Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Lost in Scientific Translation

“What’s this fish doing in my ear?”
“It’s translating for you.  It’s a Babel fish.  Look it up in the book if you like.”
          ~ Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The united intellect of my family has vainly tried to make it out. – I never tried such confoundedly hard German: nor does it seem worth the labour.
        ~ Charles Darwin to geologist Charles Lyell, February 18, 1860, regarding Heinrich Georg Bronn’s published review of The Origin of Species

I’d never really considered the challenges of translating scientific terms and concepts across language barriers until recently when, on occasion, I’ve had to use my once fluent Spanish to talk about fossils.  I don’t have the vocabulary for it.  My Spanish, acquired as a child and teen, rests on a vocabulary built for navigating social interactions among my then youthful peers and for travel through urban environments in Latin America; it’s not really adequate verbal equipment for describing fossils, and clearly laughable as a means for translating terms used in English to explain something like evolutionary theory.

This isn’t a trivial issue actually and the more I’ve thought and read about it, the more appreciation I should have for translation when it’s done well . . . but how would I know if it’s being done well?  Aye, there’s the rub.  (Try translating that into another language.)

As science historian Sander Gliboff observes, modern scholarship on the process of translating a text from one language to another now considers the “translators and interpreters as authors in their own right.”  (H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism:  A Study in Translation and Transformation (2008), p. 12, cited below as H.G. Bronn, I’ve only had access to the Introduction to this book.)  The consequences of this process for a scientific text are fascinating, because the properties of translation may render scientific theories as “historical entities that change through time and across national boundaries.”  (H.G. Bronn, p. 13)

A recent fossil hunt in a suburban Maryland stream took me up to the door to the maze of scientific translation, and the discovery of two small fossil shark teeth caught in my screen in the stream opened the door and I stepped in.

I believe the teeth are from Serratolamna serrata (Agassiz 1843), a Late Cretaceous mackerel shark (some 70 to 65 million years old, Severn Formation).  Views of the lingual and labial sides of the teeth appear below.  (Sources I consulted for the identification are provided in the Notes at the end of this posting.)

The scientific names of extinct and extant animals should easily navigate across language barriers, though deciphering the name and the taxonomic history behind a scientific name can still be blocked by language-related obstacles.  According to the scientific name Serratolamna serrata (Agassiz 1843), the shark was first formally identified in 1843 by naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873), but the parentheses state that some portion of the original name, or all of it, was changed one or more times in the ensuing more than a century and a half.  Too often I take those parentheses as a dare to attempt a reconstruction of the taxonomic history of the named fossil; this was one of those times.

Given the date associated with the name, Agassiz’s original name for the shark had to have been published in his multivolume Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles (Research on Fossil Fishes).  Agassiz published separate volumes (“atlases”) containing the plates illustrating the fish fossils described in the five volumes of text – one atlas per volume of text.  Scanning the atlas for Volume 3 (featuring sharks) uncovered the following two drawings by artist Joseph Dinkel which dovetail nicely with my stream finds.

The name associated with these two drawings?  Otodus serratus.  Here’s Agassiz’s description of O. serratus, translated crudely from French:
The distinguishing characteristic of this species is that the side cusplets, usually more or less rounded in other species, are here transformed into angular serrations, especially at the base of the posterior edge.  In this regard our 0. serratus brings itself a bit closer to Galeocerdo, so I'm not without some doubt about the generic position of this species, which cannot be determined in a rigorous manner until we study its microscopic structure.  If the result of this shows that the dentine is not as massive as that of the Otodus, but on the contrary is rather hollow, you should not hesitate to refer it to the genus Galeocerdo.  Meanwhile, it seemed to me that its external form has more to do with that of Otodus.
The originals of my figures are in the collection of Mr. Bronn, and come from Mount St Pierre de Maestricht, and both are seen by their outer surface [labial side? – hard to tell from Dinkel’s drawings].  (p. 272-273)
Knowing little French, I ran Agassiz’s original passage on O. serratus through the translate function in Google and then massaged the results.  Though my results aren’t pretty, I think they’re serviceable.  So much for the translation problem?  Well, I may still have things wrong and Agassiz is being exclusively descriptive here, no concepts, no theories, just a few terms that a collector of fossil shark teeth is likely to recognize in more than one language.

(All the volumes of text and illustrations for Recherches sur les Poissons Fossiles are available at the Biodiversity Heritage Library.)

If this is indeed the root origin of the Serratolamna serrata (and I think it is), how did the name Otodus serratus “evolve” into S. serrata?  The key apparently rests with the scientific name for the genus – Serratolamna Landemaine 1991.

In 1991, the Société Amicale des Géologues Amateures (Society of Amateur Geologists?) of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, published a piece by O. Landemaine titled Selaciens Nouveaux du Cretace Superieur du Sud-Ouest de la France; Quelques Apports a la Systematique des Elasmobranches.  Roughly translated, the title in English is:  New Upper Cretaceous Selachians from the Southwest of France; Some Contributions to the Systematics of Elasmobranchs.  (The Elasmobranchii is a subclass of the Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish) which includes sharks.)

