Persian Letters, trans. Raymond N. MacKenzie, Indianapolis, Hackett, 2014

Philip Stewart

Persian Letters, trans. Raymond N. MacKenzie, Indianapolis, Hackett, 2014.

Only a few few years after the Margaret Mauldon’s trans­la­tion (Oxford University Press, 2008) comes ano­ther, the eighth English trans­la­tion in all,1 of Lettres per­sa­nes. Unlike Mauldon, the only trans­la­tor since Ozell to work from the ori­gi­nal edi­tion of 1721 – by way of the cri­ti­cal edi­tion, volume I of Œuvres com­plè­tes, 2004 – MacKenzie reverts without expla­na­tion to the 1758 edi­tion. Although he allu­des in pas­sing to the ‘defi­ni­tive French cri­ti­cal edi­tion’, he takes no fur­ther cogni­zance of it.

In order not to repeat eve­ry­thing I have said in an ear­lier arti­cle devo­ted to limi­ted com­pa­ri­sons among the various trans­la­tions,2 I will dis­cuss this new one mainly with res­pect to its most recent pre­de­ces­sor, in the pro­cess dra­wing partly on the exam­ples I used before.

Much of MacKenzie’s rather slim anno­ta­tion seems to derive from the Vernière edi­tion of 1960 ; indeed, some of the hoa­riest notes come straight out of Vernière, inclu­ding his cons­tant refe­rence to the sup­ple­men­tary let­ters of the ‘1754 edi­tion’ – which in fact were publi­shed in 1758 – and the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of ‘La C. du G.’ in let­ter 137 as La Connaissance du globe ins­tead of Madame Dacier’s La Corruption du goût.

This is too bad, for the 2004 edi­tion would have ena­bled the trans­la­tor to avoid a cer­tain num­ber of errors that have bede­vi­led most of his pre­de­ces­sors, some of which I poin­ted out in the arti­cle men­tio­ned. In par­ti­cu­lar this cate­gory inclu­des false homo­nyms, the old trans­la­tor’s night­mare, ‘human nature’ for exam­ple for nature humaine, whe­reas it really means human­kind,3 and ‘empire’ for empire as syno­nym of power. There are sim­pler mis­ta­kes, like ren­de­ring pro­preté as ‘clean­li­ness’, and more recondite ones like ‘death’s head’ for caput mor­tuum (let­ter 137), which is actually an (al-)che­mi­cal term for a pre­ci­pi­tate or resi­due.

It is a rea­so­na­ble test to see how a trans­la­tor hand­les some of the per­sis­tent, awk­ward pro­blems. It is, for exam­ple, very hard to find English equi­va­lents for French words like doux (and adou­cir, etc.) when they do not refer to sweet­ness or soft­ness, and per­haps even worse mou (or amol­lir or mol­lesse), espe­cially when applied to peo­ple. What we can say, never­the­less, is that in both cases ‘sweet’ and ‘soft’ just will not do. In let­ter 103, Usbek wri­tes to Rhedi, who in the pre­vious let­ter has depre­ca­ted the arts :

Tu crois que les arts amol­lis­sent les peu­ples et par là sont cause de la chute des empi­res. Tu par­les de la ruine de celui des anciens Perses, qui fut l’effet de leur mol­lesse […].

Quand on dit que les arts ren­dent les hom­mes effé­mi­nés, on ne parle pas du moins des gens qui s’y appli­quent, puisqu’ils ne sont jamais dans l’oisi­veté, qui de tous les vices est celui qui amol­lit le plus le cou­rage.

[…] il s’ensuit que l’oisi­veté et la mol­lesse sont incom­pa­ti­bles avec les arts.

Here is Mauldon’s ver­sion :

You believe that the pur­suit of the arts emas­cu­la­tes nations, and hence brings the down­fall of empi­res. You men­tion the ruin of the ancient Persian Empire, cau­sed by indo­lence […]

When peo­ple say that the arts make men effe­mi­nate, they are not, at any rate, refer­ring to those who pur­sue them, for they are never idle, and of all the vices it is idle­ness that saps will­po­wer the most.

[…] it fol­lows that idle­ness and effe­mi­nacy are incom­pa­ti­ble with the pur­suit of the arts.

And MacKenzie’s :

You think that the arts make peo­ple soft, and thus cause the fall of empi­res. You refer to the ruin of the ancient Persians, which was the result of soft­ness. […]

When peo­ple claim that arts make men effe­mi­nate, they can­not be refer­ring to the peo­ple wor­king in the arts, because those peo­ple are never lazy – and lazi­ness is the vice that most saps cou­rage.

