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The Persian Letters in seven English translations © Philip Stewart - page 3 / 16

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name of self-respect and social propriety, without the hygienic overtones of the modern term propreté.

As these cases show, a mistaken sense sometimes lies in wait where one least expects it. What could be clearer than caput mortuum, even if it happens to be in Latin? The purported recipe in letter 137 [143] for a “Miraculum chymicum de violenta fermentatione cum fumo, igne et flamma” concludes: […] nihil inde extrahes, et nihil invenies, nisi caput mortuum (‘you will extract nothing from it, and you will find nothing but a caput mortuum’). D, F and M simply leave it in Latin: simpler that way. And Betts renders it: “you will extract nothing from it, and find nothing except a death’s head.” The trouble is, though in the overall scheme of things this may be of minimal importance, that the passage has nothing to do with a death’s head but rather with a chemical deposit (of which the chemical symbol is indeed a death’s head), as the Dictionnaire de Trévoux makes clear: “En terme de chimie, on appelle tête morte, le marc qui demeure des corps dont on a tiré par la distillation, ou par autre voie, toute l’humidité et les sels.”7 In the event, only Healy gets it right: he translates “a dry, useless residue” and adds a note to explain that such is the alchemical meaning of caput mortuum.

Every translator fudges a little from time to time on passages that resist simple decipherment, and the reader sometimes senses it in a peculiar turn of phrase. Betts has handled pretty well the unusual, intransitive use of the verb représenter in the description of a man who is “un des hommes du royaume qui représente le mieux” (“one of the best men in the kingdom at keeping up their reputation”). A further attempt at explanation by Usbek comes out this way: “Aha! I have it. He makes anyone who goes near him constantly aware of his superiority to them; if it’s like that, I don’t need to see him; I concede everything, and accept my sentence.” (Letter 72 [74]). But what on earth might “I accept my sentence” mean? The translator has done the best he could with an expression which is indeed confusing: “si cela est, je n’ai que faire d’y aller ; je la lui passe toute entière et je prends condamnation.”8 Davidson guesses differently: “I give up the whole case, and confess my inferiority”; whereas Flloyd tried to squeeze out of it something that will be literally closer to prendre condamnation: “I allow him his whole demand, and acquiesce in the inferiority he condemns me to.” (Healy does much the same: “I grant him everything and accept my condemnation as an inferior” – although this attempt to retain the term “condemnation” leads to a slight misrendering of the sentence.)

As it also happens, this is by no means the only instance in which Littré is of little help because the only instance he can cite is precisely the passage in Lettres persanes which we are trying to understand: in other words (but let us recognize the problem Littré was often up against!), with little available context to go on, he just made an educated guess. Comparing the citation of the expression passer [not prendre] condamnation in the Dictionnaire de Trévoux in the sense of avouer qu’on a tort,9 one could read the end of the sentence something like this: “I shall accept the verdict now, and leave it entirely to him.” The real difference this represents with respect to Davidson is that the antecedent of “it” (la) becomes not “my inferiority” (which

7‘In chemical terms, tête morte is the name of the residue that remains of bodies from which all the the water and salts have been extracted by distillation or other means.’ Emphasis added. In a further twist, the clauses were reversed in the original edition: “je prends déjà condamnation, et je la lui passe toute entière.” “On dit aussi ordinairement, passer condamnation, pour dire avouer qu’on a tort, et demeurer d’accord de ce qu’on a dit au contraire”; it is also found in Furetière (1701 ed.) and Richelet (1719 ed.). 8 9

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