Why Translate?: A Conversation

Editor’s note: A few years ago, the British Society for the History of Science launched a new initiative, BSHS Translations, an online series featuring scholarly translations of publications in our discipline, which were originally published in a language other than English. The first offering to the series, in 2016, titled “Legumes and linguistics” was a translation of Mendel’s classic “Experiments on Plant Hybrids” by Staffan Müller-Wille and Kersten Hall, which was followed soon thereafter by Nils Roll-Hansen’s translation of a lesser-known Danish tract by the geneticist Wilhelm Johannsen, about Darwinism. Following the recent publication of the translation of Friedrich Miescher’s 1871 discovery of DNA (he called it nuclein) by Kersten and me, all of us engaged in a conversation exchanging accounts of our experiences and reflecting on the role of translation in the history of science. For a change, I am on the other side, so to speak (i.e. as a participant rather than interlocutor), in such a conversation featured in the HSS Newsletter.

What do you think is the place of translation in scholarship in general, and in the history of science, in particular?

Staffan: For me, translation is a historiographic method, not just a practical necessity. Multilinguality used to be the norm in our discipline, and to quite some degree still is, since English as the established lingua franca has opened up the discipline to a much wider international community. This makes English translations of primary sources more useful than ever. The genre of scholarly editions and translations was once highly regarded, but today it is hard to find support and recognition for it. Scholarly translations are nevertheless absolutely essential, not only for the access they give to sources written in foreign languages, but also for the research they involve. It is a trivial fact of life that translation is not a straightforward process of one-to-one correlation. But this does not make translation impossible or dubious, as many seem to believe, but rather turns it into a productive site for philological, hermeneutical and historical research.

Neeraja: Addressing the more specific issue of the place of translation in our discipline, I’d say that it is absolutely vital in making available and accessible a much larger bank of primary sources—work by researchers who did not publish in English—to a larger population of historians of science. It is true that the scientific community worldwide has become increasingly Anglophone since the mid-twentieth century—but such has certainly not been the case in earlier eras. And if we are to truly understand the development of science in different parts of the world, we really should be looking at local literatures.

Why these particular texts?

Nils: My interest in Johannsen started when I was teaching at a Danish university almost fifty years ago. I bought his books in second-hand Copenhagen bookshops and published my first Johannsen-paper in 1978. So when Greg Radick asked for a paper to translate into English, this one seemed to me the right choice. It is not technical and presents vividly the issue of variation and heredity as Johannsen saw them in 1903.

Neeraja: In late 2018/early 2019—I forget the exact reasons why—I was trying to put together a syllabus for a course on the history of DNA in which I wanted to feature primary papers. That was when I realized that Miescher’s paper about the discovery of the substance itself had never been translated. I e-mailed Kersten because I knew of his work on the Mendel translation, and our shared interest in the history of DNA, molecular biology and such. To my delight he responded almost immediately with a quick translation of the first few paragraphs, and over the next few more weeks, the complete paper in two more installments. He also suggested that once done, we might try to submit it to this translation series.

Staffan/Kersten, in your case, Mendel’s paper had already been translated into English multiple times for over 100 years—what made you think there was need for one more?

Staffan: My interest in translating Mendel was piqued during a conversation with Mendel’s biographer Vítězslav Orel, many, many years ago. Vítězslav pointed out to me that the existing English translations had systematically mistranslated the word that Mendel used in German to designate the pea varieties he was working with. Rather than designating them as varieties, strains, or stocks, he addressed them in German as Arten, or species. My aim with translating Mendel was not, however, to produce a better, more accurate translation, but rather to reveal not only idiosyncrasies of the original text but also those that occur in later interpretations.

Nils, compared to the other two examples which are either one-of-a-kind (Mendel) or “firsts” (Miescher), Johanssen’s paper, which you translated, was not his first, most famous, or even, to borrow a phrase you used to describe his 1909 work, his most “magisterial” on the topic of Darwinism, in any language. So why this one?

Nils: Most of Johannsen’s scientific papers/books are in German, whereas only two relatively short papers were published in English. But in his native Denmark, he wrote a number of popular articles and books, that were broader in scope, with more explicit relations to contemporary social and cultural issues, and which were appreciated as well written and adequate popularizations.

