Bergstrasser’s edition and German translation of Hunain ibn Ishaq, on translations of Galen

Greek science was translated into Arabic in the 10th century, mostly by Nestorian Christians such as Hunain ibn Ishaq.  The Moslem Caliphs of that period were the Abbassids, who came from Persia, and so knew the Nestorians as their “home” Christians.  With their access to the Greek medical tradition, including the works of the 2nd century doctor Galen, they were consequently in demand as doctors.  Of course being the personal physician of an oriental despot is not without risk, and Hunain himself was imprisoned, invited to act as a poisoner, and had his library confiscated. 

But with all this, he managed to translate most of the vast output of Galen from Greek into Arabic.  He also wrote a letter to one of his patrons, discussing this process.  This is a very valuable guide to how Greek literature made it into Arabic.

A manuscript of the work was discovered at in the library of Greek texts at Agia Sophia and was printed by G. Bergstrasser, with a German translation, in 1925.  Today I received a copy of the book by InterLibrary Loan, and I have scanned and uploaded the book to, here.  I have also added a Word document of the German text, also a .txt file and a .htm file.

An English translation and critical edition by John Lamoreaux is ready for publication.  This is based on better manuscripts than Bergstrasser had.  For this we shall have to wait.  But if you can’t wait, and have some German, then you now can access Bergstrasser.

Bergstrasser himself vanished while climbing in the Alps in 1933, so his book is out of copyright in Germany, the EU and the UK.  The US copyright status is unknown to me.


The pain of being Galen; plagiarism in the ancient world

I’ve been looking at P. N. Singer’s Galen: Selected Works, which contains English translations of several of his works.  Now most of us are not interested in ancient medicine, but two of the works are interesting to students of the transmission of texts.  I refer, of course, to On my own books and The order of my own books.  Perhaps an excerpt from the start might whet the appetite?

The validity of your advice regarding the cataloguing of my extant books, Bassus, has been proved by events. I was recently in the Sandalarium, the area of Rome with the largest concentration of booksellers, where I witnessed a dispute as to whether a certain book for sale was by me or someone else. The book bore the title: Galen the doctor. Someone had bought the book under the impression that it was one of mine; someone else—a man of letters—struck by the odd form of the title, desired to know the book’s subject. On reading the first two lines he immediately tore up the inscription, saying simply: ‘This is not Galen’s language—the title is false.’ Now, the man in question had been schooled in the fundamental early education which Greek children always used to be given by teachers of grammar and rhetoric. Many of those who embark on a career in medicine or philosophy these days cannot even read properly, yet they frequent lectures on the greatest and most beautiful field of human endeavour, that is, the knowledge provided by philosophy and medicine.

This kind of laziness existed many years ago too, when I was a young man, but it had not yet reached the extreme state it has now. For this reason—and also because my books have been subject to all sorts of mutilations, whereby people in different countries publish different texts under their own names, with all sorts of cuts, additions, and alterations—I decided it would be best, first to explain the cause of these mutilations, and secondly to give an account of the content of each of my genuine works. Well, as for the fact of my books being published by many people under their own names, my dearest Bassus, you know the reason yourself: it is that they were given without inscription to friends or pupils, having been written with no thought for publication, but simply at the request of those individuals, who had desired a written record of lectures they had attended. When in the course of time some of these individuals died, their successors came into possession of the writings, liked them, and began to pass them off as their own. […] Taking them from their owners, they returned to their own countries, and after a short space of time began to perform the demonstrations in them, each in some different way. All these were eventually caught, and many of those who then recovered the works affixed my name to them. They then discovered discrepancies between these and copies in the possession of other individuals, and so sent them to me with the request that I correct them.

Since, then, as I have stated above, they were written not for publication but to fit the particular attainments and needs of those who had requested them, it follows naturally that some of them are rather extended, while others are compressed; and their styles, and indeed the actual theoretical content, vary in their completeness. Those works which were written for the parties mentioned above would obviously be neither complete nor perfectly accurate in their teaching. That was not their requirement—nor would such individuals have been able to learn the whole subject-matter accurately until they had first reached a certain basic level. Some of my predecessors gave such works the title of Outlines, others Sketches, or Introductions, Synopses, or Guides. I simply gave them to my pupils without any such inscription, and it is for that reason that when they later fell into other hands, they were given a number of different titles by different persons. Those which were sent back to me for correction I decided to inscribe with the title ‘for beginners’; and it is with these works that I shall begin.

