Herculean Task in the Smaller Disciplines
Arabic Studies Scholar Beatrice Gründler Awarded 2019 Berliner Wissenschaftspreis
Dec 02, 2019
In an award celebration at the Museum of Natural History in Berlin, where Beatrice Gründler received the 2019 Berliner Wissenschaftspreis, she described her research project using the analogy of attempting to track each drop of water in a waterfall. The award, which comes with 40,000 euros, was presented by the Governing Mayor of Berlin Michael Müller, who is also the Berlin Senator for Higher Education and Research.
Since 2015, Beatrice Gründler, Professor of Arabic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, has been investigating the textual history and reception of the collection of fables entitled “Kalīla wa-Dimna,” one of the earliest Arabic prose texts and a central text of Arabic wisdom literature from the 8th century CE. She is working on the first commented critical digital edition of this collection. In her laudatory speech, Erika Fischer-Lichte, Senior Professor of Theater Studies at Freie Universität, referred to the project as a “Herculean task” because the text, which is almost completely unknown today and partly goes back two early Sanskrit sources from India, spread like wildfire between the 11th and 13th centuries. By the 19th century, it had been translated into circa 40 European and Middle Eastern languages, undergoing changes in each instance. The Arabic text itself was also constantly rewritten over the same period of time.
Knowledge in Berlin
“This daunting venture to study a text like Kalīla and Dimna in its movement transcends the limits of individual work,” affirmed Beatrice Gründler. This can only be done in a team and only with interdisciplinary cooperation. Linguistic competence is necessary to compare, for instance, Sanskrit, Syriac, Persian, and Old Castilian. In addition, the possibilities offered by digital humanities are essential. The metamorphosis of the text alone in Arabic is so great that a representation without the support of computer scientists is impossible. Interdisciplinarity is therefore crucial, and Professor Gründler says that this dual competence of computer science and Arabic is only available in Berlin.
When Beatrice Gründler first came to Freie Universität five years ago, she perceived the university as a “great unknown.” After almost three decades in the U.S., where she had earned her doctorate at Harvard University and then taught at Yale University for almost 20 years, it was initially a challenge to understand the structures of a German public university.
At that time, she chose to move to Berlin and Freie Universität due in part to the wealth of so-called smaller disciplines. “Here it is only a few steps to the neighboring gardens of Islamic Studies, Romance Languages and Literatures, Iranian Studies, Byzantine Studies, Assyriology, Egyptology, and many more. And these are not ‘fenced patches’ but rather a parkland with tangled roots and branches.”
Another Perspective on Arab Culture
Erika Fischer-Lichte highlighted that Beatrice Gründler does not ask about which research gap is currently “in” and promises to attract attention, but rather is guided by her fascination for certain topics and issues. It happens that her research fosters access to Arab culture and opens a new perspective on it, with Arabic literature as a link between Asia and Europe.
The Governing Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, pointed out that the research of Professor Beatrice Gründler provides important insights into the world of Arabic literature with its multifaceted global interweavings, covering almost a millennium and a half. Her work continuously contributes to a more differentiated public discourse on Arabic-Islamic culture. With her work and her institutional commitment, Beatrice Gründler makes an important contribution to the profile and visibility of humanities research in Berlin and to the development of the field of digital humanities in Berlin.
Award for a Young Researcher
Since 2008, the Berlin Senate has been awarding the Berliner Wissenschaftspreis and the Nachwuchspreis (award for a young researcher) for groundbreaking research achievements that have emerged in Berlin and are of particular significance for society. This year the Nachwuchspreis, endowed with 10,000 euros, went to Professor Steve Albrecht, a physicist at Technische Universität and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, who works in the field of photovoltaics. He and his team developed tandem solar cells that can convert a greater proportion of the solar spectrum into electrical energy than conventional cells and thus achieve a significantly higher efficiency.
The original German version was published on November 19, 2019, in the campus.leben online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.
Beatrice Gründler studied in Strasbourg, Tübingen, and at Harvard University, where she earned her doctorate in 1995. After a year as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at Dartmouth College, she taught at Yale University, beginning in 1996 as an assistant professor, and since 2002 as a full professor of Arabic literature. In 2014 she returned to Germany, where she has been teaching and doing research at Freie Universität Berlin ever since.
She is currently a Principal Investigator at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies and the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies. She is a member of the board of the Dahlem Humanities Center at Freie Universität Berlin. Beatrice Gründler was a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin) from 2010 to 2011.
In 2017, she received the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation, the most important German research grant, and an ERC Advanced Grant, the highest award of the European Research Council. Her main fields of research include Arabic writing and literature, classical Arabic literature and its socio-historical contexts, and the role of Arabic literature as a link between Asia and Europe.