Feb 21

About to Read Don Quixote

Don QuixoteGentle reader: you already know that this article on Don Quixote—the product of my eccentric intellect—is intended to be the greatest article I could possibly write. Unfortunately, it will probably suck; but I urge you onward nonetheless. The problem is not me, you see, but Miguel de Cervantes, and the fact that he was born in Spain and thus spoke Spanish. This is a problem, for just as you know the worthiness of my intent, you surely know that I am fluent in the Spanish language, in the sense that I can neither read nor write it. Not surprisingly, I am also unable to speak it.

The Need for Translators

Perhaps I am being too hard on Cervantes; had he been born in, say, England, he would have written in that transitional early modern English—which really means, “not modern English”. In fact, at least Miguel (if only he had been born 420 years later in California, I’m sure we would have been on a first name basis) is translated. These days, Shakespeare’s plays are set everywhere other than where and how they were intended, but we’re still left with the same damn language. I often wonder why we can’t get over this. Let’s just acknowledge that we all know all the common Shakespeare misquotes (like “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” which is way more pithy than what that bard actually wrote anyway) and let the translators have at those plays. And by “have at”, I don’t mean in that Tom Stoppard “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” way; I mean in the way that translators of de (if only he had been born 420 years later in California, I’m sure we would have been on a second name basis, too) try to recreate the experience the original readers had for modern readers. (Or translators of Goethe or Rabelais—writers who, strangely, I like a lot more than that bard.)

But this does present a problem. You see, being as I am a poorly educated physics PhD (“fud”), I have been working for years trying to read all the books that my humanities studying friends always seemed like they had read. (I later found out that they had not read most of those books—they had simply read about them; but that has not quelled my urge.) I have only two books left that I must read: Moby Dick and Don Quixote. So recently, I decided to buy a copy of DQ (I already own a copy of MD), and I went into a bookstore: one of those big ones with the coffee and multiple floors (no, not Powell’s Books—I would have noticed if I had been there; it was Borders or Barns and Noble or something like that; not a bad bookstore, but certainly not a good one, and certainly not one with any used books; but I digress). And I go to the Literature section and after much difficulty (I have real trouble alphabetizing), I find Don Quixotes. That’s right: plural. There were six different translations. Imagine if I had been in Powell’s?!

Which Don Quixote will I read?! There is no one around to help, or rather, the help I am offered is like that from my sister, who tells me, after reading Moby Dick in high school, “You don’t need to read it.” I have two options: go to a used bookstore and read the cheapest version I can find, or determine for myself which translation to read. I settle on the latter, so I can write this article. If you are starting to imagine the snowball effect, I assure you, it is more like Sisyphus.

The Test

Obviously, I can’t read all the translations in order to determine which transition to read. I needed a test. I decided to take a single sentence from Don Quixote and compare how the different translators handled it. In this way, I figured that I could find the one with the most modern punch—the one that would thrill me like “A Confederacy of Dunces”. I chose the first sentence of the Prologue of Part One. Here it is in Spanish:

Descoupado lector: sin juramento me podras creer que quisiera que este libro, como hijo del entendimiento, fuera el mas hermosa, el mas gallardo y mas discreto que pudiera imaginarse

Google translates this as follows:

Idle reader: I swear you can not believe that I would this book as a child’s understanding, was the most beautiful, the most gallant and more discreet than one might imagine.

Are computers good at translating or what? Based on this, you would think Cervantes was a nut-job: he’s talking gibberish here! But you can glean a few things from this “translation”. First: Miguel was a nut-job, but in a good way; he is directly addressing the reader, but he’s being sarcastic—I think. Second: he seems to be promising something, and that something seems to be that this book is, while not exactly good, a lot better than you would expect from him. Third: I can’t think of anything. And this is after reading six human translations of this sentence. Google Translate has me completely confused. “I would this book as a child’s understanding”?! And these guys are billionaires!

Samuel Putnam

The Modern Library translation uses the not so modern translation of the great Samuel Putnam. For years, this seems to have been the translation, because it is the one I find in many different forms most often in used bookstores. It is the only copy I currently own, but this should not be taken to mean I believe it the best. Putnam translates our sentence thusly:

Idling reader, you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest, and the cleverest that could be imagined.

