An interrupted story: French translations from Philosophical Transactions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

Anthony Turner


Although consistently recognized as desirable by both the Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences, translations of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society were only infrequently undertaken officially. More successful were some private attempts, which by the end of the eighteenth century had produced a virtually complete translation, albeit only of Lowthorp's abridgements.

Replying to a proposal made in July 16681 by Jean Gallois (1632–1707), the acting secretary of the Académie Royale des Sciences, for mutual cooperation and correspondence, Henry Oldenburg (ca. 1619–77),2 his permanent equivalent in London, set out something of his credo. Their respective academies, ‘founded by two Great Kings for the advancement of useful sciences’, he saw as leaven that would bring all the rest of the civilized world to a ferment of imitative activity.I am of your opinion, that it would be in the interest of the sciences, that we keep a good correspondence together, and that we use the pen principally to arouse thinking people to unite their forces, and to work in such a way that mutually they help each other in the business of making experiments and discoveries concerning nature and the arts.3Oldenburg, like Mersenne and Boulliau before him, saw himself as an active force in the ‘Republic of Letters’, spreading knowledge, stimulating research and provoking learned confrontation.4 Unlike Mersenne and Boulliau, Gallois and Oldenburg had institutional bases from which to perform this work, although neither of their institutions had, as yet, a firm publishing programme.

However, material for publication was exactly what Gallois was seeking from Oldenburg. He explained that hitherto he had benefited from the letters that Oldenburg exchanged with Denis de Sallo (1626–69), but that the latter could no longer cope with the task. Gallois would therefore aid him. Denis de Sallo was the founder and first editor of the Journal des Sçavans: Gallois was a member of his editorial team.5 On 11 April 1668 he was co-opted into the Académie Royale des Sciences not for his learning but specifically to execute the duties of the permanent secretary, J. B. Duhamel (1623–1706), who had left Paris in the train of Colbert de Croissy, first for the peace negotiations at Aix-la-Chapelle, and then for London, where he remained until the summer of 1669.6 Being (acting) secretary of the Académie was for Gallois only a factor to confirm to Oldenburg that he should correspond with him: ‘Aussy bien ayant le meme employ’ (‘the more so since I have the same employment’).

What was of interest to the journalist Gallois was the journalistic activity of Oldenburg. On 6 March 1665 he had launched Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (hereafter Philosophical Transactions),7 in which short papers and letters on philosophical subjects were published and books reviewed. It was reported immediately in the Journal des Sçavans for 30 March 1665. In his notice de Sallo implied that the new journal was modelled on his own;8 he also announced that an English translator had at last been found for the Journal des Sçavans, thanks to whom it would in future be enriched by news of the finest things done in England.9 The issue in which de Sallo reported this, however, was also the last that he would edit. His journal had aroused opposition. It was seen as pretentiously setting itself up as arbiter of learned life, and the connections of de Sallo with the Paris Parlement, combined with his Jansenist and Gallican attitudes, provoked hostility from the Jesuits. The opposition crystallized around the papal nuncio, who obtained prohibition of the Journal from the crown.10 Nevertheless it was clear that such a publication, if tightly controlled by the government, could be valuable. With the controlling support of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV's all-powerful minister, it therefore recommenced publication on 4 January 1666 with Gallois as its editor. On 24 January, Henry Justel (1620–93), the most reliable of Oldenburg's correspondents in Paris, wrote requesting Oldenburg to send him Philosophical Transactions each month; ‘we shall have them explained and translated as well as we can’.11

