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László Kontler

"Translating Scottish Stadial History:

William Robertson in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany"

László Kontler, Central European University


William Robertson (1723-1791) was historiographer royal for Scotland, an uncontested leader of the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, as well as a participant – along with David Hume, Adam Smith, John Millar, Adam Ferguson, and Henry Home Lord Kames – in some of the most interesting intellectual developments in the arising social and human sciences. His theoretically innovative narratives became international historical bestsellers of the times. Robertson addressed national, European and global themes, and explored them through the lens of ideas crucial to the self-understanding of the Enlightenment especially in two aspects: first, the patriotic commitment to improvement and identity-building through the cultivation of cosmopolitan values and approaches; second, the inquiry into the progress and refinement of manners through the growth of material culture, commerce and communication within an emerging European system of states or “commonwealth”.


 The monographic project from which this paper is excerpted tests the possibilities and the limits of intellectual transfer via inter-lingual translation of important and popular texts, and commentary on them (in reviews as well as original works on compatible subject matter), within the “republic of letters”. The fortunes of each of the four major histories of Robertson in the German recipient environment are examined in light of contemporary principles and practices of translation, the socio-cultural types represented by the different translators, and the development of the discipline-specific theoretical and conceptual apparatus in eighteenth-century historical research. This investigation yields an argument which confirms but also enriches the trend in Enlightenment studies which emphasizes that besides the approximate unity of endeavours and questions, the answers depended on a great variety of contingent and context-dependent factors and pointed, therefore, in rather different directions.




László Kontler is Professor of History at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. His academic interests focus on intellectual history, especially political and historical thought, inter-cultural communication and reception, and more recently the history of scientific knowledge production, in the early-modern period and the Enlightenment. His monographic work includes a book (in Hungarian) on early-modern British political thought, and A History of Hungary (Palgrave, 2002). Especially relevant to the conference topic are several articles on William Robertson and Edmund Burke in Germany; an edited volume on Enlightenment and Communication (thematic issue of the European Review of History, 2006:3); and two articles on “Translation and Comparison” (Contributions to the History of Concepts, 2007:1 and 2008:1).

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