Translating Recipes 7: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 1

By Carla Nappi

…There is not a conjunction or a preposition, and hardly an adverbial phrase, syntactic form, or inflection of voice, in human speech, that does not express some shading or other of relation which we at some moment actually feel to exist between the larger objects of our thought…We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue, a feeling of cold.

– William James, Principles of Psychology

Welcome to a new year, dear readers, and a new installment of Translating Recipes! For this week’s experiment in translation and storytelling, we’re going to begin to consider the importance of time and space in reading and translating medicinal recipes.

As readers, our experience of a story can be profoundly shaped by those textual elements that are among the easiest to overlook. Terms like “to,” “from,” “with,” “above,” “on,” and others are some of the most important linguistic technologies that we use. They orient and move bodies in time and space. They create intimacies among objects, bringing them together and tearing them apart. They create communities by situating objects relative to one another: inside/outside, above/below, possessing/possessed by, before/after. Different prepositions accomplish this in different ways. And creates proximity. If raises conditions and counterfactuals. But suggests alternatives, removes things, or places them outside. By positions things in particular spaces and times, creates motion, and specifies conditions of means and method. Taken together, prepositions make simple juxtaposition take a narrative shape, they produce directionality in time and space, and they create movement. Prepositions thus allow mere co-presence to become a story.

This Translating Recipes series has repeatedly suggested that we need to take the recipe form (or more properly speaking, the plurality and multitude of different recipe forms) seriously as a genre and mode of storytelling. In the interest of doing that, we’ll now look at the work done by prepositions in producing a recipe’s narrative. As we are focusing on Manchu recipes here, and the Manchu language doesn’t include prepositions – instead favoring postpositions or verbal suffixes – we need to turn from prepositions to the many other kinds of language-technology that did the equivalent work. As I approach the kinds of relational technologies that do work equivalent to English prepositions in Manchu, then, I’ll be talking about the kinds of terms that may more properly follow or be attached to words rather than preceding them: postpositions and tense markers.

In that spirit, the next posts will unfold in a mini-series of reflections that each take on a prepositional attitude in the context of the Manchu recipe that we’ve been variously translating and retranslating: on, while, from, etc. In each instalment of this mini-series, we’ll explore the significance of parts of recipes that we tend to take for granted by creatively translating with them in mind. Check back tomorrow for the first experiment!

Translating Recipes 6: Fluid Translation 2

By Carla Nappi

[This is the second post in a two-part series on Fluid Translation. Read the first post in the series here.]

One way of thinking about how to convey a sense of fluidity, flow, and movement to a text is to think about it in terms of musical form. Considering a text in terms of the components of a song invites thinking in terms of the structural elements used by songwriters: verse, chorus, bridge, etc. Their relations help words collectively mediate bodily movements and transformations. When we sing a text we’re making it part of our body in a way that’s beyond mere reading. Thinking about the ways that a text engenders physical transformations seems resonant, for me, with the ways that we’re thinking in this series about the kind of work that medical recipes do.

Informed by the ideas of fluidity and flow, this translation begins with the same Manchu recipe used in “Translating Recipes 2,” but renders it here into a form inspired by and modeled on Ed Sheeran’s “Bloodstream.” (also here). There are a lot of ways that I find that song inspiring for this purpose: it’s really thoughtful about making the sonic elements embody and reflect what’s happening in the story, it’s about fluids inside and outside of the body, it’s related (in a way) to drug history. Before reading the translation below, I recommend listening to “Bloodstream.”  Then, come back to the translation and you’ll hear the way that the recipe is modeled on that structure (and how it explicitly evokes some of the phrasing of “Bloodstream” as a kind of homage): imagine the “ehe horon” as a kind of humming to open the recipe. Then we move to the first verse (which is also the first part of the Manchu recipe: “To avoid a lot of poisons…”). Then a kind of pre-chorus (“Wait and rest…”). Then the chorus (“This is medicine…”). Then the second verse, which corresponds to the second part of the Manchu recipe. Then another pre-chorus, Then the chorus again. The recipe-song ends with a kind of outro (“When the poisoning inside…”).