As a suitable short introduction to Johannsen’s biological thinking I chose his 1903 paper about Darwinism and genetics because it has a broad popular perspective on evolution and heredity, and was written at a salient point in the history of genetics as well as his own scientific career. Johannsen himself had just written his famous 1903 paper on selection in pure lines, first in Danish and then also in German. In this popular paper he presented the discovery and the implications of the stability of pure lines, including his ambivalence toward the biometricians. He praised and used their statistical approach to variation and heredity but concluded that their view of continuous change in hereditary variation was untenable.

Also, it is significant that Johannsen was a Scandinavian. The region around the Sound (Øresund), including parts of Denmark and Skåne in Sweden contributed much to genetics in the early 20th century.

How much did you know about the paper before embarking on the translation? In other words, which came first for you—the decision to translate or the paper?

Neeraja: In this case it was definitely the paper. My German—especially reading and writing—is not great and so translation was not a high priority item on my radar of publishable scholarly activities, until I went to look up something and found that there was no full translation available.

Staffan: I knew Mendel’s paper fairly well already, but in many ways, I discovered it anew in the process. One thing that continues to astonish me is the care with which Mendel constructed his paper, and the experiments on which it was based. Every single step, and every single sentence, was deliberate. I was also surprised that one could actually detect some traces of political discourses at the time. His talk of a “compromise”—Ausgleichung—between differing elements that unite in a fertilized cell was directly lifted from the daily press in Brno.

Kersten, since you’re the co-author on two of the three endeavors discussed here, could you comment on some of the similarities and differences in the two experiences (beyond the obvious one of subject difference of course).

Kersten: In the introduction to his now classic “Mendel—no Mendelian?,” Robert Olby said that his aim was to strip away “inflated Whiggish interpretations” of Mendel’s work and to place it “squarely within the context of mid-nineteenth century biology.” And it was this aspect that perhaps accounts for the starkest difference between the projects of translating Mendel and Miescher, as well as providing me with what I felt to be the biggest challenge. As a former research fellow in molecular biology I came to Mendel’s paper and indeed, history of science more broadly, heavily encumbered by precisely such “inflated Whiggish interpretations,” even if only unconsciously, by default. Such a mindset would have presented an obstacle even if I had been tackling just the interpretation of a primary source in English; but in German, the challenge was even more formidable. With each sentence, I found that I had to take a step back, look at it from a distance, breathe slowly and ask myself to what extent I was imposing my Whiggish preconceptions about Mendel, learned ever since the days of A-level textbooks, onto my interpretation of this text. It made for a slow, onerous, but ultimately, very rewarding process. It’s a worthwhile undertaking that I hope others will build on.

Being weighed down by a Whiggish view was less of an issue with Miescher. First, I think, because Miescher had not been elevated to the revered status as had Mendel, one came to his paper with less baggage. Textbooks may routinely hail Mendel as the “founding father of genetics” but I don’t think there is any comparable talk of Miescher as being the discoverer of the genetic material. But it actually made the task of translating Miescher somewhat more straightforward.

Another reason why I think I found translating Miescher’s paper less complicated was the difference in the ambit of the two papers. Right from the outset, Mendel made it clear that although he was working on the humble pea plant, his aim with this work was to tackle a big question in biology—what is the mechanism by which new species emerge? So as well as providing a meticulous account of his experiments and his rationale for his method, Mendel went into lengthy interpretation and discussion about the implication of his work and what it might mean. There is very little of this agenda with Miescher. Sure, he started out by stressing the importance of understanding the cell in terms of its chemical composition, but very quickly launched into what is mostly empiricism—the paper tells us what he added, how much of it he added, and what happened as a result. It made me feel as if I were reading a glorified biochemical cookbook—albeit one from which a curious and very important result emerged—the discovery of a hitherto unknown compound that, unlike proteins, contained a high amount of phosphorus. The farthest Miescher went with his interpretation was to speculate that this substance might have some function in growth. And as I say, it made the job of translation somewhat easier.

What were some of the biggest challenges in undertaking the translation?

Staffan: The biggest challenge in producing the Mendel translation was actually to find ways of making the most of the opportunities an online presentation offers in terms of cross-references—and then reproducing these features in a print version of the text.

