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Euler's Letters to a German Princess: Translation and Betrayal – Euler's Lettres in English

Dominic Klyve (Central Washington University)

Until this point, we have been reading Euler via an English translation by Henry Hunter (1741–1802). Hunter, a Scottish minister who had just completed a translation of the Essays on Physiognomy by Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), in 1795 took upon himself the considerable task of translating the Lettres. Believing that Euler’s main goal was to educate women and girls, Hunter targeted his work at British women. Of course, differences in grammar, vocabulary, and historical viewpoint can be challenges for any translator seeking to faithfully render the author’s ideas in another language. Most of the possible problems occur despite the translator’s best intentions; however, a much more insidious form of betrayal occurs when the translator replaces an author’s words with new words or undermines the author’s intent. In its worst form, this alteration of the original text is hidden, and a reader without access to the original will be forever ignorant of the author’s true aims.

Hunter thus provided a raison d'être for his translation of the Lettres. After a long discussion in his introduction of the remarkable progress that women’s education had made in recent decades, Hunter expressed his hope for the translation in its first English edition:

The time, I trust, is at hand, when the Letters of Euler, or some such book, will be daily on the breakfasting table, in the parlour of every female academy in the kingdom; and when a young woman, while learning the useful arts of pastry and plain-work, may likewise be acquainting herself with the phases of the moon, and the flux and reflux of the tides. And I am persuaded she may thrum on the guitar, or touch the keys of the harpsicord, much more agreeably both to herself and others, by studying a little the theory of sound. I have put the means of this in her power; it will be at once her fault, and her folly, if she neglect it [Euler 1795, p. xiii].

Hunter, at first glance, seems to be transparent about his intentions (however paternalistic they may seem). Crucially, he tells the reader precisely which version of Euler’s Lettres he translated:

In translating the Work, I have followed the last Paris Edition, given by Mssrs. De Condorcet and de la Croix, in 1787, for the purpose of introducing the useful notes of these gentlemen; but I have taken the liberty to restore, from the original edition, that of Mietau and Leipsic, in 1770, several passages which the French Editor had thought proper to suppress [Euler 1795, pp. xiii–xiv, emphasis in source].

Note the curious reference to “suppressed” passages of Euler—we will return to these later. For now, however, we consider Hunter’s work itself. Soon after demonstrating his careful attention to detail, however, he tells us that he has not, in fact, translated everything. In a passage containing a somewhat surprising theological digression, Hunter writes:

The frequent, tiresome, courtly address of, Your Highness, except at the first setting out, I have entirely omitted; out of no disrespect to Princes, but because it seemed, to me, a mere unnecessary waste of words, which only encumber, and disfigure, a work of science. The Princess and her Instructor are both gone to that awful world, in which the distinctions of the present, those of virtue excepted, are for ever obliterated [Euler 1795, p. xvii].

Excising any words from a translation is viewed more suspiciously today, but this is not perhaps a terrible omission. At least he thought it worth mentioning the excision to his readers. However, something more problematic occurs when sections are not only excised, but altered without the reader's knowledge. Recall that Euler’s list of planets included three asteroids (Pallas, Juno, and Vesta), one dwarf planet (Ceres) and the planet "Georgium Sidus," all presumably unknown to Euler. Hunter, on the other hand, could have known of Ceres, Pallas, and “Georgium Sidus.” Thus, a reasonable interpretation is that Hunter updated scientific information as he translated, with more updates made by later editors and printers as more discoveries were made—all of them reasoning, perhaps, that the goal of Euler’s work was to teach the latest science. While such interventions are not a preferable editorial practice by current standards, Hunter might be forgiven in such a circumstance, though surely the translator needs to inform their readers of their changes! (For the record, "Georgium Sidus" is Latin for “George’s Star”, a name chosen by its discoverer William Herschel in a largely successful attempt to ingratiate himself to King George III; today we know it as Uranus.)

Dominic Klyve (Central Washington University), "Euler's Letters to a German Princess: Translation and Betrayal – Euler's Lettres in English," Convergence (December 2020)