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He’s just too French!

Lost in translation

Helen-Frances Pilkington 24 June 2017

Strange brew (adapted from Wikimedia Commons)

Many would hold that fools and buffoons are synonymous

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He's just too French!

According to Mr Yorrick of Sterne's A Sentimental Journey1 fame,

"They order this matter better in France."

Hm, perhaps you have a point, Mr Yorrick. What is your opinion of Mr Kerr's solution to his predicament?

"By heaven! Sire, it is not well done; and much does it grieve me."


Mr Robert Kerr is trying to translate Lavoisier's stratigraphy paper in his study. I picture his study as threadbare with piles of books but little furniture apart from the desk and chair. There's no fire in the grate either. Shall I be mean and deny him a rug too? On the desk, there's an open English-French dictionary as well as sheets of paper with plenty of deletions, ink splodges and the like.

Kerr is walking up and down, partly to warm up, partly to think. The pace varies but the end spins are sedate. Kerr is onto page 2 where Lavoisier has a string of "Comment...", and wonders how to translate this part. He's already had to de-eroticize Lavoisier's use of 'figure allongée sont couchées horizontalement' which is far too suggestive of the boudoir. How are the remaining 17 pages to be translated?


Not another comment, Mr Lavoisier! You seem unacquainted with the Writings of our celebrated Mr Boyle and Mr Hooke on the appropriate Presentation of Philosophical Discourse. Indeed, the unstated Requirement of our Philosophical Transactions is the omission of all Opinion and Speculation except if accompanied by a most fulsome Apologia and such superfluities should always be at the end of the Paper.

Kerr heads to a pile of books by the leftmost window and, bending over, runs his fingers down the spines. I suspect that he is most likely to be looking for the said Mr Boyle or Mr Hooke to quote from.

Ha! Here it is.

"If therefore the Reader expects from me any infallible Deductions, or certainty of Axioms, I am to say for my self, that those stronger Works of Wit and Imagination are above my weak Abilities; Whereever he finds that I have ventur'd at any small Conjectures, at the causes of things that I have observed, I beseech him to look upon them only as doubtful Problems, and uncertain ghesses, and not as unquestionable Conclusions, or as matters of unconfutable Science."

Be admonished, Monsieur Lavoisier!

It seems that Kerr located Mr Hooke first then. Thankfully, Kerr didn't quite have this problem when translating Lavoisier's Traité élémentaire de Chimie, as the Frenchman thankfully kept his speculations to after the evidence. Kerr smiles, remembering the second edition of his translation in 1793, the third in 1796, the fourth in 1799, and the two volume fifth edition in 1802. Then again, Lavoisier was the enfant terrible proposing an alternative theory to phlogiston and caloric as propounded by the Englishman Joseph Priestley. An alternative to Priestley was always to be preferred after the mob decreed Priestley a heretic and burnt his house down, forcing him to flee to America. Equally, Lavoisier's frisson was that he was French, and had been guillotined and the English were still embroiled in the War with Napoleon.

The French.


Really, Kerr. Do you hold them responsible for the folding of your paper mill? Your products were targeted at the wrong market and as for that business partner. Well, if you will keep your head in the wood chips, you will be swindled. That's it, go and stand in the shaft of sunlight by the window and sigh. Nostalgia is a fashionable disease to acquire at present, but not quite so useful for the task in hand.

Why are Readers so delighted with le Nouveau Français and his Système and his Nomenclature Reductive? What is it in human Nature that finds so much delight in the Novel rather than the Trusted, encouragement in the separation from the Known rather than the Familiar? I see the leaves bud, blossom and die in the chestnut tree yonder and that provides the comfort of the familiar, alas, it also reminds me of the past, the success, the failure.

At least the sale of my translations has meant some Money coming into our House.

Why aren't you delighted, Kerr, by the elegance of describing water as water no matter whether it is in solid, liquid or gaseous form and thus avoiding the proliferation of terms describing the same substance by different names for its differing forms? What about Lavoisier's tables detailing the simple substances and the new nomenclature of the resulting compound compared to the old nomenclature displaying the newly discovered links between substances previously called pyrites and livers or between spars and vitriols?

