Translating Gaia: a Cautionary Tale

Alexander von Humboldt,

credited with first diagnosing global warming some eight generations ago, as well as the concept of Nature as “all that there is” and the living Earth, Gaia herself …

Native plums and Cherries, North Okanagan Valley

..wrote a series of works called Kosmos, in an attempt to express the unity of all phenomena, a project limited only by his death at 90 years of age in 1859.

The work was rapidly translated across Europe and in the United States. We live, in a sense, in the concept of Nature that he spoke of. The only thing is, is the concept we live in actually the one he spoke of? Here’s Wikipedia’s entry on Ecology, one of Humboldt’s descendants:

Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house”, or “environment”; -λογία, “study of”)[A] is the branch of biology[1] which studies the interactions among organisms and their environment. Objects of study include interactions of organisms with each other and with abiotic components of their environment. Topics of interest include the biodiversity, distribution, biomass, and populations of organisms, as well as cooperation and competition within and between species. Ecosystems are dynamically interacting systems of organisms, the communities they make up, and the non-living components of their environment. Ecosystem processes, such as primary production, pedogenesis, nutrient cycling, and niche construction, regulate the flux of energy and matter through an environment. These processes are sustained by organisms with specific life history traits. Biodiversity means the varieties of species, genes, and ecosystems, enhances certain ecosystem services. Source.

Is that what he meant? Ecosystem services? Let’s have a look at his introduction. First, in his words, and then translated and interpreted.


Ein anderer Naturgenuß, ebenfalls nur das Gefühl ansprechend, ist der, welchen wir, nicht dem bloßen Eintritt in das Freie (wie wir tief bedeutsam in unserer Sprache sagen), sondern dem individuellen Charakter einer Gegend, gleichsam der physiognomischen Gestaltung der Oberfläche unseres Planeten verdanken. 

~Alexander von Humboldt

Here’s the 1851 English translation by E.C. (Elise) Otté, published in London. (Elise also translated the Elder Edda.)

In reflecting upon the different degrees of enjoyment presented to us in the contemplation of nature, we find the first place must be assigned to a sensation, which is wholly independent of an intimate acquaintance with the physical phenomena presented to our view, or of the peculiar character of the region surrounding us.

~Alexander von Humboldt, tr. Elise Otté

Great stuff!  But, wait, compare that to a literal translation:

Another pleasure of Nature, equally corresponding to feeling, is that, which we can thank not the simple step into free space (as we say meaningfully deep in our language) but the individual character of a region and at the same time the physiognomical organization of the surface of our planet.

You can see that Elise was wise enough to try to unravel that. She did so, however, in mid-19th century English terms, focussed on the following scale:

Nature is out there>it offers different degrees of enjoyment when we contemplate it>the primary one is sensory experience>sensory experience is independent of whether we know anything about what we are looking at or not.

In effect, she has interpreted von Humboldt as saying that an orderly understanding of the logical system of nature begins with the pleasure of sensory experience, which gains understanding when coupled with the pleasures of intellectual organization. It’s a very good prescription for extending Empire around the world. Here’s some of that pleasure, in Elise’s 1851 London:

The Cosmos as a crystal palace for viewing pleasure. That describes it well. But let’s look again at von Humboldt. Here’s my stab at an interpretation:

Another pleasure of nature, [not one we bring to it but which it expresses],

one equally attractive

[which draws feeling to it because it is the corresponding form of feeling in the world and so completes it],

is the one which we can thank not the simple step into wilderness

[The German expression “Das Freie” means, cleverly, both ‘freedom’ and ‘open space’, and is used today as a synonym for nature and release from the constrictors of densely-organized and stressful urban life; I think ‘wilderness’ or ‘Nature’ would be contemporary Canadian expressions, but ‘unbound space’ or just ‘space’ could work as well]

(as we say with significance deep in our language)

[note that in a Germany struggling for independence ‘our language’ is “German”, and “German” was understood at the time as a language that sprang from the soil, and was thus used as the foundational argument of a land claim, just as syilx or secwpemc or cree stories are used as foundational claims to land in Canada today. German readers would not have missed the deep correspondence between political freedom and this deep expression of language-as-land. Note that he rejects this political claim.]

but the individual character of a region

[he is given the Earth life outside of human scope and making it primary]

which itself expresses the phsyiognomic (an assessment of character from facial characteristics) organization of the surface of our planet.

[He is, I believe, indicating that the individual character of a region is the same as its phsyiognomic appearance: that a region is expressed by a force, which also expresses its appearance. One force, two simultaneous and intimately-linked manifestations.)

So, again, to unpack that:

pleasure>attracts>and gives rises to feeling>which is not freedom from bondage or the freedom of entering the body or wilderness or nature>but the force expressing the character of a region and its surface appearance>ie our feeling in a place is an expression of the force that expresses the appearance of a place.

For that, stepping into wilderness will not do. Nor will freedom. Nor wilderness. It’s more like touching a lover with your eyes closed and, really, not feeling a separation between you and them. For this, photographs will not do,  yet with some generosity they can hint at it.

