Rutherford, Humor, and Don Quixote

Don Quixote - RutherfordI got an interesting question from reader Aster about the Jervas translation of Don Quixote. In his version of Jervas, the opening sentence of the preface was different from what I had quoted in About to Read Don Quixote. It turned out that both sentences were correct. It is just that some editors change translations a lot. Mine was Edited by E C Riley, who is excellent; but that means the Oxford World’s Classics edition is kind of a conglomeration.

At first I thought that Aster must be mistaken, so I went searching through my collection of translations. I never found it, of course, but I did come upon an interesting translation controversy. In the introduction to his own recent translation of Don Quixote, John Rutherford opens with, “Yet another Quixote translation? Isn’t it an act of quixotry to write the thirteenth English version of the great Spanish novel?” He goes on to explain that previous translations have been too reverential, usually at the expense of Cervantes’ excellent sense of humor.

In this regard, he provides an example:

Cervantes gives the alert reader the chance to catch a telling and amusing glimpse of the brash young graduate Sanson Carrasco’s sharp-witted malice, and of Don Quioxte’s bumbling innocence, in a deft parody reversal of a conventional formula for leave-taking at the end of Chapter VII of Part II: “Sanson embraced Don Quixote and begged to be sent news of his fortunes both good and bad, to rejoice at the latter or grieve over the former, as the laws of friendship required…”

That is clever. And it is entirely in keeping with the book. Many characters make fun of Don Quixote and he is far too earnest to ever notice. So Sanson is saying, “Please tell me if things are going wrong so I can celebrate!”

Rutherford goes on to show that other translators completely dropped the joke. But he didn’t mention Putnam, so I checked my copy:

Sanson gave the knight a farewell embrace, urging him to send back word of the good or ill fortune that the pair met with, in order that he, Carrasco, as the laws of friendship demanded, might rejoice over the former or grieve over the latter.

So Putnam does not translate it as a joke. But Putnam was a careful translator and I found it hard to believe that he would miss this. So that took me back to the Spanish edition:

Abrazole Sanson, y suplicole le avisase de su buena o mala suerte, para alegrarse con esta o entristecerse con aquella, como las leyes de su amistad pedian.

This translates roughly, “Sanson embraced him, and he asked to be notified of any good or bad luck, to rejoice with this or be sad with that, like the laws of their friendship asked.” Do you see the reversal that Rutherford is talking about? I don’t. It seems to me that Putnam has it right (although why he moves that ending clause to the middle, I can’t say). What are we to make of this?

It could be that I am simply a lousy Spanish language translator. Well, actually I am a lousy translator. But I don’t think I’m wrong here. Not to mention that Putnam and every other translator agrees on this reading. That brings us to a second possibility: Rutherford is using a different Spanish language text. After all, they aren’t all the same. Rutherford says he used Luis Andres Murillo’s modern Spanish language edition of the book, which was published in 1978. That could explain the difference.

But I suspect that the problem is just a matter of approach. Rutherford wants to translate Don Quixote in such a way as to highlight the humor in it. And given that one could reasonably argue that the phrase was meant to be that way, Rutherford has decided that it was meant that way. I think that’s entirely valid, even if I think the comedy comes out very well in the “reverential” translations.

If you are still looking for a translation, Rutherford’s Penguin Classics edition is a fine choice.

Economic Mobility Is a Distraction

Equality of OpportunityAs Professor Farnsworth would say, “Good news, everyone!” Economists have looked at the data and it turns out that economic mobility has not gotten worse over the past several decades. Of course, as usual with such “good news” claims from Professor Farnsworth, it is actually bad news. You see, the reason that economic mobility hasn’t decreased is that it’s been terrible all along. Last month at The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explained it all in, The Mobility Myth.

What’s really bad is even if you look at countries like Sweden, there isn’t much mobility. The truth is that focusing on mobility is just a way to avoid looking at equity. And we are really good at that in this country. Both sides of the political spectrum fetishize opportunity as though it would be fine to allow some people to starve as long as they had an equal chance to be rich.

It goes further than this, however. People are only willing to talk about “equality of opportunity” in high tones. When it comes to practical measures, no one is interested in doing anything to improve the situation. This is where the partisan divide comes. Although Democrats don’t want to do anything to help equalize children’s chances in life, Republicans want to make it worse. In education, we have a terrible situation where school funding is dependent upon local taxes. So poor communities get worse schools than rich communities. But this situation that actively helps the children of the rich is not good enough for the conservatives. They want to subsidize the rich sending their children to private schools with vouchers. That is, by the way, what is behind the whole charter school movement.

All of this annoys me because the issue is equality and not meaningless notions like equality of opportunity. Surowiecki notes that from the 1940s through the beginning of the 1970s, it didn’t much matter that people were stuck in the middle class. The entire class saw its incomes double during that time. That was because workers actually got part of our productivity gains. But that all came to an abrupt end in the late 1970s with the rise of the New Democratic movement (regardless of the fact that it wasn’t call that then) and the embrace by Republicans of supply side “trickle down” economics.

