Why You Should Read Don Quixote

Why You Should Read Don QuixoteIt’s often been said that Shakespeare is the broccoli of English literature: people consume it because they think it is good for them but they don’t really like it.

And this is generally true of any of the Great Books that we are all supposed to read and pretend to love. Yet there are major exceptions like any Jane Austen book. But the single biggest exception is Don Quixote. You shouldn’t read it because it is important; you should read it because it is supremely entertaining.

I’ve read it dozens of times and yet you can still see me sitting on a bus reading it — laughing like a crazy man. And you too can be a crazy man like me!

The Boring Windmill Story

If you know only one thing about Don Quixote, it is the following story:

Don Quxiote rides over a bluff on his emaciated horse. There in the valley are dozens are windmills. But Don Quixote thinks these windmills are giants. So he charges toward them with a lance and is dashed to the ground.

Not very funny, is it? It’s no wonder that people think it isn’t worth their time. I wouldn’t either!

The Real Windmill Story

Now consider what is actually in the book:

Don Quixote is a Spanish gentleman: a man who doesn’t really do anything. He’s spent too much time reading exciting adventures about knights errant. So he’s decided to be one. He needs a squire, so he convinces a local working man, Sancho Panza, to come with him offering the prospect that Sancho will become governor of an island Don Quixote will win for him.

They come over a bluff — Don Quixote on his horse and Sancho on his mule. They see windmills and Don Quixote says, “Fortune is arranging matters for us better than we could have shaped our desires ourselves… [T]hirty or more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes…”

Sancho is an uneducated peasant, but not an idiot. He says, “What giants?”

After a bit of conversation during which Don Quixote insists that the windmills really are giants, the crazy man rushes toward the windmills. Sancho yells after him, “You idiot! Those are windmills!”

Sancho races after Don Quixote, begging him to end this folly.

Don Quixote gets to a windmill and stabs one of its sails — thinking it a giant’s arm. This breaks his lance and dashes him to the ground.

Sancho soon arrives and says, “Didn’t I tell you those were windmills!”

But Don Quixote is having none of it! Sure, they are windmills now. But that’s just because his nemesis, the evil magician Friston, turned the giants into windmills “in order to rob me of the glory of vanquishing them!”

The First Modern Novel

If there is anything else you know about Don Quixote, it is probably that it is the first modern novel. In my experience giving talks about the novel, this is a claim that people have a lot of trouble with. What does it mean?

There are a lot of reasons why scholars claim that Don Quixote is the first modern novel. But the most important is the centrality of character in the story. Before Don Quixote, characters in novels weren’t individuals so much as archetypes. But even more important, the stories were not generated out of those characters.

In Don Quixote, the two primary characters are as vibrant and honest as any character in a modern novel — and that’s with 400 years of later novels stealing from them. In addition, the story is entirely driven by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The plot moves along because of their actions; they aren’t characters dropped into a given plot. And as you can see in the windmill story, the humor derives from the characters — Don Quixote chasing glory in his fantasms and Sancho trying to limit the damage caused by his lunatic friend.

The Postmodern Novel

Another reason that Don Quixote is so fun to read derives from the fact that it is actually two novels. If Part 1 is the first modern novel, Part 2 is certainly the first postmodern novel.

One of the conceits of Part 1 is that the story is true. So when Cervantes wrote Part 2, he did so in a world where the character was literally world-famous. But if the character was famous, then the supposed real man was famous. Thus, the entirety of Part 2 has Don Quixote and Sancho going on their adventures in a world riddled with people who knew them from the first novel.

Luckily, Don Quixote is too insane and Sancho too unsophisticated to realize that people are mocking them. Of course, in many ways, this isn’t very different from Part 1 where people quickly determined that Don Quixote was crazy and had much fun at his expense.

But the merging of fiction and reality is very fun. It makes Don Quixote resonate greatly with a modern reader.


In 7 minutes, it’s hard to explain why Don Quixote is such an enjoyable read. That’s especially true when I’m limited to a single story that takes up less than a page in the book. But I hope that I have whet your appetite about the book and at least made you realize that Don Quixote is more than just the story of a crazy man doing battle with windmills.

What Cervantes Wanted to Do With Don Quixote

CervantesThis period produced one great work of literature that ranks ahead of all others. It is the tale of Don Quixote de la Mancha, authored in two parts by Miguel Cervantes. In our literary canon, the novel has come to dominate the other forms in modern times. And with respect to the novel we can say, “In the beginning was Cervantes.” The genre springs from his work. And even today, after four hundred years, how many novels can begin to compete with this one? It is a work of amazing flexibility; it piles layer upon layer of meaning. It can be studied in universities and performed in Broadway musicals. Cervantes’s genius was to be simultaneously great, complex, subtle, and yet packed with immediate popular appeal. Cervantes fills a great panorama and he perfects the art of the tragicomedy. What seems at first blush a farce, a comic send-up, turns into a work filled with pain, loss, horror and introspection. What seems at first shallow soon emerges, especially in the second part, as a work of great philosophical depth; of wit and profound and timeless wisdom.

