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Exchange of Knowledge Through Translation: Jan Baptista Van Helmont and His Editors and Translators in the Seventeenth Century

Citation: Fransen, Sietske (2014) Exchange of Knowledge Through Translation: Jan Baptista Van Helmont and His Editors and Translators in the Seventeenth Century. Doctoral thesis, University of London.

FRANSEN, S -.pdf

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This thesis is a case study illustrating the circulation of scientific knowledge as achieved through translation in the seventeenth century. Providing the foundation of education in the liberal arts, Latin had an enormous influence on written science in the early modern period. This was evident not just on the level of the vocabulary. Latin grammar structured thought, and thereby extended the influence of the language to an epistemological level. However, the authority of Latin was increasingly contested throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. To examine this shift of authority away from Latin to the vernacular languages, and to examine the way this impacted upon both the theory and practice of science, I have focused on the Flemish physician and alchemist Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579-1644). Van Helmont provides a highly revealing case study for multiple reasons: he himself wrote in both Latin and the Dutch vernacular; he had very clear ideas about translation and its relationship to the acquisition of knowledge; finally, his works were translated into English, French and German within forty years after his death. In the first two chapters I examine Van Helmont’s use of language in the two idioms in which he published, Dutch and Latin. I compare his views about language and translation, by closely connecting them to his philosophy of the mind and his practice of (self-)translation, which turns out to deviate markedly from his own theories. Chapter 3 describes how Van Helmont’s son, Francis Mercury (1614-1698), was personally involved with almost all the posthumously printed editions and translations of his father’s works. I argue that Francis Mercury’s influence on the spread of his father’s intellectual heritage is far more extensive than has hitherto been assumed. Chapters 4 and 5 analyse the eight translations of Van Helmont’s works into English, French and German. These translations were written between 1650 and 1683. I examine them with respect to theoretical texts (Chapter 4) and practical texts (Chapter 5) in order to show that there were no clear-cut or standardized methods for translating scientific knowledge and that the translators’ interpretations had therefore a major impact on the way Van Helmont’s ideas were received in different linguistic domains.

Creators: Fransen, Sietske and
Subjects: Culture, Language & Literature
Divisions: Warburg Institute
Collections: Theses and Dissertations
  • 1 September 2014 (submitted)


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