Gentle 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.
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:
Google translates this as follows:
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!
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:
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.
The Norton Critical Editions version of Don Quixote was translated by a live guy—in 1999: Professor Burton Raffel. Here’s his shot:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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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