Historian and physician Jacalyn Du n sighed hopefully as she clicked “submit” to publish new content on her website. Would anyone answer her call to help translate a 17th-century medical text, written in Latin, by Paolo Zacchia?
Before her retirement in 2017, Jacalyn held the Hannah Chair of the History of Medicine at the medical school at Queens University, where she worked for 30 years and specialized in hematology and historical medical research. Jacalyn had long been interested in looking to the past to understand how medical practices and techniques developed, and how they might be applied today.
She hoped Zacchia’s book, Questiones Medicales, would offer her insight. Only, it was written in Latin.
Before Jacalyn encountered Zacchia’s book, she had been researching the history of miracles as they related to the declaration of saints, and she was contracted to read samples of bone marrow belonging to a patient with debilitating leukemia who had relapsed. She was surprised to learn that the marrow belonged to a patient under consideration to be named Canada’s first saint, a woman named Marguerite d’Youville.
Her research took her to Vatican City for six weeks, where she was granted rare access to the Vatican’s archives. It was there that she kept encountering references to Zacchia, dubbed the “spiritual father of forensic medicine.” When she ordered his textbook, she realized that her own rudimentary Latin would only let her delve so far.
The text was a thick, leather- bound volume featuring gold- tooling on the spine and edges of each page—an impressive and daunting sight to behold.
“This monumental book with tiny, tiny print all in Latin was sitting on the desk and I was just overwhelmed,” Jacalyn says. “It was this gigantic mystery box, and I personally could not figure out how to decipher it.”
She soon discovered the back
of the book contained a collection of case studies where Zacchia applied his thinking and examples from the chapters. e case studies gave Jacalyn a basic understanding of the book and the topics covered, but she hesitated to rely on her own Latin skills.
To help her translate the text, Jacalyn reached out to colleagues and peers, but adoption of the project was slow. She turned, instead, to the internet, posting the case studies online, as well as sending emails to people who might know someone who would be interested.
A country away, Emma Willard’s Latin Instructor Diane McCorkle received an email forward from Dr. Robert Naeher in the history department. Was she interested in translating an old medical text? Maybe not her personally, but she knew just the group to take it on: students in her advanced Latin Literature Seminar.
An Eye to the Future
It was the 2016–17 school year, and Diane’s advanced Latin Literature Seminar class included science-minded students and an artist who was interested in the medical nature of the project. Diane connected with Jacalyn, who told her to choose a case study from her website.
Diane and her students browsed the list until they came across “consilium 45,” which read in Latin: “Puella duplici vulnusculo forcibus in oculo accepto ad Corneam penetrante, unde albugineus humor in totu effluxerat, ad invocationem B. Felicis Cantalicii, perfectiorem, quam ante haberet, visum recuperat.”
“Eww! Girl with an eye poked out—let’s do that one,” Diane says, and laughs while recalling the girls’ glee over their selection. “There were all these topics on pregnancy and childbirth and witchcraft, but the girls wanted to translate the case study about the eye.”
The class dove into translating the text. In Classical Latin, which they had studied in Latin II and AP Latin, verbs appear at the very end of each word with nothing in between. Zacchia’s writing, however, was much more straightforward and easier to read. The girls even found his work humorous at times.
“He kept saying, ‘It is much easier to empty something that has been filled than to fill something that has been emptied.’ We thought, ‘We have to get that on T-shirts,’” Diane jokes.
Once the case study
was complete, the group
was thrilled to see it
posted on Jacalyn’s web-
site, credited with their names. And Diane was elated to show the girls how an ancient language like Latin can apply to today’s world.
“Latin teachers don’t often get to expose their students to a real application of Latin without traveling to the Mediterranean,” says Diane.
Illnesses, Demons, and Witchcraft
It’s early April, and Diane’s Latin Literature Seminar students work intently at their laptops in the lower dining hall, some with plates of fruit and bagels, others with mugs of coffee and cups of juice. There is an easy banter and a general ease among the group as they share updates on different projects—an adaption of the play Amphitryon, which they would perform in their last days together; a translation of a poem about the origins of Mexico written in the style of Virgil; and the next Zacchia case study.