[…] It fol­lows, the­re­fore, that lazi­ness and soft­ness are incom­pa­ti­ble with the arts.

Despite the liber­ties which Mauldon takes, her solu­tion is the more ima­gi­na­tive. While she has recourse to the notion of effe­mi­nacy in two pla­ces where Rhedi did not, the first of them does at least rely on his men­tion of effe­mi­nacy in the second para­graph. Still, ‘effe­mi­nacy’ for mol­lesse in the last line is nei­ther accu­rate nor jus­ti­fied. In MacKenzie’s case, ‘soft­ness’ aside, ‘lazi­ness’ is sim­ply not the same idea as oisi­veté, howe­ver rela­ted the two might be in cer­tain contexts.

Not all infe­li­ci­ties or even inac­cu­ra­cies are easily per­cep­ti­ble to the rea­der, and they may have so lit­tle inflec­tion on the mea­ning as to be hardly worth cor­rec­ting. Mauldon trans­la­tes elles ont des revers ter­ri­bles (let­ter 9) as ‘They devise ter­ri­ble reven­ges’ and MacKenzie as ‘Their repri­sals are ter­ri­ble’. These ren­di­tions com­ple­tely mis­take the mea­ning of revers (a rever­sal, as in let­ters 99 and 126 ; it is found in this sense in Cinna and L’École des fem­mes) ; both trans­la­tors fudge, coun­ting on the notion of revenge, which the context hap­pily covers. Similarly, Mauldon trans­la­tes elles me font faire de faus­ses confi­den­ces, in the same let­ter, as : ‘they arrange for me to be given secret confi­den­tial infor­ma­tion’, which is both awk­ward and wrong. MacKenzie (‘They confide in me, but their confi­den­ces are fal­se­hoods’) gets the mea­ning, but only by para­phra­sing so as to deli­ver a defi­ni­tion rather than really trans­la­ting. There are innu­me­ra­ble such quan­da­ries posed by Montesquieu’s text, and not all are impor­tant or really likely to impede the unders­tan­ding of the text, though they might in any kind of close rea­ding throw the rea­der off.

Here are a cou­ple of fur­ther exam­ples in Rica’s let­ter about un des hom­mes du royaume qui repré­sente le mieux (let­ter 72). Mauldon refers to him as ‘one of the most impres­sive pre­sen­ces in the king­dom’, which may be true but is not an accu­rate trans­la­tion. MacKenzie’s ver­sion (‘one of the men who best repre­sents our nation’) is just an unfor­tu­nate guess, mis­ta­king the mea­ning of repré­sen­ter, which in this case is not about repre­sen­ta­tion in the usual sense, and adding on the com­ple­tely extra­neous notion of ‘nation’. This same gent­le­man ‘[…] fait sen­tir à tous les ins­tants la supé­rio­rité qu’il a sur tous ceux qui l’appro­chent’ ; si cela est, Rica res­ponds, je n’ai que faire d’y aller ; je la lui passe toute entière et je prends condam­na­tion. Mauldon ren­ders this reply as : ‘I accept my fate and willin­gly admit his super­io­rity’ : the gist is all right (the ante­ce­dent of la in je la lui passe is indeed [s]a supé­rio­rité), but nei­ther je la lui passe nor je prends condam­na­tion is cor­rectly ren­de­red, and ‘fate’ is a quite extra­neous addi­tion. MacKenzie cap­tu­res the notion of conces­sion with ‘I concede eve­ry­thing to him in advance’ but at the same time com­ple­tely blows the rest by fini­shing up : ‘and I accept my condam­na­tion’, which doesn’t even make much sense.

Some more sand­traps are to be found in let­ter 43 about the alche­mist. Esteeming him­self newly rich, he says to Rhedi : établissons d’abord l’équipage. Mauldon’s ‘Let’s begin by buying a car­riage and pair’ gets it right, as does MacKenzie’s ‘Let’s get star­ted by buying a coach, and the hor­ses to go with it’ : but Mauldon’s ver­sion is more concise, and more gra­ce­ful. A lit­tle later, Rhedi com­ments that […] tout cela se fit promp­te­ment, parce que mon homme ne mar­chanda rien, et ne compta jamais : aussi ne déplaça-t-il pas. Mauldon gets the first part all right, though less ele­gantly, with ‘it was all done very qui­ckly, because my man did not bar­gain over any­thing, did not keep track of his expen­di­tu­res’ ; but then she gets the conclu­sion all wrong : ‘[…] and never moved from one spot’. For the first part, MacKenzie fol­lows her ver­sion almost word for word,4 but cleans up the last clause with ‘[…] and never paid in cash’, thus sug­ges­ting a plau­si­ble but pecu­liar mea­ning of the verb dépla­cer.5