The announcement that de Sallo had made of Philosophical Transactions was indexed under the title ‘Du Journal d'Angleterre’ and it was by this name that the English publication was subsequently identified. Gallois and his successors had an obvious need of it and between 1665 and 1701 at least 98 extracts from Philosophical Transactions were published in the Journal des Sçavans.12 However, these seem only to have been a selection of what was available. Preserved today in the Académie des Sciences is a volume entitled ‘Journal d'Angleterre 26 mars 1668-2 mars 1670’.13 The volume consists of 34 gatherings of various sizes, written in at least five different hands, of translations from Philosophical Transactions. Each gathering or ‘cahier’ is headed ‘Journal d'Angleterre’ followed by the date in old and new style, evidence that they were produced separately and bound together only later, perhaps at the end of the century or early in the next. Very similar are two volumes, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, entitled ‘Nouvelles scientifiques de l'Angleterre’, that contain translations of Philosophical Transactions from February 1668 to September 1671. Of this collection of rather hastily written translations, the first has been neatly recopied and is inscribed on the back ‘A. M. Carcavy’.14 Both these volumes and the Académie des Sciences volume include an identical disclaimer by the translator to the effect that the translations were made rapidly and that the work was difficult because of the variegated subjects treated, the specialized vocabulary used, the coinages that English writers allowed themselves, and the short time available. The translator who thus complains requests members of the Académie des Sciences to be indulgent and make good themselves the shortcomings.15

This remark, as Pierre Costabel has already pointed out, suggests a close connection between the translations and the Académie des Sciences, and references to readings from the ‘Journal d'Angleterre’ can indeed be found in the Procès-verbaux of the Académie.16 To argue further, as Costabel does, that these translations were prepared specifically for the Académie des Sciences seems, however, too restrictive.17 Extracts from Philosophical Transactions occur both in meetings of the Académie and in the pages of the Journal des Sçavans, where they are specifically referred to as taken from the ‘Journal d'Angleterre’. Gallois, in 1668–69, was both acting secretary of the Académie and editor of the Journal des Sçavans. It is a reasonable conclusion that he orchestrated the translations so that he could use them in both his employments. If the link with the Académie is reinforced by remarks by the translator that he has omitted to translate accounts of French books and reports on work done in Paris because these will already be familiar to members of the Académie,18 a note at the end of the volume shows that the translations were nonetheless intended for a wider audience: ‘Nous laissons diverses autres observations qui sont raportées en cet ouvrage là, en partie par faute de place et en partie aussi parce qu'il y en a plusieurs qui ne sont pas propres à être exposés à la veüe de toutes sortes de lecteurs’ (‘We leave several other observations reported in that work there, partly for want of space and partly also because there are many that are not proper to be displayed to every kind of reader).’19 On another occasion, no translation of the report of Huygens's observations of Saturn on 17 August 1668 is given because a long account had already appeared in the Journal des Sçavans.20

What seems to have been the earliest attempt to translate Philosophical Transactions, at least in part, was then effected neither by the Royal Society nor by its secretary (who was also owner of Philosophical Transactions) but by undertakers in France for the joint interest of the Académie des Sciences and the Journal des Sçavans. This was probably because rather few members of the Académie knew English (Mariotte was a conspicuous exception), a fact that led Jean Denis to propose to Oldenburg that if he would prepare and send him a French translation of Philosophical Transactions he, Denis, would ‘willingly have it printed at my expense both for your own reputation and for the satisfaction of a multitude of the curious who would be delighted to be able to read and understand them by themselves’.21 It was exactly for this reason that in Caen, where an ‘académie de physique’ was in the process of being formed, translations of some of the early numbers of Philosophical Transactions from 1665 and 1666 were produced by Jacques Savary, Sieur de Courtsigny, although these had no influence outside the immediate circle for which they were produced.22 The need for a French version was felt the more strongly because there was as yet no Latin version to make Philosophical Transactions internationally available.23 Of this, however, Oldenburg was mindful and it was exactly at this period that a Latin translation did begin.