But to do that, they need the context that Elise discarded in her attempt to express these multiple levels of unity. Did she understand them? I think so, within limits, but we all we have limits. A bit of generosity is welcome! One of hers was that she had to publish as a man. That meant a lot, I think, but here’s the thing: I have to publish as a man, too, when I’d rather publish as the Earth. Still, there are non-European paradigms that don’t create these unnecessary distinctions. What would Humboldt look like in such terms? I can’t speak for syilx culture, but I can make a stab at it from my deep knowledge of this land. It should be a good start. Let’s try that tomorrow. Until then, why not just some pleasure. Fall yarrow being most attractive, perhaps…

… or a marmot trail/slide/place-of-glee maybe:


13 replies »

  1. Nice to think I might have had something to do with the impulse behind this blog post–Some remarks:

    1. You cheekily pervert the Wiki entry, which is a strawman in any case….

    2. The picture of Elise’s London is hardly a representation of what she might have thought of as Nature (though I wager your tongue is somewhat cheekily in your cheek here too): we both know Nature is not urban or manmade; no, not even an English Garden: it’s wild, less the wildness that made Nature too terrifying to be beautiful (contrast Dante’s selva oscura with Wordsworth’s Lake District).

    3. How can _an object_ be said _to express_ a pleasure? This articulation seems to run up against pleasure-as-an-affect.

    4. By what warrant do you claim that at Humboldt’s time German was understood as springing from the soil? Does his brother posit such a theory? Hamann? Novalis? Schleiermacher? I don’t think so…

    5. I wager Kant and Spinoza haunt Humboldt’s thinking and expression here….

    All that being said, I do understand you are working to bringing the passage into the gravitational field of your own concerns and articulations here.

    But the hermeneut and philosopher in me bristles. The gesture seems wilful, for all the linguistic if not philological labour performed. Despite the close attention paid to Humboldt’s words, there is little ear for what he might have been getting at; there is no conversation, no shared pursuit of a matter that concerns both interlocutors; you don’t seem moved by the gravitational field of Humboldt’s insights, All of which is ironic, given the being-toward-the-natural-world you are culturing here. Even Heidegger for all the wilfulness of his interpretations always left his audience with an awed sense they had heard the voice of the author underhand in a way never heard before.

    Or I could be completely misapprehending what’s up here. I plead chemo-hangover (almost two years after completion…) and my own investments in German Idealism and Jena Romanticism, their recent reception (in the work of Dieter Henrich, Manfred Frank, and, in English, Andrew Bowie), and all that means for thinking, poetry, nature, ecology, and our common future.

    Maybe the yarrow and marmot have something to add…


    • Thanks for the great insights and corrective prescriptions. I’ll reply later, but, yes, it’s cheeky. I’m not, though, trying to provide a history of philosophy but a history of a context following certain lines that were always attached to the mainstream but never expressed in it. Von Humboldt walks this line, too, and does so within a political context. Anyway, more on that later. The sun is shining! Rare event in the Okanagan winter. Out I go! While I’m out there, remember that if there are ten meanings for a term, I will always follow the path of the obscure ones, because, well, that’s fun, and, well, I did my time with Goethe in the forest. Talk later.


      • 1. Glad, or so it seems, you didn’t take my remarks as being hostile, critical, or irritatingly or irritatedly pedantic, though they might too easily have been taken to be so.

        On further reflection, and, reflection being what it is, there is always further reflection, it might have been truer to say I see you as writing a kind of Poesie here, taking up von Humboldt’s words for your own, cheeky, creative purposes, which is no less a manner of thinking. That being said, the corrective prescriptions ought to be taken editorially: “IF you’re up to what I take you to be up to, then some of these comments (the Wiki quotation, the remark about Victorian nature, or German springing from the soil) seem aesthetically (a BIG word) out of place and better elided.”

        There remains the perhaps inescapable irony of the manner of the performance (the wilful development of von Humboldt’s words) and the matter the text would seem to want to convey (an argument against such wilfulness). Ironie in Poesie _is_ inescapable, but not all ironies seem to work with what the work seems to be up to.

        Enjoy that too rare sun!


  2. Yes, it’s your own creative take… but thank you for sharing your knowledge of German AND the land… very different from the abstract contemplation of the SUBLIME. And what a lively, curious expression on von Humboldt’s face: you bring him to life as well, through your translation.


  3. Your reflections, Harold, are helpful to me, as I don’t know German except for words, phrases, etymologies. I was wondering if Andrea Wolf in her book The Invention of Nature goes too far in claiming Von Humboldt as a sort of “father” of ecology. Certainly, from the fragments I’ve read, he questions the notion that humans have the right to dominate nature and respected the indigenous people who guided him more than many of his peers, or at least their knowledge of the flora and fauna and how living systems are intimately interrelated. Your suggestion that there is a huge difference between our current definitions of ecology and his gave me pause. He was deeply respected in his time, but now few seem to know about him. So my curiosity was aroused. His life was certainly one long adventure and he is blindingly prolific. I recalled that Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his long cosmogonic poem Eureka to Von Humboldt and considered him one of the great minds and hearts of the age–someone who was trying to unify the truths and insights of science and the imagination. So I’ll look forward to your upcoming post.


    • What’s fun is that I’m just discovering Humboldt too. Feeling my way into his text and trying to place it into what I know of the context of his time and country. What I’m also discovering is that 7 years of photographing the earth and talking about what I see has given me not just a vocabulary but an approach. We might find that Humboldt’s primary vision is still there in his text, independent of the interpretations made of it. What I’m also intrigued by is the possibility of creating a guide to a text rather than a translation. Translations require choices, which soon limit a text rather than reveal it. Perhaps we can track Humboldt and his time through his text, like electronically unfolding an old papyrus or a subducted tectonic plate, and at least walk around and look about. I’ll see what else I can find.


  4. The lack of abstraction in this–” It’s more like touching a lover with your eyes closed”–is what resonates with me, and probably E.B.White’s and George Orwell’s spirits. As for the conversation with Bryan Sentes, I was captivated by reading it but now realize my own limitations in even speaking about these matters.


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