Actually, Putnam goes on to the next sentence by use one of my favorite punctuation symbols: the semicolon. And this makes sense, but I cannot go into it here, we have many other translations to get to. Let me just say about this translation that it isn’t bad. Sure, “the child of my brain” is kind of Google-like. Just the same, it is clear that Putnam “gets” the humor. I particularly like the phrase, “should have” that no other translator uses; I think it makes a great deal of difference.

Also, one cannot avoid a few facts about this translation. First, it is considered to be the first truly modern translation. Of course, we are in the post-modern period, which is why we have so many different translations now: who is to say which is the best? (Harold Bloom, of course.) Second, Putnam has pretty much been in print ever since it was published—over sixty years. That must say something, but don’t ask me what.

Burton Raffel

The Norton Critical Editions version of Don Quixote was translated by a live guy—in 1999: Professor Burton Raffel. Here’s his shot:

Leisurely reader: you don’t need me to swear that I longed for this book, born out of my own brain, to be the handsomest child imaginable, the most elegant, the most sensible.

Okay, the prose is better than Putnam, but Raffel had 50 years to out-do him. And here, I really like the phrase, “I longed for.” This edition does include a very helpful map of “Spain at the End of the Sixteenth Century.” But I am not one to be swayed by such editorial tricks.

Charles Jarvis

Now we must go way back to the 1742 publication of the painter Charles Jarvis (or Jervis, depending upon whom you ask). Note that this was when the translation was first published; Jarvis must have done the translation some time before then, because he was dead at that time. It is now used as the basis for the Oxford World Classics version. Here’s Jarvis’ crack:

You may believe me without an oath, gentle reader, that I wish this book, as the child of my brain, were the most beautiful, the most sprightly, and the most ingenious, that can be imagined.

Again with the brain! The main thing to notice with the last two translations is that they aren’t hooking into the humor. Cervantes is playful, and while you hear this with Putnam, you just don’t with Raffel and Jarvis. In Raffel’s defense, he gets going after this sentence and his translation is far better than Jarvis’ and in some ways better than Putnam.

A Most Vexing Trip

I originally thought that Peter Motteux’s translation dated from the Victorian period, because of its pomposity. In fact, it is the earliest translation that I looked at—dating back to 1712. Predating Jarvis by only three decades (When a decade meant something!), this translation seems like it comes from another world. I still find its writing style “sticky.” Are you ready to get gooey? Motteux will now hit us with his best shot:

You may depend upon my bare Word, Reader, without any farther Security, that I cou’d wish this Offspring of my Brain were as ingenious, sprightly, and accomplish’d as your self could desire.

This translation actually does sound humorous, but it does not capture the irony and self-deprecation of the original. In fact, it reads as parody. This is the stuff of Monty Python lampoon; you can imagine the “great” Shakespearean actor reciting these lines with much bombast. And in this way, the translation only gets better. But for my purposes, it gets worse.

There is at least one nice thing to be said about the Motteux translation: It was used as the basis for a “young adult” condensation of the story in 1939, The Adventures of Don Quixote De La Mancha by Leighton Barret and illustrated (beautifully) by Warren Chappell. It is perhaps a day’s read for a very slow reader, and worth the effort if you do not feel up to the full text.

Walter Starkie

Moving on to 1964 and Walter Starkie’s unabridged translation (yes, he did it more than once), which is found in the Signet Classic Don Quixote. Let’s just get to it, shall we:

Idle reader, you need no oath of mine to convince you that I wish this book, the child of my brain, were the handsomest, the liveliest, and the wisest that could be conceived.

A little dry, I think. Like Raffel, however, he does get a bit of a groove going after this. Unfortunately, also like Raffel, it isn’t that good a groove. It definitely seems readable, and at $7.95 for a new copy, it is the cheapest, I have found.

The Blue Whale: Edith Grossman

But now all of the Sperm and Humpbacks must scatter, because the Blue Whale has arrived: Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation of Don Quixote. I must admit to starting out with a bit of a prejudice against this version because of its stamp of approval by the ranting—western civilization is going to hell because of post-modern scholarship, even though I am a post-modern scholar—Harold Bloom. But let us leave this for now; I can rant about Bloom’s ranting some other time. Let’s see what Dr. Grossman has to offer:

Idle reader: Without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine.