Initially Oldenburg intended to prepare such a translation himself. In December 1667 he was exploring with the Royal Society's printer, John Martyn, the possibility of producing a pocket-sized volume (presumably a duodecimo) containing Latin translations of selected papers from Philosophical Transactions. Nothing coming of the proposal at the end of the month, he told Wallis that he intended ‘to put ye Transactions in Latin between this and Whitsontide’,24 a forecast that was overly optimistic because in November 1670 he was still translating,25 only to stop in December when he heard that a Latin translation was being printed in Hamburg. This began publication with Philosophical Transactions for 1669. It was prepared by John Sterpin, a Scot born in France, educated in England and living in Denmark, but was so faulty that in April Oldenburg forbade Sterpin to continue with it.26 However, the need for a Latin edition continued to be felt in France and throughout Europe.27 Philip Jacob Sachs proposed to Oldenburg to include extracts from Philosophical Transactions in the Miscellanea curiosa,28 and in the winter of 1671/72 the first volume of a projected series of translations, commissioned from Christoph Sand by the Amsterdam booksellers and publishers Henry and Theodore Boom, was published.29

Sand went to considerable trouble over his translation, sending lists of queries to Oldenburg, only to be sharply criticized in a review of the four published volumes in Philosophical Transactions itself.30 Thereafter the series of translations ceased. In effecting it the earlier French translations used in the Journal des Sçavans had played a part because, to save himself some labour, Sand reused the translations of those papers that had appeared in the Latin version of the Journal.31 The Journal indeed was now, once again, the only printed source in France for news of English research into natural philosophy. This meant that little enough was known: during the last four years of his editorship, Gallois managed to issue only 13 numbers of the Journal. Under his successor (until 1684), the Abbé de la Rocque, publication was more regular, as it was also under Cousin (until 1701), but articles derived from Philosophical Transactions made up only a small part of it.

Translated or not, Philosophical Transactions remained a model. On 19 December 1691, Bignon, the moderator of the Académie, announced to its members that their protector, Pontchartrain, desired that they would ‘publish each month a memoir of what they had done’. The result of this instruction was the Mémoires de mathématiques et de physique, tirez des registres de l'Académie Royale des Sciences, which, prepared by Gallois, who ‘refined the style’,32 appeared in 1692 and 1693 and then ceased publication.33 Martin Lister thought that this monthly publication had been ‘endeavoured … after the manner of ours in London’.34 He also noted that the ‘Wars had made them altogether Strangers to what has been doing in England’. Discoursing with him, the Marquis de l'Hôpital ‘expressed a great desire to have the whole Sett of the Philosophic Transactions brought over’.35

L'Hôpital explained to Lister that the Académie des Sciences had only a limited correspondence network, but it seems clear that recognition was growing that knowledge of what was happening elsewhere was necessary. With the reform of the Académie in 1699, the new regulations stipulated:l'académie aura soin d'entretenir commerce avec les divers savants, soit de Paris et des provinces du royaume, soit même des pays étrangers. … L'Académie chargera quelqu'un des académiciens de lire les ouvrages importantes … qui parôitrent, soit en France, soit ailleurs; et … en fera son rapport à la Compagnie.36

Fortuitously a contact of exactly the kind envisaged by these instructions had already taken place. In 1698 Étienne François Geoffroy (1672–1731) had accompanied Camille, Comte de Tallard, on his embassy to London. There, through the agency of Martin Lister, whom he had met in Paris earlier in the year, and thanks to a letter of introduction from Tournefort to Sir Hans Sloane, he was rapidly integrated into the learned society of London and on 6 July 1698 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.37 On his return to Paris he was appointed élève to Wilhelm Homberg (1652–1715), an old acquaintance of his father, who maintained a scientific salon frequented by several members of the Académie.38 Later in the same year Geoffroy was reading abridged, translated, extracts from Philosophical Transactions at meetings of the Académie.39 Thereafter, as a result of his correspondence with Sloane he was able to keep the Académie informed of news from London, and many volumes of Philosophical Transactions were present in his private library—they were not available in the Académie.40

Thanks to Geoffroy some knowledge of Philosophical Transactions was therefore available to members of the Académie des Sciences. There was, however, little enough available to that wider public for scientific discourses and entertainment that developed during this period as physics, chemistry, natural history and even mathematics became integrated in the culture of ‘l'honnête homme’.41 Although Latin would long remain the language of learning (which meant that the failure of the Latin translations of Philosophical Transactions was particularly regrettable, although it is worth noting that what did exist was reprinted in 1706), it was increasingly rivalled by the vernaculars. French, which had become the diplomatic language of Europe after the Treaty of Rastatt in 1714, was a stronger rival than English, and few even of French academicians—let alone the cultural nation at large—were inclined to learn the insular tongue. English work in the sciences was, however, strong and, as a result, from the early decades of the eighteenth century onwards, translations from English multiplied in a growing commercial market.42 It was probably inevitable that in time translations of Philosophical Transactions would recommence, but it should be emphasized that when they did it was once again on a private initiative.