The alche­mist explains to Rhedi how he began the day : j’ai fait d’abord ce que je fais depuis vingt-cinq ans, qui est d’aller visi­ter mon œuvre, conclu­ding with : […] et je me trouve aujourd’hui un heu­reux adepte. For visi­ter mon œuvre, Mauldon gives us : ‘ins­pect my opus’ and MacKenzie : ‘ins­pect my work’ ; but because nei­ther has gras­ped that œuvre has a highly spe­ci­fic mea­ning in alchemy (the phi­lo­so­pher’s stone), they equally fail to nail the conclu­sion : for an adept is the alche­mist (or ‘phi­lo­so­pher’) who has found the secret. So they limp home with ‘I have suc­cee­ded in my quest’ (Mauldon), and ‘I find myself today a most for­tu­nate adept’ (MacKenzie), nei­ther of which, and for good rea­son, is very clear.

Another curious cha­rac­ter in let­ter 123 brings into play some non-stan­dard voca­bu­lary. [M]artyr de sa jus­tesse, wri­tes Rica, il était offensé d’une saillie. The pro­blem this poses for the trans­la­tor is illus­tra­ted by the dif­fe­rence in cons­trual which the pas­sage pro­vo­kes. Mauldon’s ‘[A] mar­tyr to his own pre­ci­sion, he was offen­ded by a flash of wit’ is unders­tan­da­ble, because saillie can have this use (par­ti­cu­larly in lite­rary texts that stress conver­sa­tion, as Lettres per­sa­nes often does ; saillie is indeed used this way in let­ters 52 and 59). But the sense here seems to be not the meta­pho­ri­cal defi­ni­tion but the pri­mary one, which MacKenzie depends on for : ‘A mar­tyr to his own pre­ci­sion, any­thing odd or irre­gu­lar bothe­red him’. This seems jus­ti­fied by the com­pa­ri­son which conti­nues the sen­tence : […] comme une vue déli­cate est offen­sée par une lumière trop vive ; yet still, with the expres­sion ‘odd or irre­gu­lar’, he has mis­sed the meta­phor based on some­thing pro­jec­ting out from its back­ground.6

Here is ano­ther exam­ple with a bit more context :

Ismaël, un de tes eunu­ques noirs, vient de mou­rir, magni­fi­que sei­gneur, et je ne puis m’empê­cher de le rem­pla­cer. Comme les eunu­ques sont extrê­me­ment rares à pré­sent, j’avais pensé de me ser­vir d’un esclave noir que tu as à la cam­pa­gne, mais je n’ai pu jus­ques ici le por­ter à souf­frir qu’on le consa­crât à cet emploi. Comme je vois qu’au bout du compte c’est son avan­tage, je vou­lus l’autre jour user à son égard d’un peu de rigueur, et de concert avec l’inten­dant de tes jar­dins, j’ordon­nai que mal­gré lui on le mît en état de te ren­dre les ser­vi­ces qui flat­tent le plus ton cœur, et de vivre comme moi dans ces redou­ta­bles lieux qu’il n’ose pas même regar­der ; mais il se mit à hur­ler comme si on avait voulu l’écorcher, et fit tant qu’il échappa de nos mains et évita le fatal cou­teau. [Letter 39, the head black eunuch to Usbek]

Mauldon :

Ismael, one of your black eunuchs, has just died, Magnificent Lord, and I have no choice but to replace him. As eunuchs are extre­mely scarce at pre­sent, I had thought of using a black slave you have in the coun­try, but until now I have been una­ble to per­suade him to become a eunuch. As I can see that, after all, it’s to his own advan­tage, I attemp­ted the other day to use a lit­tle force with him, and, with the agree­ment of the kee­per of your gar­dens, gave orders that he should, in spite of him­self, be put in a condi­tion to ren­der you those ser­vi­ces which are dea­rest to your heart, and thus be able to live, as I do, in that for­mi­da­ble place which now he dare not gaze upon ; but he began to howl as if someone were trying to flay him, and strug­gled so, that he esca­ped from our grasp and elu­ded the deadly knife.

MacKenzie :

Ishmael, one of your black eunuchs, has just died, magni­fi­cent lord, and I see no alter­na­tive but to replace him. Considering that eunuchs are very hard to come by these days, I thought of making use of a black slave of yours who is here in the coun­try, but I have so far been una­ble to per­suade him to let him­self be conse­cra­ted to this employ­ment. Since I knew that this ope­ra­tion would be to his advan­tage in the long run, I wan­ted to exer­cise a lit­tle rigor with him. So in concert with your chief gar­de­ner, I gave orders that, even if it was against his will, he was to be put into the pro­per condi­tion neces­sary to serve you in guar­ding what you love most, and to join me in those awe-ins­pi­ring pla­ces where other­wise he would dare not ren­ter. But he began screa­ming as if we were about to burn him alive, and mana­ged to slip out of our grip and avoid the fatal knife.

