Translating the Universe with Stephen Hawking

Published on March 20, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

Stephen William Hawking

8 January 1942- 14 March 2018

"Next time someone complains that you have made a mistake, tell him that may be a good thing. Because without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist." — From “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking”, 2010

Stephen Hawking is a famous English physicist and celebrity personality. Diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) at age 22, he has passed away peacefully in his sleep on 14 March 2018. Hawking is most notably famous for his unnerving discoveries about black holes in the 1970s - claiming with supporting evidence that they “could evaporate, even explode, and destroy all information about what had fallen in.” Some argue that his physical complications were somewhat of a tragic blessing, allowing his mind to roam the universe without distraction. 

Because his illness is degenerative, he had difficulty using his muscles and therefore rendered, moving, writing, and even speaking next to impossible. He relied on his famous speech software to communicate, and relied on loved ones and colleagues to “write long equations and properly code them into the right math language”.

Those who survive Hawking describe him as having the “dominating presence of a real human being, with an enormous zest for life, great humor, and tremendous determination”.

  • Although Stephen Hawking only spoke English, his linguistic motor function was at the mercy of his computer-based communication system. Sponsored by Intel® Corporation since 1997, he spoke through a tablet computer mounted on the arm of his wheelchair, powered by his wheelchair batteries. A keyboard screen appears with a cursor that automatically scans the keyboard, where Hawking can select a row, column, and character by moving his cheek. His cheek movement is picked up by an infrared switch that is attached t his spectacles. Hawking’s communication device awed him to translate to us the delicate, and at times terrifying, inner workings of the universe.

  • After gaining fame with his back-hole work in the 1970s, Hawking became interested in quantum gravity. In this realm of physics, Hawking continued to flirt with translation philosophy by resolving some basic issues by offering ingenious ideas. The problem of quantum gravity and the structure of space-time is regarded as the fundamental unsolved issue in the field of physics. Hawking continued his impressive career by simplifying this topic for the mere mortals among us, making him a friend to the translation community.

  • Stephen Hawking had an incredible sense of humor, a passion for life, and a child-like spirit. He loved children, and is said to “sometimes entertain them by swiveling around in his motorized wheelchair”.

  • Hawking, among his successes, was an amazingly tough educator. He had many students, yet being a student of his was said to be not easy. He would sometimes run his wheelchair over the feet of a student who weren’t paying attention! It is anecdotes like this from Hawking’s life that truly illustrate to us a man with great personality, determination, and a hilarious sense of humor.

Stephen Hawking maintained a healthy stubbornness. He insisted on doing everything by himself. This kept his muscles active and his spirit high, arguably allowing him to live as long as he did. He enjoyed his fame, his work, and asking his students to pursue obscure routes to reach pointed conclusions. It isn’t surprising to consider all of us a part of Hawking’s classroom; he provided us principles that cannot be questioned, but if translated correctly from his brain to our hearts provided us with a profound truth that helped us understand our world a bit better. Thank you, Professor. Rest in peace.


Stephen Hawking in numbers:


Number of languages A Brief History of Time was translated into as of 2001.


Stephen Hawking’s age at death. The average lifespan of an individual with ALS is two to five years after diagnosis. Hawking was diagnosed with the disease at age 22, defying the odds living more than 50 years after his diagnosis.


Number of editions of A Brief History of Time, release under slightly varied titles to the original, from 1988 - 2005.


Hawking’s date of death corresponds with other notable scientists, causing fans to smile and remember history fondly and value time as truly cyclical. Hawking was born 300 years after the death of Galileo Galilei, and has now died on the same day Albert Einstein was born.


To read an interview with Andrew Strominger, a contributor on Hawking’s “Soft Hair on Black Holes” paper, conducted by Seth Fletcher (from Scientific American), click here.

To access Hawking’s speech software for free, click here.
For a complete list of translated editions of A Brief History of Time, click here.


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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.

Citations: BBC, TheIndependent, TheGuardian, ScientificAmerican, Hawking, TheIndependent2, TheWashingtonPost