Raffel’s Unique Don Quixote

Burton Raffel Don QuixoteAs I read through Don Quixote, I try to mix it up in terms of translations. As readers know, my favorite translation is Putnam for various reasons, but most especially because his translation is distinctly better than previous translations and no translation since is distinctly better than his. Nonetheless, recently I’ve been reading Burton Raffel’s 1995 translation. It is the most unique translation that I’ve found.

At first, I was put off by what I thought unusual translations for the sake of being different. In particular, Sancho names Don Quixote, “Caballero de al triste figura.” This is translated by various writers as follows:

Knight of the Sorrowful Face (Grossman)
Knight of the Rueful Countenance (Ormsby)
Knight of the Mournal Countenance (Putnam)
Knight of the Sad Face (Raffel)

It was only later that I realized that Raffel was (as much as possible) translating Don Quixote like a poem. He tries to get the sound and the syntax as close as possible to the original. This is a hopeless task, of course, but he succeeds surprisingly well.

There are times when this causes him to give up on translating altogether. A particularly interesting passage is in Chapter 26, where Sancho is quoting a letter Don Quixote had written. In the original:

“Alta y sobajada senora.”

“No diria,” dijo el Barbero, “sobajada, sino sobrehumana, o soberana.”

The point is that Sancho is ignorant and confuses words. He refers to the, “Great and scrubbing lady”![1] The barber replies that it can’t be that and suggests “superhuman” and “sovereign.”

Dealing with word play of this type is difficult in translation. Putnam deals with it well, but at the expense of a close translation:

“High and sufferable lady—”

“He would not have said sufferable,” the barber corrected him; “it must have been sovereign lady or something of that sort.”

Compare this to Raffel who doesn’t even try to translate this, but simply adds editorial comments so the reader can understand the joke.[2]

“Oh much pawed-over [sobajada] lady.”

“It couldn’t say that,” said the barber. “Not ‘much pawed-over’ but ‘more than human’ [sobrehumana] or ‘sovereign’ [soberana] lady.”

One way is not necessarily better than the other. However, despite Putnam’s cleverness in translating this, the true nature of the joke comes through better with Raffel.

Because Raffel has worked so hard at recreating the experience of reading Don Quixote in Spanish, the text is a bit more stilted and less modern than Putnam’s. It is nonetheless highly readable; the pages fly by. I’ve thought a lot about why there have been so many translations of Don Quixote since Putnam. Grossman’s translation, while marginally better, doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. Raffel’s translation is distinct, and we are better off for it.

[1] “Sobajada” is not in my Spanish dictionary; Google translates it is “scrubbing.”

[2] Putnam provides an endnote on the subject:

The word play on “sobajada,” “sobrehumana” (omitted in my rendering), and “soberana” is in reality untranslatable.

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