Blumenbach was an Anti-Racist: His 19th Century Racist Translator Fooled Schiebinger and Gould

This blog is based on text from Chapter 21 of my book, a pdf of which is posted on this webpage. Detailed footnotes and citations are presented in the pdf. The author does not support racism, eugenics, or even the existence of biologically distinct human races. However, to maintain historical accuracy, this blog uses outdated and sometimes offensive ethnic terms found in historic documents. No offense is intended.

Throughout my book, I have stressed how in 1865, Thomas Bendyshe published a racist mistranslation of Blumenbach’s anti-racist writings which led 20th century authors to incorrectly assume that Blumenbach harbored a white supremacist racial bias, at least early in his career. My initial suspicion that Blumenbach was mistranslated by Bendyshe led me to seek out the services of a professional Latin translator. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to hire a professional translation firm, Shillenn LLC, whom I will henceforth refer to as my 2014 Translator. Because my 2014 Translator spoke both German and Latin, he was able to inform me that Blumenbach’s Latin grammar was a little bit too Germanic. When Blumenbach composed his sentences in Latin, he would sometimes write the words out in the order in which they would appear if he were writing in German. In a sense, you could say that he wrote Latin with a German accent.

My 2014 Translator translated a number of passages from Blumenbach’s works that I suspected were mistranslated by Bendyshe. Before I discuss them, I need to briefly explain that within Blumenbach’s original text a “§” symbol was used to denote a chapter, thus § 62 refers to Chapter 62. Most of the chapters in De Generis of 1795 are just a few paragraphs long. In modern terms, they would be called sections. The image below is taken from Blumenbach’s original text which was bound into a book about the size of a small paperback you might buy in an airport. This image presents one entire page of what is a five-and-a half page chapter.

Dec14_Blog-F1My 2014 Translator’s rendering of the above text included a phrase of utmost importance which I have put in bold:

Ҥ 81. Five principal varieties of the human species established

However, since from among the arbitrary bases for these kinds of divisions, one may be said to stand out and to be preferred over the other, after all things have been considered at length at with care, the whole human species, to the extent it has become known to us, as it seems to me, can be divided, in a manner that is most fitting to truth of nature itself, into the five following varieties and distinguished from one another with the [following] names:
A) Caucasian,
B) Mongolian,
C) Ethiopian,
D) American and
E) Malayan.

I have placed the Caucasian [variety] as being in the first place because of being the original one, for the reasons that will be explained below.

This [variety] went off into two extremes that are furthest removed and most different from one another; namely in one direction into the Mongolian variety and into the other direction into the Ethiopian variety. The median positions between the primeval variety and these extreme varieties are held by the remaining two varieties; The American [variety] namely between the Caucasian and the Mongolian; And the Malayan [variety] between this same Caucasian [variety] and the Ethiopian [variety].”

In his text, Blumenbach explains that there are a number of different classification systems (or arbitrary bases) that a scholar can use to classify human beings. However, in Blumenbach’s opinion, only one of these classification systems “may be said to stand out and to be preferred over the other.” In other words, he is being a bit egotistical in stating that there are many classification systems, but the only one that is worth following is the one Blumenbach himself has created. Unfortunately, when Bendyshe translated this text he came up with a markedly different interpretation. According to Bendyshe, it is not Blumenbach’s system that is the preferred of all systems, but rather is the Caucasian race that is the preferred of all races.
Dec14_Blog-F2By mistranslating just one sentence – either by accident or on purpose – Bendyshe made it appear that Blumenbach held Europeans to be superior to all other races, which was not true. To reiterate, while Blumenbach is saying that one method of classifying races is better than the other, Bendyshe is saying one race is better than the others.
The 2014 translation of Blumenbach also includes a phrase which differs significantly from Bendyshe’s as noted below (with my bold):

Dec14_Blog-F3The version of this passage as translated by my 2014 Translator indicates that Blumenbach is admitting that his five part classification system is a concoction of his own mind (to paraphrase Camper). Blumenbach accepts that his own man-made system is not perfect, but rather it is “most fitting” to nature. The validity of my 2014 Translator’s text is supported by a passage Blumenbach wrote himself in his only English publication (with my bold):

“Adopting, as I think it conformable to nature, five races of the human species, viz. 1. the Caucasian; 2. the Mongolian; 3. the Malay; 4. the Ethiopian; 5. the American; I think the Egyptians will find their place between the Caucasian and the Ethiopian, but that they differ from none more than from the Mongolian, to which the Chinese belong.”

In this English text, we can see that Blumenbach was not brashly declaring to all comers that he had discovered a natural phenomenon that anyone could see. Rather, he used the wiggle words “as I think it conformable,” so as to hammer home that this was only his own view of nature , as opposed to a clear-cut characteristic of nature, such as ice is solid and water is liquid. However, Bendyshe’s translation implies that Blumenbach was claiming to have discovered a naturally existing pattern actually found in nature. Bendyshe mistranslated this passage to make it appear as if Blumenbach was stating the exact opposite of what Blumenbach intended. In summary, Blumenbach was saying that races were not naturally isolated units, while Bendyshe was saying that they were.

Simply put, Blumenbach was an anti-Racist whose research stands apart from that of most his contemporaries, most of whom were indeed over racists. Schiebinger’s and Gould’s contentions that Blumenbach’s work was tainted by racism are ungrounded because they were based on evidence that was fraudulently manufactured by Thomas Bendyshe in 1865.

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