It does have a certain self-deprecating charm that is not found in any of the other translations. And it doesn’t use the word “brain”! (Although I think this is academic; to me, the word is “mind”; what Cervantes goes on to talk about is what we would now call the workings of his “mind” or his “creativity”—not his “understanding”.) But after it, the humor becomes more muddled than that of most of the other translations. Perhaps this is due to age, she is about to turn 74; maybe she just isn’t feeling that funny. Plus, she’s probably had to spend some time with Bloom.

But there are other problems. You will notice that this translation has the most words of the lot, except for Putnam, who has the same number: 37. And it has bigger words; her translation has far more characters than any other. She probably does capture aspects of Don Quixote that no other translator has (Bloom makes this claim, and as much as I may dislike his popular writing, he is a very intelligent and erudite man). But I am not looking for a Don Quixote that makes me feel “the spiritual atmosphere of a Spain already in steep decline”; I want a fun read.

My Decision

Where does this leave me? (Probably without readers as of the appearance of Putnam several screens back.) There are many more translations; what I have presented is quite incomplete. But from what I’ve seen, from Putnam onward, there isn’t much difference between the translations. This is based upon very little evidence, of course—but more than just the sentence I have been discussing.

My decision is to read Putnam. It helps that I already own it, but this is not why I am choosing it. Raffel’s translation is quite good. I think it is a close second to Putnam, but it is second. After him would probably come Starkie.

If I were looking for something other than a good read, I might well go with what looks like the most scholarly of the translations: Edith Grossman’s. If it came down to it, Jarvis’ almost 300-year-old translation seems quite readable. As for Motteux, I don’t think I would read it at all if I had to put up with such prose.

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  1. West

    Nice article. I wish Google translate was a little more accurate than it is now.

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  3. Cat

    It’s going to be a long time before auto translators really work well, my main problem with them has actually been its inability to distinguish between formal and informal tenses when going from English to a romance language. This is actually a large problem when trying to use a translator to talk to someone, it can change the whole tone of the speaking.

  4. Linda

    Auto translators are really not that great. They come in handy when you only need one word though.

  5. Joe

    What’s about Ormsby? Wikipedia article says he’s the standard.

  6. admin

    @Joe – After reading this you think I am in any way serious? However, since writing this, I’ve gotten rather better and have read major sections of the vast majority of the real English translations. Ormsby *is* rather good, if somewhat formal and I would stay stilted.. What’s more important, it appears that Ormsby was a great DQ scholar. Putnam references him many times in his notes. However, I would say that Putnam’s is the first truly modern translation. I have cooled off on Putnam though. I now admit the Grossman, in an absolute sense, is an improvement on him. Frankly, the only translation I’ve found that should be avoided is Motteux’s. Although even it is better than nothing at all. I’ve been meaning to compare it to Putnam since I just got my hands on a two volume publication from 1941 that Putnam’s 1949 translation may have been an answer to.

    One nice thing about Ormsby is that he is available for free. It is unfortunate that a number of DQ translations that are technically in the public domain are nonetheless not available. Shelton’s translation, for example, is nowhere to be found. It is the only translation I have not been able to read at least some of.

  7. Lars Sydolf

    Very interesting article! I wish I had read it before buying the Jarvis translation just 10 minutes ago! But it would seem that the Jarvis translation is reasonably OK anyway, and besides I will also get the Johannot illustrations! Nice old-fashioned Illustrations actually mean a lot to me.

  8. admin

    @Lars – Actually, I think that Jarvis is a fine translation. I still think you can’t do better than Putnam. But the main thing is to stay away from Motteux. Enjoy the book!

  9. Aster

    To Frank Moraes,

    I too am looking to read this book, though, by now, I figure, you must have read the book. I find your article here to be quite interesting, not to mention innovative.And I am guessing that part of your introduction paragraph is inspired from the preface of the book itself; whether intentionally or unintentionally, however, I cannot tell.

    Anyway, based on the test texts mentioned here, I came to disagree with your take on Jervas. Then, after a second glance at it, I felt odd of the corresponding test text under Jervas; surely, that is not how it goes; I will type here the passage in my copy verbatim: "Loving reader, thou wilt believe me, I trust, without an oath, when I tell thee it was my earnest desire that this offspring of my brain should be as beautiful, ingenious, and sprightly as it is possible to imagine;–".

