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The Eyes Have It

A visit with Mark Smith, Curators' Professor, Department of History

By Kelly Washatka
Published: - Topics: manuscript transcription printed medieval texts publication
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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.

Dr. Smith claims that he came to achieve his degrees and success with his projects through coincidence and a “series of accidents.” To hear him describe it, his educational accomplishments were merely a matter of stumbling into the right classes. One of the most influential for his future research was the Great Books Program, which introduced him to Euclid and many other classics. These works would later provide the essential background and reference material for his editing initiative. As for the project itself, which has taken up the majority of his academic career, he describes it as if the subject had merely swept him along of its own accord. Talking about The Book of Optics, he says the author, Alhacen, “was brilliant, and sometimes I had to really struggle to keep up,” but when you look at the ornate, varying script of the Latin he has to confront, as well as the innate complexity of the subject, you realize that it takes a bit of brilliance just to “keep up.”

The theories on optics in this book are “mostly about ideas of how we apprehend the world around us.” Optics, like the editing project, involves the issue of translation from the eyes to the mind; if one has sight, it is the primary way through which one takes in the world. However, studying optics involves considering more than just physical vision. For instance, with mirrors “the images are obviously not there, so that tells us we’re doing something psychologically.” Once you consider vision from a psychological point of view, grasping optics becomes even more complicated. What does it say about our understanding of the world if we interact with it primarily through sight? What could we be missing as our minds filter what our eyes see? And what about the pink elephants—those images that appear in our mind without any visual prompt? As Dr. Smith suggests, this way of looking at optics “makes the world possibly less understandable than you think it is.”

The editing and translation project has been massive in scope and time required. The first part alone took ten years, and that was only the process of deciding which of the eighteen manuscripts to select for the final edition. This step involved multiple trips to European libraries to read the source manuscripts and decipher the ways they were connected in order to create a single coherent end result for publication. This approach was necessary because many different scribes copied the manuscripts at different times, which led to some discrepancies. Decoding the links between these manuscripts “is a little bit like genetics,” as manuscripts fall into “families” based on connecting or non-connecting factors. These factors include fairly large features like colophons, which are passages inserted by the scribe at the end of the transcription, or minor details like ink color, which suggest a heavier or lighter hand. Shared errors or added notes are another way to determine the connections between manuscripts. Dr. Smith decided which of the families were the best to work with by looking for different representations of ideas in each manuscript and choosing the correct one. Several manuscripts may use the Latin word for “reflecting” whereas another may say “refracting,” and so Dr. Smith had to consider which version made sense scientifically, and apply that to his official edited version.

Once he made his selections, the actual editing began. Dr. Smith showed us some of the original text in scanned form on his computer, and it is incredibly complex and cramped. It is hard to imagine reading it in English, let alone Latin, which Dr. Smith reminded us “is a lot more compact than English.” However, it is far more complicated than merely reading the Latin and transferring it to English. To create a coherent Latin edition and English translation, Dr. Smith had to constantly refer to his marks and notations concerning which manuscript by which scribe represented the theories of the text accurately. He also had to understand and follow the corrector’s notes (the medieval equivalent of copy-editing) throughout the text, which often help clarify issues or point out connections between sections of the manuscripts.

And it's not just language that he’s deciphering; the manuscripts are also full of diagrams. They are especially prominent after the third section out of the seven that comprise the entire text, at a point where Dr. Smith had originally intended to end his work. However, when he was eventually persuaded to continue, he began to get deeply involved with making sense of these diagrams. Of this part of the analysis he observes, “I didn’t think it would be as complicated as it was, and for a while I was sorry I decided to pursue it, but I began to enjoy it.” Now he admits that the diagrams were his favorite part. A major aspect of reading them is comprehending what the medieval scholars intended to illustrate but did not have the tools to convey. For instance, even drawing an ellipse was beyond the scope of their tools at the time. Dr. Smith analyzed both the hand-drawn diagrams in the margins of the manuscripts and the descriptions of them within the text. Balancing these two, he meticulously re-created diagrams to clarify what the scholars had intended to show the reader.

As part of his overall project, it has also been important for Dr. Smith to understand the era in which these manuscripts were written. At the time they were produced, copying was becoming a major industry, involving many people, tools, and a good bit of money. The workers copying these manuscripts were called scribes, and they checked out the pecia (originals of the text held by stationers, with several peciae to each whole text), copied each one, and then went to trade in the current pecia for the next. This is where those inconsistencies occurred, resulting in the need for Dr. Smith to carefully edit the Latin version. If someone became confused about which pecia was needed next, it would completely throw off the layout of the manuscript, as indeed actually happened in one of the manuscripts with which Dr. Smith is working. This phenomenon also accounts for corrector’s comments that appear in manuscripts, as well as for the differing ink color or placement of chapter breaks. These inconsistencies remain because in the medieval period producing texts was a very expensive business; with the price of ink and parchment plus paying the many different workers, each copy amounted to a major financial investment. As Dr. Smith sums it up, in that situation “you don’t throw stuff away lightly.”

By the sixteenth century, books were being printed rather than being copied by hand, and the goal was not, as Dr. Smith puts it, to “contribute to some great intellectual project” but rather to make money. In order to appeal to a wider audience, many books, including the source for Dr. Smith’s translation, were greatly altered. Like so many medieval texts, the printed form of The Book of Optics was widely published in the late Renaissance, long after its original writing. This printed edition changed the original work into an encyclopedia of sorts, making the information more readily accessible as small pieces and concise ideas. In regard to this process, Dr. Smith argues that “when you break things into little chunks, you’re losing a great deal.” However, when the pressure is on to learn things quickly and efficiently, and there is more to learn and read every day, this reorganized type of text is the kind of material one needs, and also the form that will sell the most. The development of this for-profit industry still influences our printing world today, where we are constantly working with a world of “bytes” and small pieces.

Dr. Smith says of himself, “I’ve always liked to see how things work.” This curiosity applies to both the act of translation itself and the content of the text—but it doesn’t stop at his research. Even concerning broader topics, such as learning another language or teaching his classes, understanding the way things work technically is always at the heart of what he does. Because of this point of view, Dr. Smith doesn’t see his teaching as ending when he leaves the classroom; of his work, he explains that the main point is to “reduce it to a level that any intelligent person can understand.” When he finally cracks something, and gets to the point when he grasps its inner workings, that’s when it becomes clear how “it all fits together, and you can see that it’s really quite beautiful.”

Our modern world may seem as though it is far removed from the ideas presented in these medieval manuscripts, but their influence can be found everywhere. Optical language is abundant in society, with phrases like “I see what you mean” and words such as “introspection” or “imagination” littered throughout everyday language. The issue of sight’s connection to our apprehension of the world is emphatically worth exploring. It helps us to understand—or translate—our world a little more clearly.