Any translator owes at least something to those who have dealt previously with the same work. Although Thomas Nugent’s freewheeling translation (often in fact a paraphrase) is altogether unacceptable by today’s standards, it is still sometimes useful if only because it is contemporary with Montesquieu and is likely to reflect current vocabulary with reasonable accuracy (at least insofar as Nugent understands Montesquieu’s text). This makes it, like period dictionaries such as the Dictionnaire de Trévoux, an important resource because the meaning of words has often shifted in the interim; in the case of technical (especially legal) terminology, a meaning may have disappeared altogether, and sometimes the word as well.
The Cambridge translation of 1989 also has many qualities, including a careful and controlled use of terminology that contrasts with Nugent more freewheeling attitude. It solves, or tries to solve, many knotty problems which Nugent adroitly dodged, and comes up with not a few quite elegant formulations, some of which are worth imitating.
There are nevertheless many mistakes, often bound up with vocabulary choices at the outset. Some are just awkward, such as “soften” for adoucir (e.g., XII, 30); some are more than slightly off, and some are quite wrong: “disgrace” for disgrâce (e.g., XII, 30), “empire” for empire (passim). Many of these problems arise from misplaced confidence in cognates, which, goodness knows, is a familiar devil in translation. Argent does sometimes mean silver, as the Cambridge translation usually has it, but by no means always. Empire does not mean “empire” except when it is a formal designation for a type of political structure, and certainly not in Quand la beauté demande l’empire, la raison le fait refuser (XVI, 2). Droit does not always mean “right”, it even sometimes means “law”. Univers does not mean “universe” but “le monde entier ; toutes les créatures créées, l’assemblage de tous les êtres” (Trévoux). And so forth.
Though any attempt at an exhaustive catalogue would be fastidious and needless, I will give just a few examples that illustrate misconstrual of particular terms in specific contexts.
— C’est la vexation qui se surmonte elle-même, et se voit contrainte à une certaine douceur. (XIII, 11)
“This harassement defeats itself and one sees it constrained to be somewhat gentle.”
Se surmonter often has a positive meaning, here something like “surpasses itself”. The resulting sentence is all but incomprehensible (though that frankly is, on occasion, the fate of almost any translation).
— Les hommes s’y soumettent à des maux incroyables (XIV, 3)
“Men there suffer unbelievable evils”.
Mal/maux has many uses, and here, in the context of fakirs in India, means pain, not evil.
— Les fibres qui n’ont qu’une action très faible et peu de ressort, ne s’usent guère (XIV, 10) “The fibers, which have only a very weak action and little spring, are scarcely used […]”. Translating user as “use” is a serious oversight. This is a mechanical comparison, where s’user means to wear down or wear out.
— […] il faut que l’esclavage soit pour l’utilité, et non pas pour la volupté (XV, ll)
“[…] slavery must be for utility and not for voluptuousness” [also passim].
Volupté is an annoying word for translators, because (like pudeur) it has no very accurate English equivalent. But though it always related to sensuousness, “voluptuousness” is a desperate choice and will not do.
— Il en fallut même de terribles pour établir la sûreté de ces maîtres cruels (XV, 16)
“There had even to be terrible laws in order to establish security for these cruel masters”.
It is not about “terrible” laws but about ferocious laws. Terrible/“terrible” is a tempting but often misleading cognate.
— […] on vit sans cesse le frère, l’oncle, le neveu, que dis-je, le fils, le père, conspirer contre toute sa famille. (XVIII, 29)
“[…] the brother, the uncle, the nephew (what can I say?), the son, the father, were seen constantly conspiring against the rest of the family.”
Hard to handle stylistically, but it must first be understood that que dis-je? does not mean “what can I say?” or anything close, it simply signifies an elevation in the level of allusion in what follows.
— […] tout citoyen y aurait sa volonté propre, et ferait valoir à son gré son indépendance (XIX, 27)
“[…] each citizen would have his own will and would value his independence according to his taste”.
Faire valoir simply does not mean “to value”; here, as in too many other passages, the translators were dealing with an idiom they clearly did not understand. But as I said, this accident also befalls Nugent, and without any doubt the present translator too at least sometimes.