Life and Letters

Charles Darwins liv og breve [Charles Darwins life and letters] was translated into Norwegian from the first edition of The life and letters of Charles Darwin, and published in 1888-89. A complete Danish translation of Life and Letters has never been published. The autobiography included in Life and Letters was translated in 1909 under the title Charles Darwin Selvbiografi [Charles Darwin’s autobiography] in combination with a new Danish edition of On the Origin of Species and Descent of Man based on Jens Peter Jacobsen’s original translations and revised by Frits Heide. The autobiography was reprinted in 1943, still in Heide’s translation.

The original Norwegian translation was published in the paperback series 'Bibliothek for de tusen hjem' [Library for a thousand homes]. The publisher was Johan Sørensen who was strongly influenced by Darwinism. Prior to Liv og Breve he had just published Grundtræk [Fundamental Features] by Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) in 1888.

Martin Simon Søraas translated all three volumes of Liv og breve (Freeman (1977) incorrectly credited the translation of the first volume to Peder Jacobsen Ulleland). As with the Danish translations of the Origin of Species and Descent of Man, Liv og Breve was initially published as booklets beginning in 1888 at just 30 øre a piece. The first booklet was translated by Ulleland, but it was criticized for being rather poorly translated. Sørensen then contracted a new translator, Søraas, who made an entirely new translation of Life and Letters. Søraas’ translation was ready in 1889. The three volumes were first published by Sørensen’s more prestigious publishing house, 'De tusen hjems forlag' [The Thousand Homes’ Publisher], costing 10 NKK. Later the same year it was published by 'Bibliothek for de tusen hjem', in a smaller format, costing only 5 NKK.

The scientific content of Liv og Breve was supervised by the Norwegian botanist Olav Johan-Olsen (1860-1931), who was one of the strongest Norwegian advocates for Darwinism, author of Udviklingslærens nuværende standpunkt [The present state of evolutionism] published in 1887 in the same series as Liv og breve.

Darwinism was not new to the Norwegians in 1887, as it had already been introduced in 1861 through an article by Peter Christian Asbjørnsen (1812-85) in the magazine Budstikken, and in scientific circles by the theologian and natural researcher Michael Sars (1804-69) in a meeting on 3 May 1869 in Videnskabs-Selskabet [The Scientific Academy]. Moreover Darwinism was advocated through several magazines, amongst others, Nyt Norsk Tidsskrift [New Norwegian Periodical], which was published in 1877-78, Nyt Tidsskrift [New Periodical], which was published in the years 1882-87 and 1892-1895. Both magazines were edited by Johan Ernst Welhaven Sars, the son of Michael Sars. Finally Magasin for Naturkundskab [Magazine for Nature Study], which was published in the 1870s, also discussed Darwinism. The Danish translations of the Origin of Species and Descent of Man were also sold in Norway.

In the 1880s there were close ties between the Norwegian and Danish intellectuals: The Danish publisher for Gyldendal F. V. Hegel, who had published Jens Peter Jacobsen’s translations of the Origin of Species had close connections to the Norwegian poet and Darwinist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910). Similarly the Norwegian poet Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), who combined his views of evolutionism and the history of literature to a conception of nature called ‘psycho-evolutionary theory’, was a close friend of Jacobsen.

Both the Norwegian and the Danish translations of Darwin’s books were widely circulated among intellectuals of both countries. For almost twenty years Jacobsen’s Danish translation of the Origin (1871/1872) was the only translation available for the Norwegian audience, as a Norwegian translation of Origin did not appear until 1890. Likewise the Norwegian translation of Liv og Breve was the only translation available in Denmark.

Beside the cultural connections there were also linguistic ones: The written and spoken Norwegian language was very closely related to Danish, which made it easy to read for a Danish audience. Hence, it was only natural that Liv og breve was acquired by Det Kongelige Danske Bibliotek [The Royal Danish Library] and Landbohøjskolen [The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural High School of Denmark] just after publication.

In Denmark Liv og Breve was widely read, as the pamphlets were cheap and available by subscription. Liv og Breve is also mentioned in both first (published 1891-1911) and second edition (published 1915-1930) of Salmonsens Konversationsleksikon [Salmonsen’s Encyclopaedia]. Salmonsen's was the best acclaimed encyclopaedia at the time in Denmark and widely circulated.

Gry Vissing Jensen