Leeuwenhoek's translators

During Leeuwenhoek's lifetime and moreso since, interest in Leeuwenhoek has been worldwide. Yet few people, then or now, read Dutch and even fewer today are willing to read 17th century Dutch to say nothing of grappling with the idiosyncracies of Leeuwenhoek's language.

Most people read Leeuwenhoek's letters in translation. During his lifetime, they read the English translations in Philosophical Transactions. They read the Latin translations that Leeuwenhoek published in Leiden and Delft. They read the French, German, and Italian extracts in the journals published in those countries. In the 19th century, people read Hoole's English translations. Now, the English translations in Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters have become the standard.

Who were those tranlsators through which we know Leeuwenhoek?

Royal Society translations in London

The records of the early meetings of the Royal Society and the private letters of some of its officers reveal the names of some of the people who translated Leeuwenhoek letters. Felicity Henderson brought them all together in her recent book chapter, "Making 'The Good Old Man' Speak English". During the Royal Society's weekly meetings, the English versions of Leeuwenhoek's letters would be read aloud, while, no doubt, the members passed around the figures, usually in red chalk. Most of the translations (often without the formal openings and closings) would appear in Philosophical Transactions.

Henry Oldenburg translated Leeuwenhoek's letters until his death in September 1677.

Robert Hooke could read Dutch well enough to get the main ideas.

By January 1678, Hooke was writing in his journal that 73-year-old Theodore Haak (1605-1690) (right; click to enlarge) was translating Leeuwenhoek. These may have been the letters in Hooke's Philosophical Collections.

Two months after that, in March 1678, Hooke noted that Francis Lodwick (1619-1694) was translating them.

Francis Aston (1644-1715) (below right; click to enlarge) translated a letter in February 1680 and letters plural later that year. Leeuwenhoek addressed three letters to Aston in 1683 and 1684.

Beginning in 1685, the Royal Society's weekly minutes noted Lodwick as having translated seven of Leeuwenhoek's letters into the early 1690s. During this period, Edmond Halley was editor of Philosophical Transactions and was not publishing Leeuwenhoek, so translators were needed only for reading at the meetings.

When Hans Sloane succeeded Halley, he had trouble finding a competent translator. In his letter to Leeuwenhoek of May 28, 1700, Sloane apologized.

Yor. letters being in Dutch are understood by few naturalists here who are the only persons qualified to translate them so that the Society have been often some months without the satisfaction of understanding Yor. discoveries & that is the reason you have not sooner their thanks for Yor. letters. They begg Yor. pardon for this delay & have ordered me to send you the last years transactions which I will do by the first opportunity when you please to direct me whither in a port town I may send them. I have found out a person who has promised to give the society a more perfect and speedy acct. of Yor. discoveries so soon as Yor. letters come to London & therefore they will be glad to hear from you.

A Dr. Miller translated the next two letters from Leeuwenhoek, July 9 and July 27, 1700. The latter letter included two dead and one living larvae wrapped in black silk. They had been "fumigated out of a decayed tooth" in the mouth of the English magistrate and amateur scientist John Chamberlayne (1668-1723) . Given what must have been the dire state of Chamberlayne's mouth, Leeuwenhoek quickly responded on July 27 that the larvae came from cheese that Chamberlayne must have eaten.


"Frequent tautologies, incoherent expressions, ungrammatical & unsyntaxical sentences without number"

Because they were cheese maggots from Chamberlayne's tooth and he knew Dutch, Sloane gave him the translation of Leeuwenhoek's July 27 response made by Dr. Miller. Chamberlayne made such astute corrections (left sidebar menu: Syntax and Diction) that Sloane from then on gave all of Leeuwenhoek's letters to Chamberlayne. He even had him appointed to a paid position, in Chamberlayne's words, "to the office of Dutch interpreter confer'd on me by your Society".

Leeuwenhoek's Letter 132 of September 9, 1700 (AB 218) to Sloane followed up on his further study of the larvae from Chamberlayne's mouth, so Chamberlayne had a personal interest in its accurate translation. The following letter, however, was about how black flies laid eggs on fruit trees, how aphids procreated without sperm, and how moth pupae developed.

Two weeks later, that letter was on Chamblerlayne's desk. On October 29, 1700 (O.S.), he responded to Sloane:

I found it one of the most intricate letters that I ever read in my life, and that, not so much upon ye Account of several words, whereof for want of Dictionary, I knew not the signification, as of the frequent tautologies, incoherent expressions, ungrammatical & unsyntaxical sentences without number; many of which I took the liberty to correct, and some I have expressly inserted for your information, and now I am finding fault with him, I will add one more accusation more, which is, that if all the expressions in that letter which are extreamly trivial and of no consequence were omitted, the letter would want almost half its length but not one jot of its meaning.

In 1712, Halley became Philosophical Transactions editor again and Leeuwenhoek began writing the Send-Brieven letters, only a dozen of which were addressed to the Royal Society. Chamberlayne continued to translate them for the members to read, sometimes aloud at meetings. In February 1714, Chamberlayne wrote in a cover letter:

With much difficulty I have conquer’d the inclse’d, that is to say I have made it speak English. I wish I could say & sense too, but in truth the Good old Man is so often wanting in that, that one is forced to guess at his meaning; but I ought not to complain of that difficulty because I reckon I am beholden to that, for being restor’d to my office of Dutch Translator ... I accept the troublesome post with pleasure ... because it is the only way I can be profitable to the Society.

