About this translation

A new trans­la­tion by Philip Stewart, ©2020

Obviously enough, this trans­la­tion was under­ta­ken because, des­pite their num­ber,1 all the pre­vious ones see­med to me inac­cu­rate or at least in some ways defi­cient.2 Additionally, all but the Ozell and Mauldon trans­la­tions were based on the pos­thu­mous edi­tion D of 1758, which today would also count as a serious defi­ciency.

Montesquieu, who was thirty-two when this book was publi­shed in 1721, never dis­cus­ses it in his cor­res­pon­dence during the period – pre­su­ma­bly 1716 to 1720 – when he was wri­ting it. Though it cau­sed quite a sen­sa­tion, the work was unsi­gned, and most of his acquain­tan­ces did not know he was behind it.

Since Lettres per­sa­nes could not have pas­sed French cen­sure, the author made use of the usual solu­tion, which was to arrange to have it publi­shed in Holland. The title page indi­ca­tes Cologne : Pierre Marteau, but this too was a conven­tio­nal cover (there was in fact no such prin­ter), in this case for Jacques Desbordes (actually his widow, Susanne de Caux) in Amsterdam. This edi­tion, for­mally refer­red to as edi­tion A (see table below), which contains 150 let­ters, is the basis of the autho­ri­ta­tive edi­tions pro­du­ced by the Société Montesquieu on which this trans­la­tion in turn is based.3

An enig­ma­tic second edi­tion cal­led B, prin­ted in the same place, and label­led as “revie­wed, cor­rec­ted, dimi­ni­shed and aug­men­ted by the author”, appea­red later in the same year. The order of the let­ters was somew­hat modi­fied but, more sur­pri­sin­gly, thir­teen of the ori­gi­nal let­ters had been sub­trac­ted and three new ones added, for a total of 140. We have lit­tle idea what role the author played in concei­ving and exe­cu­ting this edi­tion, though obviously he must have sup­plied the new let­ters. I don’t think there has ever been a good argu­ment for sub­sti­tu­ting B for A. Library hol­dings seem to sug­gest that A had much wider cir­cu­la­tion, but there also were nume­rous other (pira­ted) edi­tions.

Over the years Montesquieu occa­sio­nally thought up new let­ters, as his note­books show, some of which were publi­shed in various venues and some never used. He also kept lists of chan­ges to be made, to which he devo­ted some time in his last few years (that is, after the publi­ca­tion and contro­versy over The Spirit of Law, 1748-1750), basing all of them on edi­tion A, which was beco­ming rare. Yet an edi­tion which appea­red in 1754 was nothing but a repeat of the text from A.

Only after his death (in January 1755) were many of Montesquieu’s chan­ges and addi­tions incor­po­ra­ted into a col­lec­ted edi­tion of his wri­tings over­seen by his son, Jean-Baptiste de Secondat. This pos­thu­mous edi­tion, cal­led D, incor­po­ra­ted both chan­ges and ele­ven new let­ters (seven of which were pre­viously unpu­bli­shed) for a total of 161. It also added in the guise of intro­duc­tion a piece entit­led “Some reflec­tions on the Persian Letters”. Every sub­se­quent edi­tion of the novel until 2004 fol­lo­wed this 1758 edi­tion on the grounds – often consi­de­red deci­sive in lite­rary publi­shing – that it was the final form willed by the author. There was also a “Supplement” prin­ted in 1758 to make the sup­ple­men­tary let­ters as well as the “Reflections” avai­la­ble to buyers who had pur­cha­sed an ear­lier edi­tion.4

Though it would have occur­red to no one to sup­press the addi­tions, there were never­the­less good rea­sons for rever­ting to edi­tion A as the most authen­tic. The prin­ci­pal one is that it was the ori­gi­nal text that amu­sed and scan­da­li­zed Europe, that was com­men­ted upon, refu­ted, and quo­ted, for thirty-seven years. Another is that even if the new mate­rial was authen­tic, the final edi­to­rial deci­sions – and they invol­ved hun­dreds of details – were not made by the author,5 and many can be ques­tio­ned. There was also a sur­feit of punc­tua­tion incor­po­rate in 1758 by either the edi­tors or prin­ters.

In the OC edi­tion, the sup­ple­men­tary let­ters were appen­ded, their appro­priate inser­tion point being mar­ked in the text, and a full account was given of variants in edi­tion B, the note­books, and edi­tion D. In the Classiques Garnier edi­tion of 2013, I took the fur­ther step of inser­ting the sup­ple­men­tary let­ters into sequence of the main text, but num­be­red them sepa­ra­tely. In the ver­sion offe­red here I have done like­wise. In the on-line edi­tion on the site of the Société Montesquieu (desi­gna­ted MBE), advan­tage has been taken of the com­pu­ter faci­lity of swap­ping texts in or out to give the user the option sequen­cing the let­ters with or without the sup­ple­ments.

A few of the notes will point out the effects of chan­ges made in edi­tions B or D.

This trans­la­tion may be copied pro­vi­ded it is not alte­red.

Lettres persanes has been translated by John Ozell (1722), Thomas Flloyd (1762), John Davidson (1891), J. Robert Loy (1961), George R. Healy (1964), C. J. Betts (1973), Margaret Mauldon (2008), and Raymond MacKenzie (2014). Another early translation by one John Farrington of Clapham is listed in a catalogue sale, but nothing more is known of it.

I have given a number of examples in “Les Lettres persanes en sept traductions anglaises (1722–2008)”, Revue française d’histoire du livre, nouvelle série, n° 134 (2013), pp. 103–126. See also my review of the MacKenzie translation on the Société Montesquieu web site :….

Volume I of Œuvres completes, Oxford : Voltaire Foundation, and Naples : Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici, 2004. I modernized the same text for the edition published in Paris by Classiques Garnier in 2013. A second and revised iteration by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger and Philip Stewart is on line at…. For obvious reasons, it has served as the base text for this translation.

Though it bore no date, it was long thought to be a companion volume for the 1754 edition, an assumption based on a false inference.

There are in particular three cahiers de correction which had to be collated and interpreted.