Excerpted from Dancing on Ropes: Translators & the Balance of History by Anna Aslanyan:
In August of 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli turned his telescope towards Mars. The director of the Brera Observatory in Milan had installed an eight-inch Merz refractor on the roof of the Brera Palace, initially to observe double stars. Pleased with its performance on that task, he wanted to see if it ‘possessed the necessary qualities to allow also for the studies of the surfaces of the planets’. With Mars due to be in opposition with Earth in early September, Schiaparelli decided to seize the opportunity.
The observations he made over the next two months transformed our image of the Red Planet. In addition to previously noted brighter and darker areas, referred to as terrae (lands) and maria (seas), he could now distinguish, at first ‘in a very vague and indeterminate manner’, dark lines connecting the seas. Schiaparelli produced a new map of Mars, on which he dubbed these markings canali.
When Schiaparelli’s findings were reported in English, translators rendered canali as ‘canals’, ignoring another possibility, ‘channels’. This caused a stir. In 1882, J.T. Slugg, an English chemist and member of the Royal Astronomical Society, summarized the reaction of the international scientific community in a letter to the Manchester Guardian: ‘The first thought that will enter every one’s mind after reading this account will be the question, “If these canals are real, are they natural or artificial?” The great French astronomer Flammarion says “if these canals are authentic they do not seem natural, and appear … to represent the industrial work of the inhabitants of the planet.”’ Camille Flammarion, whose La Planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité was to prove influential, used the French word canaux, which, like ‘canals’, suggests artificial origins. The existence of artifice implying the presence of intelligent beings, he further speculated that, thanks to the planet’s low gravity, ‘the inhabitants of Mars are of a different form from us, and fly in its atmosphere.’ Many theorists followed him into the clouds.
Among the most ardent proponents of intelligent-life theory was the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who founded an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and threw himself into studying what he termed the planet’s ‘non-natural features’. His books — Mars, Mars and Its Canals and Mars as the Abode of Life — inspired many discussions and a whole subgenreof sci-fi from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds onwards. There were, of course, those who took Lowell’s enthusiastic claims with a pinch of salt; yet his conviction proved infectious. In his article ‘Giovanni Schiaparelli: Visions of a Colour Blind Astronomer’, William Sheehan, one of today’s leading Mars scholars, remarks that in the last decade of the nineteenth century the obsession with the idea that there was intelligent life on Mars reached the level of mass hysteria. In 1899 Théodore Flournoy, a psychologist from Geneva, described the case of a woman who, under hypnosis, visited Mars and produced illustrated accounts of its landscapes and inhabitants, their language and alphabet.
The question arises: how differently might the course of history have run if, confronted with the word canali, Schiaparelli’s anonymous first translator had chosen ‘channels’ instead of ‘canals’?