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.

24 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!

  3. <>

    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!

  4. I happened on this blog in a search for “knight of the mournful countenance.” Great discussion! I really appreciated the list of translations for the term “triste figura”. It’s nice to run into other readers who like to look beyond the first translation they come across. When comparing translations of the Quijote, I’ve found the way they handle the first sentence of Book I Chapter 1 will give you an idea of how literary, how informal, or how defiant they might be in handling the rest of the book. Here are a few examples for you to consider:

    En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme (Cervantes, 1604)
    In a place in La Mancha, whose name I do not want to remember (Google translate, today)
    There lived not long since, in a certain village of the Mancha, the name whereof I purposely omit (Shelton, 1608)
    In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I purposely omit (Jarvis, 1742)
    In a certain corner of La Mancha, the name of which I do not choose to remember (Smollett, 1755)
    In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind (Ormsby, 1885)
    In a village of La Mancha the name of which I have no desire to recall (Putnam, 1949)
    Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember (Grossman, 2003)
    In a village in La Mancha, the name of which I cannot quite recall (Rutherford, 2003)
    In a village in La Mancha, which I won’t name (Lathrop, 2011)
    In a village of La Mancha, whose name I don’t care to remember (Groussac, 2018)

    “Lugar” can mean place or village. It’s obvious that this is a village based on the rest of the book. “No quiero acordorme”—literally “I don’t want to remember”, but what’s intended here is the softer “don’t care to remember.” “Cannot quite recall” is wrong because the narrator knows damn well where the place is but doesn’t want to tell us. See Book II Chapter 74. I think Grossman conveys the author’s intention, but my translation is a rework of Ormsby’s, and I was looking for something less verbose than “have no desire to call to mind”. Trust me, it took me a long time before I dared to change it. I have a ton of respect for the man. So yeah, another translation to add to the mix—mine—an Americanized version of a British translation published in 1885.

    I think the reason there are so many translations is that a lot of us are familiar enough with Spanish to know that what we’re reading often misses the mark, so out of frustration, we come up with our own versions, knowing full well that we also will come up short. Separated by time, by language, and by culture, we’re not happy with a crutch that sometimes misses the path altogether, so a new translation with a new set of limitations is a way to embrace the work, and hand it off to some dissatisfied future reader who will correct what we overlooked.

    I like Ormsby because he wrote in a time when the idea was to use the ‘mot juste’, the exact word, even if the word is not commonly understood. Modern translators like to use the easy word. For example, Book I Chapter 38:

    Y ¿qué temor de necesidad y pobreza puede llegar ni fatigar al estudiante, que llegue al que tiene un soldado, que, hallándose cercado en alguna fuerza, y estando de posta, o guarda, en algún revellín o caballero… (Cervantes)

    How can the fear of want and poverty that troubles a student ever equal the fear of a soldier who, finding himself besieged in a fortress, or keeping watch or standing guard at a drawbridge or watchtower… (Grossman)

    For what dread of want or poverty that can reach or harass the student can compare with what the soldier feels, who finds himself beleaguered in some stronghold mounting guard in some ravelin or cavalier… (Ormsby)

    “Ravelin” and “cavalier” are fortification terms, and perfectly good English that will send most readers to the dictionary, but come much closer to expressing what Cervantes meant than “drawbridge” and “watchtower”.

    I don’t trust Grossman and the rest of the modern crowd to give me the real deal. It’s a personal preference, but I would rather pause over an accurate word than breeze thru a text using words that are basically meaningless. I used Ormsby as a starting point because he’s good and he’s also out of copyright. I can correct him where he’s wrong, and update him where he doesn’t make sense. For example, he uses the word “gossip” for “amigo” and “compadre”. I changed it to “my friend” and “compadre” to convey closeness. Maybe “gossip” was okay in 1885 British English. It’s not okay now. Once I warmed to the task, I made a ton of other changes. I documented most of them in an appendix.