At least my Translation was first, and such a good piece of Prose, if I may say so myself, that no-one has thought it worth their while to try and surpass it, even if I did have to write such self-effacing tripe as "it must fall greatly short of the elegance, or even propriety of Language, which every Writer ought to endeavour to attain", or "the only hesitation of the Translator is with regard to his own abilities for the task". Conventions!

I followed this System of self-effacy again in my Translation of the first part of Linnaeus' Systema Naturae. It was a splendid Book, 8" by 6", with numerous Plates of rare Mammals and updated for the latest zoological Information. I can scarce conceive why so many learned Persons preferred Professor Gmelin's 1774 edition where they must try their Head with Latin, and Latin edited by a German at that.

Shaking his head, Kerr pulls out the chair and slumps down in it. He then decides to lean back and swing in the chair. I'm convinced his tutor would have had something to say about that posture.

I do not understand the reading Public at present, seduced by this Sensation today and that tomorrow. Why are they so fickle? First they were delighted with Rev Sterne, now they cannot read enough Gothic. Zastrozzi is now the cause celebre by that heretic Percy Shelley.

They were delighted with the Philosophy of Lavoisier, Berthollet, Gauss, Humboldt... but now they are enchanted with the Count de Buffon. Popularist Buffon. Omniscient Buffon. Posthumous Buffon. Amongst these Books, I'm sure I'll find my Translation, or did we use it to heat the Stove last month when the Wood ran out?

After a minute or two of rummaging, Kerr finds a copy of his unburnt 1802 translation in one of the piles and declaims its title: The Natural History of Oviparous Quadrupeds and Serpents arranged and published from the papers and collections of the Count de Buffon by the Count de la Cépède. Naturally, due to the involvement of Cépède, it ran to hundreds of pages.

Many would hold that fools and buffoons are synonymous. However, this is not so: a fool is a person who prefers folly and has no desire to do anything other than repeat mistakes often doing so in the most outlandish garb, whereas a buffoon is an acolyte of Buffon.

But what's this? Kerr has risen from the chair and is rummaging once more. Ah, he's found Carl Wilhelm Scheele's Chemische Abhandlung von der Luft und dem Feuer which was translated by J. R. Forster in 1780 as Chemical Observation and Experiments on Air and Fire with a preface by his colleague Torbern Bergman. Judging by his heavy air on sitting down once more, I fear this will precipitate another tedious bout of extreme self-pity. Brace yourselves!

Scheele. A man like me. Fated to be unrecognized, the third Man.

The scarcity of Letters, the slim number of Papers, the lack of Connections outside of Sweden, the slowness of Publication all dooming him to Oblivion.

Or was it desertion by his muse Scientia? She has deserted me too.

Oh what would I give for some Feuerluft for my Grate!

You could always burn Scheele if you'd like a fire that much, Kerr! That would, I fear, not add much to Scheele's recognition.

The door opens and Mrs Kerr enters with the tea tray. She pours Kerr a cup, surveys the litter of crumpled paper around the desk, looks at Kerr, sighs, then exits the room.

Scheele. Perhaps lack of recognition was a cause of Death premature. Perhaps it will be mine.

Or Mrs Kerr's.

I could not bear that.

Kerr dreams of returning to translating proper natural philosophy but only seems to get as far as dreaming. He is also angry about his present economic distress and the ensuing necessity of getting something out to the press quickly. This explains his frantic attempts this afternoon at translation, trying to be inspired. Yet his thoughts always seem to wander elsewhere. Why was he swindled? Who was to blame? Can he face any more quiet displeasure and pained looks from his wife indicating her sadness at their current poverty, having enjoyed such wealth?

Kerr rises from the chair and gazes once more out of the window. The chestnut by the gate is in full leaf and casts a long shadow along the lane, made longer by the lateness of the day. Noticing the pink sky and the lowness of the sun, Kerr begins to walk about the room in an agitated fashion.