Some rest their chins on their hands, while others scroll and squint at their screens, thinking deeply. Two girls share eyebrow-raised glances as they discuss a piece of text. A subtle nod ends the exchange.
Given the structure of Emma’s language classes, particularly
Latin and Chinese, which offer one class at each level, these girls have known Diane and each other for four years. They collaborate confidently together and work through the dense text by “chunking” it into small sections and piecing them together at the end.
“It’s so much fun to do it this way because you have no idea what you’re going to come across,” Diane says. “It’s like walking towards something in the distance that’s fuzzy. With each step forward, it gets a little clearer until you finally understand what it says.”
This year, the girls chose case study 44, which read in Latin: “Excluditur praesumptio & suspicio veneni propinati, vel strangulationis per vim externam cujusdam incarcerati, qui cum fabas semicoctas comedisset & prae frigore intenso soculum ex carbonibus excitasset, mortuus ibi repertus est.” In short, the study delved into Zacchia’s opinion of what caused certain afflictions, from biology to witchcraft and other supernatural forces.
Christine Somerville ’18 translated a section about the causes and meanings of fevers
and chills. e project has deepened her appreciation for the subtleties found in different styles of Latin. “The shift from Classical Latin to Medieval Latin goes to show how varied and long-lasting Latin is and has been,” Christine says. “With Medieval Latin, the syntax is more like English, so
it’s more familiar but uses different words and a much different vocabulary. Reading a scholarly work like Zacchia’s versus what
we normally read has made it challenging but interesting. It’s nice to put Latin to practical use, rather than theoretical.”
Kayleen McGinnis ’18 agrees. “Latin is like a puzzle, and the words have different cases but there is no word order. You have to figure out the meaning based on the case of the words, rather than the word order,” she says.
Their translation method also keeps students guessing, as each girl works on an individual section without knowing what comes before or after her section, and there’s the complexity of identifying words versus names of people or illnesses.
“I had a paragraph that talked about illnesses that were suddenly onset and then quickly went away,” Kayleen says. “[Zacchia] explained how that doesn’t happen in nature, so those are caused by demons
and magic and sorcery. But when you’re translating, it’s hard to get the general idea because you’re so focused on the individual words.”
The girls rely on Diane for support during the translation process. She listens thoughtfully while debating word choice and structure.
Together, and then often separately “for fun” in their own time, Diane and her most curious students look up words in Latin and Old English dictionaries to learn all of their meanings and find context clues to determine which translation is best.
“I’m a perfectionist, and I hate the idea that anything could ever end up with an error,” Diane says. “Linguistic research is so much fun because it doesn’t deal with big ideas. You learn so many words when you look up other words.”
Latin is a Dance
When Diane’s class completed their rough translation of case study 44, the novelty of what they had done was profound.
“In many ways, other than
the amount of experience I have, my students are just as skilled as I am at analyzing texts because they know how to do it, and they are the kind of people who enjoy that sort of thing,” she says.
The project has imparted
two rare skills: reading Latin at a higher level and being well- practiced in reasoning. While most of the texts they read in class have been discussed by scholars for hundreds of years and have “answers,” the Zacchia project required the girls to discuss, explain, and ultimately decide how to translate the work.
“Translating Latin is a dance between certainty and uncertainty; a word has a specific form, and you must respect that form. However, you also need to be open-minded,” Diane says.
Once the translation is polished, Jacalyn will publish
it on her website. At first unsure that anyone would take on the translations, Jacalyn expressed her gratitude for Diane and her class, saying, “This is way more than I ever thought when I set out with this project.”
Diane says her next Latin Literature Seminar will translate another case study. “I want to be involved in it for as long as it is available, and if it were to end, I would seek out more opportunities to translate texts that have not ever been translated,” Diane says. “I think it is such a worthy undertaking.”