Emilie Du Châtelet: The 18th century woman who turned her back to the court to translate Newton’s Principia

One of the topics discussed at the 4th European Conference for Science Journalists in beautiful Copenhagen was the linguistic future of science journalism, which presently seems to oscillate between a predominant role for the English language and several successful examples of bilingual publications. As noted during the conference, a similar debate holds for science: many research journals exist in languages other than English – but how wide is the circulation of the results published in such outlets really? How often are the abstracts, if not the full papers, translated into different languages? Following this train of thoughts, other questions may spring to mind: how important is the role of translation for scientific knowledge? How has the practice of translation of scientific texts evolved throughout history? Where does the boundary between translation and interpretation lie? As I processed these questions, I thought back of an article on the history of science – and of a somewhat unconventional woman who critically translated Newton’s Principia into French – that I wrote for Bang! science magazine at the beginning of 2015. I then decided to post a slightly different version of that piece here. Buona lettura!


“I am persuaded that many women either ignore their talents because of poor education, or bury them because of prejudice and lack of a brave spirit. […] Chance made me encounter men of letters who befriended me, and I noticed with great surprise that they showed some consideration. It was then that I started to believe that I was a thinking creature.” (E. Du Châtelet)

Gabrielle Emilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil was born in 1706 to a distinguished family close to the monarchy. As a child she studied Latin and Euclid’s Elements, but being female she could not attend a collège – a prestigious secondary school giving access to the university. As the wife of the Marquis Du Châtelet, she fulfilled her family duties: she bore him two children and worked assiduously to cultivate social connections that would favour her husband and offspring.

Emilie Du Châtelet did not openly oppose the conventions of the highly structured French society of the early 18th century. When, at the age of twenty-eight, she embarked on an exceptional project of self-education and authorship, she did not do so as a revolutionary, forgetful of her rank. She wished to participate actively in “the search for truth” about the human nature and our universe – and the time had come to do justice to the “thinking creature” she had recognised herself to be.

In 1735 she moved to the château of Cirey together with an illustrious companion – Voltaire, who needed protection from the royal censors and was fascinated by Emilie’s intelligence and wit. She read extensively, from Latin authors to the seminal works of Descartes and Leibniz. She soon developed her own ideas, taking “nobody on his word alone” in her studies. When she helped Voltaire with his experiments on fire, the two disagreed on the interpretation of the results and, as a natural solution to their diverging views, published individual commentaries on their conclusions.

Emilie had her own voice: she expressed herself as an Enlightenment philosophe. Her contribution to the scientific debate of the early 18th century became all the more evident in her most challenging achievement – translating Newton’s Principia from Latin into French. Divided in two tomes, her work started with a straightforward translation of the original text, followed by an additional explanation and a commentary both mathematical and textual. While she was as faithful a translator as she could be, in the latter sections she gradually changed tone, pointing out dubious statements made by the English scientist. To support her commentary, she included references to later works that in some cases confirmed Newton’s predictions, and in others justified her criticisms. She broke with a long-standing, scholarly habit of omitting literary sources so as not to offend the reader – once more, she was unorthodox in the name of truth, clarity and nothing else.

Emilie Du Châtelet participated actively in the quest for “the essence of nature” that animated the Republic of Letters in the first half of the 18th century. While she seemed to accept the limitations that the society imposed on her sex, this did not – could not, in her view – prevent a woman from nurturing her intellect through education and knowledge. Her talents and literary production were acknowledged across Europe at the time, so why was Emilie’s name neglected in later centuries? Conceptually, her writings make an atypical study subject because they are, as we would say today, interdisciplinary. Furthermore, early scholars attributed her translation and commentary of Newton’s Principia to one of her mentors; other manuscripts were forgotten. Since 1970 there has been renewed interest in her life and works. With more original documents to be found, the marquise who preferred science and knowledge to life at the court may surprise us once again.


Photo credit: Romain Vignes on Unsplash

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