William of Moerbeke (about 1215-1286) or Guilelmus de Morbeka translated 49 Greek works into Latin, including all of Aristotle, commentaries on Aristotle, most of Archimedes as well as some of Proclus, Galen, Ptolemy and others. Some of these works would have been lost if it were not for him.
It was his Aristotle that Aquinas and Dante and most of the West read in the following centuries.
Moerbeke was so faithful to the original Greek that Aquinas never had to read Aristotle in the original; so faithful, in fact, that today we use his Latin to find errors in our Greek copies!
He came from the town of Moerbeke near Ghent in Flanders (now part of Belgium). Like his friend Aquinas, he was a brother of the Dominican order. He was priest to several popes, hearing their confessions.
Since he knew Greek and was trusted by popes, it is no surprise that he took part in the Council of Lyons in 1274, which attempted in vain to put the Catholic and Orthodox churches back together again.
It seems this was why he was made the Catholic bishop of Corinth in 1277. There is a town near Corinth between Mycenae and Argos named Merbaka, which still has a church built in his time. It seems the town was named after him.
Even so he may not have spent much time in Greece: we know that in the 1280s he was in Italy busy helping the pope.
Legend has it that Aquinas asked him to translate Aristotle into Latin, but we know he was already working on it when he met Aquinas.
In his day not all of Aristotle had been translated into Latin or translated well. Some of it had been translated not from the original Greek but from Arabic which in turn had been translated from Syrian! It was three steps removed from the original.
Moerbeke was the first to translate Aristotle’s “Politics” and “Poetics” and the 11th chapter of “Metaphysics” into Latin. He was the first to completely translate Aristotle’s two books on animals. He went back and improved what had been translated into Latin by others. Even what Boethius had translated 700 years before.
Moerbeke was not alone in translating Aristotle. Others were at it too. But two things set him apart and made his Aristotle the one people trusted centuries later:
- He always went back to the original Greek. When he did not have it, he would search for it.
- He translated the Greek word for word (de verbo ad verbum). He always turned a Greek word into the same Latin word whenever possible. This is why we can use his Latin to find errors in our Greek copies: we can work backwards from his Latin to the Greek copy he had, which was often older than anything we have now.
He translated Proclus thinking it was Aristotle. This had the unintended effect of helping the rise Neoplatonist ideas in the 1200s.
But his greatest influence was in helping Aquinas and others to read Aristotle in something like the original. This made Aristotle into the Philosopher in the West till the time of Galileo 400 years later and so helped the rise of science.