I have read Don Quixote three times in my life; the last time just now. On each reading, I felt Don Quixote said something to me about life and the times in which I lived. “Don’t be consumed in the quest for needful things,” it said, “the real quest leads inward. Beware of the vanities of the world, the frivolities of human existence. And remember wherever your life takes you, and whatever love you may seek from time to time, the need for kindness and respect, the essential qualities which make human life worth living. Life will bring pain and hardship, but have the disposition to be modest, to learn, to be kind and the edge will come off.” Cervantes wants to entertain his readers; but he also wants to reshape them.

–Scott Horton
Cervantes’s Golden Age

Cervantes on Cervantes

Cervantes - Probably Fake ImageI wish it were possible, to dispense with writing this preface; for that which I put at the beginning of my Don Quixote did not turn out so well for me as to give me any inclination to write another.

The fault lies with a friend of mind — one of many I have made in the course of my life with my heart rather than my head. This friend might well have caused my portrait, which the famous Don Juan de Juaregui would have given him to be engraved and put in the first page of this book, according to custom. By that means he would have gratified my ambition and the wishes of several persons, who would like to know what sort of face and figure has he who makes bold to come before the world with so many works of his own invention.

My friend might have written under the portrait, “This person who you see here, with an oval visage, chestnut hair, smooth open forehead, lively eyes, a hooked but well-proportioned nose, a silvery beard that twenty years ago was golden, large mustaches, a small mouth, teeth not much to speak of, for he has but six, in bad condition and worse placed, no two of them corresponding to each other, a figure midway between the two extremes, neither tall nor short, a vivid complexion, rather fair than dark, somewhat stooped in the shoulders, and not very light-footed: this, I say, is the author of Galatea, Don Quixote de la Mancha, The Journey to Parnassus, which he wrote in imitation of Cesare Caporali Perugia, and other works which are current among the public, and perhaps without the author’s name. He is commonly called Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

“He was for many years a soldier, and for five years and a half in captivity, where he learned to have patience in adversity. He lost his left hand by a musket-shot in the Battle of Lepanto: and ugly as this wound may appear, he regards it as beautiful, having received it on the most memorable and sublime occasion which past times have ever seen, or future times can hope to equal, fighting under the victorious banners of the son of that thunderbolt of war, Charles V, of blessed memory.”

Should the friend of whom I complain have had nothing more to say of me than this, I would myself have composed a couple of dozen of eulogiums, and communicated them to him in secret, thereby to extend my fame and exalt the credit of my genius; for it would be absurd to expect the exact truth in such matters. We know well that neither praise nor abuse is meted out with strict accuracy.

—Cervantes (Translated by Walter Keating Kelly)
Exemplary Novels (PDF)

Don Quixote Parallel Passages: Part II, Chapter 35

Don QuixoteI am slowly writing what I consider a badly needed article, Don Quixote in English Language Translation. It is, in part, a summary of the many things I’ve written about the books over the years. It is currently about 3,000 words long, but I suspect it will get up to about 10,000 words by the time I finish it. It’s a fascinating and important subject.

In my research for it, I came upon a passage in the introduction to Samuel Putnam’s 1949 translation, “The version published by T G Smollett in 1755 merits little consideration as it is merely a working over of Jarvis.” That shocked me for a few reasons. One is that I’d read that introduction before — admittedly when I knew little of the English language translations of Don Quixote. But more important, it shocked me because the Tobias Smollett translation is still one of the most popular. It is the translation that Barnes & Noble uses for its classics edition.

I began researching the subject and I came upon a curious little book, Smollett’s Hoax. It was published in 1956 by Stanford Professor Carmine Rocco Linsalata. For someone like me, it is a delight. It contains over 700 examples of passages where Smollett ripped off Charles Jarvis. And there is so much more.

By the time that Linsalata wrote Smollett’s Hoax, it was well established that Tobias Smollett had simply rewritten Jarvis. We see this in the Putnam introduction seven years earlier. But Linsalata claims that Smollett didn’t even do that; he claims that Smollett just farmed the work out to hack writers.

It should be noted that Smollett was one of the greatest English language writers of the 18th century. The reason most people don’t know his name is because we don’t read much 18th century literature — certainly not like we read 19th century literature. Smollett went on to be quite a wealthy man. But when he took the commission to translation Don Quixote, he wasn’t doing well financially. So his lapse is ethics can be at least somewhat excused. And if not that, understood.

But Smollet’s Hoax is important in other ways. In particular, it provides comparisons of passages from early Don Quixote translations. Some of them quite rare. For example, the Phillips translation from 1687 has never been republished. So my claim to owning all the English language translations of Don Quixote is not true. So Smollet’s Hoax provides me with resources I simply don’t have. (Also: resources I probably can’t get; I haven’t been able to find a copy for sale.)

