In Translating Nature, editors Jaime Marroquín Arredondo and Ralph Bauer argue that the history of early modern natural science is “multi-centered, transcultural, and transoceanic in character and born from an age of translation” (23). The volume begins with part 1, “Amerindian Knowledge and Spain's New World,” blurring conquistadores and natural historians to focus on European reliance on indigenous Americans’ expertise. Juan Pimentel's vividly written “Sighting and Haunting of the South Sea” focuses on concealments and ellipses in records of Vasco Núñez de Balboa's (1475–1519) so-called discovery of the South Sea. Discovery, Pimentel argues, “sheds light on certain facts at the cost of casting shadows on others” (44). In the same vein, Marroquín Arredondo's and Luis Millones Figueroa's respective chapters on doctor Francisco Hernández (1514–87) and Bernabé Cobo (1582–1657) aim to reveal the Nahua and Quechua knowledge behind the methods, findings, and writings of the scholars based in New Spain and Peru. The authors juxtapose canonical discoveries with the incessant knowledge gathering by natural historians, using the latter to dilute the former.
In part 2, “Amerindian Knowledge in the Atlantic World,” translation emerges as a constant adjustment of meanings across writing systems, languages, cultures, and ways of knowing. Daniela Bleichmar's masterful essay “Pictorial Knowledge on the Move” follows the Codex Mendoza from its making by Nahua painter-scribes to its many printed incarnations in the natural histories of Europe. The Codex became a “changeling object,” whose many “trajectories and transformations bring into question its ontological stability” (118). Similarly, Marcy Norton's chapter on the quetzal bird traces the lingering presence of Mesoamerican ideas in English ornithology to argue that, even in the heart of London's scientific establishment, natural histories depended on indigenous knowledge. In her article, Sarah Rivett turns to an extensive manuscript dictionary archive produced as missionaries attempted to learn indigenous North American languages. She argues that “early eighteenth-century missionary linguistics made remarkable strides toward recognizing the cultural relativity of language at precisely the moment that the philosophical value of this knowledge decreased in Atlantic economies of exchange” (149). Knowledge transfers in the Spanish, French, and British Atlantic erased as much as they remembered.
Part 3, “American Nature and the Politics of Translation,” uses the methods of book history, paying special attention to the publication of materials from Spain's empire in England. Ralph Bauer's chapter, “The Crucible of the Tropics,” begins by turning back to 1970 to question Raymond Stearns's characterization of Spanish Catholic science as the “old science,” while the “new science” emerged in the British American colonies (172). Bauer concludes from English translations of the Spanish naturalist Oviedo (1478–1557) that Spanish imperial ideas “provided the models on which a ‘new’ (Baconian) science would be built in England by synthesizing Aristotelian naturalism with the Christian rhetorical model of eyewitness” (187). While Bauer focuses on print histories, John Slater turns to manuscripts, drawing attention to Bernardo de Cienfuegos (1580–1640), a lesser-known scholar of botany and medicine. He argues that the publication of Iberian natural histories at the end of the sixteenth century was but a fifteen-year boomlet before a rift opened between Low Countries and Iberian authors in which serious Spanish authors turned to manuscript rather than print. Finally, in her essay on climate theory in the early colonial Atlantic, Sara Miglietti dexterously turns to the relaciones manuscript tradition rather than printed books alone, arguing that questionnaires had the surprising effect of “calling into question long-standing epistemic paradigms” (219).
The volume's final part, “Translation in the Transoceanic Enlightenment,” turns to the French Atlantic and the Spanish Pacific. Christopher Parson's chapter provides a close reading of a fourteen-page botanical memoir focused on Île Royale—what is now Cape Breton Island—and the transmission of natural findings to the French metropole. In contrast to the textual methods that predominate in this volume, medicinal plants and their transferability play a role in this analysis of how indigenous knowledge informed local naturalist knowledge that, in turn, passed imperfectly to academic science in Paris. Ruth Hill likewise provides a rich analysis centered on one source: Pedro Murillo Velarde's 1734 “Sea Map and Historical Geography of the Philippines.” Hill reveals a Jesuit natural history of Manila rooted in geography, which itself becomes a “scientific economy in which plants, brutes, and animals (including humans) are divided and defined according to authority, reason, and experience” (242). Indigenous traces remain: complicated, fractured, and mediated.
William Eamon's afterword notes that the volume's attention to translation means that this “new historiography of the scientific revolution” focuses on “how things occur and rarely about speculative answers as to why things are” (273). In this respect, Translating Nature is a book about books of nature and their translations. Well-researched and well-written contributions mean that this volume is mandatory reading for anyone interested in natural history in the early modern European empires.