David Bellos has written an engrossing and witty book on the possibilities and impossibilities of translation (there are few of the latter). Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011) addresses the translation of the oral and the written, the sacred (e.g., the Bible) and the profane (e.g., comics). In the process, Bellos, Princeton University professor of French and comparative literature, as well as the director of the university’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, challenges the accepted wisdom about what transpires with translation, and asks and answers the fundamental questions (such as, what does it mean to translate). One of his essential points is made relatively early on.
It’s a well-known fact that a translation is no substitute for original.
It’s also perfectly obvious that this is wrong. Translations are substitutes for original texts. You use them in place of work written in a language you cannot read with ease. (p. 37)Bellos’ title pays homage to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its Babel fish which performed instant translation of all of the universe’s languages if you stuck it in your ear. I suspect Bellos forgot that the Babel fish turns out not to be a good thing. Anyway, the Babel fish appears in one of my previous posts on scientific translation.
A friend recently gave me a small, graceful fossil shell from the Eocene gastropod Sycostoma pyrus (Solander, 1766). Pursuit of its taxonomic history has taken me into a metaphorical landscape of unexpected crevasses, each dramatically different from the other, that threaten to swallow me unless I successfully translate my way across. In the end, I didn’t do so well.
The fossil (pictured below) was found along the sea cliffs in Hampshire County, between Highcliffe and Barton on Sea, on the south coast of England, and dates from 41 to 34 million years ago. It is 31 mm in length (at bit more than 1.2 inches).
On of the first fractures to bar my path was the shell’s original Latin description published in 1766 in Fossilia Hantoniensia Collecta, Et In Musæo Britannico Deposita, a Gustavo Brander. (Several copies of the volume are available on the web. I’ve used the one at this link.) I translate the title as Hampshire Fossils Collected, and Deposited in the British Museum, by Gustavus Brander. This particular volume holds a revered place in paleontological history. According to the British Museum, it was the “first to describe a collection of fossils using the new biological classification devised by Carl Linnaeus.”
The collector, Gustavus Brander (1720 – 1787), born in London to a Swedish family, was a successful businessman who rose to become a director of the Bank of England. His income and a large inheritance enabled him to indulge his eclectic interests which included natural history. He became a fellow of the Royal Society and a curator of the British Museum. (See the “Gustavus Brander” entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, Volume VI, edited by Leslie Stephen, 1886.)
Brander wrote Fossilia Hantoniensia’s delightful preface. The four pages are arranged in two columns, the left hand side a Latin version, the right hand an English version. (In which language the preface was first written isn’t clear – Brander, as other educated individuals of his time, may have had the ability to compose in Latin.) In addition to an excellent description of the cliffs from which the fossils were collected, the preface offers a brief discussion of the origins of fossils, a treatment which seems somewhat unenthusiastic about the “Deluge” and particularly doubtful about the process through which fossils end up in the midst of rock (“upon the whole I am apt to think this affair will for ever remain a mystery,” p. iv) (In this and all other quotations from the volume, I’ve attempted to replace the ubiquitous f’s with s’s where I thought appropriate, as in “myftery.”) Brander thanks “the learned and ingenious Dr. Solander, one of the Officers of the British Museum,” for his scientific descriptions of the fossils which appear in the body of the volume.
What I find amusing about the preface is how it speaks directly to my translation travails. The side-by-side Latin and English versions of the preface were a welcome introduction to the volume. Brander states that he would have given the same treatment to the scientific descriptions, except he found English to be inadequate to the task.
[A]s the Subject [fossils] had never yet been treated Scientifically in the English Tongue, I found of course too many Difficulties in giving a literal Translation of the learned Terms . . . . (p. v – vi)A challenge to be sure – use the terms without translation, attempt to convey them in mundane terms in the “English Tongue,” coin new words, or just punt. Brander chose the last and the scientific descriptions of his fossils written by Daniel Solander appear solely in Latin. But, not to worry, continues Brander. That isn’t much of a limitation for the present volume because
the Study of Natural History in general, is rarely attempted, but by such as are in some degree acquainted with the Latin . . . .But, for those poor souls unable to navigate in Latin, Brander adds,
I thought this Preface in the Vulgar Tongue, and the Accuracy of the Drawings might be sufficiently satisfactory to those who are wanting in that particular. (p. vi)Ah, if only I could be content with the drawings and the little bit in the vulgar tongue.
