By Dr. John Plaice
Last weekend, walking in the Candelaria, the beautiful historic center of Bogotá, I entered for the first time the Librería Siglo del Hombre La Candelaria. I immediately spotted Descripción de China, Giuseppe Marino’s Spanish translation, published in May 2023, of the first volume of Matteo Ricci’s Della entrata della Compagnia di Giesù e Christianità nella Cina [On the entrance of the Company of Jesus and Christianity in China]. Ricci, prominent Jesuit, was one of the first European sinologists, and his writing had a marked influence on Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
I struck up a conversation with one of the attendants, as I was looking at Guerra y Paz, Joaquín Fernández Valdés’s Spanish translation, published in 2021, of Lev Tolstoy’s Война и Мир (War and Peace). I commented that unlike previous Spanish-language translations, only the Russian text is translated, leaving Tolstoy’s original French passages in French.
I mentioned to the attendant that I am writing a blog on the history of science. He brought over to me a beautiful, massive coffee-table book, Cosmos, Ensayo de une descripción del mindo físico, a new translation into Spanish, published by Mexican publisher siglo veintiuno editores in September 2022, of Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos — Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe), a comprehensive overview of the sciences written by one of the most important scientists of the nineteenth century.
This new translation, published with the support of the Mexican authorities, is a sign of what I consider to be a resurgence of interest in Continental science of the nineteenth century. Another example of this trend is the translations arranged by André Assis of the works about electricity of Ampère, Coulomb and Weber, of which I wrote about in a previous post.
It is difficult to imagine just how important Humboldt’s work is to Latin America. Simon Bolívar, called the Libertador, who led the revolts against colonial Spain for the independence of what is today Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panamá and Perú, once said, “Humboldt discovered South America with his pen.” Humboldt’s detailed observations over five years of travel in Latin America were actually used by Bolívar in preparation for expeditions to different parts of South America.1
On a personal level, one of the highlights of my life was to visit the Estrella Fluvial de Inírida (the Inírida River Star), where come together the Inírida, Atabapo and Guaviare rivers, before the latter flows into the Orinoco river. It was Humboldt who named the area Estrella Fluvial. For my wife, it was exciting to finally see what she had read about as a child.
Another fascinating moment was during a visit to Berlin. Walking through the stacks of the Jakob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum, one of the libraries of the Humboldt University of Berlin, cofounded by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander’s brother, I “randomly” selected a book from a shelf. It was one of Alexander’s books about his voyages in Nueva Granada [today’s Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panamá]!
Leafing through my new copy of Cosmos, I am simply overwhelmed by the erudition of Humboldt. The book, the first of three volumes, the other two still to be published, covers literature, mythology, geography, history, physics, chemistry, biology and mineralogy, among others, with citations in numerous languages. Simply noöne apart from Humboldt could have written it. It is cited numerous times in P. Fleury Mottelay’s English-language translation2 of William Gilbert’s De Magnete, which I am using as reference for my series of posts on Gilbert.
I encourage my readers to have a look at Humboldt’s Cosmos, and for my Spanish- speaking readers to consider looking at this brand-new translation, packaged into a beautiful book. Below is my adaptation of a Deepl-generated English translation of the official description for the book:
Cosmos. Essay on a description of the physical world Vol. 1
Alexander von Humboldt
Edited by Jaime Labastida and Adrián Herrera Fuentes
Originally published between 1845 and 1862, Humboldt considered Cosmos to be his greatest work and devoted the last years of his life to it. The result was a sort of personal encyclopaedia, in five volumes, the last of which appeared posthumously, in which he compiled the fruit of his labours as a researcher of the human and natural realm: it is a transdisciplinary effort in which literature and art coexist with mineralogy, the history of civilisations with that of animals and plants, volcanology with the study of the stars. As if that were not enough, it is an unusual appeal to the reader to enjoy nature and knowledge.
This first volume brings together the three initial volumes. It begins by celebrating the joy that nature brings us through art and delimiting the treatment that the description of the physical world will have throughout the book. It then turns to the means of stimulating the study of nature, such as landscape painting and descriptive literature. Finally, he discusses the conception of the physical world among the Greeks, the Romans and the Arabs, and how the study of nature, mathematics, chemistry, physics and astronomy was shaped by great figures such as Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, Columbus, Galileo, Newton and Kepler.
Although a reprint of the Spanish translation made by Bernardo Giner in 1874 was published in Madrid in 2011, there are indications that large fragments were not translated directly from German but from French, so that a contemporary version, completely based on the German text, such as the one offered here, was desirable. The quotations that in the original edition were in other languages (French, Latin, Arabic, Chinese…) have been translated into Spanish in order to facilitate the reading; meticulous research work was also carried out to present complete references to all the bibliographical sources on which Humboldt based his work and which he himself left abbreviated or incomplete.
This is a large-format book, profusely illustrated with engravings, paintings, maps and portraits, the result of a coordinated effort by several institutions — the UNAM, the Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa, El Colegio Mexiquense, the governments of the State of Mexico and Mexico City, the Fundación Colegio de Posgraduados en Ciencias Agrícolas — to do justice to such an important work. This project will consist of three volumes — the last one with the maps by H. Berghaus based on the Cosmos text — and will be completed in 2024.
1 Humboldt, el hombre que ayudó a Simón Bolívar a descubrir América Latina. Interview with Andrea Wulf, author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, Knopf, 2015.
2 William Gilbert. De Magnete. Dover, New York, 1958. Translation by P. Fleury Mottelay of De Magnete, first published in 1600.
Dr. John Plaice is a teacher, and science history researcher. Follow his blog Fiat Lux here
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