Overall this is a bit of a draw, there being some curious ano­ma­lies in both trans­la­tors’ pas­sa­ges. It is hard to fathom why Mauldon dod­ged the slight euphe­mism in the expres­sion : je n’ai pu jus­ques ici le por­ter à souf­frir qu’on le consa­crât à cet emploi (‘I have been una­ble to per­suade him to become a eunuch’), sub­sti­tu­ting a degree of ‘cla­ri­fi­ca­tion’ that hardly seems war­ran­ted. On the other hand, MacKenzie wri­tes ‘Since I knew that’ for Comme je vois qu[e], a shift in tense and verb that lit­tle affects the mea­ning but is still unne­ces­sary. I give Mauldon a mark for ‘I attemp­ted the other day to use a lit­tle force’ (je vou­lus l’autre jour user à son égard d’un peu de rigueur) ins­tead of MacKenzie’s ‘I wan­ted to exer­cise a lit­tle rigor’, because – and this is a subt­ler point – trans­la­tors often miss the fact that vou­loir, espe­cially in the past tense, often seems to denote an attempt and not merely an inten­tion.

Toward the end of this seg­ment, MacKenzie mani­fests seve­ral lit­tle bits of slip­page. For les ser­vi­ces qui flat­tent le plus ton cœur, Mauldon comes much clo­ser with ‘those ser­vi­ces which are dea­rest to your heart’ than he is with ‘to serve you in guar­ding what you love most’, both because of the addi­tion of the notion of guar­ding, which was already impli­cit, and of the roman­tic bana­lity of ‘what you love most’. Likewise, ces redou­ta­bles lieux qu’il n’ose pas même regar­der is ‘that for­mi­da­ble place which now he dare not gaze upon’ (Mauldon) rather than ‘those awe-ins­pi­ring pla­ces where other­wise he would dare not ren­ter’ (MacKenzie), since seeing and ente­ring are dif­fe­rent, and since ‘awe-ins­pi­ring’ sug­gests magni­fi­cence more than the dan­ger which the eunuch seems to be sug­ges­ting.

Another fairly subtle point has to do with an eter­nal trans­la­tor’s dilemma, that emi­nently flexi­ble pro­noun on. When Mauldon wri­tes : ‘as if someone were trying to flay him’ she gets is right except, if I may be picayune, for the ‘someone’. The rea­son is obvious to anyone who has trans­la­ted French to English : by trying not to ove­ruse on – for the sim­ple rea­son that ‘one’ in English will not bear the heavy use that on often gets in French, it is easy to miss the shift that really suits the cir­cum­stan­ces here, which would be ‘as if we were trying’. For here, even if this is rela­ti­vely infre­quent, on clearly means ‘we’, the eunuch and the gar­de­ner. On the other hand, MacKenzie obviously gets the wrong seman­tic regis­ter for écorcher when he wri­tes comme si on avait voulu l’écorcher as ‘as if we were about to burn him alive’ : not too impor­tant, but bur­ning and the knife do not go well toge­ther.

Any given pas­sage can give only a glimpse and may not be quite fair, i.e., repre­sen­ta­tive, to the trans­la­tor. Both of these trans­la­tions read smoothly most of the time and convey the essen­tial gist even when, vie­wed up close, they appear not to be spot on.

The previous ones are by John Ozell (1722 plus several revisions), Thomas Flloyd (1762), John Davidson (1891), J. Robert Loy (1961), George R. Healy (1964), and C. J. Betts (1973). The latter appears still to be in print.

Philip Stewart, “Les Lettres persanes en sept traductions anglaises (1722-2008)”, Revue française d’histoire du livre, nouvelle série, n° 134 (2013), p. 103-126.

‘On dit la nature humaine pour dire le genre humain’ (Dictionnaire de l’Académie, 1694, art. ‘Nature’).

I use ‘follows’ metaphorically, with no implication that he was actually copying.

Furetière (1690, art. « Deplacer ») gives a similar example, but lacking an explicit definition, of the verb déplacer used intransitively : ‘Il a acheté ce cheval trente louïs, il en a gagné dix autres à le revendre sans déplacer.’

Furetière’s main definition is ‘Partie d’un bâtiment qui avance sur la rue, qui n’est pas à plomb sur les fondements. […] On ne permet plus de faire maintenant des saillies sur les rues.’