The Prologue of Don Quixote

It may come as a surprise to many that Ingmar Bergman’s almost three-hour-long Scenes from a Marriage was a heavily edited theatrical release of what was originally a six-part mini-series that is five hours long. Five hours! It may also surprise many that a pretentious twat like me has never seen it. So when I got my hands on the Criterion Collection release, I had to make a decision: do I watch the three-hour movie or the five-hour mini-series. Following Peter Cowie‘s advice, I decided to watch the series, “as it was meant to be watched”: one “scene” every night for six nights. But even after making this decision, I was wary: am I really going to get much from this film when I don’t speak Swedish, and thus am left to subtitles—even if they are, “New and improved”?

Then, earlier today I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. It is also from the Criterion Collection. It also promises new (although strangely no claim to being improved) subtitles. And again, I had the same concerns. Recently, it seems I fret a good deal too much about translations. But the problem is very real—especially for films. There was a documentary on the three-disk Seven Samurai (also Criterion Collection—what can I say?) about creating subtitles. It is very interesting if not surprising, and I highly recommend watching it if you get the chance.

I am happy to report that one area of my translated art ingestion is going as well as I could possibly hope: reading Samuel Putnam’s translaion of Don Quixote. I just started and have only read the Prologue and Chapter I, but it is lovely—and funny as hell. For example, in the Prologue, he is complaining to friend about how he has decided not to publish the book at this time because (in part) he cannot list the authors to whom he is indebted. (Cervantes would have us believe that he is simply an ignorant dolt who happens to have a flair for spinning tall tales.) He continues that he is, “unable to follow the example of all the others by listing them alphabetically at the beginning, starting with Aristotle and closing with Xenophon, or, perhaps, with Zoilus or Zeuxis, not withstanding the fact that the former was a snarling critic, and the latter a painter.”

His friend’s advice is just to fake it when possible and rip it off when necessary. He then goes on to make the most beautiful statement about artistic intent that I have ever read:

Let it be your aim that, by reading your story, the melancholy may be moved to laughter and the cheerful man made merrier still; let the simple not be bored, but may the clever admire your originality; let the grave ones not despise you, but let the prudent praise you.

Wow. I’m going to print that out and hang it on the wall next to me: right below my Mystery Science Theater 3000 mini-posters.

Reading Don Quixote, it is hard to believe that I am reading an English translation of a Spanish text written about the time of Hamlet. It is so modern: in style and content. Although I still hope to one day read the book in Spanish, I have little doubt that the experience I have now will be the superior, and dare I say it: more authentic. I fear that the original will be as far removed from modern Spanish as Shakespearean plays are from modern English. Thus I am glad for great men like Putnam.

When it comes to film subtitles, the situation is bleak for a number of reasons that I will not go into here. Nontheless, Alphaville is quite a good film. And the first scene from Scenes from a Marriage? Despite everything: it is amazing. I am looking forward to tonight’s scene.


More Don Quixote

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Our Mutual Friend

Just to show that an evening spent with H W Fowler’s Modern English Usage can be dangerous, I am now going to spend a little time with the word mutual. Because I am a product of the United States where the only things that really matter are commodities, my first and most profound connection to this word is the Mutual of Omaha ad song, so familiar to viewers of Wild Kingdom:

Mutual of Omaha is people
You can count on when the going’s rough

Through force of will and years spent doing such uncool things as spending evenings with Fowler, I have a second, though less powerful, connection to the word: Charles DickensOur Mutual Friend. This is a more important connection, because I find more occasions to use “mutual” in a sentence than to break into a rendition of the Mutual of Omaha song.

I dare say that I learned everything I knew about how to use “mutual” in a sentence from Dickens’ title alone—until last night. What I found out last night was that using the word in this way is incorrect. And it isn’t just Fowler (dead almost 80 years) who says so. Only 58% of the most recent Usage Panel think that the construction “our mutual friend” is correct—a majority, but not a large one.

So what is the big deal? Let me quote Fowler:

The essence of its meaning is that it involves the relation x is or does to y as y to x, and not the relation x is as y to x, and not the relation x is or does to x as y to z.


This is, of course, useless; it sounds like a children’s rhyme. What he means is that mutual concerns two parties to each other and not two parties to a third. Thus, “They shared a mutual attraction” is okay; “Our mutual friend” is not.

The question obviously comes to mind: if Dickens uses “mutual” in this way, can it be all that wrong? It turns out that this use of the word was already quite common long before 1865, when Dickens wrote it. So we are talking some 200 years of this being common usage.

I think we should all make friends with this usage. Then it can be our mutual friend.