    So how did I translate “triste figura?” In the 47 instances where it occurred, I changed Ormsby’s “Rueful Countenance” to “Woeful Countenance.” Besides being inaccurate, “face” doesn’t have much literary appeal, and “rueful” doesn’t really do it for me. I can’t picture Sancho using the term. My term was a tribute to Motteux and Smollett, and it’s okay, I guess, but I prefer “mournful countenance.” Maybe that’s what I heard in the movies or some other place growing up. I don’t remember, or maybe I choose not to remember, or maybe it doesn’t really matter.

    • Thank you for this! I have been planning to move this article over to my main Don Quixote page. When I do, I will definitely move your comment. I’ll also check out your translation! (I’ve been falling behind with this stuff!)

      It makes a lot of sense to base your work on Ormsby since he seems to have provided a very accurate translation. Certainly Putnam thought so. I think Putnam felt a little defensive of Ormsby. (Putnam was a great translator; I like his translation very much. And he was an excellent French translator too.)

      I think it’s fine for translators to be loose with the text. It depends upon what they do with it. Rutherford is my favorite translation because he’s funny. I can still pick a chapter at random and end up laughing. But I’m well aware that Rutherford plays fast and loose with the text. Just the same, I think Cervantes would have approved.

      I look forward to checking out your work. Thanks again!

      • Thanks for posting my comments. I’m really pleased to find people who like the same things I like. As for the eBook, the free sample will get you all the Intro material plus 15 1/2 chapters of Book I. Not a bad deal!

    • Thanks for the tip! In the past, when you tried to buy the Rutherford translation, it was actually Ormsby. I grabbed a copy, even though I already have a few hard copies. It’s nice to have it wherever I am.

      I picked a copy of yours. It’s actually great for me in that it’s structured for people who want to study it. Now I just have to find the time! Thanks!

  5. Yeah, I know. Something really screwy is going on with the plethora of Don Quixote eBooks that are flooding the market. Great covers, but they mostly seem to be the Ormsby translation, so be really careful before you buy. I think these are machine generated eBooks, but I don’t know for sure. There is another Rutherford eVersion out there, but it doesn’t have the Introduction by Roberto González Echevarría. He’s the guy that taught the free on-line Yale class on Don Quixote. I just reviewed this Rutherford version that I linked to in my previous comment. It’s a bargain at the price BUT…

    Speaking of bargains, Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote eBook is on sale for $2.99. Not my favorite translation, but at that price I own it. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B001R1LCKS/

    Thanks for buying my eBook. Unfortunately, I had to correct an error in Book I Chapter 25. I forgot to incorporate one of my edits to the Ormsby text, and it’s just sitting out there by itself in its own separate paragraph: And pressing on under this safe conduct for “and to take advantage of the permit at once” [y, comenzando a gozar de ese salvoconduto] A new edition tomorrow will fix it.

    Maybe there’s somebody out there who publishes perfection, but it’s not me. Anyway, I have instructions in the front of the eBook telling you how to get an update whenever you like. You can update your copy or wait for a more significant change. I’m sure there will be more to come…

    • One more thing: you said something about finding the time to read my eBook. Please don’t treat it as a homework assignment. The main thing I’ve given you that you don’t already have is the Front Matter to the original books: the Tasa (valuation); Errata; Aprobaciones (or censors’ approvals); El Rey (Privilegio or Royal Permit); and Dedications. This is boring, utilitarian stuff that’s left out of modern editions as irrelevant. They’re not literature, but they give you an idea of what Cervantes had to go through to get his books published. According to the Tasas, they were valued on the amount of paper used to print them, not on the content of the books themselves.

      The Aprobaciones to Book II give you an idea of the popularity of the work. Three Catholic censors (Doctor Gutierre de Cetina, El maestro Josef de Valdivielso, & El licenciado Márquez Torres) weighed in on the book—most likely to see their names printed in Cervantes’ masterpiece. There was an Aprobación to Book I, but it was omitted from early editions and not discovered until 2008. My guess is that the censor, Antonio de Herrera, didn’t want his name associated with Book I, and told the printers to omit his approval. Pirated copies and subsequent editions continued the omission.

      At any rate, don’t feel like you have to read all of my eBook. Treat it as reference, look at it when you want to explore a particular passage, and don’t feel guilty about closing it when you’re done. Hard to believe, but there’s more to life than reading the Quijote.

