Monday, 28 August 2006

Coming to Life, Coming to Literature Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard's Coming to Life introduces the lay reader to the subject of developmental biology with all the skill one expects of gifted science writer. (The review at Retrospectacle covers all the bases.) Yet, despite its clarity, something about it unsettled me from the very first sentence: The question of how an animal develops has preoccupied humans since Antiquity. (1) I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but something about that sentence seemed ... wrong. Fascinated by the material, I pressed on and encountered: In 1827, German-Estonian biologist Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876) described the first human egg cell that was derived from a young woman who had drowned after a wild night. (11) Maybe it's because I'm a literary studies guy, but I had a visceral reaction to the word "derived" in that sentence. One does not "derive" an egg cell from "a young woman who had drowned after a wild night." However, I realized that the coldness of that sentence wouldn't be mitigated by the first alternative which sprung to mind: "harvest." That sounded equally inhumane. What struck me about that sentence was the manner in which it tossed the dead body deep into subordination: In 1827, German-Estonian biologist Karl Ernst von Baer (subject) described (verb) the first human egg cell (direct object) that (new clause!) was derived (passive!) from (first prepositional phrase!) a young woman (anonymous!) who had drowned (adjectival clause!) after (second preprositional phrase!) a wild night (cliché!). As I poured over this sentence in a frantic attempt to discover the source of my unease, I had an epiphany. I flipped back and scoured the cover, the title page, the first two pages of acknowledgments ... nothing. Finally, on the verge of surrendering, I decided to read the fine print. Wouldn't you know it? There, in tiny print, just above the Library of Congress information, I found my grail: Helga Schier, Ph.D., Translator from the original German I suppose this must represent the emphasis of the sciences on the content of the work, but I still find the lack of announcement off-putting. I am far more forgiving of a translated work than I am of an abundantly awkward one. Until I'd reached page 90 of Coming to Life, I was regularly upset by the awkwardness of the prose; the second I realized it was a translation, my enjoyment increased ten-fold. I'd freed my mind to address the ideas and ignore the stilted prose. If only I could've done so sooner ...

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