Encore #4: Amethe von Zeppelin

Reading Carnap’s Logical Syntax I was intrigued by the question who the translator was, and wondered aloud in a blogpost here. A correspondent kindly filled in some detail which I added in a second post. Afterwards, I was contacted by a member of the family; but they couldn’t add much to the story, which is however still surely interesting enough for an encore.

Amethe von Zeppelin (January 5, 2012)

I’ve had Carnap’s The Logical Syntax of Language on my shelves for over forty years. I can’t say it was ever much consulted; but I’ve been reading large chunks of it today, in connection with Gödel. Carnap’s book is often credited with the first statement of the general Diagonalization Lemma, and I wanted to double check this. (The credit seems to be somewhat misplaced in fact, but that’s for another post!)

Reading the early pages of the book, I’ve been struck by how good the 1937 translation seems. Well, I can’t vouch for its accuracy — for I don’t have the German to check — but it’s very readable, and seems sure-footed with the logical ideas. The translation was organized by Ogden as editor of The International Library, went slowly, and Quine had suggested a very appropriate Harvard academic who was keen to do the job but Ogden would not make the change. True, Carnap writes to Quine  ‘Ogden sent me Ch.I and II of [the translation]. I had to spend much work in revising and correcting them; I found a lot of mistakes, misunderstandings and unsuitable expressions.’ But perhaps the experience got better after that, since Carnap doesn’t return to make later complaints, and the translator is warmly thanked in the Preface to the English Edition.

But who was Ameche Seaton, the translator? A Countess von Zeppelin, no less. (But no, not the Countess who later threatened to sue Led Zeppelin for illegal use of her family name.) Which makes me wonder: what led the Countess to becoming a translator, and why did she become involved in this project. What was her background that made her an apt choice for translating this book of all books?

She’d translated before, a history book by Paul Frischauer, Prince Eugene: A Man and a Hundred Years of History, first published in German in 1933, translated in 1934, and still in print. Later she translated Schlick’s Philosophy of Nature (1949), Walter Schubart’s Russia and Western Man (1950), Bruno Freytag’s Philosophical Problems of Mathematics (1951), and a book by Karl Kobald Springs of Immortal Sound (1950), on places in Austria associated with composers. She also co-translated Werner Heisenberg’s Nuclear Physics (1953). That’s a really rather remarkable catalogue! And she wasn’t “just” a translator: she was competent enough to be asked to review a group of logic and philosophy of science books for Nature in 1938 (she writes the composite review in a way that indicates she was very much up with developments). How did all this come about?

Amethe Smeaton was the daughter of a colonial administrator (later a liberal MP) called Donald Smeaton. She was born in the late 1890s and was at Girton College during WW1 but left without graduating because of ill health. She corresponded briefly with Russell about Principia in 1917. She married a Scottish army officer called Ian McEwan in 1919: they had a son who served in the Scots Guards and who was killed in WW2. In 1924 she published in the Morning Post an adulatory account of an interview she had with Mussolini (apparently she spent time in Italy as a child and therefore spoke Italian). Graf von Zeppelin was cited as co-respondent in her divorce in 1929: it was said that they had been “found living as Count and Countess von Zeppelin” at Mentone. She married the count in Cap Martin, France in August that year. (He had been a German army officer during WW1, then had travelled in the forests of Bolivia, publishing an account of his adventures in 1926. According to A J Ayer, he chased Otto Neurath through the streets of Munich with a revolver at one point.) They bought a house called Schloss Mauerbach near Vienna in 1939. She died around 1966.

An interesting life, then. And her translating work was all done after her marriage to the Count, when presumably she could pick and choose what she did. Which suggests an interesting mind too.

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