How Blumenbach was Mistranslated: A New Paper Gives Details

I am happy to report that I recently published a paper entitled, “Nuance Lost in Translation: Interpretations of J. F. Blumenbach’s Anthropology in the English Speaking World”  in NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin, Vol. 25 (July 25 2017), 1-29. Unfortunately, I can’t post it till August 2018. But if you have access to JSTOR, you can read it here:

This paper deals with Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, known  as “The Father of Physical Anthropology” because he pioneered publications describing human racial variation. He is mostly remembered for devising a racial typology consisting of five ‘major varieties/races’ of humanity. (He did not say all human fit into these categories, just most of them). Beginning the 1990s, Londa Schiebinger and other English speaking scholars have argued that Blumenbach’s writings on race indicate  that he was significantly influenced by 19th century race supremacist beliefs.  These biases, which were indeed quite common, held Europeans/Caucasians to be the highest ranked and most beautiful race.

However, what my research found out was that most modern authors have relied largely on Thomas Bendyshe’s second rate 1865 English translations of Blumenbach’s Latin and German texts. I was able to document that Bendyshe’s publication included numerous translation errors which form a pattern indicating that he employed two translators. His first translator was consistent with five earlier English translations, and appears to have good a good enough job if it.

However, the second translator was not consistent with the earlier translators. Furthermore, the second translator used English terms that denigrated non-Europeans while adulating the mental and physical attributes of Europeans.  As a result parts of the translation give the impression that Blumenbach was racially biased, when it was the translator’s bias that shined through.

Furthermore, Bendyshe’s1865 English translation repeatedly used the term “beauty” to translate different Latin words that Blumenbach used to express his nuanced view of aesthetics and structural symmetry. Given the inconsistency and errors in Bendyshe’s 1865 translations, they should not be unquestionably accepted as an accurate reflection of Blumenbach’s views.  Simply put, a lot of modern scholars have been using a faulty translation that makes Blumenbach appear to support race supremacy, when in fact he was an egalitarian, and sort of an offbeat “beatnik” type who liked collecting animal bones and hanging out with ex-slaves, Jews and all kinds of out-of-the ordinary people.

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