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The Persian Letters in seven English translations © Philip Stewart - page 15 / 16





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gist without excessive fussiness. On the other hand, there is no real excuse for leaving out the rectangular shape (barlong), and maybe to call it a parallelogram helps bring out the geometer’s descriptive mania. “Wood”, “grove”, and “park” all seem to me acceptable ways to express bosquet.

An expression like un cadran qu’il y avait demêlé poses problems not just for a translator but for any reader at all: it suggests, but without much clarity, that a sundial, having been camouflaged in the park’s layout, could be made out only someone as astute as the geometer. To say in that case that he “discovered” it (D, H) is maybe too vague, “met with” (O) and “found” (F) even more pale, whereas “decoded” and “deciphered” may make it into too much of a deliberate puzzle; Mauldon chooses “descried” which, though a mostly forgotten verb, seems quite right. Les heures babyloniennes is similarly difficult, not so much to translate – although Betts tries to give it some context by stressing that it means “ancient Babylonian time” – as to communicate, by any means short of an awkward footnote, the illogicality of the question and therefore the geometer’s exasperation. The unstated point is that, since Babylonian hours begin with sunrise and therefore vary by season, they are pretty much incompatible with the way a sundial works.

When we come to the amusing collision at the end of the passage, the phrase […] ils rejaillirent chacun de leur côté en raison réciproque de leur vitesse, et de leurs masses poses both grammatical and mathematical problems:

  • (O)

    each of them rebounded back, in proportion to his respective velocity and bulk

  • (F)

    each rebounded back, in proportion to his velocity and bulk

  • (D)

    each rebounded from the collision in proportion to his speed and weight

  • (L)

    from this blow they bounced back, each in his own direction as a reciprocal result of

their speed and mass

  • (H)

    each rebounded from the blow in reciprocal proportion to their speed and masses

  • (B)

    each recoiled from the blow in direct proportion to their speed and mass

  • (M)

    they bounced back, each on his own side, in reciprocal proportion to their speed and


Each translator is struggling (and it shows) with several conundra here: how to interpret raison réciproque and whether each result is dependent only on that person’s velocity and mass, or on the two combined (but then why is leur vitesse singular and leurs masses plural?), or on their product? The three first translators all ignore raison réciproque and isolate the factors (“his”) proper to each individual. To invoke “reciprocal proportion” (H, M) is, I think, to dodge the issue by simply transliterating the French, and “reciprocal result” (L) is even more of a hedge. Betts rightly refers specifically to “direct proportion”, consonant with Cartesian mechanics,21 but “their speed and mass” still retains some ambiguity. It appears to me that réciproque makes the totals operative (as all of the last four have it) and not individual metrics.

It has not been the purpose of this exercise to establish a scorecard for the best translator of Lettres persanes, but to illustrate the kinds of quandaries and choices entailed in any such

21In Newtonian terms, it would be rather the square of their combined speed; at this time the Académie des Sciences was itself still quite divided between the Cartesian formula (mv) and the Newtonian vis viva or mv2.

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