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The Ecphorizer
The Nature of Translation Ed Rehmus
When we speak of the "nature" of something (such as the "nature" of water as compared to the "nature" of iron), we're using the Latin etymon natura, which seems to derive from the idea of things in the process of being born, natus.

But what seems to be is not always what is. The feeling of natura as ""birthing"" is probably more "popular" etymology than not — because natura doesn't entirely correspond to the Greek word for "nature" (physis), but has a subtly different sense. And although the Romans routinely distorted the which they lifted from the Greeks, they already had the Greek borrowing, Physica with the meaning of "natural science." The Greek root phyo-- means "to produce," all right, but it derives from Sanskrlt bhu, "to be." Thus the Latin word would be more In the nature of "becoming" than the Greek, which would be closer to simply "being."  Natus is passive, whereas phyo is active.

I believe the word "Nature" is more likely to have come all the way from the Egyptians: Neter. After all, the Romans also had contact with Egypt.

Neter was the general Egyptian Word for a "god" (depicted in hieroglyphics by an axe — something that separates things). But perhaps we should use the English word, "to cleave" because that means both to separate and to stick together. For the axe separates and does not separate. All the gods — Isis, Osiris, Horus, Seth — were neters. They were all "separate" entities. And it is a curiously little-known fact that everything had its own private neter. A craftsman, for instance in wood carving, was expected to know the neter of wood — its varieties of hardness and softness, its grain, etc. A farmer had to study the neter of the earth (Ta) and the Sun (Ra) and the Nile (Hapi).

In this regard, the Egyptians were the first scientists seeking to understand "Nature" and to apply "Technology." This, at least, was the teaching of the Neter Thoth, who gave us language and mathematics. We can even designate Thoth as the Neter of neters. But if you were to translate that as "God of Gods," that would be inaccurate, of course, because everyone knows that ibis-headed Thoth was one of the lesser Gods — a kind of Egyptian Prometheus merely. So you can see how difficult sometimes it is to translate Egyptian literally.

Latin Scientia originally simply meant "Knowledge," that is, mastery of something, a "skill" — as in the same sense the Egyptian woodcarver knew the "science" or "nature" or "neter" or "the god" of wood. But one thing is certain: If the Romans did borrow neter, respelling it natura, they would hardly have hesitated to junk its metaphysical Egyptian overtones and subtleties. 

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Ed Rehmus
ED REHMUS, a Renaissance man by any measure, constantly amazes us by his range of erudition. Our readers may remember his picaresque novella "An Aeroplane for Icarus" that ran for several installments in these pages a year or so ago.

Other articles by Ed Rehmus