Translating Malaprops in Don Quixote

Don Quixote - RutherfordOne of the many humorous elements of Don Quixote is the repeated use of malaprops by Sancho. Don Quixote is constantly correcting him and Sancho is not pleased about this. He points out — quite correctly — that Quixote clearly knows what he means, or he wouldn’t be in a position to correct. Thus, Sancho reasons, Don Quixote should just shut up. But these malaprops pose something of a problem to translators. Literal translations of malaprops will rarely work. So they have to come up with substitutes — which often works because both languages have a lot of Latin root words. Or they just have to copy other translators — which they do with great regularity. And understandably so.

A good example of this is found in chapter 5 of the second book. It is a nice reversal. In it, Sancho is talking to his wife and we learn that he has picked up a bad habit from Don Quixote: he corrects his wife. In the original Spanish, this reads as follows:

[Replicó Teresa,] “Y si estais revuelto en hacer lo que decis…”

Resuelto has de decir, mujer,” dijo Sancho, “y no revuelto.”

In this case, his wife mistakenly uses the word “revuelto” (mixed up) when she means to use the word “resuelto” (resolved). So she says, “If you are mixed up to do what you say.” And Sancho replied, “Resolved, not mixed up.” That doesn’t work at all. So it would appear that the very first English language translator of Don Quixote, Thomas Shelton, came up with the following solution:

[Teresa says,] “And if you be revolved to do what you say…”

“Resolved you must say, wife,” quoth Sancho, “and not revolved.”

The second translation, by Peter Anthony Motteux, used “devolved” and “revolved,” which is actually not that bad. But given that this is widely (and rightly, I think) considered the worst translation of the novel, it isn’t surprising that no one followed its lead. It also has the problem of not being an accurate translation. “revuelto” means mixed up or scrambled. So Shelton’s translation of “revolved” is actually fairly accurate.

I went through about half of my translations and they all followed Shelton. I didn’t bother checking the others because it got to be very boring. Everyone just seems to agree that there really isn’t going to be a better solution to this particular translating problem. It reminds me of the evolutionary development of major organs. Nature does not seem to have independently created multiple livers. It came upon a designed that worked and stuck with that. (This is not the case with the eye, though — which we would think would be more complex but is not at all.)

There are many other examples this kind of thing in Don Quixote. I suspect that there is more disagreement in other cases. As I make my way through John Rutherford’s excellent (probably best) translation, I’m marking different cases. Perhaps in the future I will do some others. But in general, I don’t expect to see too much variation. Translating Don Quixote is hard enough without trying to find different ways to translate every little thing. And that’s especially true today when there already exist so many great translations.

2 thoughts on “Translating Malaprops in Don Quixote

  1. Thanks for your enthusiastic insights into Don Quixote …It’s about the easiest and accessible book in classic literature…If someone likes Saturday Night Live or Seinfeld, they’ll love DQ…Pickwick Paper seems an obvious take on DQ…

    Again, you’ve done wonderful work here! A pleasure to read…
    CS
    https://mobile.twitter.com/YakuzaDiary

    • Thank you. Too many people think of the book as old and stodgy. But it’s actually a very funny book. It still makes me laugh — especially the Rutherford translation. This reminds me that I need to write a comprehensive discussion of this particular topic, which is fascinating.

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