The first five of the following translations are taken from Smollet’s Hoax. The rest are taken from my own copies of the books. This post is not exhaustive, but I do plan to add to it over time. This quote is taken from the very end of Chapter 35 of Don Quixote: Part II. What’s happening is that Don Quixote has been convinced that if Sancho whips himself thousands of times on his bare bottom, the curse that makes Don Quixote see Dulcinea as a poor peasant girl (which is what she is) will go away. So Sancho is going along with it. Meanwhile, the duke and duchess, who set up the whole thing, are very pleased with all the fun they are having at both Don Quixote’s and Sancho’s expense.

Cervantes (1615)

“Ea, pues, a la mano de Dios!” dijo Sanch, “Yo consiento en mi mala ventura; digo que yo acepto la penitencia, con las condiciones apuntada.”

Apenas dijo estas ultimas palabras Sancho, cuando volvio a sonar la musica de las chirimias y se volvieron a disparar infinitos arcabuces, y Don Quijote se colgo del cuello de Sancho, dandole mil besos en la frente y en las mejillas. La Duquesa y el Duque y todos los circunstanes dieron muestras de haber recebido grandisimo contento, y el carro comenzo a caminar; y al pasas la hermosa Dulcinea, inclino la cabeza a los Duques y hizo una gran reverencia a Sancho.

Y ya, en esto, se venia a mas andar el alba, alegre y risuena; las florecillas de los campos se descollaban y erguian, y los liquidos cristales de los arroyuelos, murmurando por entre blancas y pardas guijas, iban a dar tributo a los rios que los esperaban. La Tierra alegre, el cielo claro, el aire limpio, la luz serena, cada uno por si y todos juntos daban manifiestas senales que el dia que al aurora venia pisando las faldas habia de ser sereno y claro. Y satisfechos los Duques de la caza, y de haber conseguido su intencion tan discreta y fellcemente, se volvieron a su castillo, con prosupuesto de segundar en sus burlas; que para ellos no habia veras que mas gusto les diesen.

Cervantes – Literal Translation

“Turn then, the hand of God!” Sanch said, “I agree to my bad luck; I say I accept the penance, with the targeted conditions.

Just as Sancho said these last words the music sounded again and the chirimias infinite muskets fired again, and Don Quixote hung on Sancho’s neck, kissing him on the forehead and cheeks. The Duchess and the Duke and all circunstanes showed signs of having received any grandisimo happy, and the car began to walk; and you spend the beautiful Dulcinea, I bow my head to the Dukes and bowed deeply to Sancho.

And, in this, it came to more walking dawn, happy and cheerful; the florets of the fields decollaban and stood, and liquid crystals rills, muttering between white and brown pebbles were to give tribute to the rivers that awaited them. Earth cheerful, clear sky, clean air, the serene light, each for himself and all the signs manifest juntosdaban day at dawn came treading on the skirts had to be calm and clear. And satisfied the Dukes of hunting, and have gotten his intention so discreet and happily, returned to his castle, with budget of [double meaning?] in their taunts; that they had not really given them that taste more.

Shelton (1620)

“Well,” quoth Sancho, “a God’s name be it! I yield to my ill fortune and with the aforesaid condition accept of the penitence.”

Scarce had Sancho spoken these words when the waits began to play, and a world of guns were shut off, and Don Quixote hung about Sancho’s neck, kissing his cheeks and forehead a thousand times. The duke, the duchess, and all the bystanders, were wonderfully delighted, and the cart began to go on, and, passing by, the fair Dulcinea inclined her head to the dukes, and made a low courtsy to Sancho. And by this the merry morn came on apace, and the flowers of the field began to bloom and rise up, and liquid crystal of the brooks, murmuring through the great pebbles, went to give tribute to the rivers, that expected them; the sky was clear, and the air wholesome, the light perspicuous; each by itself, and all together, showed manifestly that the day whose skirts Aurora came trampling on, should be bright and clear.

And the dukes being satisfied with the chase, and to have obtained their purpose so discreetly and happily, they returned to their castle, with an intention to second their jest; for to them there was no earnest could give more content.

Phillips (1687)

“Go too then,” cried Sancho, “I submit to my misfortune, and accept my pennance upon the conditions and covenants agreed upon.” Sancho had no sooner spoken the last words, but the fiddles strook up again, and three volleys of small shot testified the general joy of madam Dulcinea and her friends, for her approaching freedom: Don Quixote also threw himself about the pious squires neck, and kissed his cheeks and forehead a hundred times; the duke and duchess were well pleased; and then the chariot beginning to move, the fair Dulcinea bowed her head and made a low obeisance to Sancho. And now the sun began to guild the tops of the mountains; at what time the duke and duchess infinitely satisfied that their design had succeeded so well, returned to the castle with their guests, resolved to continue the pasttime which had hitherto given them so much content.

Motteux (1700)

“Well,” quoth Sancho, “what must be, must be: I yield to my hard luck, and on the aforesaid terms, take up with my penance.