The music and text of the original song work together to embody the story, and the recipe attempts to at least begin to do similar work. The intro sets the pacing and rhythm. The first verse introduces the context and scene, the narrator and main tropes. (This is also true of the recipe translation below.) Ideally, the language here should act like a fluid: long sentences that are melodic and flow, a careful alliteration and rhyme in the sentences. (The recipe translation only begins to get at this. The “poison/reason/season/conclusion” rhyme was chosen in part because the action that sound asks of your mouth, when pronounced, is a kind of opening up and then swallowing motion appropriate to the later action of the recipe.) The pre-chorus of the song takes the tone higher and moves to the refrain, asking the main question and explaining the problem, introducing more tropes and objects that will continue to be important to the song in later verses: the idea of red, of mind. (In the recipe translation, the “time/wine” sounds also move the register higher than it had been, and introduce the themes of waiting, time, and consumption that will recur later.) The refrain of the song brings together the argument: here, the listener realizes how the pacing and form of the song evoke the topic, with resonances between the sonic and semantic fading, bloodstream, chemicals. (The recipe translation doesn’t really do this, yet – but in a later edit that would be the goal.)

With all of this in mind, approach the following translation as a playful first draft. (Because deadlines are important, and draftiness is ok.) There are all kinds of ways that this can be refined and made much more fluid, but I offer it here as a way to open up and convey the spirit of this experiment. Thanks for journeying with me!

Ehe horon, ehe horon, ehe horon, ehe horon…
To avoid a lot of poisons,
For a myriad of reasons,
Doesn’t matter what’s the season,
You’ll come to the same conclusion.
Get a drop or two of oil ready,
It’ll help you when you’re unsteady
Spread it on your body,
On your chest and tummy.

Wait and rest ‘til some time has passed
Don’t rush it – you should never rush it.
Once you’ve given it some time
Have some food, have some wine…

This is medicine,
It’s soaking on through your skin.
When you’ve been poisoned,
Soak this oil into your skin.
Now wait until it kicks in.
Just wait until it kicks in.

When a person’s just been poisoned
Take a drug that’s made of flour
(You’ll find it elsewhere in this book)
You may throw up within an hour
After vomiting the drug you took,
Oil your belly and then take a look,
But if things are bad because you’re very poisoned,

Go and take 15, 20 drops
Mix with meat broth, or milk with butter.
Once you’ve given it some time,
Drink with water or with wine…

This is medicine,
Soak it through your belly skin.
After you’re poisoned,
Go and smear it on again.
Now wait until it kicks in.
Just wait until it kicks in.

When the poisoning inside
Doesn’t much seem to subside
Take another drop or two
If it doesn’t work then
Take another drop or two
You’ll get better

Translating Recipes 5: Fluid Translation 1

By Carla Nappi

[This is the first post in a two-part series on Fluid Translation. For the second post, check back tomorrow!]

Welcome back to the “Translating Recipes” series! For the next two posts, we’ll continue to think about the relationship between translation, recipes, and storytelling. In previous posts we’ve done that by considering what it looks like to translate a recipe into a fairy tale and a drama. Today and tomorrow, we’ll move to our third experiment: translating a recipe into a song.

The inspiration for this experiment comes from an attempt to use this series to not only challenge our assumptions about the narrative form (or lack thereof) of recipes, but also to think differently about translation. With that in mind, think with me, for a moment or two, about fluids. (By “fluid” here I don’t mean simply a synonym for one part of the liquid-solid-gas triptych that most of us have learned about when studying phase changes in elementary chemistry: I mean, instead, any stuff that flows.) The reason for this will become clear as you read.

When we think about translation, we tend to understand it in terms of a process in which static, individual entities (terms, ideas, sentences, etc.) are made equivalent to other static, individual entities. If we understand a medical recipe book as a collection of individual elements (ingredients, terms, ideas) to be changed and transposed in that way, understanding how a recipe is translated means understanding how translators equate individual elements, how they find an A (Panax ginseng), B (water), and C (spirit) that are roughly equivalent to X (orhoda), Y (muke), and Z (sukdun). A history of translation (of a recipe, for example, or of drug knowledge) thereby becomes a kind of comparative history. Like any comparative history, this approach both benefits and drawbacks: though a comparative approach lets us see new facets of something (let’s say, the English language) by putting it into a relationship with something else (let’s say, Manchu), in order to compare two things we typically need to hold them steady and solid (for example, considering “the English language” and “Manchu” as coherent objects) and ignore differences and complications within the contexts that we’re comparing. Some people refer to the latter move as “essentializing” the objects or contexts being compared.

