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Translators and interpreters

Translators and interpreters have greatly impacted medical development. Some translators became famous, but many names have not been preserved. Many were not practitioners, but were central to the exchange of medical knowledge and techniques.

In the late 700s CE, a translation movement began in the Islamic world, and continued for over 300 years. Islamic leaders supported scholars in building up libraries and translating Greek texts. Prominent practitioners such as Ibn Sina also translated Greek texts. This translation movement was centred in Baghdad. The translation movement’s success resulted in a large Arabic literature. This influenced philosophical and medical exchange for hundreds of years.

The translation of Arabic texts into Latin shaped European medicine for centuries. Constantine, known as Constantine the African, was a Muslim scholar from Tunisia. He converted to Christianity and became a monk in Italy in the 1060s. His translations of Arabic texts into Latin introduced into Europe an enormous number of medical ideas from the Islamic world. These included the ancient texts of Galen, which had been lost in Europe, and works by Islamic scholars. An entire school of translators may have signed their work under their teacher’s name. This is probably true of Arabic translations attributed to Gerard of Cremona.

In Japan, interpreting for foreign visitors was passed down through families, who established medical dynasties. These interpreters translated Western medical writings into Japanese, and taught and practised medicine.


J Z Bowers Western Medical Pioneers in Feudal Japan (Baltimore: Published for Josiah Macy, Jr., Foundation, by Johns Hopkins Press, 1970)

V L Bullough, The Development of Medicine as a Profession (Basel: Karger, 1966)

C Burnett and D Jacquart (eds), Constantine the African and ‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Magūsī: The Pantegni and Related Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1994)

C H Haskins, The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Massachuetts: Harvard University Press, 1927)

R Lemay, 'Gerrard of Cremona' in C C Gillespie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York: Schribner’s Sons, 1978)