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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
Vol. 22 No. 2 (Feb. 1935), pp533‑539.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p533  Reviews

Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, translated into English and edited by Edward Luther Stevenson, based upon Greek and Latin manuscripts and important late fifteenth and early sixteenth century printed editions, including reproductions of the maps from the Ebner Manuscript, ca. 1460, with an Introduction by Professor Joseph Fischer, (S.J.). xvi+167pp., 116 unnumbered pp. of reproductions, in folio. New York, The New York Public Library, 1932.​a

"Two hundred and fifty copies of this book have been printed on Charing handmade paper at the New York Public Library. Designed by John Archer and printed under his supervision. Collotypes by Max Jaffé of Vienna."

The external features of this sumptuous publication leave little to be desired. It is a beautiful book, elegantly printed on fine materials. The volume is further signalized by an introduction from the leading Ptolemaic scholar of this generation, Professor Joseph Fischer, S.J., of Feldkirch, Austria, who discusses briefly the chief problems of the Geography.

The occasion of the undertaking seems to have been the possession of the Ebner MS. by the New York Public Library. The reproductions of its twenty-seven maps, together with two early printed maps, occupy nearly half the volume. Concerning the MS. itself Stevenson gives us only a meagre statement in the Preface. "The Codex Ebnerianus is a copy of the Geography prepared by Donnus Nicolaus Germanus, great indeed as a geographical editor and copyist, the maps in this manuscript being largely taken as a basis for the earliest printed editions."

For further information we must turn to Fischer's recent monumental work, de Cl. Ptolemaei vita operibus geographia praesertim eiusque fatis (Claudi Ptolemaei Geographiae codex Urbinas graecus 82, tomus prodromus, Leiden, 1932), pp340‑342, where we learn that the New York MS. contains Ptolemy's Geography as translated into Latin by Jacobus Angelus (ca. 1406), followed by the twenty-seven Ptolemaic maps as revised by Donnus Nicolaus Germanus (ca. 1466). Nicolaus' chief  p534 contribution to the Ptolemaic tradition is the so‑called Donis-projection, which attempts to represent the convergence of the meridians by plotting both the upper and the lower parallel of the map in true proportion. Ptolemy's rectangular maps are thus transformed into trapezoids, and so they appear in the New York MS. Fischer shows that the maps in the famous copper-plate Roman edition of 1478 and its successors were taken from this very MS. He further identifies it with a MS. owned by Wilhelm Ebner of Nürnberg, described in 1737 by Raidelius, the first student of Ptolemaic MSS.; and it is on the basis of this identification that it is called the Codex Ebnerianus. The first page bears the heraldic plate of an early owner, which it would have been well to reproduce, as Fischer was unable to identify it. The Codex Ebnerianus is in the Lenox Library, now a part of the New York Public Library.

Only the maps and the text that directly accompanies them (VIII.3‑28) are reproduced from the MS. The rest of the Latin text is replaced by an English translation, which ends, however, after VIII.2, where the reproductions begin. The translator has thus left his task incomplete, since a Latin version in a Renaissance MS. is not a satisfactory substitute for the last chapters of the Geography, which involve many of the most vexed problems in the whole field of Ptolemaic studies.

The translation of Ptolemy's Geography is a formidable task because of its complicated technical arguments in the first book and its 8000 untractable place names which form the substance of books II‑VII. In addition to these difficulties, both Fischer and Stevenson complain of the lack of a satisfactory edition. Although the only comprehensive critical edition, by Carl Müller in the Didot series, is unfinished, I feel that the translator has exaggerated this obstacle. Even before Müller, the editors Wilberg and Nobbe were in possession of readings from representatives of the main branches of the tradition. It would have been possible to produce a fairly adequate translation by following these editions in the light of a discriminating knowledge of the problems of the text.