      • Don’t worry! I probably won’t look at until this pandemic is over because I usually only read my Kindle when I’m traveling. Although it looks like it is most useful for when I need to do a comparison with the Spanish. But having spent a lot of time reading different translations, I’m of two minds. First, they are often very different. Second, once you get reading them, it doesn’t much matter because the narrative carries you away. That’s especially true in the second book. The first book takes a while to get its stride. At least to me.

        I’ve only ever scanned all that front-matter. I’m not even sure where I’ve seen it because, as you note, most translations skip it. Cervantes’ prefaces are amusing though.

        Oh: if you haven’t seen it, I provide a PDF of Don Quixote’s Library by Esther B Sylvia from 1940. The Boston Public Library had an exhibit that included half the books mentioned in Chapter 6 of Book 1. It’s really interesting!

    • I’ll have to grab the Grossman translation at that price! I agree about it, though. It’s fine. But I find it kind of dry. And she didn’t even try when it came to the poetry. Not that I blame her: it wasn’t Cervantes’ strength!

      I watched a few of Echevarría’s lectures. They were great! But I didn’t like him complaining about the translation. Different translations do different things and he should acknowledge that. But he provides a tremendous amount of information.

      I don’t think I’ve ever read a book when I didn’t notice at least some errors. It’s hard to get a whole paragraph right — much less a whole book — or two!

      • I agree with your take on Book I. In Cervantes’ defense, he didn’t know what would sell, so he included a lot extraneous material: the story of Marcela & Grisóstomo; the Ill-Advised Curiosity; the story of the captive. In Book II He complains that he got bored with writing about two people—the knight and his squire—but maybe that was tongue in cheek. The minor characters that come and go in Book II support the main story line, but still have their own sparkle. There’s nothing hurried about the way Cervantes presents them. You get the feeling that he enjoyed writing them into the story.

        Echevarría’s lectures. Yeah, he panned the Rutherford translation mainly because Rutherford didn’t follow some of his recommendations, but he insisted his students buy the book to read his Introduction. I like the Introduction, but his insistence that students buy it brought back bad memories of being a captive market to the textbook industry when I was in school. His preferred translation was the one by Smollet, but basically his message was that there is no decent English translation, so suck it up. The lectures are worth watching if you don’t let them influence you too much in the way you read the book. As for me, when I get bored with the Quijote, I put it down, or skip over to a part that’s not so boring. A sequential reader I’m not. The story of Marcela & Grisóstomo; the Ill-Advised Curiosity; the story of the captive are boring as hell. No doubt I would have been caught using my Cliff Notes and gotten an F in Echevarría’s class.

        Thanks for pointing me to the PDF of Don Quixote’s Library by Esther B Sylvia from 1940. I thought about including footnotes explaining this and similar material in my eBook, but I’ve already got more than enough footnotes explaining what I did to the Ormsby translation. If I come up with an accurate text that does justice to both Cervantes and to Ormsby, I’ll be doing well.

        • I still really enjoy the first book. And I think it’s brilliant the way he brings so many earlier characters back at the end. I do think the story only takes off when Sancho shows up. DQ is pretty annoying all by himself. But that may say more about me than the book. But Sancho is such a great character. Although Cervantes makes fun of him, he also respects him enough to provide motivation. I love at the beginning of the second book where he defends spending all the money they found in the mountains in the first book. Of course, the real magic is the combination of his (admittedly, often crude) practicality and Quixote’s idealism. The books are at their best when they are fighting with each other.

          I would assume Cervantes had more fun writing the second book. It helps to know that there are people who will read what you are writing. But I will admit that I have this image of him in my head that isn’t based on anything but speculation. Oh, that reminds me: what I would love is for someone to translate Ocho Comedias y Ocho Entremeses. I’ve only found an English version of “The Cave of Salamanca.” But it was very funny and I’m keen on reading the rest. For being such an important writer, he hasn’t been translated as much as I would think.

          Echevarria did seem very knowledgeable. And I was really pleased to learn why the name is “Quijote” in Spanish and “Quixote” in English. And it’s nice to get context for the books. But I like them for the same reason I liked the Hope and Crosby road films when I was a kid. No amount of knowledge seems to deprive me of that. And I’m with you: I will pick up the book and just read a random chapter or two. (Although sometimes I get lost and end up reading a lot more.) That’s probably why I still find it funny. Reading it in this way provides a different context.