Nils: Danish is very close to my native Norwegian. And so language was no barrier to understanding the original text. The challenge was to produce good English. I consciously kept to a relatively literal translation in the hope that it would best preserve the cognitive content. But looking back now at the final product, I wish it were more readable and contained less Danicisms/Norwagisms.

Neeraja: For me it was the fact that there were actually two translations happening simultaneously; besides the obvious translation German to English there was also a translation across time, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century. Certain words were used in an entirely different way. Most significantly for us in this paper was the use of the word “genetic,” genetischen in German. When Miescher used this word in 1871, it had not yet acquired the meaning of its most common usage today, that is, in the sense of something being passed down the generations via “genes,” namely hereditary. We need to remember that the word “gene” as a unit of heredity was yet to be coined. Rather, Miescher seems to have used the term as meaning “generative,” that is, giving rise to or relating to or influenced by genesis or origins, a meaning that is, incidentally, still valid even in English, although far less used.

A second challenge, also exacerbated by the time factor, was translating abbreviations for which there were no guides or keys. A specific example was Miescher’s notation of “Pt.” while discussing the results of certain chemical analysis. Now Pt (without the period) is the chemical symbol for the element platinum, but common sense told us that Miescher could not have been referring to platinum; the quantities of yield reported were simply too high. We puzzled over it for quite a while, playing around with some ideas, but eventually context and again, common sense, led us to the conclusion that Miescher must have used Pt. as shorthand for “precipitate,” which today, is usually abbreviated in English as “ppt” (no capitals).

All the examples here are primary sources, actually scientific publications—have any of you translated or considered translating historical/historiographic papers?

Staffan: I can think of two important works in German that I’d like to translate if I had the time: Árpád Szabó’s Das geozentrische Weltbild (1992), a book that roots the geocentric world view in a simple astronomical device, the gnomon; and Michael Wolff’s Geschichte der Impetustheorie, which reveals fascinating connections between medieval and early modern conceptions of mechanics, reproduction, and economics. It is quite a shame that these two works are not available for students who cannot read German.

Neeraja: I have done so for personal use. The originals were in French, which I can navigate a tiny bit more easily than I can German, without as much help. There were some important historiographic papers on the history of bacteriophage lysogeny, a subject that was quite central to what eventually became my book. One was a very long paper and I only translated what I needed to, in much the same manner that Miescher’s paper had been treated by scholars before us. The second paper was short enough and the translation more recently undertaken, by which time online translation tools had improved vastly and so I powered through and did it all.

Kersten: Funny you should mention it, but in the course of research for my book Insulin, The Crooked Timber, due to be published by Oxford University Press later this year, I’ve been using my knowledge of German to try and translate several key papers by the German clinician Georg Zuelzer (1870-1949), who felt more than a little put out when he first heard that the 1923 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology had been awarded to the Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and his supervisor John J. R. Macleod for the discovery of insulin. In several letters of protest (including some to the Nobel committee) Zuelzer argued that as early as 1908 he had already found a pancreatic extract that could bring diabetic patients out of a coma and had filed a patent on this substance that he called “Acomatol.” He therefore felt that he should rightfully be recognized as its discoverer. Due to the carnage of the two world wars, most writings on Zuelzer are few and far between, so his scientific papers have been invaluable. But equally invaluable have been a couple of secondary, historical sources in German in the early 1970s by K. H. Mellinghoff, a researcher at the Institute for the History of Medicine, at the University of Dusseldorf. Translating Mellinghoff’s work has provided some crucial insights into assessing Zuelzer’s claims and understanding exactly why his plight has since been compared to a figure from a Greek tragedy.

If you were to undertake such an endeavor again, what would you choose and why?

Kersten: As it happens, I am currently working on translating a paper published in 1924, in which the Luxembourgian chemist Camille Reuter described work that he and Zuelzer had done on pancreatic extracts ten years earlier in the labs of the Swiss company Hoffman La Roche at Grenzach in Germany. Few Anglophone historians if any, are likely to have heard of Reuter, but had he published this work August 1914 when it was first carried out, it might well have been him and Zuelzer, and not Fred Banting and Macleod, who received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin.