But instead of doing so Stevenson has based his translation "upon Greek and Latin manuscripts and important late fifteenth and early sixteenth century editions," "and, it may be further noted, upon the critical texts and studies of Wilberg and Müller" (apparently by afterthought). Since the Greek text was not printed until 1533 (by Froben at Basle), most of Stevenson's early editions must have been in Latin. Now while there is an ample medieval tradition of Ptolemy's Geography in Greek, there is no medieval tradition of it at all in Latin. The Latin texts were translated from Greek in the Renaissance, presumably, if not demonstrably, from extant Greek MSS. They are,  p535 therefore, entirely secondary and should have no place in the basis of the Geography either in Greek or in English. Their only possible value in this respect would be for suggestive interpretation, and even that would be negligible. For the scholars of the Renaissance fell short of the ancient Greeks in scientific knowledge and were unable to understand classical works well enough to contribute anything of permanent value to their interpretation. Nevertheless Stevenson seems to have used their translations extensively and to have called in Renaissance Latin texts to improve on Müller's critical Greek text, ostensibly because "no one edition is alone a safe guide." It is evident a priori that this procedure is radically wrong.

A cursory inspection of the translation proves that the claim to have used these secondary and deterior sources is only too true. We may begin with the geographical names, which "have been given as in the original Latin or Greek text." The following examples, which could be multiplied by the dozen, will illustrate how this principle is carried out: Britannicus ocean, Germanicus ocean, Hyrcanium sea, Pamphylium sea, Gangeticus bay, Tarentinus bay, Longum promontory, Longus river, Sacer river, Sacer mountain, Sacer promontory, Pulcher harbor, Herculis harbor, Herculis straight,º Herculis promontory, Atheniensium harbor, Gabrantuicorum bay, Thebae Phthiotidis, Pelasgiota. It will be observed that many words are translated into Latin instead of English. Although we grant freely that it is difficult to translate such material from one language into another, it still seems a strange expedient to translate it into a third language, unless perchance the names should be native in that language. In the above instances we cannot escape suspecting that the Greek never entered into the account, and that Stevenson found the names in Latin and left them there. But even so they are handled very unskilfully. English substantives and modified by Latin attributives, and the gender and case endings of the latter are thus left without meaning. The result is an ill-digested mess of words that make neither Latin nor English, to say nothing of Greek.

Before leaving the geographical names we must state that Stevenson's handling of them is also very inconsistent. The examples cited above are by no means followed systematically throughout the work. The same name often appears in several different linguistic and orthographical forms in the course of a single chapter. The orthography has a further tinge of Italicism, which points again to the feet of clay upon which the statue stands, viz. Myotis, Strimon, Hechatompilum, Bosphorus, Oputi (for Opuntii, Opūtij). In addition to these categories there are innumerable other errors that defy analysis and must be credited to  p536 carelessness and ignorance. Even in such commonplace matters as the names of provinces the treatment is thoroughly unsatisfactory. The table of contents for the second book is enough to set one's teeth on edge with its Hispanic Baetica, Aquitainianº Gaul, Narbonensian Gaul, Vindelica. These errors are not misprints; for the volume bears evidence of unusually accurate proofreading. There are scarcely any misplaced letters or marks of punctuation.

After this superficial inspection it is with reduced expectations that we approach the involved technical matter in the first book, in spite of the fact that even Fischer assures us in his introduction "that the English translation of Dr. Stevenson makes it easy for us to follow the arguments of Ptolemy." We may credit Fischer with having never seen the translation. The student of ancient science, who has long avoided Ptolemy's difficult Greek, will grasp at this opportunity to take a short cut; but he will be keenly disappointed when he finds the road so rough that he has to turn back. For to speak the plain truth, there is not a single paragraph that does not betray some essential and often gross error. In only the simplest passages has the translator succeeded in carrying the thought from one sentence to the next. No one could follow Ptolemy's arguments in this disguise, the expert least of all. It would be futile to try to enumerate the mistakes; for they are numberless and follow so thick and fast that it is impossible to single them out. I shall merely mention a few to demonstrate their calibre, and trust that the reader will be convinced of the rest.