Instead, what if we thought about translation not in terms of solid objects, but in terms of fluids? When we think about fluids and fluidity, we tend to think about motion: movement, flow. If we treated translation as an explicitly fluid process, we would emphasize flux and flow in the practice of translation: we would consider the terms, objects, and ideas of translation as always and explicitly in motion and already in the process of transformation. If we understood a medical recipe and the context from which it emerges to be fluids (rather than collections of solid entities), then the translation of a recipe becomes not a transposition of individual elements, but instead a process of redirecting flows. In that case, comparing the nature of the change from A to B is no longer the goal of the translator: instead, the goal is trying to understand the kind of work done by the flow of a recipe in a new context, the path it cuts in its new contextual ground, taking into account, perhaps, the degree of turbulence of the flow. (For the purpose of understanding our Manchu translators and the recipes they composed, the goal then is not to understand how they came up with individual Manchu things (orhoda, muke) that were equivalent to other, non-Manchu things (ginseng, water), but instead to understand how they learned to move within a language, embed themselves in its flow, and redirect that flow into another context.

Sometimes understanding and moving with that flow is just as much about the sound of words, their rhythm, the relationships they create with one another, as it is about their semantic meaning. In the case of a recipe, understanding and moving with the flow of the text is about understanding how some of those textual processes create bodily experiences, and seeking to recreate resonant experiences in a different context. Since Manchu was a medium of translation, and a language that incorporated sounds, terms, and materials from many other languages, it could be used by translators to redirect and consolidate flows from many different contexts. This is just the kind of work that our Manchu medical recipes did.

In addition to this conceptual fluidity that I’ve only just begun to introduce here, flows of fluids – water, wine, oil, breath – were also materially crucial in Manchu recipe literature. Fluids saturated human bodies: they bathed them, flowed within them, and were poured upon them. Paying careful attention to the particular ways that fluids suffused Manchu bodies and putting this into dialogue with other (not as obviously material) forms of fluidity helps us see some of the ways that fluidity provided a bridge between text and matter in this context, and possibly beyond.

How might thinking about this inform our experiment in translating Manchu recipes? Thinking in terms of fluidity allows us to conceptualize language in terms of the properties of fluids: in a text, how might language flow like water, like oil, like wine? How might we (our practices, our movements, our awareness of our experiences and the actions we take in conjunction with them) flow in time and space, and how might the language of a text enable that flow? What kinds of textual forms embody movement and fluidity? The next post in this two-part series will continue to think about recipes and their translation in these terms by experimenting with a style of translation inspired by these ideas. It will attempt to translate a Manchu recipe that we’ve seen before into musical terms, in an effort to start to get at the movement and fluidity of recipe language. Stay tuned!

Testing Drugs and Trying Cures Workshop Summary

By Ashley Buchanan and Tillman Taape

What did it mean to test a drug or try a cure in the early modern world? This was the central question for a group of scholars who gathered for a workshop at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany.  Since recipes emerged as one of the key themes throughout the workshop, and because the conference’s location in Berlin made it difficult for scholars outside of Europe to attend, we thought we might share a brief summary of the “Testing Drugs and Trying Cures” papers, in the hopes that we could bring the workshop’s key ideas and discussions to a larger audience.  What emerged from an exhilarating two days of discussion and debate was the conclusion that historians of science and medicine should not privilege experiment and experimentation as fixed categories, but should understand the multiple ways in which physicians, apothecaries, artisans, institutions, and individuals in the early modern world tested, tried, investigated, experienced, modified, observed, and measured medicinal remedies and materiae medicae.

As written forms of medical and pharmaceutical knowledge and practice, recipes played an important part in the testing of drugs and cures, and our discussion raised larger questions surrounding the nature and purpose of an early modern recipe.

A miniature depicting the Schola Medica Salernitana from a copy of Avicenna’s Canons.  From Wikimedia Commons.

Michael McVaugh’s paper opened the discussion by exploring how medieval physicians went about testing drugs. Learned doctors in the Middle Ages might appear helplessly hidebound, and inclined to follow ancient authorities over experimentation. In contrast, McVaugh showed how a group of Montpellier physicians in the fourteenth century established something of an experimental program. Medieval physicians, however, were not testing to find a cure, but to determine the quality, strength, and effectiveness of a drug as it pertained to a particular person’s complexion. McVaugh underscored an important difference in the purpose of medieval drug testing. Physicians tested not for universal effectiveness, but to determine the quality of a drug – was it hot, cold, moist, or dry.

Title page of the Academy’s Observations sur les eaux minérales (1675). From

Although it became clear in our roundtable discussion that we should be wary of labeling such practices as obvious precursors to the experimental philosophies of the Scientific Revolution, many of the papers showed that the importance of specific tests resonated throughout the early modern period. Evan Ragland’s paper, for example, traced the use of the phrase periculum facere (‘to make a trial’) in physicians’ writings on medicine, anatomy and chemistry. Similarly, Michael Bycroft showed that French physicians and chemical experts of the Académie des Sciences became increasingly interested in the exact composition of mineral waters. Contrived tests such as color indicators or the analysis of residues after evaporation increasingly became the touchstone of proper inquiry.

