Another Unscoop: An academic translation was published last year

“In 2009 online news media released small, blurry images of Einstein’s letter, along with translations that are not very accurate; mistakes include omitted words, and the insertion of words such as ‘childish.'” So writes Alberto A. Martinez, Associate Professor in the Department of History of the University of Texas at Austin. “I provide an original and very literal word for word translation.”

Professor Martinez’ courses include “Scientists and Religion in History,” and “Einstein in an Age of Conflict.” His dissertation was on the roots of Einstein’s relativity theory. Later, he did post-doctoral work at Boston University’s Center for Einstein Studies. His website is here,

with a downloadable curriculum vitae for those who are interested.

Martinez also warned about some German and German-language sites’ coverage of the Einstein-Gutkind letter. “German versions of the letter, online, include defective re-translations from the English renditions. Moreover, some German transcriptions also include mistakes.”

None of these quotes come from a new personal interview. They are from end note 30 to chapter 9 of Martinez’ book, Science secrets: The truth about Darwin’s finches, Einstein’s wife, and other myths. The book was published last year, 2011, by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Chapter 9 includes Martinez’ partial translation of the hotly quote-mined portion of the letter’s second paragraph. Here it is, broken into sentences for easy reference:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable but still primitive legends aplenty.

No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this (for me).

Such refined interpretations are naturally highly varied and have almost nothing to do with the original text.

For me the unmodified Jewish religion, like all other religions, is an incarnation of primitive superstitions.

And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mindset I have a deep affinity, have no different quality for me than other people.

As far as my experience goes, they are also no better at anything than other human groups, though at least a lack of power keeps them from the worst excesses.

Thus I can ascertain nothing “Chosen” about them.

On the principal disputed translation points, Martinez’ version agrees closely with the corresponding parts of the unabridged translation distributed by the Uncertaintist. The points discussed in an earlier post are:

There is no “which are nevertheless pretty childish” anywhere. In the third sentence above, replace “subtilised” with “refined.” In the fourth sentence, restore the omitted word, “unadulterated” (Martinez says “unmodified”), and replace “childish” with “primitive.” In the fifth sentence, replace “quality” with “dignity” (Martinez didn’t). In the sixth sentence, replace “cancers” with “excesses.”

Martinez prefers a synonym for unadulterated, and reads quality where I read dignity. The reference of “the word God” might have been clearer had the preceding sentence also been included. Otherwise, however, Martinez’ and the Uncertaintist’s translations are in substantial agreement.

There is nothing in this post that is a scoop for the Uncertaintist. Unscoops are the leitmotif of this story, that old news really is news.

It’s news because baloney about the Einstein-Gutkind letter abounds on the web. Its origin stems chiefly from the uncritical acceptance of a salesman’s translation by a supposedly professional news outlet, which then dumped its mystery meat onto the internet.

Fine, anybody can make a mistake, and anybody can suffer a lapse. But years have passed now, and the Guardian is still serving this junk to those who visit its story, without so much as a note of regret tacked onto the end.

The truth was first pieced together within months of the Guardian baloneyspill, by people toiling over poor photos, whose grudging decipherability should have been a hint to the Guardian that critical thinking would be rewarded. Nevertheless, the baloney slick continued to spread. It had a head start, and clean-up was impeded by expediency. No ax can be much ground by promoting yet another Einstein quote which confirms what a thoughtful, consistent and politely candid gentleman he was on the subject of religion, all through his adult life.

Even publication of a correct translation of the would-have-been fiery bits, accompanied with warnings, written by an actually identified expert whose credentials are readily verified hasn’t helped. The baloney slick persists.

I have tried without result to contact the Guardian about this, and through them, James Randerson, who wrote the Guardian‘s pre-auction and post-auction stories in 2008, both brimming with quotes from the paper’s not-so-literal translation. Randerson is now the Guardian‘s environment and science news editor.

In his post-auction story, Randerson bragged about the Guardian‘s intercontinental wow-power,

[A Bloomsbury spokesperson] described the interest in the sale following a story in the Guardian on Tuesday as “unprecedented”. Overnight on Tuesday, the auction house received over 90 emails on the lot from potential buyers in the US, plus numerous phone calls.

Apparently, it’s true what they say, that an imaginative and talented editor can add a lot of oomph to a writer’s unassisted composition.


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