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UW Faculty Member Translates Influential 19th Century Scientific Work

September 15, 2014
Man sitting in office
UW Lecturer Mark Person translated “Views of Nature,” the best known and most influential work of noted 19th century scientist Alexander von Humboldt.

“Views of Nature,” the best known and most influential work of noted 19th century scientist Alexander von Humboldt, is now available to English readers after being translated by University of Wyoming Department of Modern and Classical Languages Lecturer Mark W. Person and co-edited by Stephen Jackson, UW professor emeritus of botany and ecology.

Until it was translated, “Views of Nature” had been unavailable in English for more than 100 years. Now available from the University of Chicago Press, the 344-page book chronicles Von Humboldt’s 1799–1804 research expedition to Central and South America with botanist Aimé Bonpland that set the course for the great scientific surveys of the 19th century. 

Largely neglected in the United States during the 20th century, von Humboldt’s contributions to the humanities and the sciences are now undergoing a revival to which this new translation will be a critical contribution, according to the publisher.

“While the influence of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) looms large over the natural sciences, his legacy reaches far beyond the field notebooks of naturalists but also served as the raw material for his many volumes -- works of both scientific rigor and aesthetic beauty that inspired such essayists and artists as Emerson, Goethe, Thoreau, Poe and Frederic Edwin Church,” a reviewer wrote.

“In a time of rapid environmental change, we need to span the gaps between the sciences and the humanities more than ever before,” notes Jackson, who co-edited the book with Laura Dassow Walls, the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. “Two centuries ago, Alexander von Humboldt showed us how a scientific aesthetic could enrich our lives while making the world a better place -- for people and for nature.”

Translating scientific text from an earlier time can be challenging, but Person says it was particularly daunting because of Humboldt’s sweeping prose, which he wanted to preserve for today’s readers. He says Humboldt “has the capacity to create a sweeping view from the breathtakingly immense to the small and intimate … To reproduce this remarkable combination of beauty, complexity and clarity in English requires serious consideration and at least a small amount of courage.”

However daunting the task, book reviewers praise the new work. Cornell University’s Aaron Sachs, author of “The Humboldt Current,” says, “Today, thanks in part to the acutely sensitive translator and editors, von Humboldt’s finest one-volume work comes across as a perfect blend of art and science, a paean to interconnection that is both humbling and heartening.”

Person’s studies focus on 19th century German poetry, particularly the work of Heinrich Heine. He has finished translating a second book, “TransArea,” by the German scholar Ottmar Ette, that is now being approved by the author. He also has begun translating a multi-volume work by a mentor of von Humboldt, the natural scientist Georg Forster. This work, “Views of the Lower Rhine,” has never been translated into English, and should be of great interest to Humboldt scholars, as the young Humboldt accompanied Forster on much of the trip that inspired this book.


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