Wretched Carrots and Plentiful Celery: Translating a book of Oviedo’s Natural and General History of the Indies, Islands, and Mainland of the Sea
Jamie Anderson ’19
Have you ever wondered where the fibrous green stalks of celery come from? First, we should really be more specific, and afford celery its due respect and address it properly as Apium graveolens, from the order Apiales, and kingdom Plantae. Some working knowledge of Latin proves very useful in discerning the provenance that brought Apium graveolens — “Apio” in contemporary Spanish and “Appio” in the manuscripts of Oviedo — across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.
Oviedo provides critical details about the beginnings and early practices of agriculture and cultivation of Spanish plants and herbs on the island of Santo Domingo. However, these chronicles carry more weight than their didactic or agricultural subject matter. Described within these pages, explicitly and implicitly, are many of the ways in which the arrival of the Spanish decimated and subjugated native peoples and the land they lived on.
However, from an epistemological and disciplinary perspective, “cuando Oviedo escribe sobre la naturaleza del Nuevo Mundo no corrobora ciegamente el discurso de la tradición para legitimar la unidad del modo de conocer y reproducir de la episteme europea sin más, sino que, dado que su objetivo era dar cuenta de una naturaleza que desbordaba el lenguaje conocido, flexibilizaba las categorías, las instrumentalizaba.”
Why is this text so opaque and hard to make sense of?
From a personal perspective, Oviedo’s style proved a point of great frustration, throwing up roadblocks and obstacles throughout. However, from an academic perspective, his style and its relative inaccessibility raise valuable questions about authority, form, and gatekeeping of knowledge. Oviedo, pioneer though he may have been, can still be periodized and situated within a cohort and genre of “New World” chronicling. As Ronderos claims:
“Those who described America made use of theoretical and methodological tools from classical authors to imbue with value their personal experiences, since they shared the idea that (capital “A”) authority, defined as such by the centers of power, was the only source of legitimate, verifiable knowledge.” -Ronderos
“Los descriptores de América utilizaban herramientas teóricas y metodológicas provenientes de los autores clásicos para dar valor a su experiencia personal pues compartían la idea de que la autoridad, definida como tal por los centros de poder, era el conocimiento legítimo y verdadero. En el ámbito de la historia natural las autoridades eran Plinio El Viejo y Dioscórides, quienes propusieron compendios enciclopédicos y categorías de agrupación, útiles para describir y ordenar la naturaleza del viejo mundo.” -Ronderos
What is the educational/pedagogical value of undergoing this type of project?
The translation process tests one’s patience, diligence, and strength. In truth, although I do feel pride in (re)producing such a sizable text, and seeing it in front of me, this feels very much like a thesis by attrition. In the muddy trenches I grappled hand to hand with individual unfamiliar words, Oviedo’s sprawling, often incomprehensible syntax, and monolithic paragraphs. Andy Bush’s class “Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Iberia” aided me greatly during the translation process. Though the text I worked with was infinitely more readable than the original 1500s manuscripts. Nevertheless, understanding the Spanish language orthographic development and changes — Fs to Hs, Cs to Zs, Xs to Js — proved immeasurably helpful when doing my initial reading of Oviedo’s text.
Translating Oviedo is also an inherently interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary job. You do not need to enter with any immense background knowledge in biology, botany, or military history, but, depending on the chapter you choose, you will necessarily pick up the terminologies and structures that inform those fields. Engaging with multiple chapters or books of Oviedo reveals how much of a generalist he was, specializing in not having a specialty, picking things up as they came to his sight. Surprisingly, a colonizing, imperial text like General and Natural History provides espouses and lends itself to a liberal arts degree quite well.