Pink elephants. It’s a silly image, but it’s one that Professor of History Mark Smith uses effectively to illustrate concepts in the otherwise dense material he translates. Dr. Smith works within a unique field, the history of science. There is a prominent duality in this work, as he translates medieval science into modern terms but also puts the work he translates into historical context. For the majority of his academic career, his research has concerned one single, massive editing project of The Book of Optics, which involved establishing a coherent, critical Latin text from several manuscript copies and translating it to English. The Book of Optics was written in Arabic in the eleventh century and translated to Latin in the very early thirteenth century. This work concerns not only the physical science of optics but also the philosophy behind it, which includes the process that happens when you hear or see the words “pink elephants.” Automatically, you call up a picture in your mind of a pink elephant, and that process is a key part of Dr. Smith’s work.
Anne Rudloff Stanton loves romance. She loves the way it looks, the way it sounds, and the way it smells—but only when it’s found in the margins of 14th-century books. The professor of Art History and Archaeology describes one example—a small drawing of a man leaving a woman—and she leans forward as if she were talking about a mutual friend of ours. “There’s this long sequence of the story of Moses, who, as you may not know, was married before he married Zipporah,” she begins. “He first married the daughter of the king of Ethiopia.”
Dr. Smith gives us a closer look at the process of reading manuscripts—not just the words, but the details of its transcription.
In addition to editing and translating the words in these manuscripts, Dr. Smith also had to translate and re-render the many diagrams within the text. This was one of the most challenging—and rewarding—parts of the overall process.
Dr. Smith explains some of the aspects of the early publishing world. Between the complex process of manuscripts coming and going between scribes and stationers, and the immense amount of funding and time involved in each project, it is clear that publication was no simple undertaking in the medieval period.