Translating Darwin, Translating History

The history of science and of scientific knowledge offers lessons in many ways of thinking about the world we live in, past and present, scientific and beyond. Katalin Straner, Lecturer in Modern European History at Southampton, is writing a book on the translation and reception of Darwinism and evolutionary theory in nineteenth-century Hungary and the Habsburg Empire. In July and August 2018, Katalin was a Short-Term Resident Research Fellow at the Library American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. In this blog post she discusses her research and the questions that underpin it.

The American Philosophical Society is one of the largest repositories of the history of science. Its Darwin collections are similarly impressive: the Library hosts correspondence by Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, and other contemporaries, as well as works by and on Darwin in many languages, including several spoken in the Habsburg Empire (German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, and others). Philadelphia, with its fascinating history and institutions of science, is also an ideal place for historians of science. The history of science is more than just a narrow study of the history of the natural sciences. It is much more productive to approach the history of science as a history of knowledge, studying the ways knowledge has transformed the world.

In my research I ask a series of questions about how knowledge is produced, communicated, and transformed by people (who do not have to be ‘professional’ scientists), ideas (such as Darwinism), and material objects such as books, newspapers, and caricatures. I centre these questions around the science of Charles Darwin in nineteenth-century Europe. My research into why and how Darwin’s work was translated into various languages led me to explore how evolutionary knowledge is transformed through entering a variety of cultural, intellectual, social, and political spaces, and how in turn this knowledge has been used to shape those spaces.

Evolution according to Darwin’s theory. Postcard from author’s own collection.

The transformations can sometimes be rather unexpected. For example, on this Hungarian postcard, produced around 1900, a spur transforms into a Hungarian soldier (hussar), presumably through a relatively common misunderstanding about how evolution actually works (see also: monkeys). This is among the many examples of translation practices and cultural relocation that I explore in my research into how biological concepts cross over not only into other intellectual disciplines, but also into public discussions and public space.

Histories of the translation, reception, and transformation of fundamental works of science lead to wider questions about how knowledge is made. My research traces how and why fundamental (and bestselling) works of nineteenth-century natural history and science such as Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation or Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man were published in Hungarian. More importantly, though, this also reflects on why knowledge matters: thanks to the work of translators, scholars, journalists, public intellectuals, and many others involved in bringing Darwin’s and his contemporaries’ work to Central Europe, the languages of evolution, ‘development’ and ‘progress’ became not only part of scientific, but also public discourse.

Katalin Straner

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