With Translation comes Interpretation: Translations of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation

Robert Chambers

Robert Chambers believed that nature’s laws could explain the material universe. His Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (published anonymously) described a theory of everything, from the origin of the universe to the origin of life of humanity.

Earlier this month I mentioned reading through a collection of essays in the 2000 issue of The British Journal for the History of Science, with an Introduction by Jonathan R. Topham. The final essay in that collection comes from Nicholaas Rupke, “Translation Studies in the History of Science: the example of Vestiges.”

There Rupke argues that the three translations of Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation—first into German in 1846, then into Dutch in 1849, and finally another German translation in 1851—invested the text with new meaning. Renditions of scientific texts into other languages can serve as “autochthonous cultural products.” “In the process of transfer and assimilation into a different culture,” Rupke explains, “texts can acquire an altered meaning. Translators relocate books, taking these away from the intellectual control of authors, repossessing the texts, possibly in the service of very different purposes than those for which the works were originally intended. Such alterations of meaning can be effected by new, additional prefaces, by footnote commentary, by other additions such as illustrations, by omissions and, most fundamentally, by the very act of cultural relocation.” In this way, translation studies demonstrate the “situatedness of scientific knowledge.”

The Vestiges was a publishing triumph. Four editions of the book appeared in just half a year, and eleven more during the period 1844-60. It also garnered in the English-speaking world a very substantial, critical response: “over eighty reviews which appeared in daily newspapers, popular weeklies and heavyweight quarterlies.” By contrast, there were almost no review of its English editions on the Continent. Prominent continental reviewing magazines Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen, Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung, Heidelbergische Jahrbucher der Literatur, and Revue des deux mondes offered no reviews of the Vestiges. The book was also never translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, or Swedish.

But translations did appear. According to Rupke, the first translation was into German in 1846, which was an adaptation of the third English edition of the Vestiges, by Adolf Friedrich Seubert (1819-1890), entitled Spuren der Gottheit in der Entwickelungs- und Bildungsgeschichte der Schöpfung: Nach William Whewell’s Indications of the Creator und der dritten Auflage der Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, für deutsche Leser bearbeitet. This translation does not provide its reader with either a preface or footnotes to the text; but it does include William Whewell’s (1794-1866) famous rebuttal of Vestiges in his Indications of the Creator (1845). Interestingly enough, Seubert “interwove the two texts, producing an almost seamless, integrated product by alternating chapters from the one with sections from the other.” In the English-speaking world, the two books were antithetical. Here, in Seubert’s translation, the concern “lay in something other than its transmutationism”; rather, it was put forward as evincing divine design in nature.

The Dutch translation of the Vestiges was carried out by Jan Hubert van den Broek (1815-1896) and appeared in 1849. It was an adaptation of the sixth English edition, under the title Sporen van de natuurlijke geschiedenis der schepping, of schepping en voortgaande ontwikkeling van planten en dieren, onder den invloed en het beheer der natuurwetten. This was a popular text, and underwent three more editions by 1854. Unlike the original English Vestiges, Broek included illustrations of principle plants and animals. And like Seubert’s German translation, Broek’s Dutch version added the opposing voice of Thomas Monck Mason’s (1803-1889) Creation by the Immediate Agency of God, as Opposed to Creation by Natural Law; being a Refutation of the Work Entitled Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1845). This Dutch translation was used, argues Rupke, as proof of divine order in nature and, more specifically, as aiding the stabilization of society under God and king in a process of recovery from the 1848 Revolution. The preface of the Sporen was written by Gerrit Jan Mulder (1802-1880), a man “disenchanted with the liberalization of post-1848 politics in the Netherlands and actively campaigned to keep a strong monarchy over and against parliamentary democracy.” To Mulder, the Vestiges was a salutary book, put forward in the “context of a form of Calvinist theism and of reactionary, monarchist politics.”

The second German translations comes from the “notorious materialist and anti-monarchist rebel,” Karl Vogt (1817-1895). Appearing in 1851, entitled Natürliche Geschichte der Schopfung des Weltalls, der Erde und der auf ihr befindlichen Organismen, begrundet auf die durch die Wissenschaft errungenen Tatsachen, Vogt’s translation included illustrations from 164 woodcuts, eighty-three footnotes, corrections, new information, and expressions of disagreement. As a leading champion of revolution and materialism, Vogt “highlighted Chambers’s deistic view that the laws of nature are regulations that in the beginning were enacted by divine will but since have operated autonomously.” Vogt argues in his brief introduction to Vestiges:

I recommend this book in a spirit of pure goodwill to the constitutional party in Germany, whose effectiveness before long will be limited to the innocent reading of innocent books. It will find in the book a constitutional Englishman, who has constructed a constitutional God, who, admittedly, in the beginning autocratically decreed laws, but then, out of his own volition, gave up his autocratic rule, letting the laws act in his place, by themselves, without himself exerting direct influence on his subjects. A beautiful example for sovereigns!

This God-talk is mere facetiousness, for Vogt did not believe in Chambers’ God, nor in any other God. Indeed, Vogt is famous for expressing the materialistic view that the human soul is nothing more than a function of the brain and that thought is a product of the brain in the same way that bile is secreted by the liver or urine is produced by the kidneys. And in a stunning footnote, Vogt declares that “the belief in an immortal soul being the only foundation for religion and church, its increasing untenability would soon lead to the collapse of ‘the whole nonsensical building.'” Thus Vogt’s German translation “interpreted the book as furthering the very revolutionary, anti-ecclesiastical and anti-monarchist ideals that” the Dutch and first German translations sought to counter.

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