The man behind the scientific descriptions in the book, the “learned and ingenious” Dr. Solander (1733 – 1782), had come to England from Sweden in 1760, sent by the preeminent naturalist Carl Linnaeus whose remarkable Systema Naturae brought an order to scientific taxonomy in part through its binomial nomenclature. Solander arrived in response to a request British naturalists Peter Collinson (1694 – 1769) and John Ellis (1710? – 1776) made to Linnaeus, asking for his best student who could provide assistance in bringing the Linnaean Systema Naturae to England.
Even as I positioned myself to bridge the Latin to English chasm of the fossil description, I had to cross bothersome gaps in the path, gaps that required a kind of translation that is of no interest to Bellos because it wasn't one of language. These were the recurrent challenges any writer of history faces – distinguishing fragments of facts from perhaps-not-facts and canards about a person or an event, and then translating, if you can, what you've come to believe into a faithful representation of that person or event.
Rather, the nub of the matter is his commitment to his work. Shortly after his arrival in London, Solander was employed cataloguing plants at the British Museum, ultimately rising to become “keeper of the printed books” at the institution. Nominated for the Royal Society, he was admitted in 1764. He circulated widely in English scientific circles. On occasion he joined the visiting American Benjamin Franklin, once participating in an experiment to see the effects of oil on rough water. His close friendship with Sir Joseph Banks, a committed amateur natural historian, influenced the course of much of Solander’s adult life. When the government commissioned a ship, the HMS Endeavour commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, to travel to the South Seas to observe Venus’ transit across the sun in June, 1769, Banks bought his way on board with a retinue of artists and aides. Solander asked to join him, and so spent almost three years sailing around the world collecting thousands of natural history specimens. He later became Banks’ private librarian and curator, living in his London home.
Appears to me to be a full, productive life, but Solander’s scientific vita includes very little published under his own name – a couple of articles and a booklet. More damning, Solander and Banks never managed to get into print the drawings and descriptions of the specimens brought home from that first Cook voyage of exploration. Some writers have also made much of Solander’s limited correspondence with Linnaeus, which often prompted Linnaeus to write others in England inquiring about Solander and requesting that they ask Solander to write. The request that Linnaeus made to Ellis on behalf of Solander’s mother is a classic – she hadn’t heard from him in several years. It is undisputed that Solander loved to socialize and made room in his life for a wide circle of friends, many of them fellow scientists. That predilection coupled with the lack of published work lie behind disparaging assessments of the man, such as this one in the Dictionary of National Biography:
[T]he attractions of London society in which his agreeable manners made him popular, and a constitutional indolence prevented his accomplishing much that he might have done. (Entry for “Daniel Charles Solander,” Volume LIII, 1898, p. 212.)Rauschenberg strikes a strong revisionist note in his portrait of the scientist, arguing that any suggestion that Solander was lazy is a mischaracterization and needs to be laid to rest. He stresses that Solander’s work was often for others, citing one source that identified 66 works featuring some contribution from him. Further, Rauschenberg points to the many collections Solander described and catalogued, such as those of the British Museum, Banks’ museum, the Kew Gardens, and the Duchess of Portland. His catalogues in manuscript are extensive. (p. 13)
But, against the standards his contemporaries might have used to gauge productivity, Solander may have come up short. Still, those same individuals also recognized his vast knowledge and actual assistance to their efforts. On the one hand, naturalist Peter Collinson, one of those who petitioned Linnaeus for a disciple to spread his system to England, wrote to the American botanist John Bartram (1699 – 1777) on September 19, 1765, regarding some specimen’s Bartram had previously asked about. Observed Collinson in this letter,
Doctor Solander is a strange, idle man. I cannot get thy spring specimens from him, is the reason thou hears nothing from me, about them. (Rauschenberg, p. 25)On the other hand, in another letter to Bartram two years later, Collinson mentions some specimens Bartram had collected and remarks,
If I have time, I will give thee Dr. Solander’s observations on them, who is a very acute botanist, little inferior to Linnaeus, and not only in Botany, but in all branches of Natural History.” (Rauschenberg, p. 25)After casting about for a firm reading of this aspect of Solander’s life, I find myself in Solander’s camp – not that of his critics or his strong advocates. I applaud the balance that he fashioned for himself – a life of work and play. I am persuaded in this regard by the comments made by his great friend Joseph Banks as he memorialized the recently deceased Solander in a letter.