Oh Monsieur Lavoisier, how am I to translate this? It is not in the slightest like the Papers in Philosophical Transactions.

But I have spent an Afternoon wrestling with this.

But I cannot publish it.

But I have used all this Paper.

Kerr leans over the desk, both hands on the inlaid leather, and gazes at his afternoon's efforts, exhaling deeply.

I still cannot publish it.

I know the Man was guillotined but dash it, he's just too French. I need a Drink.

Excellent idea, Kerr. So do I.

1Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy – available in several editions including Penguin Classics and Oxford Classics.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) was a French chemist who is most famous for his research into oxygen and the resulting priority dispute with Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) over not only what had been discovered, but whose theory was right: oxygen or phlogiston?

In August 1774, Priestley was playing with his new philosophical acquisition, a highly focusing lens also known as a burning glass. He was trying out burning different items and collecting the airs given off by the combustion. One item Priestley burned with this lens was some mercury ash, and he watched astonished as globules of mercury began to form and bubbles of air were given off. On testing this air, Priestley found that candles burned brighter, as did logs; and mice, instead of dying in a few seconds, flourished even more than in atmospheric air. Priestley had isolated a new air.

The current theory of combustion was the phlogiston theory. In this theory, everything that combusted contained phlogiston, an invisible property or force which was released on combustion. To explain the fact that on combustion, metals gained weight rather than losing it, phlogiston was negatively weighted. As Priestley had combusted mercury ash, which had already been combusted, it should have had no phlogiston remaining in it. Therefore, Priestley argued that the second combustion must have taken its phlogiston from the atmospheric air itself and the new air produced was free of phlogiston. Priestley therefore named it "dephlogisticated air" in his Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1774), with two more volumes in 1775 and 1777.

In Paris, Lavoisier heard of Priestley's findings and set about replicating them. While Lavoisier agreed with Priestley that metals gained weight on combustion, he explained it by the metals taking the extra weight from the atmosphere rather than the release of the negatively weighted phlogiston from the metal. By 1778, Lavoisier was confident enough of his findings to announce that it was the combination of dephlogisticated air with the metal that produced the weight increase on combustion. Lavoisier went on to name this new air oxygen, as a short-hand for oxy (acid) generator, as he thought all acids contained this new air. Lavoisier published his results and theory as Traits élémentaire de Chimie, présenté dans un ordre nouveau et d'après les découvertes moderns (Paris, 1789).

In Lavoisier's Traité, logic and redefinition were at the fore: all elements were renamed with Greek names in relation to a key property and compounds were known by the combination of the Greek names of its elements, e.g. magnesium oxide, hydrochloric acid. Experiments could now be written as equations whereby the same elements were on each side but the combinations were re-arranged, thus explaining in a far simpler form what had occurred. The previous terminology had been highly convoluted, which prevented links being drawn: all combusted items would now be oxides rather than calces or ashes. In addition, the same terminology could be used by French, English and German chemists, enabling a clearer communication of experiments performed and results obtained. However, adopting this new terminology required accepting Lavoisier's theories, and many British philosophers held out for a while, preferring the phlogiston theory and the profusion of terms: Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles and a member of the Lunar Society with Priestley) was the one who caved first and attempted to win around the rest who, grudgingly, eventually followed suit.

Alas, Lavoisier's chemical research was not sufficient to save him from the guillotine. Since he had assisted the Ferme Générale with tax collection, he was branded a traitor by Robespierre and executed in 1794.

Lavoisier is less known for his Geological research, most of which is still only available in French. Interestingly, the only English translation of his paper Observations Générales sur les couches moderns horizontals qui ont été deposes par la mer... by Carozzi in 1965, recast Lavoisier's text by the standards of twentieth-century science papers, and toned down the rhetoric.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) isolated the gas oxygen before either Priestley or Lavoisier but did not publish after Priestley had published. Scheele interpreted his results in line with the phlogiston theory and viewed oxygen (Feuerluft) as the agent responsible for producing fire when united with phlogiston in combustion. Later research has postulated that Scheele's early death was actually caused by his habit of tasting and smelling the results of his experiments, many of which were poisonous.