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Hunayn ibn Ishaq on His Galen Translations

by John C. Lamoreaux, Editor
U of Chicago Press for Brigham Young University Press, Provo, UT, 2015
320 pp. Trade, $50 USD
ISBN: 9780842529341.

Reviewed by Rob Harle

I found this a fascinating book. In a sense the reader is transported through a 'time warp' back to both ancient Greece and to the ninth century of the current era. It was in this century that Hunayn was born, lived, and died. It is claimed that Hunayn was "the most accomplished and prolific of the ninth century translators" (p. xii).

Around this time there was a significant "translation movement" underway; this was a combined effort and collaboration by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars. The purpose: to rescue the great texts of antiquity for posterity.

Galen was among the greats of this ancient period alongside Aristotle, Plato, and Hippocrates. He wrote on many subjects as did his contemporaries; however, his main contribution was in the discipline of medicine. He wrote hundreds of books on all aspects of medicine including anatomy, illness, physiology, and treatment.

Hunayn, no less a productive 'intellectual giant,' translated a large number of Galen's texts into both Arabic and Syriac. This book is a bilingual record, or perhaps catalogue, of these translations presented for us in both English on the verso page and Arabic on the recto page. One example below will help readers of this review get an idea of Lamoreaux's translation of Hunayn's translations of Galen's work.

"Periods of Diseases
(1) This book consists of a single volume. (2) In it he [Galen] describes the four stages of diseases (that is, beginning, increase, culmination, and decline). Job has translated it. (4) I owned a copy in Greek, although I did not have time to translate it. (5) Later, I translated it into Syriac. (6) ĪsȦ translated it into Arabic (pp.68)."

Hunayn ibn Ishaq on His Galen Translations runs to 320 pages. The translations are preceded by an Introduction that is highly informative and essential for the non-specialist reader. This is followed by Outline of Hunayn's Treatise; Abbreviations; then four Appendices:

Appendix 1 – Talkhis, Takhallus, and Talakhkhus
Appendix 2 – Prosopography of Translators and Patrons
Appendix 3 – Works of Galen Mentioned by Hunayn (including their standard Latin titles, references to Kuhn's edition (where it exists), as well as references to the standard bibliographical discussions of their textual history in Arabic, Greek, Latin, and Syriac.
Appendix 4 – Inventory of Galen's Extant Works in Syriac, by Grigory Kessel

Each Appendix is a 'gold mine' of detailed information for classicists and medical history scholars. Appendix 3 alone lists over 120 precise references to the texts of Galen's books mentioned by Hunayn. This is both staggering and for me quite humbling.

As an aside, which this book in no way intended to bring to our attention, is that it exposes the folly of the current Western world's mistrust and ignorance concerning Muslims. Scholars of the three monotheistic religions of this ninth century period worked harmoniously together to save the Greek texts (especially) from being lost forever. Without this co-operation not only would many of the great treatises in human history be lost but the Renaissance probably would never have occurred.

As mentioned this book will be particularly useful for classicists and medical historians and researchers, including of course students of these disciplines. It is not a book for the general lay reader. I was a little disappointed as I naively expected to be able to read some of Galen's actual works from the early days of 'modern' medicine. I had no idea of the extent of Galen's opus, and as I have just outlined this was staggering. This is not a criticism in any way just a caution to prospective readers that this book is an essential reference work for researchers in locating Galen's works together with Hunayn's translation of their content and scope.


Last Updated 3 December 2016

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