Scarce had Sancho spoke, when the music struck up again, and a congratulatory volley of small shot was immediately discharged. Don Quixote fell on Sancho’s neck, hugging and killing him a thousand times. The duke, the duchess, and the whole company seemed mightily pleased. The chariot moved on and as it passed by, the fair Dulcinea made the duke and duchess a bow, and Sancho a low courtsy.

And now the jolly morn began to spread her smiling. Looks in the eastern quarter of the skies and the flowers of the field to disclose their bloom folds, and raise their fragrant heads. The brooks now cool and clear, in gentle murmurs, played with the grey pebbles and flowed along to pay their liquid tribute to the expecting rivers. The sky was clear, the aire serene, swept clean by brushing winds for the reception of the shining light, and every thing not only jointly, but in its separate Gaiety, welcomed the fair Auroa, and, like her, foretold a fairer day. The duke and duches, well pleased with the management and success of the hunting, and the counterfeit adventure, returned to the castle; resolving to make a second essay of the same nature, having received as much pleasure from the first, as any reality could have produced.

Stevens (1742)

“Well,” quoth Sancho, a god’s name be it. I yield to my ill fortune, and on the aforesaid condition accept of the penance.”

Scarce had Sancho spoken these words, when the waits began to play, and a world of guns were shot off, and Don Quixote hung about Sancho’s neck, kissing his cheeks and forehead a thousand times. The duke, the duchess, and all the by-standers, seemed to be wonderfully pleased and the cart began to go on, and passing by, the fair Dulcinea bowed her head to the duke and duchess, and made a low courtesy to Sancho; and by this the merry morn came on apace, the flowers and the field began to bloom and rise up, the liquid crystal of the brooks, murmuring through the gray pibbles, went on to pay tribute to the rivers that expected them: the sky was clear, and the air serene, the light undistrubed each part, and all together were signs that the day which trod upon the heels of Aurora would be bring and clear. The duke and duchess being satisfied with the hunting, and well contrived and happy. Success of thei design, returned to the castle, with an intention to second their jest; for to them nothing in earnest could be more pleasing.

Jarvis (1748)

“Go to, then, in God’s name,” quoth Sancho; “I submit to my ill fortune; I way, I accept of the penance upon the conditions stipulated.”

Scarely had Sancho uttered these words when the music of the waits struck up, and a world of muskets were again discharged, and Don Quixote clung about Sancho’s neck, giving him a thousand kisses on the forehead and cheeks. The duke and duchess, and all the bystanders gave signs of being mightily pleased, and the car began to move on; and, in passing by, the fair Dulcinea bowed her head to the duke and duchess, and made a low curtsy to Sancho. By this time the cheerful and joyous dawn came apace, the flowerets of the field expanded their fragrant bosoms, and erected their heads; and the pebbles, went to pay their tribute to the rivers that expected them, and all together, giving manifest tokens, that the day which trod upon Aurora’s heels would be fair and clear. The duke and duchess, being satisfied with the sport, and having executed their design so ingeniously and happily, returned to their castle, with an intention of seconding their jest; since nothing real could have afforded them more pleasure.

Smollett (1755)

“A God’s name then,” cried Sancho, “I consent in my tribulation: I say, I accept of the penance on the conditions aforesaid.”

Scarce had Sancho pronounced these last words, when the music of the waits began to play again, and an infinite number of muskets was discharged, while Don Quixote, hanging about Sacho’s neck, imprinted a world of kisses on his cheeks and forehead: the duke and duchess, and all the by-standers, expressed the utmost pleasure, and the beauteous Dulcinea, in passing, bowed to their graces, and made a profound curtsy to Sancho.

About this time, the cheerful smiling morn advanced; the flowrets of the field, with heads erect, diffused their fragrance; and the liquid crystal of the rills, brawling among the variegated pebbles, went sliding on to pay its tribute to the rivers, that waited to receive their customary dues: the joyous earth, the splended firmament, the buxom air, and light unclouded; each singly, and altogether joined, serene and fair. The duke and duchess, extremely well satisfied with the chase, as well as with the ingenious and fortunate execution of their design, returned to the castle, with full intention to perform the sequel of their jest; than which no real adventure could have given them more delight.

Ormsby (1885)

“Well then, in God’s hands be it,” said Sancho; “in the hard case I’m in I give in; I say I accept the penance on the conditions laid down.”

The instant Sancho uttered these last words the music of the clarions struck up once more, and again a host of muskets were discharged, and Don Quixote hung on Sancho’s neck kissing him again and again on the forehead and cheeks. The duchess and the duke expressed the greatest satisfaction, the car began to move on, and as it passed the fair Dulcinea bowed to the duke and duchess and made a low courtesy to Sancho.

And now bright smiling dawn came on apace; the flowers of the field, revived, raised up their heads, and the crystal waters of the brooks, murmuring over the grey and white pebbles, hastened to pay their tribute to the expectant rivers; the glad earth, the unclouded sky, the fresh breeze, the clear light, each and all showed that the day that came treading on the skirts of morning would be calm and bright. The duke and duchess, pleased with their hunt and at having carried out their plans so cleverly and successfully, returned to their castle resolved to follow up their joke; for to them there was no reality that could afford them more amusement.