When the government decided that the way to make the economy grow was to give more and more money to the rich, we saw two things. First, we saw only modest growth—nothing like what we saw before that period. Second, we saw that all of that growth went to the people at the top. There was no trickling down. And this was hardly surprising. As conservatives are fond of saying, “Incentives matter!” Lowing the taxes on the rich only gave them greater incentives to give themselves more money.

The United States does not have much economic mobility. The United States has never had that much economic mobility in an absolute sense. Michael Harrington was exactly correct when he wrote in The Other America: Poverty in the United States:

But the real explanation of why the poor are where they are is that they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents, in the wrong section of the country, in the wrong industry, or in the wrong racial or ethnic group. Once that mistake has been made, they could have been paragons of will and morality, but most of them would never even have had a chance to get out of the other America.

Of course, I’m not willing to even yield the point about inequality not decreasing in this country. The study cited by James Surowiecki looks at mobility in the context of quintiles. We know that the story of inequality in this country is not the story of the top 20%; it is the story of the top 1% or the top 0.1%. I suspect that if we looked at that, we would see much mobility decreasing, because the truly rich are in so much better a position to pass on wealth than the simply upper class.

But the main thing is that it doesn’t matter. Talking about “opportunity” is just a way of not talking about inequality. Mitt Romney and his ilk would have us believe that the liberal concern about inequality is just a way to enact a dictatorship of the worker. That’s just rhetoric, because I don’t even know of any socialists who believe in that. All we are talking about is a more just distribution of resources.[1] This is a debate we should have—and one that liberals would win. That is why the conservatives want to stop us from even discussing it. We shouldn’t allow that.

See also: Conservatives Define “Equality of Opportunity” Out of Existence

[1] Simply because our economy greatly rewards some kinds of endeavors doesn’t mean there is anything natural about it. Patents, for example, are orders of magnitude more profitable today than they were 200 years ago. This is because of things like manufacturing technology. But that doesn’t mean inventors should be richer today than they were then. What’s more, it is an argument for reducing rather than increasing intellectual property protections. But with economic power goes political power. Thus, we’ve only seen increases in intellectual property protections. Certainly Disney has made enough from Mickey Mouse.

It’s the Partisans, Stupid

Lynn VavreckYesterday, I wrote about Lynn Vavreck’s excellent book The Message Matters. In my discussion, I focused on how, Campaign Messages Don’t Matter to Media. But there were other issues that I took note of. Toward the beginning of the book, she noted that campaigns don’t matter to either the high or low information voter. The high information voter already has a narrative for the candidates and the low information voter isn’t paying attention at all and will just go with retroactive voting based upon the economy. It is the group in the middle who can be affected by campaign messages.

This last week, Vavreck wrote an article along these lines at the excellent The Upshot blog at The New York Times, The Myth of Swing Voters in Midterm Elections. She noted something that people around here should know: the vast majority of people side with one or the other big parties and when it comes time for voting, they vote the way they always do. From a practical standpoint, it means that the question is not how people vote but who votes.

In the article, she highlights what happened in 2010. This too should come as no surprise. I’ve long ranted about the ridiculous idea that the 2010 election indicated that the voters were unhappy about Obama; I’ve always said it was simply that a large chunk of Obama’s voting base didn’t show up. But I was still shocked by this chart:

Comparison of Voting 2008 and 2010

What this shows is that only 6% of the electorate switched sides and they did it about evenly. Slightly more people switched their votes from Democrat to Republican because there were more Obama voters in 2008. But the difference is very small. The midterm problem was not liberals seeing Obama in action and running to vote for Allen West. It’s that 11% of the people who showed up to vote for Obama didn’t show up to vote against Allen West.

Vavreck sums it up well:

It may seem hard to believe that the shellacking was more about who turned up than about who changed their minds between 2008 and 2010, but it lines up with a lot of other evidence about voters’ behavior. Most identify with the same political party their entire adult lives, even if they do not formally register with it. They almost always vote for the presidential candidate from that party, and they rarely vote for one party for president and the other one for Congress…

The 2014 fight is not over swing voters. It’s for partisans.

To see why this is bad, all you have to do is look at the House of Representatives. But there is good news in this fact: Democrats win elections by default if voter turnout is high. So Democrats don’t need to do their constant dance to the right to impress swing voters, because there really aren’t any there to get. And the party seems to have finally woken up to this fact and is putting more focus on “get out the vote” efforts.

Probably the best thing that any person can do politically is to encourage others to vote and to help others vote. And of course the most basic thing you can do—the thing that really ought to be a requirement for citizenship—is vote yourself. Sadly, that is something many of my liberal friends can’t even be bothered to do. We get bad government here in the United States not so much because of conservative voters but because of liberals who do not vote.

The General Election is on 4 November 2014. That’s six months and one week away. I’ll be reminding you as we get closer.


In a broader sense, I wish people would stop referring to America as a “center right” nation. That’s a pretty odd claim. If you talk to Americans about issues, they come down as decidedly liberal—especially on economic issues. If you ask them all what their opinions are on parties, they come down decidedly as Democratic. The only way that America is a center right nation is in the sense that we make it hard for people to vote; so when few people show up at the polls, they tend to be center right. But that isn’t the people in a general sense. That’s just decades in which the oligarchs have manipulated our democracy.