In the opening paragraph of the Geography Ptolemy distinguishes geography from chorography and itemizes respectively the subjects that properly come within the scope of these sciences. The list of geographical subjects appears in two different versions in the MSS. The first edition of 1533, the standard editions of Nobbe and Müller, and probably all the editions between, print the better of these two versions: οἷον κόλπων καὶ πόλεων μεγάλων, ἐθνῶν τε καὶ ποταμῶν τῶν ἀξιολογωτέρων (I.1.2). Nevertheless Stevenson translates the other version: οἷον κωμῶν μεγάλων καὶ πόλεων μεγάλων, ἔτι δὲ ὀρῶν καὶ ποταμῶν τῶν ἀξιολογωτέρων: "such as the larger towns and great cities, the mountain ranges and the principal rivers." It is again noteworthy that this inferior version appears also in the fifteenth century editions of Jacobus Angelus' Latin translation: veluti circa maiora oppida, magnas civitates, montes etiam fluviosque insigniores.

Occasionally also Stevenson's errors seem to originate in Latin instead of Greek. In I.3.1 Ptolemy speaks of a 'straight distance' (ἰθυτενῆ διάστασιν), which is translated as "correct distance," apparently from the Latin rectam distantiam. In I.18.1, Ptolemy passes from his  p537 introductory remarks to the specific discussion of drawing the map of the world. He alludes to these preliminary topics as "matters proper to the science itself which required some explanation" (τὰ κατ’ αὐτὴν τὴν ἱστορίαν ὀφείλοντα τυχεῖν τινος ἐπιστάσεως). Out of this prosaic phrase Stevenson gets, "What is worth remembering in tradition and story," again apparently from Angelus' translation, quae iuxta traditionem historiae memoratu quodam digna fuerint.

The misunderstanding of single words often may lead to serious errors. In one such case Stevenson has certainly exposed himself to ridicule. In discussing the maps of his predecessors Ptolemy explains that Marinus preserved the correct proportion only on the parallel of Rhodes, where the ratio between a degree of longitude and a degree of latitude was about four to five (τὸν ἐπιτέταρτον ἔγγιστα λόγον, I.20.5). In Stevenson's translation this phrase appears as "almost exactly the method of Epitecartus,º" and the monstrosity is put beyond a doubt by being repeated at least twice (I.21.2; 24.2). Angelus had translated rationem fere epitetarti and so it was printed in the Roman edition of 1478, although I find that in later editions, such as that of 1490, the word sesquiquartam has been substituted.

It is impossible, however, to blame all of Stevenson's shortcomings on Jacobus Angelus; for often when the Renaissance Italian does very well, the modern American is as bad as ever. In I.14.1, Stevenson speaks of "the parallel drawn through Aromata to Prasum," whereas Ptolemy makes it a point that these two places differed 20°30′ in latitude, being situated on the east coast of Africa more than a twenty days' voyage apart. Stevenson makes this mistake by skipping from ὁ διὰ τῶν Ἀρωμάτων παράλληλος to ἀπὸ τῶν Ἀρωμάτων ἐπὶ τὸ Πράσον and omitting the dozen intervening words entirely, perhaps through homoeoteleuton.​b A similar omission occurs in I.22.2, where the fifteen words from ἐχέτω to μεσημβρινούς are passed over. In both of these instances Angelus' translation is quite sound.

An especially fertile source of error in Stevenson's translation is the failure to comprehend the syntax of words, phrases and clauses. It is of course impossible to preserve sentence structure intact in a translation; but nevertheless the relation of the ideas should in some way be reproduced. Stevenson seems to have ignored this aspect of the language a great deal of the time. For in his translation conditions and conclusions, causes and effects, statements, hypotheses and quotations are confused beyond recognition. Not only is the sentence structure completely shattered, but its disiecta membra become involved in a neighboring complex. Thus in VII.5.3 the first words τῶν δὲ περιλαμβανομένων ὑπὸ τῆς οἰκουμένης θαλασσῶν, which form a partitive genitive, are  p538 translated as a separate sentence belonging to the preceding paragraph: "The water moreover is much greater in extent than the land." Stevenson's paragraphs often divide a sentence in this manner; and the error is the more striking since in the standard editions the sentences are not only distinguished by punctuation, but also by the numbers of the sections.

