Monday, November 30, 2015

Einstein's Translator

Regular Followers of this blog know I have a penchant for history.
So I can't let this month go by without remarking on the centenary of Einstein's theory of relativity.

It was in November 1915 that he finished Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relitivatätstheorie and sent it to the prestigious printer, Johann Ambrosius Barth, in Leipzig. It was published the following year. In those days Leipzig was the Mecca of German scientific publishing and German was the dominant language of science. Until World War II, PhD candidates in the sciences were expected to have a knowledge of German. Therefore the fact that Einstein published in German was not such a drawback as it would be today and by 1919 the book was enormously famous in scientific circles. Nevertheless it was generally felt by publishers that an English translation was needed for the American and British markets.

The translator appointed was Robert W. Lawson, MSc., a lecturer and member of the Physics Laboratory at the University of Sheffield in England. In British universities, lecturer is equivalent to North American assistant professor. Note too that Lawson had an MSc., not a PhD. Until World War II the MA/MSc was considered a terminal degree in the UK, not the stepping stone to something higher as it is today. (When I was a student, the leading British linguist of his day, J R Firth, was appointed Professor of Linguistics in London with an MA.) Lawson was well known as a physicist. From 1913 he was an honorary Assistent (assistant lecturer) at the Vienna Radium Institute. Lawson set to work in 1919 and in August 1920 his translation came out in London and New York. There was already a second edition the same year and three further editions within two years. It's still the standard English version (see Amazon, etc.) and the one that's most read today in any language. It's one answer to the age-old question: Is it better to have a technical text translated by a translator who knows the subject or by a subject specialist who knows the languages? It's doubtful whether it could have been done so successfully in 1919 by someone who didn't have advanced training in physics. But where did Lawson learn such good German? He had taught in Vienna and he is said to have polished his German while a prisoner of war in Austria. He went on to translate a couple of other scientific books (see References). I haven't managed to find out more about him. Perhaps one of you knows something.

How did Lawson meet up with Einstein in the first place and obtain his approval? Shortly after the success of the eclipse expeditions to the South Atlantic in 1917 which proved part of Einstein's theory – another British contribution to Einstein's fame – Lawson wrote to him on behalf of the editor of the leading British science journal Nature asking him for a popular short article explaining his theories. A month later, Einstein told Lawson that the article was almost ready but it was probably too long, and he went on to prepare a shorter one. The first version was never published, but it was the beginning of their relationship.

Lawson wrote later to Einstein telling him about a letter he'd received from the British publisher, Methuen, while he was at work on the translation. It requested him to make the description of its contents
"as intelligible as possible to the ordinary man. Our travellers [i.e., salesmen] tell us that there is complete ignorance in the public mind as to what Relativity means. A good many people seem to think that the book deals with the relations between the sexes."
To give you a taste of Lawson's English, here's his translation of Einstein's famous first paragraph:
"In your schooldays most of you who read this book made acquaintance with the noble building of Euclid's geometry, and you remember – perhaps with more respect than love – the magnificent structure, on the lofty staircase of which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers. By reason of your past experience, you would certainly regard every one with disdain who should pronounce even the most out-of-the-way proposition of this science to be untrue. But perhaps this feeling of proud certainty would leave you immediately if some one were to ask you: 'What then do you mean by the assertion that these propositions are true?' Let us proceed to give this question a little consideration,"

For Einstein, Lawson did more than translate. He thought the book would be accepted better if its author could provide a proof of the general theory. So Einstein wrote a six-page paper for him in just a few hours and sent the manuscript to him in Sheffield. Lawson used it as an appendix to the book and kept the manuscript as a souvenir of his relationship with the great man. At the time of writing this post, the Einstein-Lawson papers are on display at Oglethorpe Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. USA.

Lawson deserves credit in any history of science translation. Though Sheffield started translation courses early on, there is no indication that Lawson ever took such a course. He began as a typical Native Translator.

Footnote 1: Bose
Lawson's wasn't the only English translation of Einstein published in 1920. There was also one by M. N. Saha and S. N. Bose (of boson particle fame), physicists at the University of Calcutta. But it was too remote to have a readership like Lawson's. Nevertheless it illustrates the universality of translation as well as the high standard of mathematics in an Indian university of the period. Einstein rewarded Bose by recommending him for a post at the University of Dhaka even though he didn't have a doctorate.

Footnote 2: Motte
Until Einstein came along, the dominant figure in mathematics and mechanics was still Isaac Newton (1643-1727). But Newton wrote in Latin and his magnum opus, the Principia, wasn't translated into English until 1729. The translator was another Native Translator, Andrew Motte, a London maths teacher. It was done during the transition from Latin as the universal language of science towards the European vernaculars and it's still Motte's version that's mostly read today. Meanwhile Einstein could have read it in German.

A. Einstein. Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativatätstheorie. Leipzig: Johann Ambrosius Barth, 1916. Published in Annalen der Physik, 4. Folge, Band 49, 1916, and as a separate offprint. Copies sell today for several thousand dollars.

Albert Einstein (University of Berlin). Relativity: the special and general theory. Authorised translation by Robert William Lawson (Physics Laboratory, University of Sheffield). London: Methuen and New York: Holt, 1920.

Albert Einstein. Relativity: the Special & General Theory. 100th Anniversary Edition. With commentaries and background material by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn. UK and USA: Princeton University Press, 2015. This edition gives due importance to the role of Lawson.

Shelby Linerdman . Einstein papers at Atlanta's Oglethorpe still relative. WABE, Atlanta, 2015.

Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag. Wikipedia (German edition), 2015.

Arthur Erich Haas. The New Physics. Authorised translation by Robert W. Lawson. London: Methuen, 1923.

Georg von Hevesy. Manual of Radioactivity. Translated by Robert W. Lawson. London: Humphrey Milford, 1926.

A. Einstein and H. Minkowski: The Principle of Relativity: Original Papers. Translated ino English by M. N. Saha and S. N. Bose. University of Calcutta, 1920.

Sir Isaac Newton. The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Translated into English by Andrew Motte. London: Benjamin Motte (Andrew's brother), 1729.

Jakob Philipp Wolfers. Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematische Principien der Naturlehre mit Bemerkungen und Erläuterungen. Berlin: Oppenheim, 1872.

Page from one of Einstein's communications to Lawson. Source: Linerdman.

NPIT3, Winterthur (near Zurich), 5-7 May 2016
International forum for Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, the latest paradigm in translation studies.


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  11. "I haven't managed to find out more about him. Perhaps one of you knows something."

    Bob Lawson was a schoolfriend and scientific collaborator of geologist Arthur Holmes, as I learned from Cherry Lewis biography of Holmes, which has quite a bit about Lawson.

    I'd also be interested to find out what become of him; he missed out on being appointed founding professor of physics (my department) in Durham in 1924, at the same time as Holmes started the geology department.

  12. Here is his obituary:

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