In a letter, the mathematician Abel wrote

Les séries divergentes sont en général quelque chose de bien fatal et c’est une honte qu’on ose y fonder aucune démonstration.

In the book NIELS HENRIK ABEL and his Times: Called Too Soon by Flames Afar by Arild Stubhaug, on page 343, Abel's quote is translated as

On the Whole, Divergent Series are the Work of the Devil and it's a Shame that one dares base any Demonstration upon them.

But the Wikipedia article on divergent series instead translates Abel's quote as

Divergent series are in general something fatal, and it is a disgrace to base any proof on them.

Is "work of the devil" a reasonable translation? Is the expression idiomatic?

  • Divergent series is such a tricky issue that they can be considered as "diabolic" (Devils work,oeuvre du diable), this word being used in its figurative sense. The end of the sentence, i.e. "c’est une honte qu’on ose y fonder aucune démonstration", is a poor translation. Then, a better formulation would be "Les séries divergentes sont quelque chose de diabolique et c'est une honte qu'elles puissent servir de base à une quelconque démonstration".
    – Graffito
    Commented Dec 23, 2015 at 14:37
  • See math.stackexchange.com/questions/2402688/…
    – anno
    Commented Oct 23, 2021 at 13:04

1 Answer 1


Abel (Niels Henrik) had a degree in theology, so it is likely in his original writing he rather used the Norwegian equivalent of work of the devil or devil's work.

This is plausible especially when we know that the sentence you quoted was a part of a letter Abel wrote on January 16 1826 to Holmboe, an other Norwegian mathematician. This means the letter was likely to be written in Norwegian, not in French.

Taking these historical and social environments in which the letter was written, may be the question could be shifted to: is the French translation fatal correct? But the best to do is to check how the letter was written originally in Norwegian of that time (if you speak Norwegian)

Note that even in English, work of the devil is not the only expression used to translate the original letter of Abel (I, for instance, found terrible).

I hope this helps a little.

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