In late 1736 or early 1737 François de Brémond (1713–42), a rising man of letters and learning, who had already published a translation of Stephen Hales's work on the desalination of sea water,43 proposed, on the model of Lowthorp and Motte's Abridgements …, to produce a French equivalent.44 ‘Son premier projet avoit été de ne donner en entier que les Mémoires qui lui en auroient paru dignes, & de se borner pour les autres à des Extraits accompagnés de ses propres Réfléxions’ (‘His first idea was to translate completely only such memoires as seemed worthwhile, & to limit the rest to abstracts accompanied by his own reflections’). Such a method was, however, hardly satisfactory. A full translation was needed if judgement was not to be skewed, and the more so because, according to Pierre Demours,45 English was less well known than French. ‘Une traduction française des Transactions Philosophiques pourrait donc convenir à un plus grand nombre qu'il est de personnes que l'Original meme, & c'est une raison de plus pour la faire pure & simple, & aussi fidèle qu'il est possible’ (‘A French translation of Philosophical Transactions could thus be suitable for more people even than the original, which is a further reason for doing it as completely and faithfully as possible’). The project came to the attention of Henry François d'Aguesseau (1668–1751), Chancellor of France and an Honoraire of the Académie des Sciences (he was President in 1729 and again in 1739). He convoked members of the Académie des Sciences and of the Belles Lettres ‘to discuss how to make this translation more useful and agreeable to the Public and to the Company’. A majority agreed that ‘the full and faithful translation of the text’, without prejudice to such notes as de Brémond might wish to add, would be preferable to an abridged text.46 The project now became official. De Brémond retranslated the years 1735 and 1736 in full, and on 1 September 1737 Bignon could inform the Royal Society that ‘at last we have engaged a young man called M. de Brémond to turn [your Philosophical Transactions] into French’.47

De Brémond, before his early death, produced four volumes containing translations of Philosophical Transactions for 1731 to 1736.48 He added to these extensive notes and commentaries, ‘which by their length and the knowledge they deployed could pass muster as Memoirs worthy of being included in this collection, or in that of the Académie des Sciences’.49 Even before then he had prepared a general, analytical, index to Philosophical Transactions from their beginning up to 1735, also with notes and commentaries.50 It was probably in recognition of this work that on 16 March 1739 de Brémond was elected adjoint botaniste in the Académie des Sciences, and on 26 February 1740 a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the proposal certificate of 27 November 1740, signed by Sloane, Martin Folkes, John Martin, Cromwell Mortimer and J. T. Desaguliers, his translations and their accompanying commentaries are mentioned and he is described as ‘a person every way qualified and likely to become a usefull member and correspondent’.

In parallel with translating Philosophical Transactions, de Brémond prepared other translations, notably of Murdoch's loxodromic tables (1742) and Hauksbee's Physico-mechanical Experiments.51 At his death he left a further volume of translations from Philosophical Transactions in an advanced state. Completion of it, and continuation of the work, was imposed by d'Aguesseau, ‘qui regardoit la Traduction des Transactions philosophiques comme un objet digne de l'attention de gouvernement’ (‘who considered the translation of Philosophical Transactions as something worth governmental attention’),52 on Pierre Demours (1702–95) for what concerned physics, and on Gua de Malves (1713–88) for the mathematics. After having translated most of the mathematical parts of 1737 and 1738, however, the latter withdrew. Demours, who was already an experienced translator, having published versions of Burdon's Pocket Farrier and, more relevantly, the proceedings of the Medical Society of Edinburgh,53 now obtained from de Brémond's inheritors the papers concerning his translation of Philosophical Transactions. From these he was able to add several notes on astronomy, while what remained untranslated from 1737–38 was effected by Jurain, later a professor of mathematics at Reims (1759). Translations put out to other, unnamed, translators were, however, unhelpful and Demours was much delayed by the need to correct them.54

