’s at one go, saved them as a PDF, and this time had a PDF which was of the correct dimensions.

I’ve just finished uploading that, and bought a new copy of it.  It ought to be perfect.

The PDF’s that we find on and the like are generally of low resolution, so I don’t know if they could be used for this.  I scanned Graf at 400 dpi; the PDF of Agapius that I have been looking at on was 200 dpi.  So we may all have to scan our own books.

But this clearly works.  If you need a copy of an out-of-print and unobtainable book for private research purposes, you don’t have to rely on a pile of photocopies.  We all have piles and piles of those, I know!  But no; scan them instead, save your floor space, and print them at  You could even produce compilations in this way.  You could print extracts, ring bound, with blank pages between each opening.  All sorts of things are possible.

Of course if you made them available to anyone else, you would need to be sure that they were out of copyright.  If it is in print, buy a proper copy.  But if it’s a 19th century library catalogue, this is probably a nice way to get your own copy.

8th August 2008: the printed copy arrived, and it’s perfect!


Agapius and scanned book quality

I was interested to find many volumes of the Patrologia Orientalis online at  Three of the four volumes that contain Agapius are among these.  So I downloaded PO7, which contains the section of Agapius from the birth of Christ (part 3 of 4), and printed a few pages. 

Now I’ve been doing some business trips lately. There isn’t a lot to do in a hotel during the evening, so I found myself scribbling an English translation in the margins.  I’ve decided to buy a PDA, in fact, to save myself the trouble of retyping.

However I began to get concerned at the quality of these (colour) prints.  In some cases the letters were not too clear.  At a couple of points, Agapius starts quoting Greek; and I couldn’t make out the letters!  The actual resolution seems to be 120 dpi at best.  This is way below the 400 dpi at which I scan everything myself, and isn’t really enough.

Perhaps I am missing something here, but if not, we have a problem, especially with texts in exotic alphabets.

We all know Agapius as containing an odd version of the Testimonium Flavianum.  This became widely known from an article by Shlomo Pines.  The version contained in the PO did not agree with my memory, so I went and looked up the Pines article.  It seems that Pines supplemented the PO text with quotations of Agapius in the later Arabic Christian historian, Al-Makin.  The version in Al-Makin is longer than that in the Florence ms, which alone contains this part of Agapius, and contains extra sentences.  Strictly we should refer to this as the Al-Makin version of Agapius, perhaps.


Ancient sayings literature

I collect joke books.  Most evenings I get home, tired, and I’m not really in the mood to read something heavy.  Instead I pick up a joke book, open it anywhere, read a few lines and always find something to make me smile.

Anyone who has bought joke books will be familiar with the way that the exact wording can change.  The contents of any book will vary, depending on what the author had access to.  Some jokes are attributed to famous people in one book, and are anonymous in others. 

Collections of wit and wisdom are not modern inventions.  Someone has invented the horrible term ‘gnomologia’ – literally ‘words of wisdom’ – to describe these things.  That’s enough to put anyone off!  But it means the same.  These are ancient collections of wit and wisdom.

I’ve been reading Denis Searby’s edition of the Corpus Parisinum (although the library have seen fit to only send me volume 1, the Greek text!).  I am struck by the way in which the contents of this monstrous 9th century collection of sayings, anecdotes, apophthegms (a long word for ‘bits of sage wisdom’) follow these rules also.

Joke books are a low-brow form of literature in our day, but a very popular one.  Likewise collections of sayings and wit were a popular form of literature, and occur all over the place in the manuscripts.  It is worth considering that one of Caxton’s first publications in English was a translation of an Arabic collection of wit and wisdom.  Doubtless he printed it primarily because he believed that he could sell it readily.

Some versions of the collection omit some or all of the names of the authors to whom each saying or story is attributed (the jargon for this is the ‘lemma’).  But clearly it is the wit of the saying which is important, not the specific person as a rule.  We would never criticise a joke book author for changing attribution, if it made the joke funnier, after all.

As the Greek language changed, sayings had to be rewritten.  An archaic word might dull the point of some saying; it would have to be rephrased.  Translations into Syriac and Arabic were initially very literal.  But quickly they would be rephrased or rewritten in order to work in their new context.  Impact is everything with a joke or anecdote; without it, it loses its point.  Unfunny jokes are not repeated.

