The Arabic and Latin Glossary and Corpus Projects
Medieval Philosophy Meets Digital Humanities, with Interviews with Prof. Dag Nikolaus Hasse and Andreas Büttner
By Sarah Virgi
February 2023 – In his article for the Annals of Humanities Computing, Father Busa, the founder of the Index Thomisticus – considered to be one of the first projects ever conducted in digital humanities –, recurred to a famous slogan attributed to Thomas Edison to describe his own experience of working on this colossal project: “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” Now, more than seven decades since the Index Thomisticus took its first steps, and with a much greater quantity and variety of digital research tools at our disposal, has our perspiration percentage decreased in favor of our inspiration?
Professor Dag Nikolaus Hasse and his team at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (Germany) are among the major contributors to the development of digital humanities in the field of medieval philosophy with two (complementary) long-term projects: the “Arabic and Latin Glossary” (ALGloss), since 2005, and “Arabic and Latin Corpus” (ALCorpus), since 2016. The ALGloss, funded by the Deutsche Vorschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and previously by the Volkswagen Foundation (Hannover), is a freely accessible online lexicon of the vocabulary of medieval authors writing in Arabic and their medieval Latin translators. It is based on 42 sources and covers terminology from a variety of different sciences, including philosophy, theology, astronomy, medicine, botany, among others. The ALCorpus, funded by the DFG’s Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, is a digital collection of Arabic-Latin translations of the 10th to 14th centuries. It comprehends a total of 104 digital texts, in Arabic and in Latin, up until this date. Fifty more texts, many of which related to the field of magic and the occult sciences, will soon be made available.
Unlike Father Busa and other digital humanists after him, Prof. Hasse and his team no longer use punched cards or magnetic tapes to encode and treat data, but more modern tools, such as XML code and Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This does not necessarily mean that they perspire less, though. Many of the texts available on the ALCorpus website were manually transcribed by student and research assistants – a task that requires a considerable amount of time and rigor, comparable to that of medieval scribes. Thanks to OCR, today, one can convert scanned images into readable texts, which serve as a basis for producing the fully digitized versions that can be found on the website. Still, applying OCR to manuscripts and historical prints with different scripts like Arabic and Latin entails significant manual and computational training and effort. And so does selecting and associating medieval Arabic and Latin technical terms and presenting them digitally, each with corresponding citations in both languages, in the case of the ALGloss.
However, there is certainly room for hope as artificial intelligence and machine learning grow. We can imagine that in some years, these tools will provide data that can help to identify anonymous translators based on the translation styles and terminology already established and, thus, reconstruct the process of the Arabic-into-Latin translation movement of the 11th-14th centuries. This would certainly elevate the inspirational rate in the study of medieval philosophy.
Moreover, these projects’ results, which are made available to all through their respective websites, are an enormous aid for editors and translators of medieval Latin and Arabic texts. On the one hand, the ALGloss, which has been compared to the previous Glossarium Graeco-Arabicum, provides a range of Latin expressions used to translate Arabic terms and their relevant citations – a tool that comes in handy when trying to trace back the Arabic source term of a Latin word, but also to know which Latin terms were used to render Arabic expressions in reverse.
This is extremely useful for editors of Latin and Arabic texts and even for editors of Greek texts translated into Arabic, as noted by A. Das in her review of the ALGloss. In addition, it also gives a comprehensive selection of English meanings for Arabic technical terms, which can be used to read and translate medieval Arabic philosophical and scientific texts together with other existing dictionaries.
On the other hand, the ALCorpus works as a digital library where one can quickly and easily access complete, searchable, and quotable Latin and Arabic works. This means, for instance, that in a space of seconds, one can know the number of instances of a given term or expression and the relevant passages where it appears in the whole corpus – a dream come true for many researchers in medieval philosophy!
About Dag Nikolaus Hasse
Prof. Dr. Dag Nikolaus Hasse is Professor of History of Philosophy at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg and the director of the “Arabic and Latin Glossary” and the” Arabic and Latin Corpus” projects, funded by the DFG. He is also the leader of the “Ptolemaeus Arabus Latinus Project,” financed by the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften. In 2016, he was awarded the Leibniz Prize, the German Research Foundation’s highest award.
About Andreas Büttner
Andreas Büttner, MA, is a doctoral student and research assistant in the “Arabic and Latin Corpus” project at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg. His research interests are in the field of medieval philosophy and digital humanities.
For their help in preparing this interview, I would like to thank Katrin Fischer and Eva Sahr (JMU Würzburg). I am also grateful to Alexander Lamprakis (JMU Würzburg), who helped me edit the video interviews.