Zuelzer’s early work in 1908 had been hampered not only by adverse side effects resulting from the extracts that he introduced into patients, but also by the fact that he had not been able to make blood sugar measurements to demonstrate their effectiveness. But as far as I can understand from Reuter’s paper, by August 1914, they had prepared a new batch of extract that was shown to be effective at reducing the blood sugar levels in a diabetic patient. Had this advance been made public at the time, it might well have clinched the case for Zuelzer and Reuter’s claim to be the discoverers of insulin. But unfortunately, no sooner had they carried out this work, when Europe exploded into the First World War.

Nils: Staffan has suggested to me that we translate another work by Johannsen, a small book, Falske Analogier [False Analogies], which in a nutshell provides his historiography of genetics and his philosophy of science—Bacon his hero and Bergson his foe, standing, as Staffan characterized it, for clear thinking and obscurantism respectively. We think such a translation could be an enlightening contribution to proper understanding of Johannsen’s role in the history of genetics.

Neeraja: Offhand, I cannot think of any that would be appropriate for this series. There are some longer book-length works I am thinking about. For now, the work is sporadic and need-based, but if I get enough done, and can find a publisher willing to publish it, maybe I will in the future. But I would prefer to undertake such an effort with a collaborator, fluent in the language I’m translating from, as was the case with Kersten.

Also I’d like to mention the copious amounts of extra translation that Kersten undertook in order for us to properly contextualize Miescher’s first DNA paper. Some years after Miescher’s death in 1895, his uncle, the renowned anatomist Wilhelm His, published a 2-volume collection of letters that Miescher had written to him and to his parents during the 1860s and 1870s, which gave valuable insights into the young investigator’s state of mind at the time. In addition to translating large chunks of the relevant letters (which we quoted in our commentary) Kersten also undertook some quick translations of scientific papers that were either published along with Miescher’s discovery or shortly thereafter, which also proved mighty useful in contextualizing his discovery.

Scholars whose first language is French have said that a lot of the humor and irony in Michel Foucault’s writings are lost in translation. Have you ever felt that about a primary source; that the original was so beautifully written that translating it might be doing the text a disservice?

Staffan: It is indeed difficult to get across the aesthetic feel of a text in translation. Especially with regard to humor, understanding it often depends on contextual circumstances that cannot be transported with the translation alone. Thus, Wilhelm Johannsen wrote a short preface to the Swedish translation of his book Falske Analogier. On the face of it, it was simply a warm thank you for having his book translated. To appreciate the sarcastic undertone, one has to know that reading Danish texts poses no difficulty for Swedish speakers, and that the Swedish were (and still are) known for being convinced of their cultural superiority in relation to their Scandinavian neighbors.

Neeraja: The writings of the French microbiologist André Lwoff, who was a great bilingual writer himself, come to mind. His prose style in English is distinctive and I can only imagine how much more stylish his writings would have been in his native French. So I think it would be difficult to reproduce his panache! Also, since he did, in fact, translate some of his French papers into English, I would be diffident about translating anything he chose not to.

Incidentally, I should add that I like the new trend of publishing the translation in tandem with the original—this way scholars can actually look up the words and decide where they agree with the translator’s interpretation or not.

Nils: I agree that the presentation of a double text with the original and translation side by side, is a very important tool for making translation a more productive research activity. It provides an excellent opening for enlightening comments and information.

Are there any papers or books in other languages that you wish someone would translate so that you could understand and discuss it better?

Staffan: This would be a long list; let me just mention Henri Daudin’s two volumes on eighteenth-century botanical and zoological classifications (1926), published in French and Giulio Barsanti’s La scala, la mappa, l’albero (1992) in Italian. I do have enough French and Italian to make use of these, but it is tedious. I particularly regret not having enough knowledge of a Slavic language to make use of Eastern European literature on the history and philosophy of the life sciences. We’re literally cut off from this tradition.

Neeraja: Hesitant as I’ve said I am about translating Lwoff myself, I think it would be fascinating to read his autobiography in English. (I could muddle through the French version, I suppose, but as Staffan said so aptly, it is tedious to do so).

More from the July 2021 Newsletter