5 mathematical translators who’ve made remarkable contributions in human history

Archimedes’ Palimpsest, Euclid’s Elements, Ptolemy’s Almagest, Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy…. We all know the authors of these amazing mathematical publications, but have you ever wondered how they became available in your language?

The reason we know of the work of these mathematicians is … because someone translated them!

Shocker! I know. Compared to authors, people tend to be less aware of translators’ contributions.

But just take a moment to think about it. If those publications had never been translated, thousands of scientists, who based their work on these mathematical principles, would never have been able to contribute what they did and today’s world might look very different! And you wouldn’t have another excuse to binge eat pie every March 14 (because you wouldn’t even know the concept Pi in the first place.)

That’s why today we are going to celebrate some of the translators in history who translated and compiled important mathematical publications! Here are five mathematical translators you should know:

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201 – 1274)

Stamp of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in Iran 700 after his death
(Public Domain)

Contribution to mathematical translation: Translated and Compiled the works of Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy into Arabic version.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, by most accounts, was undoubtedly one of the most prominent scholars in the Islamic medieval period.

He was born in Tus (an ancient city in today’s Iran). After losing his father at a young age, he traveled to acquire knowledge under several renowned scholars, including Farid al-Din Damad and Muhammad Hasib, and received education in mathematics and philosophy, logic, medicine, and astronomy. He was then hired by the Nizari Ismaili state and later by a Moghol ruler. During this time he made his most significant contributions to science and math.

As one of the most prolific scholars in the medieval period, he had over 150 works written in both Persian and Arabic including the Arabic version of Euclid, Archimedes, and Ptolemy’s works.

Many of his Arabic versions of mathematical publications became the pivot language, sources for later translation to other target languages.

Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia (1500-1557)

To hide his wound, Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia never shaved after being scared by French Soldier
(Public Domain)

Contribution to mathematical translation: Italian translations and commentaries on Archimedes and Euclid’s works

Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia was born in Brescia. His father was a mailman who managed to provide him an early education from the age of four. His father was later killed while delivering mail when Niccolò was six. This left his family impoverished.

His tragedy didn’t stop there; in 1512, French troops invaded Brescia during the War of the League of Cambrai against Venice, in which a French soldier brutally cut his jaw and palate, permanently damaging his ability to speak, and leaving a dreadful scar on his face.

After that, he self-taught mathematics and later traveled to Padua to study. Between 1516 and 1518, he worked as a math teacher in Verona. He moved to Venice in 1534, where he took part in debates related to cubic equations, earning a reputation as a notable mathematician.

In 1543, he translated Euclid’s element into Italian based on Zamberti’s Latin version. It was the first time Euclid’s element had been translated into a modern European language. He also compiled the first Italian versions of Archimedes’ work.

His translations and commentaries have influenced many scientists and mathematician down the road, including Galileo.

Xu Guangqi (1562-1633)

Xu Guangqi might be one of the most influential pioneers of cross-culture communication with western society in Chinese history.
(Public Domain)

Contribution to mathematical translation: collaborated with Matteo Ricci, translated Euclid’s Elements into Chinese version.

When it comes to intercultural communication with Western society, Xu Guangqi might be one of the most influential pioneers in Chinese history.

He was born in Shanghai during China’s Ming dynasty. In his early years, his family sent him to Longhua Temple to receive education. After he passed the local exam and became a Xiucai (an entry-level licentiate in Chinese imperial examination system), he went back to his hometown to work as a teacher.

In 1593, he moved to Guangdong to teach, where he befriended Lazzaro Cattaneo, an Italian Jesuit missionary, who sparked his interest in Western knowledge and culture. He also met Matteo Ricci, one of the founding figures of the Jesuit China missions in 1600, and converted to Catholic three years later.

In 1604, he passed the triennial court exam and became a Jinshi. Two years after that, he started collaborating with Ricci, translating Euclid’s Elements into Chinese version and then published it in 1607, introducing Chinese society to Western mathematical concepts.

They collaboratively translated several classic Western texts into Chinese, and also translated several Confucian classics text into Latin, becoming the first two to introduce Confucian philosophy to Western society.

Jagannatha Samrat (1652–1744)

Contribution to mathematical translation: Sanskrit translations and commentaries on Euclid’s Elements Ptolemy’s Almagest

In 1719, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, the ruler of Amber (today’s Jaipur State of India), observed the debate in the court of Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah regarding how to make astronomical calculations to determine a favorable date for the emperor to start a journey, which inspired his interest in astronomy and mathematics.

Realizing the importance of science to his country, he later gathered a group of astronomers and mathematicians to compile and translate foreign science materials to bring valuable ideas to his country.

One of the most significant figures in these projects is Jagannatha Samrat. Following the suggestion of Jai Singh, Jagannatha learned Arabic and Persian, enabling him to read Islamic scientific literature including Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s Arabic version of Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest, which he later translated and compiled into Sanskrit versions.

Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749)

Émilie du Châtelet’s French translation of Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy is still the standard French translation until today
(Public Domain)

Contribution to mathematical translation: French translations and commentaries on Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

Émilie Du Châtelet was born in Paris in 1706. When she was a child, her father, Louis Nicolas Le Tonnelier held a weekly salon, inviting notable scientists to participate, giving her exposure to intellectual knowledge.

Her parents, unlike most of the counterparts of their time, were very supportive of her academic pursuits. Her father provided her with early education by hiring tutors, teaching her mathematics, literature, and science. Because of her parent’s emotional and financial support, combined with her natural talent, she was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek, and German by the age of twelve.

Later in her life, she focused her intellectual pursuits on mathematics and physics. In 1735, she continued her mathematical training under Alexis Clairaut. She later had an affair with Voltaire, both of them being prominent Newtonians in French. He introduced the ideas of Isaac Newton to her.

In 1749, the year of her untimely death due to Pulmonary embolism after giving birth, she completed the translation of the French version of Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy along with her commentaries. Ten years later, it was published posthumously, and it is still the standard French translation used today.

Amazing mathematics translator we left out?

This is by no means a complete list, so don’t hesitate to drop us a note on the comments section below if you happen to know any mathematical translators who made a significant contribution to human history, so we know who the unsung heroes are in the mathematical field!