Demours extended de Brémond's translations from 1737 to 1741, although the volumes were not published until 1759–61, perhaps a reflection of the several other translations that he undertook during this period and that he was also compiling an index for volumes 5–9 of the Mémoires of the Académie.55 Be this as it may, at this point the first formal attempt by the Académie des Sciences to translate Philosophical Transactions came to an end. Curiously it did so exactly at the moment when the two societies had at last begun to exchange their publications. On 14 July 1749 Cromwell Mortimer had offered an exchange of Philosophical Transactions against the Histoire et Mémoires of the Académie des Sciences. Buffon sent a set of the latter in mid 1750; the Royal Society was slower, and only three years later was a set of Philosophical Transactions received by the Académie.56 Perhaps the availability of this set made their translation seem less necessary; certainly the task was becoming increasingly burdensome as the size and regularity of Philosophical Transactions increased. Whatever the case, for more than a decade after 1741 no translations of Philosophical Transactions were available in France.57

Nor, of course, were they for most other European journals treating of medicine and the natural sciences, journals moreover to which access was not easy, particularly in the provinces. It was to ameliorate this situation that in the early 1750s Jean Berryat (1718–54), MD Montpellier, médecin ordinaire du Roi practising at Auxerre, where he was a member of the Société des sciences et belles lettres, conceived the publication of a collection of translations (in full or abridged) of the transactions of the leading learned societies of Europe and, because they were equally difficult to find in the regions, of abridgements of the Histoire et Mémoires of the Académie des Sciences. Berryat found support from cultivated men and printer-publishers in Auxerre and Dijon. Despite his unexpected, tragic, death in 1754,58 the first two volumes of abridgements from the Mémoires of the Académie des Sciences were published in 1754 and the first volumes of translations from the transactions of foreign academies in 1755.59 Explicitly presented by Berryat's successor as editor, Philibert Guénaud de Monbeillard (1720–85), as a contribution to both the sciences and the recent history of the sciences,60 the second volume of the collection contained an abridged translation of Philosophical Transactions from 1665 to 1678 and of the Philosophical Collections with which Robert Hooke supplemented its non-appearance from 1678 to 1683.61

The translations for the volume were undertaken by several hands. First, Pierre Henry Larcher (1726–1812) was born in Dijon, and studied there, at Pont à Mousson with the Jesuits and in Paris, before spending two years in London to improve his English. Thereafter he published several translations from Greek and English, among them Pope's Discourse on Pastoral Poetry, his Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741),62 and the Histories of Herodotus (1786). In the late 1760s Larcher was involved in a violent controversy with Voltaire over the Philosophie de l'Histoire (1767) by the latter's uncle Bazin. In 1778 he was elected to the Académie des Inscriptions. Second, Antoine Roux (1726–76) was a medical journalist and translator noted in particular for his Annales typographiques, ou notions du progrès des connoissances humaines (1756–62). Third, Buffon (1707–88) was a close friend of Guénaud's. Fourth, Daubenton was the elder brother of the naturalist Jean Marie Daubenton (1716–1800), who would collaborate with Guénaud on the third volume of the series. All four, apart from their acquaintance with Guénaud, had connections with the Dijon region, and the entire project of the Collection académique may be seen not only as the response of private, broadly cultivated, literary men concerned for the advancement of learning but also as the response of private, broadly cultivated, provincial literary men, to the difficulty of obtaining the publications of the learned societies of Europe.63