1. Works written during the first stay in Rome

I myself did not possess copies of all those works which I had dictated to young men at the beginning of their studies, or in some cases presented to friends at their request; but when I came to Rome for the second time they were, as I have mentioned, sent to me for correction, and at that point I affixed titles including the words ‘for beginners’—Sects for beginners, for example, which should be the first book to be read by students of the art of medicine. …

I give this opening section at more length than I might, because Singer’s readable translation is now out of print and thereby inaccessible.  It is commanding substantial prices second-hand, suggesting a reprint is overdue (come on, OUP!).  But I was able to borrow a copy easily enough — it was published in the “Oxford World’s Classics” series, which is in many general libraries. 

Singer’s preface itself is a valuable introduction to ancient medicine, and a valuable corrective to the ideas that we tend to have of a doctor and his social role, based on how things are today.  The need to earn a living, to impress, to gather paying students, to build a reputation — all these were part of the equipment of the successful philosopher, and a doctor was merely a specialised philosopher.

The way in which technical works were passed around is clearly different in some respects to the process whereby literary works circulated.  But even so, doesn’t it give an interesting picture of Roman life!


Project to translate all of Galen into English

I learn from this job advert in CLASSICS-L that things are afoot in the world of Galen studies.  The Wellcome Trust – after the big pharmaceutical company, Glaxo-Wellcome (now GSK) has funded some posts to edit and translate Galen.  The idea is to translate all of Galen into English! The project is under Philip van der Eijk (personal page) at Newcastle University, and John Wilkins of Exeter is also involved.


Hunain ibn Ishaq, on the works of Galen

I was musing a little while ago about a small work by Hunain ibn Ishaq, the most important of the translators of the classics into Arabic in the 10th century.  The work was published by G. Bergstrasser with a German translation.  It lists the works of the ancient Medical writer Galen known to him, together with details of where he found manuscripts and how he went about translation. 

I was thinking that we do could with this text online.  Indeed this weekend I ordered a copy of Bergstrasser by ILL, with the thought of commissioning a translation.

Later that day I heard from Dr. John C. Lamoreaux, of the Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.  It turns out that he is in the process of producing an edition with English translation, for academic publication!  This is excellent news, and should blow the field wide open.  After all, people with knowledge of Greek rarely know Arabic.

Of course this book won’t be online because of the usual problem; that academics who want to retain their jobs must publish research, and must do so via prestigious academic publishers.  These in turn would understandably like to actually sell at least a few of the miserably short print runs — they hardly make money anyway.  But the upshot is that this research remains offline, whatever the wishes of author and publisher.

However Dr. L. has very kindly slipped me a draft copy of the book, and with his permission I hope to review it here. 


A Syriac summary of the Iliad

An interesting discussion in the BYZANS-L list on attitudes to Homer in Byzantium has produced the following fascinating comment from J. J. van Ginkel:

A very interesting reference to Homer can be found in a `pseudo-byzantine’ source. In a Syrian Orthodox Chronicle (written in a ecclesiastic context, in the Syriac language) there is a summary of the Iliad running for more than 10 pages of the text edition. Intriguing is that according to this Chronicle the Iliad was to be found in books 43 to 51 of the Chronography of Homer …

See J.-B. Chabot, Anonymi Auctoris Chronicon ad Annum Christi 1234 Pertinens I (CSCO 108 (text), 109(latin translation)), Paris 1916, 1920, pp. 66-78 (txt); 50-59 (tr)


Hunain ibn Ishaq, on text criticism

Hunain ibn Ishaq was a Nestorian Christian who was responsible for much of the translation of Greek works into Arabic, usually via a Syriac intermediate translation.   I find that a long letter of his, on the subject of the works of Galen and how he went about his task, exists.  It was published by G. Bergstrasser, Hunain ibn Ishaq. Uber der syrischen und arabischen Galen-Übersetzungen (1925), and is about 40 pages long.  I’m considering having it translated into English, if I can get hold of a copy.  The only copy for sale online is £67, which is rather a lot!  Anyone got any ideas on how to find a copy?