          Let me know when Ocho Comedias is done. :-)

          • Ocho Comedias y Ocho Entremeses? That’s a task better performed by a group–or at least a couple of people–one Spanish speaking, one English speaking. Considered all the degrees in Spanish that have been granted and the size of the Spanish departments at the major universities, it’s surprising that this translation hasn’t already been done. My impression of these people is that they earn their bread by expressing their opinions about things others have written, and not anything original that they do themselves. A translation of something that nobody really cares about? That’s not the way to earn your masters degree.

            My task was simple by comparison: find passages where Ormsby was a bit awkward and improve on them. I looked on it as a 3-way collaboration between me, Cervantes and Ormsby–an equality where there was really only arrogance on my part to assume that I was up to the task. But of the three of us, I was the only one living in the 21st century, and therefore was the gate for idea transfer to this time. I did translate the boiler plate preliminaries to each book, and ran them past a couple of Puerto Rican friends who were only marginally interested in the work. They thought my English was more fancy than it should have been for this work, so I toned it down a bit.

            Nevertheless, the Aprobación in Book II by Márquez Torres is pretty darn good, so I tried to give it its due. I read somewhere from somebody who thought the essay was too good to be the work of Torres, and I’m like give me a break. What arrogance to assume that Cervantes was the only guy in those days who could put pen to paper. The Aprobaciones and the other front matter are the only input we have from Cervantes’s contemporaries, and that’s why it was important to me that they be a part of the English translation. It they’re boring to you, skip over them by all means–that’s normally what we do with books written in our time–but they give you an idea of the process Cervantes had to endure as he carried his work from one office to the next, just to get it to the printer.

            Back to Book I. I don’t like it all that much, but I’ll talk about it later. I’ve got to go pick some tomatoes for my daughter.

            • Being alive is a major advantage!

              Speaking of other writers of that time, I’ve been very interested in Lope de Vega. I’ve only managed to read three of his plays (in English). But I liked them. They were a lot more direct and light than, for example, Shakespeare’s comedies. Sadly, Spanish has been neglected in terms of its translation into English. I guess this is just because there weren’t as many people who spoke the language. As I recall, Motteux was largely an English translation of a French translation. I’m not sure of that, but I know that happened.

              • The Gwynne Edwards edition? It looks pretty good. I downloaded the free sample for a more detailed look at how she handled the poetry. In the small college I went to, I took a course in Spanish Golden Age Drama. It was the only A I got for the entire year, and all I remember was how boring it all was. From what I remember, they were more interested in a play on words than actually saying anything. As for the only A, well, that’s what happens when you go to a basketball game with the cross town rival dressed as a priest, and get your side to give the other side a standing ovation when the music quits in the middle of their halftime show, and the dancers are just standing there in silence. Or maybe it was laughing at the death scene in Becket. Or maybe I really was a bad student. That year, my sophomore year, began my disaffection with college, a year or so before Jerry Farber published his book, “The Student as Nigger”.

                I came away from Golden Age Drama that much more impressed with Cervantes, that he could write with such realism in an era when it was more important to be cute.

                Cervantes’ poetry is really bad. I get that the opening verses to Book I were satirical, but still… Poetry’s really hard to translate. Maybe if it’s put to music, it comes across better. That’s what I experienced with Marinero soy de amor (I-43).

                • I don’t remember what edition. These days I don’t have nearly enough time to read. I have books piling up. All my college was focused on science. As a result, I did almost all of my reading outside any kind of educational structure. I’m not against structured education, but if you really love a subject, you are better going your own way. The one thing I really did like about college was having access to the professors — not for lectures but to ask occasional questions of.

                  Cervantes’ poetry is English seems passable. Putnam did an okay job, as I recall. Grossman didn’t even try. But the seem bad because they get in the way of the narrative. They’re like dance numbers in a Bollywood action film. Except that those dance numbers are usually stunning.

                  That’s a beautiful song! You may be on to something.

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