Putnam (1949)

“Well, then,” said Sancho, “it’s in God’s hands. I accept my hard luck — I mean, I consent to the penance with the conditions that have been laid down.”

No sooner had he said this than the clarions struck up once more, accompanied by a great firing of muskets, and Don Quixote threw his arms about Sancho’s neck, giving him a thousand kisses on the forehead and on the cheeks. The duke and duchess and all the bystanders showed that they were very pleased, and as the cart got under way once more the beauteous Ducinea bowed to the ducal pair and dropped a low curtsy to Sancho.

With this, the merry-smiling, dawn hastened her coming, the little flowers in the fields lifted their heads, and the liquid crystal of the brooks, murmuring over their white and gray pebbles, went to pay tribute to the waiting rivers. The earth was joyous, the sky unclouded, the air limpid, the light serene, and each of these things in itself and all of them together showed that the day which was treading on the skirts of morning was to be bright and clear. Satisfied with the results of the chase and with having carried out their intention so cleverly and successfully, the duke and duchess now returned to their castle with the object of following up the jest which had thus been begun, as there was no serious occupation that gave them greater pleasure than this.

Raffel (1996)

“All right, then! It’s in God’s hands!” said Sancho. “It’s my misfortune, and I accept it — that is, I accpet the whipping, but only on the conditions already noted.”

Sancho had scarcely uttered these last words when the soft, harmonious music began once more, and a million muskets sounded, and Don Quijote [sic] threw his arms around his squire’s neck, kissing his forehead and his cheeks a thousand times over. The duke and duchess, and everyone else present, seemed absolutely delighted, and the chariot began to move off — and as it passed, the beautiful Dulcinea bent her head to acknowledge the duke and duchess, and made a deep curtsy to Sancho.

By which time, too, happy, smiling dawn was upon them, revealing the little flowers of the fields, standing straight and tall; the liquid crystal of tiny streams went murmuring among smooth brown and white pebbles, hurrying to pay tribute to the waiting rivers. The whole Earth was happy, the skies were bright and clear, the air pure, the light peaceful and calm, each and all indicating that this day, already treading on dawn’s skirts, would be serene and untroubled. The duke and duchess, well satisfied with their night’s hunting, and with how neatly and discreetly their plan had been carried out, went back to their castle, intending to continue amusing themselves, for there was nothing in all reality which could have pleased them quite so much.

Rutherford (2000)

“All right then, God’s will be done!” said Sancho. “I agree to my bad luck — I mean to say I accept my penance, on the conditions that I said.”

Hardly had Sancho finished speaking when the music of the shawms sounded out again, and countless muskets were fired once more, and Don Quixote draped himself around Sancho’s neck, mothering him in kisses on the forehead and the cheeks. The Duchess and the Duke and all the others showed signs of the greatest satisfaction, and the chariot began to move; and as the lovely Dulcinea went by she bowed her head to the Duke and Duchess and made a low curtsey to Sancho.

And now the happy, smiling dawn came on apace, the flowers in the fields all raised their heads and stood erect, and the liquid crystal of the streams, murmuring among pebbles brown and white, flowed along to pay its tribute to the expectant rivers. The happy earth, the bright sky, the clean air, the serene light — each and all gave the most manifest signs that the day that came treading on the skirts of the dawn was going to be calm and clear. And the Duke and the Duchess, happy with their hunt and with having achieved their aims so cleverly and successfully, returned to the castle, determined to play some more jests — because nothing done in earnest could provide them with more amusement.

Grossman (2003)

“Well, well, then it’s in God’s hands,” said Sancho. “I consent to my bad fortune; I say that I accept the penance, with the conditions that have been stated.”

As soon as Sancho said these words, the music of the flageolets began to sound again, and an infinite number of harquebuses were fired, and Don Quixote threw him arms around Sancho’s neck and gave him a thousand kisses on his forehead and cheeks. The duchess and the duke and all those present gave signs of great contentment and joy, and the cart began to move, and as the beautiful Dulcinea passed by, she bowed her head to the duke and duches and made a deep curtsy to Sancho.

And now a joyful and smiling dawn quickly approached; the flowers of the fields raised their heads and stood erect, and the liquid crystal of the streams, murmuring over smooth white and gray pebbles, hurried to pay tribute to the rivers that awaited them. The joyful Earth, the bright sky, the clear air, the serene light, together and separately gave clear indications that the day that came treading on the skirts of the dawn would be calm and bright. And the duke and duches, satisfied with their hunt and with having achieved their ends so cleverly and successfully, returned to their castle, intending to continue with their deceptions, because for them, there really was nothing that gave them greater pleasure.

I think the biggest take away from this is that it is best to pick a more recent translation when reading Don Quixote. It’s also clear, as I’ve noted many times before, that the excessive praise given to Grossman is unwarranted. She’s excellent, but not really any different from any other modern translator.