Modern jokes are usually delivered orally.  There is thus an oral stage to transmission, particularly with the Arabic material, where the culture favours quotations of sententious wisdom and so is favourable to exactly this form of literature.

Other volumes are collections of anecdotes.  After-dinner stories can be  bought in most bookshops.  Again, Bar Hebraeus compiled a volume of anecdotes, published by E. Wallis Budge as “The laughable stories.”  These follow the same sorts of rules.  Many a modern story is attributed to Churchill, or Oscar Wilde.  Arabic ones tended to end up attributed to Aristotle.

Dr Searby makes a couple of interesting points about the transmission of these works.  For one thing, if we are trying to produce a critical edition, precisely what is the autograph?  In what sense is there an original?

Secondly he suggests that, within the limits given above, the transmission of the content of sayings is quite faithful. 

It’s clearly a mistake to treat these sayings collections as if they were literary works like a poem or a history.  Their nature means that they must be transmitted differently, the text is expected to be altered, is expected to have additional material added.  There is no fraud or dishonesty in this; merely the nature of the genre.

PS: After writing this I began to read the “Laughable stories”.  Saying 56: “A rich man wrote above the door of his house, ‘No evil thing may enter.’  Diogenes said, ‘Fine; but how is your wife to come in, then?'”


Severus of al-Ashmunein, Zoroaster and the “Book of the Councils” 2

In a Cairo manuscript there is a 4 page passage not present in the published text of the “Book of the Councils” by Severus of al-Ashmunein. A translator has been working on this for me, for 10 cents a word.

The first two pages have now arrived. Unfortunately they do not seem to be in English as it is normally understood. Here are a couple of examples.

“If his speech is right, grant him words and mysteries, so if he keeps that so it would be considered as a supplication. The truth testified and said also the sun was eclipsed and the eclipse from the sixth hour of the day till the ninth hour. It was not the time of eclipse but because of the afflicted. … There is also this saying from Hermes talk’s till the coming of Christ will be one thousands and five hundreds years.”

This, mind you, is from an academic with a substantial publication record. But the ‘translation’ is gibberish.

I shall have to push back and ask for it to be improved. Suggestions as to how I handle this are welcome.


Severus al-Ashmunein, Zoroaster and the “Book of the Councils”

For some time I have been tracking down references in Arabic Christian texts to the idea that Zoroaster said something like “He who doesn’t eat my body and drink my blood will not know salvation”.  (The actual idea is fairly clearly bogus).

One of the possible witnesses is a passage in Severus ibn Mukaffa’, Book of the Councils.  Severus is one of the first Christian writers to write in Arabic, and he was bishop of Al-Ashmunein (formerly Hermopolis) in Egypt in the 9th century.  He is best known for starting the collection of biographies of patriarchs which forms the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria.

Unfortunately the printed text was from a manuscript which doesn’t include this passage, but the passage can be found in a Cairo manuscript.  Georg Graf gives the following description:

“Severus ibn al-Muqaffa‘ of al-Ashmûnain (10th century) in his polemical “Book of the Councils” (= S) 2…[2] In Cairo 111 (1544 AD), ff. 268v-270v. This portion was not included in the printed edition in Patrologia Orientalis III, 2.” (Graf vol. 1. p-483-6)

A kind friend told me that Graf (almost always) refers to the Cairo MSS via the numeration of his own catalogue. This catalogue combines material from both the Coptic Patriarchate and the Coptic Museum.  Graf nr 111 is found in the Coptic Museum. Its shelf number there is Theol. 196. It is also described in Simaika’s catalogue under nr. 53. In the film collection at Brigham Young University , it is found in Roll A15-4.

I never have a lot of luck communicating with people in Egypt.  Even today the Coptic Museum isn’t on the internet!  So I tried emailing various people at BYU.

Gary Gillum of BYU has tracked down this microfilm, found someone who knows Arabic, located the relevant pages and emailed me jpgs of them, all without charge.  I am deeply grateful to him.  I think the world of scholarship owes more than we ever realise to all the people out there like Gary, who make it all possible. 

I’ve now commissioned someone to transcribe and translate the pages, which I will place online in the public domain.  Interestingly I am finding it easier to locate Arabists willing to translate than either Greek or Syriac translators.