Don Quixote and His Sorry Face — Translation Comparison

Don Quixote - RutherfordWhen I was first deciding to read Don Quixote, I wrote a cheeky little article, About to Read Don Quixote. In it, I compared the first sentence of the prologue of the first book. And I compared how six translators had handled it. That article still gets a lot of traffic, and I feel bad about it, because it is so silly. Also: it leaves out my absolute favorite translation. And that is based on having read at least large sections of pretty much all of the translations. (There are two fairly recent ones that I’ve never even seen.)

At some point in the first book, Sancho coins a name for Don Quixote: “el Caballero de la triste figura.” This means “the Knight of the sad figure.” But most modern translators take “figure” to mean “face.” In the book, Don Quixote likes this moniker very much. It goes along with the silly convention of chivalric romances that knights are love sick and wandering around doing great deeds to impress the objects of their affection. Don Quixote, of course, is an old man. Cervantes was 58 when he wrote the first part, and so I’ve always assumed the character was meant to be the same age. So it is particularly funny: a love sick 58 year old.

As I was reading my favorite translation by John Rutherford, I was struck that he translated it in a way no one else had: the knight of the sorry face. That goes right along with Rutherford’s approach to the novel. Don Quixote was a laugh riot for people of his time, and Rutherford was determined to squeeze every drop of humor out of the book. This is why it’s my favorite translation. When I pick up Samuel Putnam’s translation, I don’t usually laugh. I do with Rutherford. And “sorry face” is just brilliant.

But is it an accurate translation? Well, that I will leave to greater minds than mine. The question is more what exactly we want from a translation. The second book of Don Quixote was published 400 years ago this year. The Spanish in it is archaic. I don’t spend much time with it, and yet I commonly find words that simply aren’t in a modern Spanish dictionary. But as a reader, do you really want a translation that most accurately conveys the words? I think you want a translation that accurately conveys the experience. I certainly think that if Cervantes were alive today, he would choose Rutherford’s translation over all the others.

But still, since I went to the trouble of going through all my English translations of Don Quixote, I figured I would provide a table of how each edition of the book translated Don Quixote’s sorry face:

Year Translator “triste figura”
1620 Shelton “rueful countenance”[1]
1700 Motteux “woeful figure”
1742 Jervas “sorrowful figure”
1755 Smollett “rueful countenance”
1885 Ormsby “rueful countenance”
1949 Putnam “mournful countenance”
1950 Cohen “sad countenance”
1957 Starkie “rueful figure”
1996 Raffel “sad face”
2003 Rutherford “sorry face”
2005 Grossman “sorrowful face”

I am required to add at this point, what I tell anyone who asks: the best translation to read is whichever one happens to be around. I used to say, “Except Motteux.” But I don’t even say that anymore. It’s a great book that you should read — not because it will enrich you, but because you will enjoy it.

[1] I’m not certain of this. I don’t have a clean copy of Shelton, but rather one of the many revisions of him. I’m skeptical that he would have picked up on the implication of it being his face.

9 thoughts on “Don Quixote and His Sorry Face — Translation Comparison

  1. Several years ago, I read Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos, a book for the layman about translation. As I remember, Bellos thought the most difficult type of translation was comic strips. The translator is given the single- or multiple-frame comic with blank dialog bubbles. He/she has the choice of translating the humor of the original comic or, if that humor would not be understood in the target language/culture, substituting something that would be funny to the target audience. And, whatever form of translation is chosen, it has to fit in the dialog bubbles. Similarly, subtitles for films have to put across the meaning in few words that don’t cross scene cuts while being on the screen long enough for the audience members to read.

    Bellos also talks about real-time oral translating such as in the Nuremberg Trials and at the UN; translation is usually done in short sessions to keep the translators from burning out. At the European Union, employees who are fluent in 4 or 5 languages will think in those languages, subconsciously switching between languages in their thoughts.

    Anyway, your post reminded me of the book. I read Project Gutenberg’s English version of Madame Bovary a number of years ago; the translation had a particular, interesting cadence to it and I’ve always wondered if the translator was reproducing the cadence of Flaubert’s original French prose.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve requested it. Translation fascinates me. To most people, I think, it is absurd that there are so many translations of DQ. But they really are amazingly different. The good thing is that people like Cervantes and Rabelais get updated to modern prose, whereas Shakespeare remains rooted in the 16th century. I’ve always found it interesting that the best renderings of Shakespeare have been in Japanese.

      • Isn’t translation not just a simple word=word but an art to determine how to go from one language to another to convey a new meaning? That would mean that artistically, the translator is creating their own work while trying to stay true to source material. At least that has always been my understanding of the subject.

        • Absolutely. It’s most clear in poetry where only poets translate poetry. Of course, in the case of my man Rutherford, he’s also a novelist. The truth is that there are an endless number of things you may want to preserve from the original, but it is impossible to do everything. It’s a highly creative endeavor. And I think there are very few people like me: amateurs who actually dig into different translations. So when I read everyone talking about how great the Grossman translation, I wonder what they really know. Her translation is really good — slightly better than Putnam’s. But she had over 50 years on him. There are only two translations since Putnam that really ought to have been written: Rutherford and Raffel. Grossman is a star when it comes to modern Spanish language translations, so of course everyone was going to claim her Don Quixote was especially wonderful even though it was only a marginal improvement on Putnam.

            • Well, that’s up to you. I’ve noticed it’s kind of pricey on Amazon. If you have a Kindle, you can probably get Ormsby’s translation for free. Oh, I just looked: Rutherford is available for the Kindle for just 99¢! I’d get that one! In fact, I think I’ll go grab it for my Kindle…

  2. I guess you may have seen this already, but the Shelton 1620 translation on Early English Books Online has it as the “Knight of the ill fauoured face”, keeping the face but a bit less philosophical-sounding. Thanks for the interesting post.

    • Thank you! I will look it up. I haven’t had any time to even finish this article. So this will encourage me! Thanks again!

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    Well here’s at least one! :-) I’m enjoying Grossman right now, but I have copies of Putnam and Rutherford handy and I refer to them more often than I thought I would: UTTERLY FASCINATING. Of all the things I was expecting to enjoy about my long overdue reading of DQ, the translational aspect was not near the top of–hell, not even ON–the list! My school’s library’s copy is Motteux, and the short time I spent with that edition was, in its way, well-spent since it felt SO stilted and, well, old, I’ve never gone back to it. (But I’ve thought about it!)

    I settled on Grossman because—in addition to her winning my “first two chapters” contest—of my three translations, hers uses footnotes rather than endnotes. Yes indeed, I’m one of those “Notes are a crucial part of the book” completists, so not having to keep two bookmarks is not trivial. BUT—and like Pearl says in Finding Nemo, “That’s a pretty big butt,”—Grossman is the ONLY one with a deckled edge! [Begins shaking with rage…] And…I…simply…cannot…convey to you the depth of my loathing…for a deckled m*****f****** edge! (But I’ll try: I once used a circular saw to remove a book’s deckled edge. Did the job, sure, but I won’t do it again: years later and a flour-grade sawdust still puffs out from between pages.)

    Anyway, I liked learning that when she was young, Edith Grossman’s first reading of DQ was of Putnam. She stopped short of singing its praises, and I bet I know why: He left so much out. Most if not all of the laudatory verse and huge chunks of chapters—and ALL of chapter 24!—are on the cutting room floor. (What the hell?? I’m only on chapter 26! “These, of interest only to specialists, have been omitted.” Hey! Hows about you let ME decide what I am and am not interested in, okay home-skill? And how do you know I’m not a specialist?)

    Thanks for this post, I’ve read it several times!

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