The Princeton University Press and the trustees of the Albert Einstein estate are in the midst of an academic row that promises to hold up publication of Einstein's letters and personal papers for years.

The fight has already meant that the first of the 20 Einstein volumes planned for publication by the Princeton press will not come out this year, the centennial of Einstein's birth. So serious is the dispute between the press and the estate that the editors of the press now figure that the first volume will be published no earlier than 1982.

"When we began this project in 1971, we thought it would take five years to get the first volume out," said Herbert S. Bailey Jr., director of the Princeton University Press. "We proved to be wrong, for a variety of reasons."

To hear Princeton sources tell it, the biggest reason has been the battles between the press and the estate over how the papers are to be edited and by whom. The papers number 70,000 documents; they're kept in 28 fire roof file drawers at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein worked until his death in 1955.

The Princeton press signed a contract in 1971 with the estate to publish the Einstein papers. Six years later, the press hired the first editor, John Stachel, a Boston University physicist and philosopher of science. He was apparently the first editor the trustees of the estate could agree on. He was also the first editor who would agree to give at least 15 years of his life to editing the Einstein papers.

One of the first things Stachel did was to organize Einstein's letters, which number more than 10,000. They include correspondence with the most brilliant physicists and mathematicians of the 20th century, including Claus Weyl, Max Born, Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauil and Niels Bohr. Fewer than 500 of the letters have ever been published.

Stachel won a grant from the National Science Foundation to duplicate the letters so that he and the secretaries he hired would not have to handle the originals, some of which are as fragile as they are valuable. At the same time, Stachel began corresponding with those of Einstein's correspondents still alive to clarify hard-to-understand parts of their correspondence.

The trustees of the estate now want Stachel out as editor. The trustees are Helen Dukas, who was Einstein's secretary from 1927 until his death, and Otto Nathan, an economist who befriended Einstein at Princeton and was named in Einstein's will as the coexecutor of his estate.

It is not clear why Dukas and Nathan, both octogenarians, want to fire Stachel. Princeton sources hint the reasons are "too personal to discuss in the press." Dukas does not give interviews. Nathan will say only that he wants to replace Stachel with a board of three people to edit the Einstein papers.

"The legacy of Einstein is so huge that we don't want his papers edited by one man, no matter who he is," Nathan said by telephone the other day from his Fifth Avenue apartment in New York.

The directors of the Princeton press say they are deleghted with the job Stachel has done. The Editorial Advisory Board, which includes physicists such as John A. Wheeler, Martin Klein and Freeman Dyson who knew Einstein, has given Stachel its unanimous approval and wants him to continue in the job he started two years ago. They worry that if Dukas and Nathan succeed in forcing Stachel out, they will succeed in scaring away anybody with the credentials to fill the job.

At stake is more than Stachel's job. There is the matter of a $1 million endowment to pay the salary, travel and expenses of the editor for the remaining life of the project, which is anywhere from 15 to 20 years.

The $1 million has been harder to get than the Princeton University Press thought it would be. Most of the people approached by the press had other financial commitments, but sources now say an anonymous donor has agreed to put up the money, provided the project doesn't get stalled.

If the project is stalled, as now seems likely, the chance is high that the $1 million endowment to pay the editor's salary and expenses for the next 20 years will not be forthcoming. That means looking for a new donor when the project is restarted, a task the Princeton University Press already has found to be quite difficult.

Even if the project is stalled only a short time, it means further delays in publishing the first of the planned 20 volumes. The earliest publication date is now 1982, which puts off final publication almost to the end of the century.

There's also the matter of a more permanent grant from the National Science Foundation to pay for clerical work and the salaries and travel of the secretaries and associate editors who will have to be hired. So far, the NSF has put up $114,131 to sustain the project the last two years. The Princeton Press figures it needs an NSF grant of $175,000 a year for the next five years to keep the project sustained.

The contract under which the NSF has been supporting the Einstein papers expires in July. The NSF says it has received no proposal from the Princeton press to continue or increase the support. The NSF's Dr. Ronald G. Overmann understands that the battle between the press and the estate is the reason there is no new proposal in hand.

"But any new proposal must go through our peer review process," Overmann said. "So even if everything were resolved tomorrow, we couldn't act on it before Jan. 1."

The Princeton University Press says it cannot afford to wait any longer to resolve its differences with the Einstein trustees. Besides the money to support the project, there are the aging colleagues and friends of Einstein to consider. If they are to be consulted, now is the time to consult them.

"The time to do it is now," said Bailey, the director of the Princeton press, "before all the people who knew Einstein are dead."

There is a clause in the contract between the press and the estate that allows disputes such as this to be settled by arbitration. While nobody involved in the dispute would confirm it, there were signs last week that the "disagreement" had been submitted to an arbitration organization in New York. CAPTION: Picture 1, Einstein, in 1947, with Otto Nathan, now co-executor of his estate. Copyright (c) , Philippe Halsman; Picture 2, ALBERT EINSTEIN