Mark Catesby’s FrenchBy
It’s one of the best things (and one of the few good things) about academic conferences: somebody asks what seems at first a simple, straightforward, merely factual question. And suddenly the whole room realizes that there’s a lot more to it than that.
I was lucky enough this past Tuesday to attend a few of the lectures commemorating the tercentennial of Mark Catesby‘s arrival in America. I was especially impressed by Leslie K. Overstreet‘s comments on her studies of the textual and editorial history of the Natural History, which combined fine scholarship with the “nose” of a good detective.
Afterward, someone in the audience asked one of those simple questions: What is the relationship between the French and the English texts in the book? Answer: we don’t really know.
By the mid-seventeenth century, French had made great progress towards displacing its elder brother, Latin, as the language of learning in western Europe. More important than that, even, and an obvious point not brought up in the discussion, the savants of Paris and Blois were a huge audience for books in natural history. Printing Catesby’s text in both languages, English and French in parallel columns on the page, both lent the book an air of scientific authority and opened the continental markets in ways that a monolingual text might not have.
What we do know about the Natural History is that the text was planned to be bilingual from the start. In the Proposals, a printed prospectus a copy of which is pasted in to the Smithsonian copy of the Natural History, Catesby informs potential subscribers that his plates will be accompanied by “descriptions and history” “in English and French.” We know that Catesby’s English is the original, or source, text, and that the French translation was prepared by
a very ingenious Gentleman, a Doctor of Physick, and a French-man born, whose Modesty [did] not permit [Catesby] to mention his Name.
A great virtue in the living, yes; but humility ought to be a crime among the dead.
I’d like to know who that modest Frenchman was, but barring a happy discovery, we’ll have to content ourselves with deducing what he was — namely, a remarkably poor copy editor.
Or more likely an absent one. To all appearances, the French text of the first edition as set by the English printer went without a good proofreading. The first typographic error occurs in the very second line of the book, where the printer misread the second “c” of “rechercher” as an “e,” producing the nonsensical “rechereher.” Farther down on the same page, the English “dried Specimens of Plants” is illiterately rendered “des plantes d’essêchées.”
Even the text describing the most famous of Catesby’s birds, the “largest white-bill wood-pecker,” is garbled. Where the author’s English reports that
a crooked white Stripe runs from the eye on each side the Neck, towards the Wing,
the corresponding French sentence ends abruptly and fragmentarily “depuis les yeux jusques vers” (“from the eyes towards”). The next sentence then begins, clueless, “Il y’a l’aile” — “there is a wing.” I haven’t read through the whole French text (I’ve got due dates and deadlines!), but a spot check discovers a number of such lapses, indicating that the translation, which is usually fluid and idiomatic, suffered at the hands of the English printer.
What is interesting — yes, there’s something interesting to be said here — is that the edition of 1761, posthumously published by George Edwards, corrects these (and presumably other) errors in the French text. The preface lacks the typos of the first edition, and our poor woodpecker is now correctly outfitted with its “raye blanche crochue” running
à chaque coté du cou depuis les yeux jusques vers l’aîle.
And the corrections go even further, at least in the description of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker: a small alteration makes the French prose a bit less paratactic, and another even clears up a minor error of fact.
Catesby’s English in the first edition:
Weighs twenty ounces; about the size, or somewhat larger than a Crow.
And the French of the first:
Cet oiseau pese vingt onces; il est de la grosseur d’une corneille & même un peu plus grosse.
The redactor of the second edition’s French took umbrage at the notion that the bird could be the size of a crow and at the same time a bit larger:
Cet oiseau pese vingt onces; et est de la grosseur d’une corneille, ou même un peu plus grosse.
It might be worthwhile to set a bright undergraduate to collating the French texts of the two editions and comparing the editorial changes there with the editorial changes in the English texts of both, on the working hypothesis that Edwards, in the process of his light revision of Catesby’s English, had simultaneously pointed his blue pencil at both.
Catesby published a list of subscribers to his first edition, in part to show his gratitude and in part, no doubt, to inspire others to equally conspicuous consumption. In spite of the bilingualism of the Natural History, remarkably few French names appear among those who had placed their orders.
By 1768, though, the entire work was available in a French-language edition. I assume, given that that edition appears to have been based on the German version produced by Seligmann and Huth, that the French text there is independent of the translation in the “real” Catesby. But I’d love to be proved wrong.
And I’d love even more to find out that someone with the time and the access is working on the problem of bilingualism in this text — and in early natural history in general. If you know, let me know in the comments below.