Translation and Literature 15.2 (2006) 177-201
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Annotation and Authority:
Georg Forster's Footnotes to the Nachrichten von den Pelew-Inseln (1789)
Alison E. Martin
'Je viens d'achever dans ce moment la traduction de la relation vraiment très intéressante des Isles Pelew, découvertes par les Anglais', Georg Forster wrote to the Swiss publisher and historian, Johannes Müller. 'Cette traduction', Forster added, 'm'a couté bien du temps [et] de la peine, je crois qu'elle m'a réussi, j'y ai ajouté de notes, [et] ce sont d'ailleurs les prémices de mon travail à Mayence'.1 A tale of maritime disaster, exotic places and peoples, George Keate's Account of the Pelew Islands situated in the Western Part of the Pacific Ocean (1788) caught the interest of others besides Forster. Its detailed description of the encounter between shipwrecked British sailors and the natives of the Palau (then 'Pelew') Islands made it one of the most widely read works on the Pacific and particularly Micronesia in the eighteenth century.Its appearance came at a time when expeditions to the South Seasby figures such as James Cook and Joseph Banks, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and Jean-François de La Pérouse, were advancing knowledge by leaps and bounds, and making of such explorers national heroes. Forster, characteristically quick to recognize Keate's work as a potential bestseller, published his Nachrichten von den Pelew-Inseln in der Westgegend des stillen Oceans one year later, in 1789.
While Forster had initially risen to fame with the publication of the Voyage Round the World (1777) which detailed the events of Cook's [End Page 177] second voyage, it was increasingly through the activity of translationthat he maintained his status as expert commentator on all aspects of travel writing. Keate's travelogue was only one of numerous Englishand French travel accounts that Forster (and the translators in his 'Übersetzungsfabrik') made accessible to late eighteenth-century German armchair travellers, conducting them to China, the northwest coast of America, Tenerife, and Tahiti.2 But Forster's involvement in the art of translation, above and beyond the much-needed income it raised, was more than simply a matter of doing the German public a linguistic service. Rather, Forster exploited to the full the activity of translationto affirm his status as Anglo-German cultural ambassador and as European authority in the fields of natural science and travel writing. Nowhere more than in his translation of Keate's Account is his unwillingness to act as an 'invisible' linguistic mediator apparent. Indeed his presence in this text is highly visible, provocatively so. Forster's careless aside to the effect that in his translation he had 'ajouté des notes' inadequately suggests what measure of annotation the text acquired. Keate himself had given the English version thirty-one footnotes, all but one of which Forster either translated and left as a footnote, or incorporated into his text. But Forster added a further forty-one footnotes to the German text, some of them so long that they ran to three or four pages, querying, correcting, and providing supplementary information. Forster's engagement with the English text was thus not only through the act of translation itself, but also at the level of what Gérard Genette has labelled the 'paratextual'.
Without doubt, Keate's account invited comment, particularly from a professional botanist, anthropologist, and voyager such as Forster. Keate, an established literary writer, had composed from the journals and communications of Captain Henry Wilson and his officers a narrative of the events surrounding the 1783 shipwreck of the packet boat The Antelope, which belonged to the East India Company. It had been on its return journey to England from Macao when it was caught in a storm and hit rocks off the Palau Islands, southeast of the Philippines. Captain Wilson and the ship's company were befriended by natives who, under their chieftain Abba Thulle, assisted the men throughout their four-month stay in building a...