So, what does Landemaine have to say?  Wish I knew.  I have been unable to locate a copy.  Maybe not really a language barrier, but I usually have some hope of tracking down obscure publications in English, and little for those in other languages.  It would appear that Landemaine removed a number of species, including the one of interest, from the genus Cretolamna and “erected” Serratolamna for them.  This raises still another question, when and how did Otodus serratus move into Cretolamna?  His piece might tell me, but . . . .  [A much later edit:  O. Landemaine very kindly commented on this post, noting that his paper is now available on the web.  The link is here (click on the white arrow in the green button).  After I do some translating from the French, I'll see what he has to say on the subject.]

Having run into this dead end, I went back to Agassiz’s description of O. serratus and, on a whim, tracked down this Bronn character whose collection held the specimens illustrated in Recherches.  Sheer serendipity when it drew me deeper into the scientific translation maze.

Agassiz knew Heinrich Georg Bronn (1800 – 1862) well; in 1826, as a 19-year-old, Agassiz attended Bronn’s lectures on paleontology at the University of Heidelberg.  Bronn had been educated at the University and spent his career there, teaching natural history and zoology, among other subjects.  In time, he became “Germany’s most distinguished paleontologist, known for detailed fieldwork in Italy and throughout Western Europe, identifying and sequencing strata of sedimentary rock and the fossils they contained.”  (Sander Gliboff, H.G. Bronn and the History of Nature, Journal of the History of Biology, June 2007, p. 262.)  According to historian Edward Lurie, Bronn “took a personal interest in [the student Agassiz] and showed him how to study collections of fossils illustrating the history of the earth and its extinct species.”  (Louis Agassiz:  A Life in Science, p. 21.)

Agassiz also rose to prominence as a leading paleontologist in Europe and then emigrated to the United States in the late 1840s, where, in the ensuing decade, he reshaped American science and science education.  On a trip to Europe in the summer of 1859, Agassiz purchased Bronn’s fossil collection for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, from which he, in turn, taught students back in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Lurie, Louis Agassiz, p. 238.)

If Agassiz met with Bronn to complete the purchase, I’d love to have eavesdropped on that conversation (my little bit of searching has turned up no evidence they did).  Surely, Agassiz would have been charming, though he would likely have been convinced that he had long since eclipsed his old teacher.  I would guess that Agassiz knew of Bronn’s work of the 1840s and 1850s, work that constituted a powerful rebuttal to Agassiz’s theory of catastrophism (periodic catastrophes wiping out all species, followed by mass creation of new species with divine intervention under a divine plan).  According to science historian Sander Gliboff, Bronn “was most keen to refute” Agassiz.  (H.G. Bronn, p. 12.)

In his own theory, Bronn identified natural laws to explain the living world as he found it; the adaptation of species to their environment constituting a central one.  Change in the environment led to the extinction of species maladjusted to those changes.  The extinction occurred for individual species, not entire fauna.  In Bronn’s theory, species remained distinct, unrelated entities.  He remained agnostic as to how new species came into being.  In the preceding two decades, Bronn had made a break with the pre-Darwinian biology in Germany, rejecting in particular the constellation of ideas that argued that organic change was a matter of internally directed progress toward “perfect” forms or types.  (Although my descriptions of Bronn’s theorizing have relied on Gliboff’s work cited here, any inaccuracies in translating Gliboff’s text into my words are all mine.)

When, on November 24, 1859, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in England, the die was cast for both Agassiz and Bronn.  Agassiz would wage a campaign against Darwinian evolution for much of the remaining 14 years of his life, an effort that increasingly isolated him from the scientific community in America, and, indeed, seems to continue to cast a shadow today over his significant accomplishments in science.  (I presented my take on Agassiz and evolution in a previous post.)  For Bronn, The Origin of Species would also figure prominently in the remainder of his life (just three years) but in a markedly different way.  And translation would be at the heart of it.

Upon its publication, Darwin (1809 – 1882) sent copies of The Origin of Species to several German scientists, including Bronn.  Unexpectedly, Bronn’s responded quickly and enthusiastically, reviewing it in a journal he edited.  The question of translating the book into German emerged in their initial communications.  Bronn wanted to translate the book himself and after an exchange of several letters undertook the project.

Darwin’s ready agreement with this arrangement is a bit curious because he found German a struggle to understand and I’m not sure at what point he actually translated Bronn’s initial journal review of The Origin of Species in its entirety (if he did), but early on he had trouble with it.  Not only was Bronn’s German “confoundedly hard” as he wrote to Lyell on February 18, 1860, but what meaning he had managed to extract didn’t sit well, particularly Bronn’s choice of the phrase “wahl der lebensweise” as a translation of “natural selection.”  The German phrase can be translated back into English as roughly something like “choice of lifestyle,” hardly what Darwin had in mind and, as Darwin himself pointed out to Bronn, the German phrase carried Lamarckian connotations (in which characteristics acquired by a organism could be inherited by its offspring).  (Janet Browne, Charles Darwin:  The Power of Place, 2002, p. 142.)

