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.

9 thoughts on “Rutherford, Humor, and Don Quixote

  1. “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.”

    There is no joke: “…alegrarse con esta…” refers to the one closer to the verb and so to “buena suerte” and “entristecerse con aquella” refers to the one further from the verb and so to “mala suerte”. It is not an expression similar to “former and latter”.

    Whoever thinks there is a joke here got it wrong. As for Rutherford, “…to rejoice with this or be sad with that…” I cannot know whether an English speaker understand it this way as well, that is “this” refering to the one closer to the verb and “that” to the one further from the verb. If he didn’t, why then didn’t he used ‘former and latter’?

    Kind regards,


    • I really don’t know. Rutherford’s correspondence with me was fairly long and involved. I do plan eventually to publish it and go over it in detail. I’m not convinced. But I’m also not willing to dismiss Rutherford out of hand — especially considering that we are not dealing with modern Spanish, but that of 400 years ago.

  2. The writer Andrés Trapiello has adapted El Quijote to modern Spanish and has kept the very same sentence as Cervantes’, no changes.
    “para alegrarse con esta o entristecerse con aquella”. More literary than what we would say in current Spanish “para alegrarse con la primera o entristecerse con la segunda” this expression similar to “to rejoice with the former or be sad with the latter”.

    Kind regards.

  3. As a Spanish reader, it seems to me an obvious joke, unless I am being derailed by the fact that the Spanish usage of the period is different from current usage (which I have no reason the believe to be the case).

    In Rodriguez Marin’s almost ancient (1912, I think), but rather commendable edition of the novel, the following footnote can be read:
    “Había de ser al revés: para entristecerse con ésta (con la mala suerte), o alegrarse con aquélla (con la buena); pero el lapsus es voluntario, y muy propio de la travesura del Bachiller.” [“It should be the other way round: to be sad with this (the bad luck) or rejoice with that (the good one); but this is a voluntary mistake, and very much in keeping with the mischief of the Bachiller”].

    • Thanks for that information. John Rutherford was absolutely certain that he was right, so I tend to side with you. I think I need to find the email message where he explained it in depth and add it here. It might help the discussion.

      • Coming very late to this conversation, but Rutherford is right (full disclosure: he was my tutor for a while at university). The clue is indeed in ‘esta’ and ‘aquella’. But it is not, as CMV (above), suggests, to do with the proximity to the verb; it is about the proximity to the adjectives accompanying the noun (buena or mala suerte – good or bad fortune, in that order). ‘Esta’ means ‘this’, or ‘this one’, the closer of the two and hence ‘the latter’; while ‘aquella’ indicates ‘that’, or ‘that one’, the farther away of the two and hence ‘the former’. ‘The latter’, in the order of the adjectives, leads us to ‘mala suerte’ (ill fortune), and so the joke stands – it’s just been missed by the other translators.

        • Thanks for this. I have a long email from him explaining it to me. I had meant to write a whole article about it but other things got in the way. Of course, my main thing with Rutherford is that he is funny! That’s a big problem with most translators. There was a bit of a fight with Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria. I appreciate Echevarria’s expertise and he might is doubtless right about some minor things. But the fact remains that I can pick up Rutherford at random and laugh. That’s just not true of most of the other translations. It’s weird too because the differences are often very small. But comedy is like that. Also: “Knight of the Sorry Face” is brilliant!

          Very cool that you studied with him!

  4. It is very exchange: “…para alegrarse con ésta o entristecerse con aquella, como las leyes de su amistad pedía.” (…as the laws of friendship demanded.”).
    It does not make sense to add that to the “joke”. Don Quixote would have been outraged considering his respect for Sansón.
    Edith Grossman translates al this as:
    “Sanón embraced Don Quixote and asked that he keep him informed regarding his good and bad luck, so that he might rejoice over the first or grieve over the second, as the laws of friendship demanded. Don Quixote promised that he would, Sansón returned to the village, and the two men took the road to the great city of Toboso.”

    I think she got it right. “rejoice over the first” (alegrarse con ésta), “grieve over the second” (entristecerse con aquella). Again, “ésta” for the first one mentioned in the sentence, “aquella” for the second one mentioned in the sentence and therefore far away from the beginning of the sentence.
    Would Don Quixote promise such a stupid thing as to inform Sansón over his bad luck to make him happy?
    Kind regards,


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