Solander’s mode of living in England you know as well as I. During the brightest part of the day he honored botany; but his proclivity for companionship never allowed him to return to the museum at night. Even if he had sought that action his countless friends would not have allowed it. (Roy Rauschenberg, A Letter of Sir Joseph Banks Describing the Life of Daniel Solander, Isis, Volume 55, Number 1, March, 1964, p. 66)Would that we could all strike such a balance.
What of Solander’s description of Sycostoma pyrus? Actually, that full name isn't in Fossilia Hantoniensia. It was Solander's name (in parentheses) in the full scientific name attached to the shell as it came to me that led to the work, but the parentheses indicated the scientific name had changed since he'd first described it in 1766. The British Museum website on the Gustavus Brander collection confirmed that Fossilia Hantoniensia was the book in which the name had first appeared and indicated that Sycostoma pyrus was the modern name. Enough to start with. [This paragraph is a sorely needed later edit.]
Here is the Murex sycostoma description as it is in the original Latin (I’ve changed f’s meriting conversion to s’s – capitals, small capitals, and italics are as they are in the original):
MUREX (Pyrus) testa ovata læviuscula, anfractibus supra concavis, apertura lævi, cauda brevi.
TESTA magnitudine admodum variat, interdum vix uncialìs, interdum ovum anserinum æquat, læviuscula est.
SPIRA in junioribus magis protracta seu exquisita: Anfractibus supra canaliculo obtuso exaratis.
APERTURA oblong, lævis. Columella crassiuscula.
CAUDA brevis, aperta.As I have done previously, I turned to Google Translate (GT) for the magical conversion into English. Bellos in Is That a Fish in Your Ear? is remarkably keen on GT which applies brute strength to accomplish its translation feats. As he describes the program,
It uses vast computing power to scour the Internet in the blink of an eye looking for the expression in some text that exists alongside its paired translation. . . . Drawing on the already established patterns of matches between these millions of paired documents, GT uses statistical methods to pick out the most probably acceptable version of what’s been submitted to it. Much of the time, it works. It’s quite stunning. (p. 254)Well, judge for yourself how well it did translating Solander’s description. In all fairness, GT offers alternatives for many of the suggested translations and, following Bellos admonition that “you should never use GT to translate into a language you do not know very well,” a few of those alternatives do remove some of the silliness generated initially. Here’s that first pass, warts and all.
ROCK (Pear) shell læviuscula ovate, concave bends over, opening his left, a short tail.
HUD size varies greatly, sometimes barely uncialìs, at times, levels of goose egg, is læviuscula.
ROLL in our youth program, or more exquisite, bends over the gutter obtuse letters.
APERTURE oblong, smooth. Columella thick.
TAIL short, it was open.Not quite “stunning” – to wit, “Roll in our youth program.”
Despite the glaring limits of this first pass, it was a starting point. I identified the couple of strictly technical terms that didn’t need translating (i.e., Murex pyrus and columella – the axis around which a shell’s whorls rotate), chose some of the suggested GT alternatives, consulted Thomas McCarthy’s Inflected Digital Latin Dictionary (Version 1, July 10, 2011), turned to the online site Glosbe – Multilingual Online Dictionary a couple of times, and came up with this:
MUREX (Pyrus) – shell smooth and ovate, hollow whorls on the top, opening smooth, a short tail.
