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The Persian Letters in seven English translations © Philip Stewart - page 4 / 16





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Davidson inferred, it not being stated in the original) but rather “his superiority”, the true antecedent in the first part of the sentence. Mauldon rights this order – “I accept my fate and willingly admit his superiority” – though “fate” really has nothing to do with the matter.

There are of course countless questions of vocabulary where any translator will incline to stick with the cognate as long as it appears to do no violence to the intended meaning. Prince is in one instance translated by most of our translators as “prince” (Lettre 92 [95]), which works in a context where readers are aware of Machivelli’s use of “prince” in Il Principe to mean essentially the ruler, whatever his local title. Betts, unlike them, prefers “monarch.” But the compound expression les plaisirs mêmes y sont graves et les joies sévères (Lettre 32 [34]), referring to harem life, elicits a range of remarkably varied equivalents:

  • (O)

    delight itself is there grave, and mirth severe

  • (F)

    their very pleasures are grave, and their pastimes solemn

  • (D)

    the very pleasures are solemn, and mirth itself is sad

  • (L)

    Even the pleasures taken there are sober, and the joys severe

  • (H)

    its very pleasures and delights are grave and severe

  • (B)

    Even pleasures are taken seriously there, and joys are severely disciplined

  • (M)

    even the pleasures are serious, and the joys sober

In this case, each variation represents a different way of pairing the adjectives, which prove to be of unequal difficulty: for the word “graves” in the original, grave, solemn, sober, serious and taken seriously represent almost as diverse a gamut as do, for “sévère”: severe, solemn, sad, sober and severely disciplined are for sévère.

It will be simpler, for further comparisons, to give a few French passages in fuller context and then comment on certain options relative to terms that I here put into boldface.


Tu leur commandes, et tu leur obéis : tu exécutes aveuglément toutes leurs volontés ; et leur fais exécuter de même les lois du sérail : tu trouves de la gloire à leur rendre les services les plus vils : tu te soumets avec respect, et avec crainte, à leurs ordres légitimes : tu les sers comme l’esclave de leurs esclaves, mais par un retour d’empire, tu commandes en maître comme moi- même, quand tu crains le relâchement des lois de la pudeur, et de la modestie.

Souviens-toi toujours du néant, dont je t’ai fait sortir, lorsque tu étais le dernier de mes esclaves, pour te mettre en cette place, et te confier les délices de mon cœur […] (Usbek to the chief eunuch, Letter 2) 10

The first important decision that confronted translators of the eighteenth century had to do with the second person singular, used everywhere in Lettres persanes between masters and slaves (in both directions) as well as, sometimes, wives. In fact both Ozell and Flloyd opt for the strict English equivalent, even though it was already likely to appear archaic in extended passages. Here is Ozell’s rendition:

10When quoting French text, I have modernized the spelling but retained, for comparison purposes, the original punctuation.

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