But it is clear by this time that Stevenson's translation has little to do with standard editions. It ignores the best basis of Ptolemy's Geography, the most up-to‑date critical Greek texts, and resorts to what is probably the worst basis, the Renaissance Latin translations. The reason for this mistaken procedure is probably that Stevenson was especially familiar with the latter and especially ignorant of the former. As a student of the modern history of cartography, he was naturally much interested in the channels through which Ptolemy's influence reached the fertile field of modern science. At the same time he knew little about the remote origins of this influence and had no training in handling the works of antiquity — "small Latin and less Greek," to say nothing of the technique of criticism and translation. His performance in these capacities betrays the amateur and dilettante at every turn.

The translation is a complete failure. Whatever value the publication has must be sought in the reproductions of the maps, and even this is not very great. On the one hand, the Codex Ebnerianus is outranked by an autograph MS. of Nicolaus Germanus' maps in the Biblioteca Nazionale at Naples; and on the other hand the Codex Ebnerianus had already been reproduced in the copper plate maps of the Roman editions of 1478, 1490, 1507, 1508. The same plates were used apparently for all of these editions. In delineation they correspond very closely with the New York photographic reproductions; and in color they are all equivalent, since neither reproduction portrays color at all. Thus the recent reproduction only slightly improves our knowledge of a comparatively unimportant source of the Ptolemaic tradition. Even in numbers and price it offers small advantage; for it is limited to 250 copies and costs $60.00. The old editions will scarcely be less accessible.

This sumptuous publication, therefore, will be of very little use to scholar­ship. The fine materials on which it is printed are worse than wasted, because they serve to impose its miserable contents on the unsuspecting student. It is unfortunate indeed that such an incompetent undertaking should find such lavish support in this country at a time when many worthy scholar­ly projects go begging. Possibly this was not merely an incidental occurrence, but rather the result of a tendency in some quarters to regard the works of antiquity as monuments of ignorance instead of enlightenment.​c They would accordingly be unworthy of serious attention or careful study. Such a view should be vigorously  p539 protested. We hope it was through lack of due consideration and not through a fixed heresy that the present breach of scholar­ship was countenanced by so outstanding an institution as the New York Public Library.

Aubrey Diller.

Thayer's Notes:

a I am indebted to Gregory McIntosh, a historian of cartography, for alerting me to this review way back in February 2000; I finally got around to finding the article and putting it onsite more than seven years later. Professor Diller's review is for me a matter of personal vindication: see my introductory comments to my incomplete, permanently abandoned, web transcription of Stevenson's Ptolemy.

b If this is just Greek to you, gentle reader, you clearly have not spent your life buried in ancient manuscripts. In fact, it is Greek, derived from two words meaning "similar" and "ending"; it's an error of perception, usually caused by inattentiveness, in which a chunk of text gets skipped because a word is repeated and one's attention travels from the first to the second repetition of it without registering what lies between.

The police officer ran to her car, and the suspects ran to their own car, shooting an innocent bystander on the way.


The police officer ran to her car, shooting an innocent bystander on the way.

Story time. By profession for many years I was a simultaneous interpreter, and for a few of those years I was occasionally teamed up in the booth with someone who did this frequently, almost routinely, whenever she was confronted with a fast speaker: she was too slow and would grab at whatever she could catch — something like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory for those of you familiar with the classic television episode. Sometimes her result made no sense: that wasn't so bad; but sometimes it did make sense, as in my little example above: which was far worse.

c I wonder what Professor Diller would say today, where the "tendency in some quarters" has expanded considerably: many people (and far more than in 1935, too) regard the works of antiquity not even so much as monuments of ignorance, but rather — the thought of whether something might be true or not apparently never crossing their horizon of concerns — as curiously quaint but inconsequential stuff; which, however, comes in handy for dressing up their speech or their writing. Thus theaters become amphitheaters because the word sounds neat, and an axiom of Vitruvius' cribbed from some tertiary source who got it from a 17c translation is used for its "quaintness", and after all none of this matters: in a world where the most serious news of our age is boiled down to entertainment, why should anything else be different?

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