How to Translate a Recipe (2)

In my previous blog post, I discussed a recipe for a sweat potion that was used for the treatment of the plague as described by Jan Baptista van Helmont. I was surprised by the fact that the names for the ingredients were given mainly in Latin, interspersed with some Dutch, even though the entire book was in Dutch. In this current blog post I will look at the way translators dealt with this issue of a bilingual source text. Were they able to convey the correct names of ingredients to their readers?

Van Helmont’s Dutch treatise on the plague was published as the second part of his book Dageread, of which there were two German translations. The two translators worked at the same time (during the late 1670s and early 80s) in the same town, Sulzbach, on their translations, but made very different choices. The first translation was published 1681 as a separate treatise on the plague, under the title Tumulus pestis, das ist Gründlicher Ursprung der Pest. The translator, Johan Seyfrid, found a solution for the bilingual problem by giving only Latin terms in his translation, as can be seen in this image:

J. B. van Helmont, Tumulus pestis, translated  by J. Seyfrid, Sulzbach 1681, p. 325
J. B. van Helmont, Tumulus pestis, translated by J. Seyfrid, Sulzbach 1681, p. 325

Where Van Helmont had given the first ingredient as ‘Rad. Valeriane, dat is baldriaen, Ρεω in ‘t Grieks’ (= ‘Roots of Valerian, i.e. valerian, Ρεω in Greek’), Seyfrid decided to select only the Latin terminology. Seyfrid relied on the comprehensibility of Latin terms, instead of giving some explanations of the terminology in German. This is generally the case in his translation of Van Helmont’s plague treatise, as he often retained entire quotes from Van Helmont in the original Latin. This means that despite the fact that he was making a Latin text available for a German audience, he could apparently assume that his readers had some Latin knowledge, and what is more, that the generally accepted language for terminology was Latin rather than any German translation.

Christian Knorr von Rosenroth; Painter: Unknown.
Christian Knorr von Rosenroth; Artist: Unknown.

The second translator Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) saw this differently. In collaboration with Van Helmont’s son, Francis Mercury, he translated all the Latin works of Van Helmont into German. He complemented the translations of the Latin Opera omnia, with translated passages from the Dageraed, at places where the Dutch and Latin were different. This massive translation, the Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, was published in 1683, only two years after Seyfrid’s translation of the plague treatise. Nevertheless Knorr von Rosenroth took entirely different decisions than Seyfrid:

J .B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Chr. Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683, p. 658
J .B. van Helmont, Aufgang der Artzney-Kunst, translated by Chr. Knorr von Rosenroth, Sulzbach 1683, p. 658

As you can see in the fragment above, Knorr von Rosenroth translated every term into German and, on top of that, he included the Latin in brackets, just to be sure that his readers would have understood him. His translation of the first ingredient became ‘Wurzeln von Baldrian (Valerianae auf Griechisch Phu)’, what shows that Knorr did not only include a German term for valerian, but includes also the comparative Greek as given in Van Helmont.

What does this tell us about the use of Latin in vernacular recipes? Both translators thought their audiences needed the Latin to be sure about the ingredient. For Seyfrid the Latin is even sufficient. In continuation of my hypothesis at the end of my previous blog, I would say that in the seventeenth century Latin terminology was used for identification within vernacular medical texts. In other words, at a time that vernacular languages gained ground in the fields of medicine and science more general, Latin was in this way still very present. However, not so much as the language of describing actions, but as the language of definitions and terminology. What follows is that the Latin used for the ingredients  served as the untranslatable, yet comprehensible ‘language’ of terminology.

And to finish with another untranslatable phrase, although this time in German – one of my absolute favorite sentences – and entirely appropriate on this last day of the year: I wish you all ‘einen guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr’!

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Sietske Fransen (December 30, 2014). How to Translate a Recipe (2). The Recipes Project. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from

2 thoughts on “How to Translate a Recipe (2)”

  1. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

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