Book review: ‘Darwin's On the Origin of Species: a Modern Rendition’ by Daniel Duzdevich

Darwin copy-edited for the 21st century.

Book coverWhen the publishers of this book first contacted me with the offer of a review copy, they explained that it might best be described as ‘a “translation” for contemporary English readers’ of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. My reply could have left them in little doubt as to how I felt about such an undertaking:

I have to say, I'm frankly astonished that anyone thinks there might be a need to ‘translate’ Darwin's masterpiece into 21st-century English. Darwin's language might be a little 19th-century, but so is Wuthering Heights, and nobody seems to see a need to translate that.

Having now seen Daniel Duzdevich's Darwin's On the Origin of Species: a Modern Rendition, I think describing it as a ‘translation’ is somewhat wide of the mark. Duzdevich has taken Darwin's text—he sensibly bases this ‘rendition’ on the first edition of Origin—and has gone through it like a copy-editor, applying modern conventions in punctuation; relegating some of Darwin's characteristic, digressive asides to footnotes; and swapping certain outdated words for more modern equivalents (e.g. replacing Darwin's use of the word ‘fact’ with the less confusing ‘observation’—but not, for some reason, replacing Darwin's obsolete ‘water ouzel’ with the modern ‘dipper’).

On the whole, I think Duzdevich does a very good job of clarifying Darwin's words for the modern reader. Compare and contrast, for example, this short passage written by Darwin (taken pretty much at random from chapter 2 of Origin):

Hence, in determining whether a form should be ranked as a species or a variety, the opinion of naturalists having sound judgement and wide experience seems the only guide to follow. We must, however, in many cases, decide by a majority of naturalists, for few well-marked and well-known varieties can be named which have not been ranked as species by at least some competent judges.

That varieties of this doubtful nature are far from uncommon cannot be disputed. Compare the several floras of Great Britain, of France or of the United States, drawn up by different botanists, and see what a surprising number of forms have been ranked by one botanist as good species, and by another as mere varieties. Mr H. C. Watson, to whom I lie under deep obligation for assistance of all kinds, has marked for me 182 British plants, which are generally considered as varieties, but which have all been ranked by botanists as species; and in making this list he has omitted many trifling varieties, but which nevertheless have been ranked by some botanists as species, and he has entirely omitted several highly polymorphic genera. […]

… with Duzdevich's copy-edited rendition:

It cannot be disputed that these doubtful forms are common1. A surprising number of plants from Great Britain, France, and the United States have been ranked as species by some botanists and mere varieties by others. Mr. H.C. Watson, to whom I am grateful for all kinds of assistance, has listed for me 182 British plants that are generally considered varieties but have all been ranked by some botanists as species. He did not include many minor varieties that have nevertheless been ranked as species by some botanists; he entirely omitted several highly polymorphic genera. […]

[Footnote] 1. The sound opinion and wide experience of naturalists seems the only guide to follow in determining whether a form should be ranked as a species or variety. However, in many cases the best course is to follow the majority, because there are few well-defined and known varieties that have not also been listed as species by at least some qualified judges.

Duzdevich's 21st-century rendition is clearly easier for a modern audience to read. But, when we read it, are we reading Darwin? I would say we're not—even though I would say that I was reading W.G. Sebald, when I read The Rings of Saturn in English translation, rather than in the original German. Call me old-fashioned, but it just seems wrong to ‘render’ a masterpiece into the same language that it was originally written in.

We don't read On the Origin of Species to understand the latest developments in evolutionary thought. Darwin's masterpiece contains numerous mistakes and gaps. We have had over a century and a half to test, build on, adapt, and generally flesh-out his (still fundamentally correct) theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Like species, scientific knowledge evolves. That's how science works. As Olivia Judson points out in the introduction to Duzdevich's book, ‘[Origin is] the beginning of a new way of looking at life on earth, the first word on the subject, not the last’. No, we don't read Origin to understand current evolutionary thinking. We read Origin to try to get inside the mind of a great observer and thinker; to understand his reasoning; to get to know better the man who wrote it; to appreciate his honesty when it came to potential weaknesses in his theory; to read one of the most brilliant and important books ever written.

Yes, we could do that by reading a modern rendition of Darwin—in the same way that we might get a feel for Jane Austen by watching a Keira Knightley movie—but I think we will get a whole lot more out of the process by reading Origin in the unimproved, slightly more difficult original.

Having said that, I don't suppose it would do any harm to have Duzdevich's book to hand for reference purposes, should we get bogged down in certain sections of Darwin's wonderful 19th-century prose.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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