Interestingly it seems that Dimitri Gutas has published a book about the whole “Translation movement” of turning Greek literature into Arabic.  It’s here.  But apparently it’s big on “why” rather than “what” – the social reasons why translation was a good idea, rather than what was translated.  Drat.


Galen and his works

Who cares to read the works of an doctor of the 2nd century AD?  Well, it doesn’t matter anyway; you can’t!  Not unless you are fluent in Greek at least, anyway.  Do we care?

Those of us who have the “Indiana Jones” approach to lost texts and manuscripts cannot fail to find Galen interesting.  He’s almost a textbook case of how ancient Greek works reached us, via Arabic.  He also has much to say of interest about the way that ancient books were made and traded and forged.  Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars,1 refer to him frequently, and I’ve summarised a few of the bits.  This should whet your appetite!

Ptolemy I sought to fill the library at Alexandria.  He borrowed the official copies of the Attic tragedies from Athens, giving a massive deposit, and then chose to forfeit the deposit and keep the books.  This is recounted by Galen, 17(1).607. In their eagerness to buy all the books that existed, the librarians were frequently deceived into buying forgeries (Galen vol. 15, p. 105).

Galen attributes the confused state of one of the works of Hippocrates to marginal notes being incorporated into the main text by a copyist (vol. 15, p. 624); in vol. 17 (1) p. 634, he notes how a parallel from another writer had been written in a margin, and incorporated in the same manner.3

Galen also was very close to the text critical maxim that the more difficult reading is to be preferred (Corpus medicorum graecorum,p.178, 17-18) where he expresses a preference for old or antiquated words in the text and understands that they would have been changed into something easier if the text had been modified (ibid. 121.17-18).

The Arabic scholars investigated Galen closely, and recent research into Arabic versions has recovered a missing passage from one known text and, better still, proof that an incomprehensible passage in the Greek is because a leaf in an early copy was pulled out and reinserted backwards!  The Nestorian translator, Hunain ibn Ishaq, gives a long list of Galen’s works then extant and considers which had been translated into Syriac, which into Arabic, by whom, when, and where manuscripts of the Greek might be found.  His method of translation involves collating several manuscripts to deal with damage, a trick he learned in part from Galen himself.4

After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, William of Moerbecke became Latin archbishop of Corinth, and translated into Latin some works of Galen not now extant.

In the 19th century Minas Minoides discovered some lost essays of Galen on Mount Athos, which are today Mss. Paris. sup. gr. 634 and 635. 

Interested?  I admit that I am.  I’d like to see those passages of Galen in English.  Indeed I’d like to see that list by Hunain ibn Ishaq.

Sadly no-one has ever been interested in translating Galen.  Initially I could only find one work in translation.  Then John Wilkins of Exeter University in the UK kindly pointed out to me that some selected works were translated by Peter Singer for the Oxford World Classics series in 1997, but that’s it. 

Incidentally the little Oxford World Classics paperback is already out of print, and commanding prices from £31 upwards! This system of making minority-interest texts available in short print run book form with a fierce copyright of life+70 years seems pretty broken to me; the book may exist, but who can read it?  Luckily my local library bought it, so I should be able to get it on ILL, and will report back.

Let us hope that Galen will attract more attention, and more of it online. 

1. 3rd edition, Clarendon Press (1991).    
2.  The reference given in S&S — generally bad on references — is 17(1).607., which tells us little; which work of Galen is this?  Luckily I have the French translation of S&S, D’Homere a Erasme, translated by Pierre Petitmengin who inserted a good few and elucidates.  He gives the reference to the Kühn edition of Galen, Claudii Galeni opera omnia, 1821-33, 20 vols; the ref. is to vol. 17, 1, p.607; I have followed his lead on references above.   There is a review of Kühn’s edition in English here.  The edition is Greek with a Latin translation, and runs to over 20,000 pages!  Vol. 20 is here.
3.  S&S describes Galen as the greatest text-critical scholar of his time, and that W.G.Rutherford, A chapter in the history of annotation, London 1905, pp.47-57 is still worth reading.
4. See J.S.Wilkie, JHS 101 (1981), 145-8; S&S has further bibliography.