Carole Slade Saves Tobias Smollett

Carole SladeFor years, I’ve noticed these special classics published and sold by Barnes & Noble. I’ve never bought one, probably because the bindings seemed to be poor. But yesterday, over at Treehorn Books, I found a used copy of their Don Quixote for $5—only half its already low cover price of $9.95. I can rarely pass up a used copy of anything by Cervantes, so I snatched it up. The book is in pretty good shape. It looks like it has been read only once. But despite this the spine is badly bowed. This is always a problem with long books, but here it seems somewhat extreme.

This edition is based upon Tobias Smollett’s 1755 translation[1], but it is so much more. I already have The Modern Library Classics edition of Don Quixote that is also based upon the Smollett translation. Other than an introduction by Carlos Fuentes and rather meager notes by Stephanie Kirk, this edition does not offer a great deal. The Barnes & Noble edition, however, is a real gem. According to the back cover:

Barnes & Noble Classics offers readers quality editions of enduring works at affordable prices. Each edition presents new scholarship with commentaries, viewpoints, chronologies, notes, and discussion questions.

As grand as this sounds, it actually understates how good this book is. To begin with, the editor, Carole Slade, did not simply modernize the spelling of Smollett’s translation. She re-translated parts of it that she found unclear or too archaic—a common problem with all the Don Quixote translations, at least up to Putnam’s 1949 translation.

As impressed as I am that Slade retranslated parts of Smollett’s Don Quixote, the truth is that I don’t know this translation well enough to say what she did. I picked over The Modern Library version and was unable to locate any differences. What does stand out is the collection of abundant notes that Slade added to the text. What’s more, these are provided as footnotes rather than endnotes, which makes them far more useful.[2] One of these notes I found particularly interesting:

Sancho’s donkey, to which Smollett here gives a name [Dapple]; Cervantes does not name the donkey, variously referring to it as asno or jumento (ass or donkey). I have retained Smollett’s name for it from here forward.

Putnam mentioned that the traditional name for Sancho’s donkey is rucio, which means “gray.” He is discussing why he chose not to use the name “Dapple”—he found it too quaint. But I didn’t know (though I should have) that rucio was just the traditional name and not one that Cervantes applied. Also, I didn’t know that we have Smollett to thank (or blame) for “Dapple.” This is but one of many interesting notes that Slade provides in this edition.

The Barnes & Noble Classics edition also includes almost a hundred illustrations by Gustave Doré—I believe originally created for a later edition of Louis Viardot’s French translation of Don Quixote (but I’m not sure, so don’t quote me). They are not just beautiful, but historically, they are important; as much as the text itself, Doré’s illustrations define our modern conception of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

The only thing that is really bad about this edition of Don Quixote is that it is based on the Tobias Smollett translation. It simply isn’t nearly as good as Putnam (or even Charles Jervas). More than anything, Putnam provides a very modern read. For example, the first two paragraphs of Chapter 6 are not only turned into one paragraph by Smollett, they are turned into one sentence:

While the knight was asleep, his friends came, and demanded of his niece the key of the closet in which those books, the authors of his misfortune, were kept, and she delivering it with great cheerfulness, they entered together, housekeeper and all, and found upwards of a hundred volumes, great and small, extremely well bound; which were no sooner perceived by the housekeeper, than she ran out with great eagerness, and immediately returned with a porringer of holy water, and a sprig of hyssop, saying: “Here, Master Licentiate, pray take and sprinkle the library, lest some one of the many enchanters contained in these books, should exercise his art upon us, as a punishment for our burning and banishing them from the face of the earth.”

Wow! Although Cervantes too provides a whopper of a sentence for most of his first paragraph (before the dialog), he isn’t nearly as verbose. I will spare you a quote. However, I think I would be doing a disservice to you if I did not provide the same text as translated by Putnam:

As Don Quixote was still sleeping, the curate asked the niece for the keys to the room where those books responsible for all the trouble were, and she gave them to him very willingly. They all went in, the housekeeper too, and found more than a hundred large-sized volumes very well bound and a number of smaller ones. No sooner had the housekeeper laid eyes on them than she left the room, returning shortly with a basin of holy water and a sprinkling-pot.

“Here, Senor Licentiate,” she said, “take this and sprinkle well, that no enchanter of the many these books contain may remain here to cast a spell on us for wishing to banish them from the world.”

I doubt much need be said here. If you prefer the Smollett, then by all means, read him. I don’t understand you, but I’m happy for you. For most people, the Putnam translation is clearly superior. But then, Putnam had many advantages: 200 years and our modern voice. Nonetheless, the Bares & Noble Classics edition should be owned by any Don Quixote lover for Carole Slade’s notes: very informative and lots of fun.


[1] Smollett first published his translation in 1755, but he greatly revised it six years later. This edition is based upon the 1755 version.

[2] As much as I like the Putnam translation, I get annoyed having to flip to the back of the book for every note—especially given that his notes are so often really interesting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *