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The Persian Letters in seven English translations © Philip Stewart - page 1 / 16

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The Persian Letters in seven English translations © Philip Stewart

Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes of 1721 appeared in an English translation by John Ozell as Persian Letters in 1722.1 By the time of its third edition in 1736 (I have not seen the second), Ozell had discovered the curious second edition of 1721, in which three letters had been added to the original 150, but ten others were suppressed. By adding “some additional letters by the author, never translated before”, but in fact retaining all letters from both editions, Ozell’s translation, unlike all others, now offered a total of 153 letters, and presented in consequence some anomalous numbering.

By the time of the “fourth edition” by Thomas Flloyd in 17622, however, the posthumous edition of 1758 with its 161 letters3 was available, as Flloyd makes clear in his “Translator’s advertisement”, where he equally attests the need to go beyond the Ozell version:

The alterations in several parts of this work, and the addition of several new letters, by M. de Montesquieu, in the late quarto edition of his works, together with some inaccuracies of Mr. Ozell, in his translation; as the misplacing of some of the letters, making additions of his own, and the badness of his language in many parts, make it necessary [to] give a new translation of these elegant and entertaining letters.

Thus, beginning with Flloyd, all translations with the sole exception of the latest one follow the augmented edition of 1758. Since Flloyd was clearly working with Ozell’s translation as a basis, it is not surprising that many passages in his work closely echo those of his predecessor. The exception is Margaret Mauldon’s translation for Oxford University Press, which adopts the text of 1721 as presented in vol. I of the Œuvres complètes (Voltaire Foundation, 2004).

This article will compare the following translations, each designated by the capital letter beginning the translator’s name:

O F D L H B M

John Ozell (1722) Thomas Flloyd (1762) John Davidson (1891) J. Robert Loy (Meridian Books, 1961) George R. Healy (Bobbs-Merrill, 1964) C. J. Betts (Penguin Books, 1973) Margaret Mauldon (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Without insisting too greatly on purely lexical questions, we must acknowledge that the sense of particular passages is sometimes skewed, especially but not exclusively in modern times, by misapprehension of the way a word or expression is used in the original French text.

1 2 3 London, J. Tonson, 1722, 2 vol. London : Printed for J. and R. Tonson, 1762, 2 vol. Three of the “lettres supplémentaires” had appeared in the second edition (also called B) of 1721; the others come from Montesquieu’s Cahiers de corrections, which his son used to complement the posthumous edition of 1758.

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