Still, I’m glad I had Smollett’s Hoax to allow me to present this comparison.

The New Look of Frankly Curious

Frank MoraesI know what you’re all thinking, “I don’t like this new website look!” But trust me, you’ll get used to it. This is hardly the first time that the website has changed. And every time it changes, people don’t like it at first and then they can’t even remember what it was like before.

But there are a number of good things about this new design. The first, and most obvious, is the new header. I always liked the Lego Don Quixote, but it did have it’s problems. The biggest is that the windmill was there. And as a lover of Don Quixote, it’s a bit embarrassing to have the cliche up — especially given that it happens early in the first book. What’s more, there was no Sancho Panza, and he is as important to the book as Don Quixote.

A smaller problem was that more and more I thought it made the website look like something aimed at 7-year-olds. Now given that in many ways, I still am a 7-year-old, there is something to be said for that. But I am more serious most of the time. The 7-year-old is more the spice — not the meat. And the artwork by Andrea English is great.

The most notable thing about this new theme is the slider thingy that currently scrolls through the six most recent articles. I like that quite a lot. Eventually it may drive me crazy. But I like it now. And the cool thing about it is that I can change it so that it shows random articles. I’m thinking of doing something like Random Mondays or something. I haven’t tried it out so I don’t know how well it will work. But with 7,000+ articles to choose from, it should be interesting.

A Brief History of the Website’s Look

Anyway, I thought I would share with you the way that the website used to look. All the designs were done by Andrea. The first one was the most brilliant. It was based on René Magritte’s self-portrait, Clairvoyance. It combines many of my other interests like the Indian Rope Trick, Christopher Marlowe, puppets, Madame Tutli-Putli. There’s other stuff.

Frankly Curious Website 2010

To be honest, I could have lived with that header forever. The problem with it is that it is so high. I don’t like to hide the content. So after two years, we changed it. Andrea came up with the following design. But it did not last long.

Frankly Curious Website 2012

I get the idea of it: the different interests that the website is supposed to reflect. But that head still just creeps me out. But you can see that the sidebar has become more sophisticated. So this design only stuck around for a year, then we got what you all are very familiar with:

Frankly Curious Website 2013

That was three years ago! And it hadn’t changed much. When we moved from the Nucleus CMS to WordPress, the designed opened up. But otherwise, it was pretty much the same. And what we have now is structurally very similar. The changes are really all cosmetic.

The only thing I wonder about is whether it isn’t all just too much blue. I’m curious what you all think. Feel free to complain. I doubt I’ll change anything, but it might make you feel better!

Was Cervantes Part English? Does It Matter?

Jáuregui's CervantesThere has been a lot of reporting on some recent scholarship by historian Julio Mayo that finds that Cervantes, author of Don Quixote along with a bunch of stuff you’ve probably never heard of, had a relative that was British. There are two ways to look at this. First, it’s interesting because we know so very little about Cervantes. Second, it is not interesting because Cervantes’ lineage is not interesting.

The whole thing has to do with the an English family of traders, the Timtams. They apparently moved from England to southern Spain in 1480. As early as 1481, John Tintam was involved with the slave trade between Guinea and Spain. Now I know, Tintam and Timtam are not the same words, but that is the way it was at that time — spelling was all over the place and people often spelled their own names in different ways. Anyway, Tintam was the father or grandfather of Juan Titon de Cervantes. Is this Cervantes’ father’s father, Juan de Cervantes?

It is possible. However, since Cervantes’ paternal grandfather had a brother who was mayor of Cabra, the family was so integrated, and thus bred, into Spanish culture, that I have a hard time thinking much of this great English connection. Ultimately, we are all related. But more than that, people moved around a lot in the 15th and 16th centuries. There was a lot of breeding of people from different areas. And that brings up the whole “So what?” factor in this story.

I’m worried that the reason people are interested in this is to take away some of the Spanish of Cervantes — that there is an implication that a “pure” Spaniard could never have written such great books.

I’m worried that the reason people are interested in this is to take away some of the Spanish of Cervantes — that there is an implication that a “pure” Spaniard could never have written such great books. But if only he had some of the magic dust from the island of Shakespeare, well then, it is all explained. The truth is that Cervantes was very much a Spaniard. In fact, it’s a bit disturbing at times to read his thoughts on the matter. What’s more, he tried to join the Spanish Armada, but was refused service (due to his lost hand, as I recall).

But there’s something else here. Throughout his life, Cervantes wanted to be a poet. But he was never successful at this. And the reason is that Cervantes wasn’t a very good writer on the micro-scale. What makes Don Quixote great is not the fine writing. It is first and foremost that he is a funny guy — the early 17th century Terry Pratchett. And the reason that we think him great today is because in those two novels he created the blueprint for both the modern and the postmodern novel.