After James Jurin succeeded Halley and began publishing Leeuwenhoek again, Robert Sprengell or Sprengwell (-1740) shared the translating duties with Chamberlayne through the end of Leeuwenhoek's life, and Chamberlayne's. He died two months after Leeuwenhoek. Chamberlayne translated the four dozen letters that Leeuwenhoek sent from mid-1700 to 1712 and then several of the letters in the final two years of both their lives.

Although the names above account for most of the Royal Society's ____ translations, some have handwriting that is different from that of any of the translators named above. [ how many manuscripts and translations are in the Royal Society archives? ]

Of these translators, John Chamberlayne translated more letters than anyone. He is also the only one whose comments on the nature of Leeuwenhoek's language have survived.


Latin translations in Holland

Leeuwenhoek had about a dozen letters, including the final five, translated into Latin before he sent them to London. He also published Latin translations of 165 letters in a parallel series to match the Dutch versions. They were printed in Leiden and Delft during his lifetime. We do not know who did these Latin translations, how accurate they are, or even who commissioned them. In the letter of January 12, 1689 (AB 112) to Robert Boyle, Leeuwenhoek wrote about his printer in Leiden, Cornelis Boutesteyn:

... my letters which I have written to the Royal Society in the year 1687, and which the Book-printer has had translated and printed in the Latin language, the more so because I have had no evidence that they have been printed in the English language.


English translations between Leeuwenhoek's death and the tricentenary of his birth

After Leeuwenhoek's death, Samuel Hoole translated parts of 80 of the 182 letters that Leeuwenhoek wrote between January 1680 and April 1702. All of the 80 were among the 165 published by Leeuwenhoek in Holland and only a quarter of the letters Hoole excerpted had also appeared in Philosophical Transactions. Hoole must have used these Dutch publications, not the manuscripts, as the basis for his translations. Hoole grouped the excerpts by topic and did not attribute them to their source letters. He also seemed to retain Leeuwenhoek's long complex sentences.

The next publication of new translations occurred in 1930, when Clifford Dobell arranged for the photographing of the manuscripts of 14 letters in the Royal Society archives that were never published in Philosophical Transactions. They had been sent before Leeuwenhoek began publishing his letters himself. In Holland, these 14 manuscripts were transcribed and translated by Dr. A. Querido. Adding some introductory articles, editor Gerard van Rijnberk put it all into volume IX of Opuscula selecta Neerlandicorum de arte medica. Almost a preview for Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters, this volume had Dutch and English on facing pages under the title "Fourteen Hitherto Totally Unpublished Letters of Anthony van Leeuwenhoek from the Years 1674-1678" (Veertien tot heden geheel onuitgegeven brieven van Anthony van Leeuwenhoek uit de Jaren 1674-1678). Editor C. G. Heringa used Querido's translations for those 14 letters in Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters.

Dobell translated parts of several letters for his 1932 biography. Shortly before the volume 1 of Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters was published, Bernard Cohen published a facsimile and fresh translation of all of Leeuwenhoek's Letter 18 of October 9, 1776 (AB 27). Neither of those translators' work as used in Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters.


Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters

According to the prefaces of each volume, several scholars have been responsible for the translation of Leeuwenhoek's letters in Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters.

Adriaan Swaen (1863-1947) (right) translated volumes 1 through 4, though he died before completely finishing it.

The fourteen letters translated by Dr. A. Querido were used in volumes 1 and 2. The preface to volume 1 says that those translations were "partly used for the present edition" but comparison shows that Swaen and editor Heringa made very few changes.

Dobell apparently did not think highly of these translations. In his biographical article on Samuel Hoole, published in 1950 after the first three volumes of Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters in 1939, 1941, and 1948, Dobell wrote,

Hoole's translations are often excellent. ... Within his self-imposed and narrow-minded limits he did his work remarkably well. It has never yet been surpassed by more recent translators.

The final letter in volume 4, Letter 42 of July 25, 1684 (AB 81) to the Royal Society, was translated by Mrs. M. Bunnemeijer. The first letter in volume 5, Letter 43 of January 5, 1685 (AB 82), also to the Royal Society, was translated by May Hollander.

The preface to volume 5 notes that Judi Mendels made the transcriptions and wrote the explanatory linguistic notes through Letter 44 of January 23, 1685 (AB 83) to the Royal Society and that B. C. Damsteegt did them after that.

Emile van Loo translated the letters in volumes 5 through 8, with some help on technical terms in Letters AB 90, AB 92 and AB 93 from J. W. Duyff.

After 1967, Miss C. Dikshoorn took over for volumes 9 through 15, thus translating more letters than any of the others. She had some help from Elze Kegel-Brinkgreve, who translated the letter of April 8, 1701 (AB 223) to the mayors and governors of the City of Delft as well as the notes, introduction, and biographical registers for Dikshoorn's last two volumes. Kegel-Brinkgreve translated the everything in volumes 16 and 17 and did the draft translations of the letters for volumes 18 and 19, to be completed by Douglas Anderson.