    Tell me now, does not this text surpass all the other test texts in your article?

  10. admin

    @Aster – I’m glad you found it informative. It’s a bit silly as I think I noted in the article. But I have since then done much more thorough comparisons. In fact, I have lost whole days on such things. I wrote about one such case where I do some comparison of Putnam and Grossman, [url=http://www.franklycurious.com/index.php?itemid=848]Don Quixote Abridged: Putnam’s Omissions[/url].

    I’m pretty sure that at this point I own all of the major translations, which is something more than a dozen. However, I didn’t see Jervas offhand, and will yield that point to you. I probably got mixed up.

    In my readings since writing this, I have come to appreciate most of the translations. There are a number of really good ones that I don’t mention here as well. And I quite like the Jervas version. Also now the very first translation, Thomas Shelton, is (or was) available for free on the Kindle.

    But above all, there have been a number of fabulous translations since Putnam. Other than the Motteux translation (well, I don’t think he actually translated it), I don’t think anyone can go wrong with any translation. The newer ones tend to flow more and take into account the rhythm of language. I’ve only just started comparing the Spanish with the English, but I find it useful.

    As for your question: I can’t really say anymore. It does seem to capture what I think of as Cervantes’ playful tone. But the Putnam translation is very similar. So is the Smollett, "Idle reader, without an oath thou mayest believe, that I wish this book, as the child of my imagination, were the most beautiful, sprightly and intelligent production that ever was conceived."

    I think you should go with whatever translation you have available. Let me know how it goes!

  11. admin

    @Aster – I found my copy of Jervas. My quote above is correct, "You may believe me without an oath, gentle reader, that I wish this book, as the child of my brain, were the most beautiful, the most sprightly, and the most ingenious, that can be imagined." That’s from the "Oxford World’s Classics" edition. But it does appear to have been edited a great deal by E C Riley. He seems to have brought the text back to be closer to the original when it strayed too far. I can’t speak to your version, but what you’ve copied does indeed seem to be how it was originally published. I just did a spot check and the differences are rather large. Thanks for bring this to my attention!

  12. Aster

    Frank, (if I may)

    You are one of a dying breed. To see someone delve body-and-mind into something that they know they are interested in is indeed a rarity. I too am poorly educated in the field, as you state yourself to be, yet, I too feel an urge to delve utterly and completely into it.

    By no means am I close to doing that with Don Quixote, though. My copy of it has been only recently obtained from the Google Play store. By sheer luck, it happened to be a Jervas translation. And let me tell you, it got me engaged right from the first paragraph of the preface, over which you and I are discussing.

    I liked your identification of the nuance carried by the words "should have" in Putnam’s translation. The same nuance, which is carried by the words "it was my earnest desire.." in Jervas’ translation, intrigued me also. Do read this copy; it is available free of cost, and, more importantly, it will be much to your liking. I myself have only embarked on this journey, which I believe I will be progressing through only at an observable pace (I have my college work and my lacking of a hard print to thank for that; e-reading is not the same, right?). But rest assured, when I do complete the book, I will get back to you, and, hopefully, I will get the opportunity to take on Putnam and others from there on.

    Oh by the way, you don’t have to thank me. I am only glad that I could bring this to the eyes of an earnest and interested person such as yourself.

  13. admin

    @Aster – Thank you! For what it’s worth, though, my theory is that all people start off like us but our society destroys it. I used to work with school kids of various ages and the younger ones were by far the best in terms of loving to learn. I fear that our attempts at education "reform" are only making things worse.

    You are right about the preface. I was amazed when I first read it that it was so modern and funny. The self-deprecating humor is great. Speaking of which, check out his plays. They are very funny too. I transcribed a bit of [url=http://franklycurious.com/index.php?itemid=1287]The Cave of Salamanca[/url].

    Enjoy your reading!

  14. Aster

    Actually I was just exploring the rest of your website. Your articles are quite diverse and fascinating, and deserve thorough readings.I certainly will add "The Cave of Salamanca" to my reading list.

    And you’re right. Kids, of the younger ages especially, are fascinated, and rightly so, by all things mundane, and are quite possibly the most fascinating things themselves. What I wouldn’t give to acquire back and maintain forever the sharpness and tenacity of a child.

  1. Don Quixote and His Sorry Face — Translation Comparison | Frankly Curious

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