Since I am always looking for new quotes to add to my various collections, I peek in on others from time to time to see what quotes they list as their “favorites,” or “most inspirational” or the like.
A couple of nights ago while I was looking at nature quotes, I came upon the following that was listed on someone’s page listing their favorite nature quotes:
“The whole secret of the study of nature lies in learning how to use one’s eyes.” – George Sand.
This thought resonates with me especially as a photographer that is interested in color and the play of light. For example, I often notice things while hiking with others that they either overlook or don’t really care to notice.
On Sunday I spotted the first wildflowers of the season, and posted a couple of them images of them on the Photo Blog.
This was the second one that I saw, clinging to a rock wall in a crack that had filled with enough soil for it to survive. It was a bright spot of color in a rather monochromatic landscape. I’ve trained my eye to constantly be searching out the light and the “different.” With that training, the quote appeals to me.
After finding those words, I set out to authenticate them, first looking up the author, George Sand. Imagine my surprise when I found out that George was a woman, writing under her “most famous” pseudonym. Her real name is Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, later to be known as baronne Dudevant. She was a French novelist who lived in the 1800’s and is said to be a pioneer of feminism.
At this stage I’ve got the biographical information down and it’s time to go on looking for a source, preferable an original source. I really don’t like to put down “quoted in….” but sometimes that’s all you can find in a reasonable amount of time. I’m not getting paid for this, so I only want to devote so much time to the hunt.
Generally I search a quote in Google Books, for if you do a web search all you are going to find is the same quote listed again and again. In Books, you at least have a shot at finding some kind of source data. Sometimes I’ll also look in Wikiquote if the author does not seem too obscure.
Frequently what happens at this stage of the search is you might find something like the following: “In 1869, George Sand wrote, “The whole secret of the study of nature lies in learning how to use one’s eyes.”” Of course there is no footnote, or if there is one, it’s not included in the “preview” of the book in question. I doubt that the writer knew that George was a woman.
At this point I have a strong hint that the quote is probably accurate, since the date detail will probably mean that the original document can be found with more searching. As I looked through list of books in the Google Books search the following title caught my eye: Capturing the French River, Images along One of Canada’s most….
Why was this of particular interest, because our author is French and perhaps she wrote about traveling in Canada. Hope for a quick solution was dashed when I saw that the quote was embedded in the book as a sub heading for a chapter. It did however, provide another clue for the search. This time the cite was expanded to George Sand, Nouvelles Lettres d’un Voyageur, 1869.
It was now time to apply some more advanced searching tricks. The first step was to Google “Nouvelles Lettres d’un Voyageur” and see what happens. Success, for the very first entry is a free kindle book that is published and digitized and proofread by Project Gutenberg. In case you did not know, Project Gutenberg has over 100,000 free ebooks that can be downloaded through the site or its affiliates and partners.
I smiled a big smile at this point, and proceeded to follow the link. I didn’t really want to download the book so I selected the HTML version and it opened with the complete text, with only one problem, it was in French. I don’t read or speak French.
Actually, Google thought ahead for you and me and immediately switched the page to an English translation of the book. I decided to go ahead and use another search trick, the Control F combination which brings up a search window for the current document or web page. I typed in the word nature and was presented with 131 highlighted entries to search through.
One hundred and thirty one is just too many individual entries to look up. In order to narrow the search I decided to try the phrase “study of nature” and figured that I’d go right to the quote. The only problem is that the computer dinged out a series of error beeps letting me know that it had come up EMPTY!
At this point I’m beginning to get concerned. I’ve seen this kind of thing quite a few times, especially in working with original Latin works of Plato or Cicero. The English version of the quote often has no relationship to the translation in the text before me.
I went back to the quote: “The whole secret of the study of nature lies in learning how to use one’s eyes. I decided to try and use a different approach, using the copy / paste function along with Google Translate. I put in the English and asked it to translate into French. It presented me with the following: Tout le secret de l’étude de la nature est d’apprendre comment utiliser les yeux.
I decided to work with the first three words Tout le secret and put that combination into the search window back in the French version of the document.
Bingo – 1 match in the following sentence:
Apprendre à voir, voilà tout le secret des études naturelles.
Switching to the English translation it read: Learn to see, that’s the whole secret of natural studies.
Now even though I can’t read French, I can still see sentence structure. In the original, you have a short phrase, followed by the balance of the sentence. I did a quick double check with Google Translate and the first three words came out: Learning to see…
At this point I got excited, (ok maybe I don’t get out enough) for it seems that I had found a great quote that has been slopped around in English for quite some time and has lost some of it’s original meaning.
I am quite confident that the translation that I found is a much better rendering that what you can find on the web. Therefore it’s with great pleasure that I present to you George Sand’s observation:
Learn to see, that’s the whole secret of natural studies.
I’m not sure what is more accurate, Learn to see, or Learning to see. If anyone has thoughts on the topic, I’d love to hear them.
All in all, I was quite astounded by what I was able to accomplish from the safety of my living room. I found a quote, looked up the author’s autobiographical information, searched Google Books until I found the source of the quote, ended up at the Gutenberg Project and was able to open the original 1869 document in French, work with Google Translate to find a specific phrase only to find that what so many have pasted on their web pages, is at the end of the day, a sloppy rendering of the original thought.
The internet really can make us dumber, or smarter. It’s all in how you work with the tools.
Now go out, get on your hands and knees and look at the world with the eyes of a child, or maybe even an ant. You might be surprised at the aliens you might find in your own back yard.