Certainly others had written long books before. In fact, people had written long and funny books, like Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel series. But Don Quixote is remarkable in a number of ways. First, the characterizations are much deeper than anything ever seen; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza seem like real people. Second, the books actually go somewhere — they have narrative arcs. Other books were just much more like real life: this happened, then that happened, then another thing happened. Don Quixote pulls all that together and comes to a satisfying ending.

I think that Cervantes stumbled upon greatness because he was rather bad at the kind of writing that was popular at the time. Don Quixote was not the first “novel” that he wrote. It was just the one were he happened upon something new: two glorious characters who propelled his story to greatness. Exactly how Rodrigo and Leonor Cervantes came to produce the great writer is only marginally interesting and of no relevance at all.

Anniversary Post: Don Quixote

Don QuixoteOn this day in 1605, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha was published. Notice that it is not Quijote, as Wikipedia claims. That is the modern Spanish spelling of the title character’s name; we in America still spell it as Cervantes himself spelled it, even though it creates many problems like the word “quixotic.”

This, of course, was the first part of the book. We don’t know exactly when the second part was published, except that it was in late 1615. Over time, I’ve come to be less enthusiastic about Part 1. It is still a great novel. And the reason it is great — at least in a historical context — is that Cervantes tells what seems to be an episodic story. Various things happen to our heroes. But then he ties them all together at the end. I don’t think anyone had ever done that before and that is why Don Quixote is called the first modern novel. Certainly it is true that people had been writing long narratives for many years before this book.

The reason people still read Don Quixote has little to do with its historical significance, however. They read it for the same reason they read it at the time: it’s a funny book. But when it came time to write a sequel, Cervantes’ clever mind took it one more step into absurdity. Since the conceit of the first book was that it was just a translation of an Arabic book by Cide Hamete Benengeli, it was a true story. And by that time, Don Quixote himself was very famous because of Cervantes’ translation. It only made sense to a mind as creative as Cervantes’ that further adventures of the unlikely knight errant would be in that world.

Regardless, for the umpteenth time, you really should read the book. In order to understand literature, you need to read Don Quixote. And in a sense, to understand literature, you only need to read Don Quixote. It really does have it all. I can’t say that literature has moved past it. Earlier novels like the five that make up The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel are still fun to read, but they are distinctly from an earlier time. But Don Quixote is not. It could be published today and I think it would still find a sizable audience.

Hip Sneakers, Rare Books, & My Wardrobe Budget

Air Jordan 3 True BlueI really want to get away from talking about politics. It’s just getting so boring. I mean, I enjoy it to some extent. But what is there to say? Saudi Arabia is an evil country that we pretend is good because they are an official ally. Said that (many times). The Republican Party is a proto-fascist revolutionary group that is far more dangerous than people will admit. Said that (many times). And the media pretend it isn’t true. Said that (many times). So I want to write about other things. And today, I thought that I would write about fashion — in particular, sneakers.

On Wednesday night’s The Daily Show, Hasan Minhaj presented a report on the secondary sneaker market. This is a subject that is probably well known to all of you. I knew that in the past Air Jordans were a very big deal and that people paid ridiculous sums of money for them. What I didn’t know is that they are still being made and people still pay ridiculous amounts of money for them. What’s more, Nike apparently makes fewer sneakers than there is demand and so has created this secondary sneaker market. It’s kind of like ticket scalping at popular live events.

I do sort of understand the whole thing. Yesterday, I went over to Treehorn Books here in Santa Rosa. It’s the first time I’ve gone into a bookstore in ages, because I have a hard time stopping myself and I’ve been on the financial edge for some time. I’m not that fond of new bookstores. (There’s a Barnes & Noble right across the street that I don’t like going into.) But used bookstores are places of adventure. And Treenhorn is great because it is so overflowing that books are hidden behind books. You never know what you’ll find. And yesterday, I almost bought the original two volume Putnam translation of Don Quixote. Why? Did I need it? No. I already own it. But the dust jackets on this one were in slightly better condition. (Although it didn’t have the box it originally came with, which would have doubled the price. I, of course, have the box.)

So I understand wanting to have stuff. But it’s also true that I use that edition of Putnam. The only other edition is abridged. And I’m definitely not collecting copies of Don Quixote to impress my friends because they just think I’m weird. Now I suppose that at least some of these people wear the sneakers. But even the nicest ones struck me as — Oh, what is the word?! — ugly. What I’ve been wearing for the last year (and will wear for about two more years) are Gen-X Mens Mercury Skate Shoes. I bought them two years ago for $15 at Big 5 Sporting Goods and they sat unused until my last pair of shoes literally fell apart. (I mean “literally” as in “actually happened.”)

But this is the exception. I don’t normally buy clothes. I accrete them. People are going to throw stuff out and they know they can give them to me because I really don’t care what they look like or if they fit. This doesn’t make me better than other people — just different. And I think I suffer for it. When I checked out at Treehorn Books, I was very excited. I had just found The Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (first edition, seventh printing) for nine bucks. But the cashier seemed downright rude to me. Then I went to the bagel shop and I got similar treatment. I think people assume I’m a homeless man. (Not that this is an excuse; and a homeless man who reads Beckett ought to be honored!)