SHELL size varies greatly, sometimes barely an inch, sometimes the size of a goose egg, it is smooth.
SPIRE among juveniles more extended or refined: Whorls on the top have obtuse grooves.
APERTURE oblong, smooth. Columella thick.
TAIL short, open.Not great and, yes, I also took some liberties with some of the words, but I think this probably conveys much of the information Solander intended. For the moment, let me avoid the issue of the translation of the genus name – from Murex to Sycostoma.
It’s important at this juncture to see the illustrations in Fossilia Hantoniensia for this shell (figures 52 and 53 on plate IV). (I am always struck by how, in many of these early taxonomic works, the artist behind the drawings and engravings goes unmentioned. In this instance, beyond the fact that each plate bears the name Green in the lower right hand corner, there is no reference to the artist. Martin J.S. Rudwick posits this was Benjamin Green (Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, 2005, p. 67). I don’t know who he was; it’s a name I will leave for perhaps a later date.) The Murex pyrus specimen is depicted in the two large shells in this portion of plate IV.
I tumbled early to the fact that there’s something wrong here, the illustrations bear only a faint resemblance to the fossil shell I have. Fortunately, soon after, I came across Alan Morton’s fantastic website dedicated to fossils from this part of England. It clarified a key portion of Solander’s description of Murex pyrus, the part in the initial GT pass that begins “Roll in our youth program.”
Morton’s website, titled A Collection of Eocene and Oligocene Fossils, offers detailed, precise images of the bivalves, gastropods, vertebrates, and other taxa that might be found in five rock strata or clusters of strata here – Hamstead-Bembridge-Osborne Beds, Headon Beds, Barton Beds, Bracklesham Beds, and London Clay. And it is amid the pictures of gastropods from the Barton Beds that I found images of a mature Sycostoma pyrus (68 mm in length) and, most significantly, a juvenile of the same species (34 mm). These images are reproduced below with Alan Morton’s permission and can be found at this page on his website. The image of the mature specimen is first.
These images make it clear – Green’s illustrations of the Murex pyrus in Fossilia Hantoniensia are of a mature gastropod shell. Mine is that juvenile with the more extended or refined spire. For better or worse, that first adjective from Solander’s description of the juvenile spire – extended – is one of those for which I exercised some license, particularly after considering the mature and juvenile specimens on Morton’s site.
With all of that now behind me, what of the taxonomic quest that launched this posting in the first place? How did the scientific name applied by Solander in 1766 evolve over the intervening nearly 250 years into the name by which we know it now?
Not much success on this front. It is reassuring that Morton notes that Sycostoma pyrus has also been known as Sycum pyrus, Leiostoma pyrus, and Murex pyrus. But, though the link between Sycostoma pyrus and Murex pyrus is real, the various pieces of the taxonomic puzzle that I’ve managed to accumulate so far remain, I hate to say it, Greek to me. I cannot translate those pieces into a coherent taxonomic history, though I continue to try.
One final translation note in closing. Roy Rauschenberg’s article about Joseph Banks’ letter memorializing Solander presents the text of the letter in English. Well, it’s a version of the letter, not actually the English text Banks wrote. Banks composed his thoughts about his dear friend’s life in England at the behest of Johan Alstroemer, president of the Swedish Royal Scientific Society. An edited version of the letter was published as part of an article in Swedish in early 1785; a German version was published later in 1785. Rauschenberg notes,
Surprisingly, in light of Banks’s position [president of the Royal Society], neither the original letter nor the article ever appeared in English. The following version is accordingly an English translation of a German translation of a Swedish translation of an English original no longer extant. Thus, while it conveys Banks’s meaning, his actual words may well have been different. (A Letter of Sir Joseph Banks, p. 63)Yes, it is a substitute for the original.