Projected in under 40 volumes, 29 volumes of the Collection académique appeared, 16 of these being the abridgements of the Mémoires of the Académie des Sciences. Philosophical Transactions was still not entirely available, even in abridgement, to the French reader when the series came to an end in 1779. However, the need still seemed present. In the 1780s, therefore, a new attempt was made at a translated abridgement. It was once again a private initiative. Jacques Gibelin (1744–1828) undertook the work in the mid 1780s. He was a physician who, born in Aix-en-Provence, spent several years in Paris and in England before returning to his native city. There he became town librarian and perpetual secretary of the Société Académique d'Aix. After translating works by Priestley, Adam Ferguson and Kirwan, he undertook Abridgements of the Philosophical Transactions as these had been effected by Lowthorp, Jones, Evans and Martin.64 However, Gibelin was not one to translate literally.65 The work that he undertook was arranged chronologically by subject, and both he and the collaborators that he found it necessary to involve felt free to rearrange the materials ‘by method’, to be selective, and to update. This was especially true in Gibelin's volume on botany, where he added the new Linnaean nomenclature. His collaborator for chemistry, Philippe Pinel, however, would not apply the new terminology of Lavoisier and Guyton.

Gibelin's extensive summary made available the contents of Philosophical Transactions from their origins up to ca. 1785. It was arranged as shown in table 1. The collaborators were all distinguished scholars. Jean Louis Antoine Reynier (1762–1824) was a Swiss naturalist established at Garchy in the Nièvre who, at the instance of his younger brother, the general J. L. E. Reynier, worked in Egypt during the French occupation and published various works on physics, Egyptology, numismatics and natural history. Philippe Pinel (1745–1826) was a physician notable for his work on mental illness and the classification of maladies. E. F. M. Bosquillon (1744–1816) also practised medicine, a pursuit that he combined with a high competence in Greek, being Professor of Greek Language and Philosophy at the Collège de France. He was also a notable bibliophile whose library would eventually attain some 30 000 volumes. He was the author of several scientific translations from Greek and from English. A. L. Millin de Grandmaison (1759–1818) began his literary career with translations from German and from English, became a fervent follower of Linnaeus, and was a founding member of the Linnaean Society of Paris, of which he became the perpetual secretary. While imprisoned during the Revolution he wrote Eléménts d'Histoire Naturelle. In 1795 he was appointed curator of antiquities and medals in the Bibliothèque Nationale and thereafter devoted himself to the archaeological studies for which he is best remembered.

View this table:
Table 1

Abrégé des Transactions Philosophiques de la Societe Royale de Londres, Ouvrage traduit de l'Anglois, et redigé par M. Gibelin…, 14 vols, 8° (Buisson, Paris, 1787–91).

None of these men, it will be noticed, were connected with the Académie des Sciences at the time when they were working on translating Philosophical Transactions.66 Gibelin's initiative was a private one. At once limited in aim (translating only abridgements) but universal in scope (covering all subjects), with a ‘methodical treatment’ that was adjusted to the most recent developments in knowledge, Gibelin's volumes offered the comprehensive view of the activities of the Royal Society as reflected in Philosophical Transactions that had long been desired, but only briefly attempted officially, during the previous 130 years.


  • One contribution of 3 to a Special Feature on ‘Franco-British interactions in science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’.

  • Received February 1, 2008.
  • Accepted May 7, 2008.


  1. All dates are given in new style. Gallois to Oldenburg 1 July 1668, in The correspondence of Henry Oldenburg (ed. A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall) (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1965–77; hereafter cited as Corr. Old.), letter 899. For Oldenburg see Marie Boas Hall, Henry Oldenburg, shaping the Royal Society (Oxford University Press, 2002). The best modern account of Gallois is that by Jean-Pierre Vittu in Dictionnaire des journalistes 1600–1789 (eds Anne-Marie Chouillet and François Moureau), Supplément IV (Centre d'étude des sensibilités, Grenoble, 1985).

  2. For Oldenburg's date of birth see A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall, ‘Some hitherto unknown facts about the private career of Henry Oldenburg’Notes Rec. R. Soc.18, 94—103 (1963), at pp. 94–95.

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