McVaugh, Ragland, and Bycroft’s papers all underscored the need to understand the specific nature and purpose of testing in each historical context. Continuing to emphasize the importance of historical context, Francesco Paulo de Ceglia’s paper showed just how different the purpose of testing could be in the context of seventeenth century blood miracles in the Kingdom of Naples. Catholics tested the liquefaction of the blood of their patron saint to explore the limits of nature. By discovering nature’s limits, you could then determine what was truly miraculous. Protestants, on the other hand, tested various materials and recipes to recreate the liquefaction of blood to cast doubt on the alleged miracle.

Reliquary containing a glass ampoule of San Gennaro’s blood. From La Repubblica.

In the context of testing, drugs and cures are often under scrutiny in the form of recipes detailing their production and administration. While recipes emerged from many of the papers as very important forms of knowledge, it proved virtually impossible to define exactly what a recipe was. Recipes can be very short or very detailed, ranging from a mere list of ingredients to careful step-by-step instructions. If there is one thing recipes have in common, it is the need for testing, trying, modifying and adapting to different conditions. While constructing an all-encompassing definition of a recipe proved futile, all agreed that it was fruitful to understand recipes as an important genre in early modern science and medicine.


For her investigation on the testing practices of Venetian apothecaries, Valentina Pugliano emphasized the difference between experiment and experience. Venetian apothecaries were less concerned with testing drugs (in a traditional sense) than they were with the experience or truthfulness of their ingredients. Testing by inspection, smell and taste was also important in this pharmaceutical context, to ensure that the ingredients were what the merchant had promised them to be, and not a cheap substitute with inferior properties. For Pugliano’s apothecaries, the important issue that required testing was the authenticity of the ingredients rather than the efficacy of the finished product; after all, most preparations had proved their worth since antiquity. Like McVaugh, Pugliano questioned traditional “Baconian” understandings of what it meant to experiment and test and argued for more nuanced notions of testing and trying, which included observing, measuring, evaluating, and experiencing.

Title page of Johannes Christophorus Homann’s Dissertatio inauguralis medica de medicinae cum geosophia nexu quam auspice deo prpitio (Hala Madgeburica, Hendelius, 1725). From

With early modern Europeans’ increasing forays into the New World, however, more and more materiae medicae were found which were absent from ancient medical writings. Pliny and Dioscorides were silent on such substances as guaiacum wood, Peruvian bark or New World balsam, so their medicinal properties had to be newly investigated. Antonio Barrera-Osorio and Samir Boumediene’s papers added America, or the New World, into the discussion. Both emphasized the role of new drugs and materia medica in the rise of European experimental practices. New drugs and new medicinal recipes required new ways of testing.

Antonio Barrera-Osorio’s paper argued for an empirical culture in the Spanish empire, which was well suited to respond to these challenges. He showed how his protagonists gathered information about New World remedies from natives or travellers and experimented with ways of preparing them. Some of these drugs and recipes were deemed so important for the economy and health of the empire that the Spanish crown ordered tests in hospitals all over Castile. Samir Boumediene’s paper elaborated on the issue of making workable recipes for newly discovered drugs. Once more, taste and smell were important assays, but drugs such as guaiacum and Peruvian bark were also tested on a larger scale. Dispensing them to the poor inmates of charitable hospitals (as happened in France and Germany) helped to determine their effect, and to establish recipes, which indicated how to adjust the treatment in individual cases.

Andreas Cleyer, Specimen Medicinae Sinicae (Frankfurt, 1682). From

Gianna Pomata and Marta Hanson’s paper showed how recipes also functioned as vehicles of knowledge between different cultures. Recipes, as either formula or prescription, were both found in European and Chinese medical cultures. According to Pomata and Hanson, it was the familiar genre of the recipe that facilitated the transmission of Chinese pharmacology to Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century. Similarly, Carla Nappi argued that the Manchu medicinal recipes of the Qing court were spaces of encounter and medical translation in the early modern world. Pomata, Hanson, and Nappi demonstrated how the recipe served as the common ground between European and Chinese medicine and made the translation of Chinese pulse medicine and the transmission of Chinese materia medica possible in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Although recipes are difficult to characterize as a genre, it is clear that they are fascinating objects of historical study. More often than not, they are fluid rather than fixed forms of knowledge, requiring adaptation at every turn. They bring together ingredients, practices and often practitioners from all over the world, and themselves have a tendency to aggregate into larger collections. As written manifestations of gestures and processes, they play an important part in testing, assessing and modifying drugs and cures.