We are still susceptible to the same mistakes, but the easy accessibility of digitized period dictionaries makes it infinitely easier to check in instances where one has doubts about a first reading based just on today’s usage. The apparently – but misleadingly – transparent expression nature humaine, for example, which occurs three times in Lettres persanes, is a striking instance of the daunting perils a translator faces. In the first instance, a priest, after confessing to Usbek that the obligation to convert everyone to one’s own opinions is a flaw of his profession, adds: “Cela est aussi ridicule que si on voyait les Européens travailler en faveur de la nature humaine à blanchir le visage des Africains.” (Letter 59 ).4 Flloyd translates, logically enough: “This is as ridiculous as it would be for the Europeans to labour, for the honor of human nature, to wash the Africans white.”5 Indeed every English translator has, one might say, done the obvious thing; nor is much harm really done thereby. The same comment applies to the second occurrence, where Rhedi explains centuries of depopulation by “un vice intérieur, un venin secret et caché, une maladie de langueur qui afflige la nature humaine” (Lettre 107 ).
Yet in the third instance something seems strange about understanding la nature humaine as “human nature.” Continuing on the same theme, Usbek evokes histories of terrible plagues, including a particularly virulent one in Cathay:
[…] un degré de plus de corruption aurait peut-être dans un seul jour détruit toute la nature humaine. […] Cependant tous les historiens nous parlent d’un premier père; ils nous font voir la nature humaine naissante. (Lettre 109 )
Here, Flloyd’s translation – “one degree more of corruption would perhaps, in a single day, have destroyed all human nature”– necessarily sounds a bit odd: what exactly would the destruction of “human nature” mean? Any attempt to understand is greatly facilitated by a glance at the Dictionnaire de l’Académie (1718) where one reads: “On dit la nature humaine pour dire le genre humain.” It suddenly becomes evident that in all three of these passages the term should be understood as “the human race” or “humankind.” (Healy indeed translates: “all mankind”.) 6
Another example is the two instances of the word propreté in Lettres persanes, both relating to women in the harem. The first will suffice for our purpose. It comes at the close of Letter 2, where Usbek instructs his chief eunuch: “Exhorte-les à la propreté, qui est l’image de la netteté de l’âme.” To follow the path of least resistance, which is to translate propreté by “cleanliness” (as all translators have done) is probably to distort the passage, even though the two meanings are close. But Usbek is not telling them to wash – though ablutions too, most important in Islam, are indeed mentioned elsewhere – but to exhibit something closer to a definition of propreté that is found among others in the 1718 Dictionnaire de Académie: “la manière honnête, convenable et bienséante dans les habits, dans les meubles. Il est d’une grande propreté sur sa personne.” Usbek’s apparent referent stands in contrast not to uncleanliness (it is unimaginable that the harem should be less than clean) but to the ornaments and perfumes which his wives evoke (letters 3, 4, 7): in other words, the moderate care of one’s appearance in the
4When two letter numbers are give, the first refers to the edition princeps of 1721 (which is the basis of the text in Œuvres complètes, Oxford : Voltaire Foundation, 2004, t. I), the second to the expanded edition of 1758. I have sometimes modified punctuation in the examples cited to avoid distracting disparities. Mauldon too translates “mankind” or the “human race”, but she has had the benefit of the critical notes in the 2004 Œuvres complètes edition mentioned above. 5 6