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The confusing case of the colon symbol: units of measurements

Climate was not the only hurdle in translating practical information: linguistic and social differences also played a part. During the period, the Swedish and English units of measurements held no real equivalents. Serenius tried to solve this problem by keeping some of the English measurement names, for example, ‘acre’ and ‘bushel’, and include two conversion charts at the end of his book.26 However, he was not consistent. For the English mile, he used the Swedish word mil, which denotes a Swedish measurement roughly six and a half times longer than its English namesake.27 In the text, however, it is not always clear whether Serenius refers to the English or the Swedish unit, writing sometimes mil but sometimes English mil, in both instances meaning mile.28 To the contemporary reader, this uncertainty obscured the practical usefulness of the information. However, an additional motive besides practical usefulness can be discerned while looking at the conversion charts. In the body text, Serenius uses the Swedish words fot for foot and turn for inch.29 The ratio between the Swedish fot and turn and the English foot and inch, respectively, are stated in the first conversion chart:

Conversion chart [...] calculated after the proportion of the English foot in relation to the Swedish [/ôt], which is 1027:1000, and the English inch’s proportion in relation to the Swedish [turn], which is 85:100.30

Today, the English foot is calculated to 30.48 cm and the Swedish fot to 29.69 cm. Does this match Serenius’ information? Serenius’ use of the colon is somewhat hard to interpret. If he means the proportion between the two measurements, as the sentence above seems to refer to, the numbers to a modern eye seem inverted (the ratio is 1000:1027). However, Serenius might have used the notation somewhat differently. Additionally, the colon could denote the proportion to an unknown length x, where the English foot equals 1027x and the Swedish lOOOx, making the calculation correct. In any case, the ratio 1000:1027 matches the information given in the rest of the conversion chart. For example, an acre is described as 43,560 English square feet or 45,944 Swedish square /of.31

Both the English and the Swedish systems used relation of one foot/fot = twelve inches/tum. However, it seems as if Serenius actually had a larger Swedish turn in mind. Most likely, he used the decimaltum, which instead divides the fat by ten, giving us a length of2.969 cm. The ratio between the English inch of 2.54 cm and the Swedish decimaltum is roughly 100:86 (1000:8555...), which might explain Serenius’ use of 85:100. However, this does not fit the other information given by Serenius. For example, an English quarter is said to equal 17,424.000 English cubic inches and 10,700.514 Swedish cubic turn, giving us a ratio of roughly 100:88.5.32

Although they only span two pages of the entire book, the conversion charts highlight three interesting aspects of Serenius’ translation and selection of knowledge. Firstly, the mistakes made show the difficulty of translating measurements and the subsequent detachment of the information from practical reality. It is hard for a reader not only to discern whether Serenius meant the Swedish or the English units of measurements, but also to interpret the conversion charts and spot the mistakes in them, which require an ability to calculate the root of large numbers. Secondly, the obsession with giving exact numbers to operations not really in need of them (for example, regarding the distance between individual crop seeds on the fields) can be seen as part of the appropriation of agricultural knowledge, the will to systematise it to the smallest detail.” Thirdly, Serenius’ use of decimaltum is interesting. The decimaltum was introduced in Sweden by Georg Stiernhielm in the 1660s. However, it was first used in official legislative documents in the 1730s, and then together with the other turn (= verktum).34 In effect, it was a unit of measurement discussed by and used mainly by a learned elite. Serenius’ use of it therefore denotes not only his intended audience but his own aspiration to belong to that group. Here, the wish to convey practical usefulness sometimes seems to have been overshadowed by a will to display his own theoretical knowledge.

Things not useful other than in England? Knowledge and status

Serenius’ wish to convey himself as a knowledgeable man also influenced his selection of information. The main text is actually framed by sections more relevant to learned discussions than practical work: in the beginning, a preface containing a historical survey of agriculture, and in the end a bibliography.35 In the body text, the mentions of other authors are often a consequence of Serenius translating large chunks of text from other works, which in turn mention the authors.36 However, this is not always the case. The following example illustrates Serenius’ self-asserted will to omit things not useful other than in England:

Mr Mortimer says, that grapes will grow exceptionally well using this kind of dung [= human], but one will rather with Evelyn eat medium-sized grapes grown with the help of beast-dung, than with Mortimer [eat] those who taste of man: for our often mentioned [and] commendable Evelyn says that it [= human dung] flavours them so badly, that nothing will help.37

Wherein lies the usefulness here? It is not in the practical use of dung on grapes. Grapes could not, with contemporary cultivation practices and varieties, really be grown in Sweden: at least not in such quantities necessary to improve the stately finances, which was Serenius’ stated overall goal with his book. Instead, the usefulness shifts to the mention and evaluation of the information given by the highly regarded John Mortimer and John Evelyn, both fellows of the Royal Society. To not only mention but also evaluate their thoughts served to put Serenius in the midst of a learned discussion, and thereby the learned community.

Many of the theoretical discussions appear in the footnotes. Some of them mention or discuss other authors and their works, such as Timothy Nourse, Christian Wolff, and Olof Bromelins. Others contain elements that on the onset do not add to the usefulness for the practical farmer, for example Latin quotations, mostly from Virgil’s Various footnotes convey information on English counties, usually regarding their size, administrative division, number of representatives in the Parliament, and greatest produces.3' Often, the footnotes are not required reading for an audience simply interested in improving their own agricultural practices. However, Serenius made an effort to add them, and they are usually not taken from the same source as the body text.4” Most likely, Serenius wanted his book to reflect his own mercantilistic and cameralistic knowledge. Together with the conversion charts, preface, bibliography, and the mentioning of famous authors, these additions were intended to highlight Serenius as a learned man, and as a consequence an asset to the state. Although the book’s practical purpose was important to Serenius, his own ambitions clearly affected his translation and selection of agricultural knowledge.

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