Vendredi Voltaire: Climate

Voltaire by Houdon

Hic segetes, illic veniunt felicius uvae;
arborae foetus alibi, atque insuffa virafeunt
Gramina. Non vides, croceos ut Timolus odores,
India mittit ebur, molles fua thura Sabeai?
Ut Chalybes nudi ferrum, virofaque Pontus
Castorea, Eliadum palmas Epirum equaorum?

Here we will use the translation of Abbe Dellisle, of which the elegance is worthy of its difficulty.

“Here are the orchards that make a wealthy culture;
The reign of green grass that maintains nature;
the soil is perfumed with a precious saffron;
in the fields of Saba that the ancients thought were for the divine;
The Black Sea has beavers playing upon its waves;
Pontus prides itself on its plentiful mines;
India produces ivory; and warriors in its fields
Epirus exercises coursers for Lydia.”

It is certain that the land and sky affect any nation’s products of nature, beginning with man and ending with mushrooms.


Climate’s influence on religion is apparent in its use and ceremonies. A lawgiver would barely need to require Indians to bathe in the Ganges at certain times of the lunar cycle; it’s a great pleasure for them. Yet, if you proposed the same bath to the people who live along the Dwina River near Arkanghelsk, it would go poorly. Forbid pork-eating to an arab and he’ll tell you he’d get leprosy from eating that unclean meat, which is disgusting in his country. Say the same thing to a Westphalian and he will try to beat you up.

------ divider ------

OK, that one was hard! For one thing, I mis-translated “climat” as “climate” while deciding what to translate. Of course, I was thinking “climate change” but the word as Voltaire is defining it is more akin to “culture” or a sense of place.

Voltaire was a great cultural relativist: he often contrasts attitudes in different parts of the world against eachother, to illustrate how moral imperatives or cultural practices are not absolute. In my opinion, that’s one of the great things about Voltaire – he was always standing by with a hot needle of skeptical enquiry, ready to pop some exceptionalist’s balloon. In his other writings, he uses a Huron (“L’ingénu”)[wikipedia] as a cultural foil to illustrate some of the silliness of ‘civilization’, and a 100,000 foot-tall space alien from Sirius (“Micromégas”)[wikipedia] who comments on the relative insignificance of human activities – likening us to bacteria. (Yes, Voltaire wrote one of the first science fiction novels.) In my favorite scene in Micromégas, the Sirian and a Saturnian friend manage to talk to some humans, only to discover that the humans believe the universe was made for them; hilarity ensues.


  1. cartomancer says

    That’s a pretty terrible transcription of Vergil you have there at the beginning. The text in the photo is better. Still, we’ll give it a pass as we’re interested in Voltaire here, not Vergil. The Abbe Dellisle’s translation is pretty loose of course, but it kind of has to be to turn it into a French poem that both rhymes and scans.

    Here’s my (far more artless but a bit more accurate) version of that snippet from Georgic I.

    Here (are) the wheat fields, there come the vines heavy with grapes,
    young trees (stand) elsewhere, and unbidden grow
    The grasses. Surely you see the crocuses, their smells those of Mount Tmolus,
    India sends ivory, the soft Sabaeans their Frankincense,
    Whereas the bare Chalybes send iron, and Pontus stinking
    beavers. Elis sends palms, Epirus horses.

  2. says

    That’s a pretty terrible transcription of Vergil you have there at the beginning.

    Ouch. My transcription of Voltaire’s transcription, or Voltaire’s transcription?
    (Figuring out some of the letters was not fun at all!)

    Your version is much better, I agree. Are “stinking beavers” skunks or otters or minks?

    Yipe “Frankincense” – arggh. I really pooched that.

    Henry Rollins used to talk about doing a version of “Hamlet” by running the text through Google Translate: English->Romanian->Japanese->English and then performing that. I think that’s sort of what I’ve accomplished here. (FWIW I am not using Google translate on the French)

  3. cartomancer says

    Eurasian beavers actually (Castor fiber). Their scent glands were much prized by the Romans and throughout the Middle Ages for use in perfume and medicine. Which is why they were almost hunted to extinction in the Early Modern period.

    Voltaire’s transcription is pretty good (well, he doubtless had editors). Yours, alas, could be better. The main issue seems to be the old style medial “s”, which looks like an “f” in the italic typeface of the book. Some “e”s have turned into “c”‘s too. An easy get-out would have been to google the first line and consult someone else’s text of Vergil…

  4. says

    As a general note, I think that when I make bad mistakes in a posting, I shouldn’t go back and correct them; it’d look like I was trying to pass myself off as smarter or more knowledgeable than I am. So I’m going to leave my embarrassment up there in cold pixels for posterity.