When 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:
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.
 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.