Bronn’s translation of The Origin of Species appeared a few months later (how did he do it so quickly?), complete with an epilogue in which he critically analyzed the book (something that Darwin himself had suggested).  Darwin’s initial response to Bronn (April 10, 1860) after receiving the translation was short and, as usual, generous, beginning with the following:
I received this morning 4 Copies of the translation and I must trouble you with one line to say how much pleased I am with their appearance.
I have read some pages and my sense seems very clearly given; for poor German Scholar as I am, I could read it with some facility – . . . .
Well, I don’t believe Darwin actually read it with “some facility.”  He tried to wrestle his way through the translation, but with what success?  Historian Janet Browne describes Darwin coming to the task “[a]rmed with some heavy German dictionaries.”  (p. 141)  Bronn’s critical epilogue apparently befuddled him and so, this scientist at the summit of the English scientific community sought a translation of the epilogue from Camilla Ludwig . . .  the household’s new governess, who was German.  I also find it amusing and telling that, according to the Darwin Correspondence Project (see Notes at the end of this posting), of the single copy of Bronn’s translation that Darwin kept for himself, which came in three parts, the pages of parts two and three remained uncut, as did some of the pages of the first part!

Browne concludes that Darwin was dissatisfied with Bronn’s translation.  He “scarcely expected a translator, however eminent, to adjust the Origin’s argument to suit himself,” (p. 141) as he apparently felt Bronn had, and ultimately looked for a new translator.  Though it’s relatively easy to find evidence that Bronn’s translation troubled Darwin, he never broke his ties to the German paleontologist.  Indeed, Bronn translated the second and third editions of the book.

Gliboff identifies a number of inherent challenges in the translation process for getting author and translator – Darwin and Bronn – on the same page.  Differences between Darwin and Bronn that threatened a common understanding included training and scientific experiences, social and culture milieus, and even their understanding of the scientific enterprise.  (Gliboff, H.G. Bronn, p. 13-14.)

Whether or not Bronn came to the project intent on reinterpreting the original work, language was critical.  As translator he would have had to struggle with what the English words and phrases meant to their author, particularly if some of those words and phrases were being coined or used in new ways.  Further, he’d have to consider whether the specific examples given in the original to convey particular meanings would do the same in the other language (and for another society).  And so on.

There’s another aspect of language use that bedevils the translation process.  How the translator uses language and what he or she means by the words and phrases used.  Later scholars asserted that Bronn and other German translators of Darwin sought to tie Darwin’s evolutionary theory to Germany’s pre-Darwinian biology with its emphasis on progress toward “perfect” forms.  A clear misinterpretation, according to Gliboff, given how Bronn’s own thinking had changed in the preceding couple of decades.  What misled the critics was Bronn’s use of some of the same terminology as that of the German pre-Darwinians.  Such a maze.

Gliboff concludes with a nuanced assessment of Bronn’s work and other German translation efforts:
Darwin’s German interpreters, to some extent, made his theory their own and turned it to their own purposes.  But we must also beware of exaggerating the independence of the translation or interpretation from the original.  Much may have been lost or changed in translation, but much was also communicated successfully.  (H.G. Bronn, p. 13)
I came out of this convinced that translation of any text is part science and part art; translated works are at best approximations of the original, and sometimes other than that.  For a seminal scientific work such as The Origin of Species, the journey of the text from one language to another seems destined to generate something new, regardless of how much of the original is conveyed successfully.  Language barriers, for better or worse, are transformative.

And, yes, I do know the take in the Hitchhiker’s Guide on the impact of language barriers:
[T]he poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything in the history of creation.


1) All correspondence from and to Charles Darwin cited in this posting may be found in the wonderful Darwin Correspondence Project, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry2703, accessed on various dates in October, 2011.

2) I made the identification of the Serratolamna serrata teeth using two sources –Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region (1994) by Bretton W. Kent, and The Collector’s Guide to Fossil Sharks and Rays From the Cretaceous of Texas (1993) by Bruce J. Welton and Roger F. Farish.  Among the key distinguishing features of these teeth are (1) asymmetry in the number of cusplets on either shoulder of the root – a larger number on the distal part (toward the rear of the mouth – the central crown curves toward the rear), and (2) divergent curvature of the cusplets – distal ones pointing to the rear, mesial ones pointing to the front of the mouth.


  1. Hello,

    The paper of LANDEMAINE 1991 about Serratolamna can be downloaded here :


    (click on the green circle with white arrow)

    All the best
    O. Landemaine

  2. Thank you so much. I found the paper, downloaded it, and will now begin the process of translating the portions relevant to the naming of Serratolamna, with particular attention to S. serrata.


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