Translation Is Nothing to Be Pedantic About

Roberto González EchevarríaRecently, I listened to a lecture by Roberto González Echevarría on his Introduction to Cervantes class at Yale. It was quite interesting, especially his discussion of why Don Quixote is spelled the way it is in the English world. It turns out that Spanish, like English at that time, did not have its spelling standardized. At that time “x” was generally used for the “hoe” sound. Since then, “j” has become standard for the “hoe” sound, so Spanish speakers spell the novel, Don Quijote. Since we are English speakers, there’s been no reason to change the spelling for the original.

Roberto González Echevarría on Translation

I was pleased to find that he was using my preferred John Rutherford translation. But it turns out that he only uses it because he wrote the introduction. He was very critical of the translation. He even tried to get Rutherford to make changes in the translation before it went to press. Rutherford refused. According to Echevarría, this was because Rutherford was an old fashioned Oxford professor. I tend to see it differently. Who is Roberto González Echevarría to ask for changes in the translation? He isn’t a translator, and I really don’t think he has much of an idea about what translators do.

He not only complained about Rutherford’s translation. Echevarría also complained about his friend Edith Grossman’s translation, which he claimed was slightly better. He then dismissed every translation and applauded the very first translation by Thomas Shelton. I’ve seen this before: people like to throw out praise for an old translation, thereby giving them cover from the charge that they don’t like any translation. And it helps when the Shelton translation is the least circulated of the well-known translations. But it is ultimately a pretentious claim, “The first guy who dashed off a translation in a month and half is better than all the translators who came afterward.” Again: it shows a kind of disdain for the whole process of translation.

The Purpose of Translation

Elizabeth Bryer at Plume of Words wrote a very interesting article a few years back, Rutherford and Grossman Translations of Don Quixote. Like me, she is clearly a partisan for Rutherford. But she didn’t write that one translation is better than the other. Rather, they are different. Grossman is more interested in getting the words right. Rutherford is interested in getting the experience right. Both those approaches are valid. What’s not valid, is for someone like Roberto González Echevarría to decide that they are the ultimate arbiter of what is a good translation.

Bryer noted a great example:

Rutherford tends to privilege the effect on the reader; Grossman, the source text: “mozo de campo y plaza” is translated by Grossman as “man-of-all-work” and by Rutherford as “jack of all trades.” Literally, Grossman is closer to the meaning (someone who does all the work, as opposed to someone capable of doing all the work), but Rutherford presents a cleaner-sounding English.

I would go further. I don’t think that Cervantes intended Don Quixote as a precise literary effort. Indeed, it was attacked as being something of a vulgar affair. So it seems questionable to me to worry about getting just the right word in translating the book. That wasn’t what Cervantes did — and may well explain why no one ever cared for his poetry.

Translator as Collaborator

Bryer goes on to discuss something I’ve called Rutherford on myself: introducing humor into the book where it may not have been to begin with. But is this wrong? Given that other bits of humor don’t work — due to language and just time — it is fitting. And I don’t think he ever strays from the original intent. But I can see where pedants might disagree with his choices, as though the original is a holy relic.

The point is that translation is a process that necessarily warps the original. It is not even possible to read the original in the way people of Cervantes’ time did, because the language has changed. The reader is always a collaborator in story telling. But translation takes the issue to a higher level. There are different approaches to the process. But there is no Platonic ideal. I believe that the best translation is the one that brings the original to life for modern readers. And that’s why I think Rutherford’s is the best. But if you most care about a slavish adherence to the words, as Roberto González Echevarría apparently does, perhaps the best for you will be Thomas Shelton’s.

2 thoughts on “Translation Is Nothing to Be Pedantic About

  1. A breath of fresh air to read this, given that I’m currently spending my days worrying over ‘getting just the right word’ in a translation I care very much about. But I would add one thing to the mix: Cervantes may not have worried about precision, but he did have to worry about concept, plot, character, etc. — all things a translator doesn’t have to worry about — which seems, to me, to make the translator’s responsibility to the words themselves greater. Just a thought.

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      I’m not sure. Especially when it comes to Sancho, I think a literal translation tends to distort his character. But to me, the main thing is the purpose of the translation. For a college course, it is likely that a more careful translation like Grossman or Putnam is probably better. My purpose is almost exclusively to get people to read it the same way they would an Ann Beattie novel. But my thoughts on translation are fluid because I really don’t know that much about it. What I know comes mostly from reading different translations of Don Quixote, and to a lesser extent Gargantua and Pantagruel. Check with me next year and I might have turned into the kind of pedant I’m complaining about today!

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