I 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:
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:
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:
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.