Polyglots are a fascinating breed. As one who has worked all his life, and is still working, to gain mastery of a single language, I have mucho admiration for those who easily and fluently pick up additional tongues.
My maternal grandfather, a native of Italy who immigrated to the U.S. more than a century ago, could speak multiple languages, including Italian, French and English, along with a variety of others, due to the fact he grew up in the far northeastern part of the country, near a variety of shifting borders.
I am living proof that being a polyglot is not an inherited trait. I failed English in 6th and 7th grade, and came close again in 10th grade. In addition, I barely made it through two years of college French (mandatory for graduation).
Of course, upon reflection I have recognized that study habits – or lack thereof – were largely responsible for my early inability to learn the intricacies of English, as well as the basics of French. At least, I’d like to think so.
Yet, there is no question that for a special few individuals, the ability to learn languages is indeed a gift.
Take Gerard of Cremona, an Italian who found himself drawn to the intellectual riches of the Spanish city of Toledo in the 12th century. Toledo during this period was a true multi-religious melting pot, with Christians, Jews and Muslims living, working and learning side by side.
Gerard, who was born around 1114, is believed to have traveled to Spain in his late 20s due to the lack of written scholarship available in his native area.
The city was full of libraries and possessed an abundance of manuscripts. It represented one of the few places in medieval Europe where a Christian such as Gerard could be exposed to Arabic language and culture, along with extensive written scholarship dating back to the Greeks.
What Gerard saw upon his arrival in Toledo staggered him; myriad books in Arabic on every subject, all nearly unknown in Latin.
Like any true polyglot, Gerard first taught himself Arabic, then proceeded to work his way through Toledo’s libraries, “churning out translations of at least seventy major works previously unavailable in the Latin-speaking west,” according to Chris Lowney in A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment.
Translators like Gerard reached out for whatever caught their interest. With relatively few ancient works known in the Latin-speaking world, they could pick and choose those works they wanted to translate.
Gerard’s colleagues noted that their mentor worked like a “wise man who, wandering through a green field, links up a crown of flowers, made not just from any, but from the prettiest,” Lowney writes.
Among works that Gerard translated from Arabic to Latin was Ptolemy’s Almagest, a 2nd century mathematical and astronomical treatise that sought to detail the paths of stars and planets. Although ultimately disproved by Copernicus, the Almagest is one of the most influential scientific texts of all time; the geocentric model it proposed was accepted for more than 1,200 years, until the early Renaissance.
Gerard would go to translate a number of other key works from Arabic, including Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, Archimedes’ On the Measurement of the Circle, Aristotle’s On the Heavens and Alfraganus’s Elements of Astronomy.
Gerard lived until 1187, spending the last 50-plus years of his life translating Arabic scientific literature almost completely unknown in the Christian west into Latin, thereby helping to invigorate medieval Europe.
(Top: View of present-day Toledo, Spain.)