I’ve seen similar things. There are a lot of techs who are obsessive about the state of their computers, but who live in a complete mess. Everyone has their obsessions. But some of these sneakers sell for well over a thousand bucks. You know what you can get for that amount of money? You can get the 1755 first edition of Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote. It’s available for roughly $1,800 from Lyppard Books in the UK. And I know: to each his own. But even in 1755, this pair of books was rare — far more rare than any Air Jordans ever made. Yet the Air Jordan III OG sell for $4,500 — two and half times as much. And they are… sneakers. They are worth so much because (1) they were the first with the “Jumpman logo”; and (2) Michael Jordan himself “won a very memorable slam dunk contest” wearing them. Note: he just wore that style of shoe; $4,500 doesn’t get the actual shoes he wore.

But I would never pay $1,800 for a first edition Smollett. For one thing, I’m not that fond of the translation. But books are not objects of reverence for me. I use them. I damage them. That’s one of the reasons the two volume Putnam is so great: it’s well bounded with heavy stock pages. (Don Quixote is usually published as a single volume, leading to lots of binding breaks.) I’ve destroyed any number of other copies of Don Quixote. If I had an $1,800 Smollett, it would sit somewhere because I would be afraid to touch it. That’s what I assume is what happens to the $4,500 sneakers that other people buy.

But it is interesting to think that I could buy that Smollett right now. Because I haven’t wasted a bunch of money on nice clothes and overpriced sneakers.

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.

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.

Will Terry Gilliam Destroy Don Quixote?

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

According to The Verge, Amazon has ponied up some money, and next year, Terry Gilliam will start production of his long delayed film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. On the surface, it sounds like the perfect project for me. It is a cinematic take on Don Quixote — something that really has never been done properly. And it is a film by a director who I admire. Yet I am extremely leery about this combination.

I know I’m just a little punk, but I think most people don’t get Don Quixote. They focus on the iconography — and on the title character. Yes, that’s all very interesting: the crazy old man who thinks he’s a knight errant. But what is most amazing about the books is how they play with the distinction between literature and reality. Quixote’s insanity manifests itself in his inability to distinguish between the two. And it is taken to absurd heights where the crazy old man causes so much trouble in his delusion that he becomes a literary figure. People say that Don Quixote was the first modern novel, but it is actually the first postmodern novel.

When Orson Welles attempted to translate the books onto the screen, he had one brilliant idea: put Don Quixote in the modern world. This shows that he understood one important aspect of the story: Don Quixote was an anachronism in his own time. Even if his ideas about knights were based upon romantic literature, the actual knights they were based upon existed centuries before. So Welles was right to see that Don Quixote was no more out of place with motor scooters and movie theaters than he had been with barbers and college students.

But again, how would one really capture the feel of the books? I think you would follow Welles’ lead and make it in modern times. And you would make it as a documentary. Don Quixote likes nothing so much as to have long conversations about his important place in the history of knights errant. And the people around egg him on and get quite a lot of enjoyment listening to the crazy man. I can well see interviews with him as well as the simple, but firmly grounded Sancho. I’m thinking something along the lines of the approach that Bob Fosse took in Lenny and Star 80. It could be brilliant in the right hands.

I’m afraid that Gilliam is entirely the wrong hands. According to Wikipedia the basic plot is, “An advertising executive who finds himself unstuck in time unwittingly travels between modern-day London and 17th-century La Mancha, where he participates in the adventures of Don Quixote.” Good God! I have flashes of Time Bandits. To make matters worse, the advertising executive apparently becomes the Sancho character. I guess there are ways of making this work, but Sancho is really the most important character in the book. Without him, there is nothing. His simple practicality is the perfect foil for Don Quixote’s complicated delusions.

A similar dynamic happened in They Might Be Giants where Justin Playfair who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes mistakes his psychiatrist Mildred Watson as Dr Watson. The point, though, is that Playfair is not Holmes. Now Don Quixote is insane and constantly sees reality differently than it is. So it could be made to work. But it is a supremely dangerous choice. What’s more, Holmes is interesting without Watson. Don Quixote really isn’t interesting without Sancho. And pushing him out of the plot almost certainly destroys the fabric of the narrative.

But we’ll see. As regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of 12 Monkeys. Then again, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is co-written by Gilliam — never a good sign. I’ll still want to see it. And I will be the first to admit if I’ve been wrong about it. I really want to love it. Anything based on Don Quixote can’t be all bad. But sadly, most things based upon it are mostly bad.

Morning Music: Gordon Lightfoot

Don Quixote - Gordon LightfootA few days ago, James recommended Gordon Lightfoot for our Morning Music. We had discussed the darkness of “If You Could Read My Mind.” Maybe some day I will do that I song. I’m very fond of it. But I need to make my peace with the song “Don Quixote.” It’s a pretty song. And I quite like the lyrics. What I don’t like is the title. It makes me think that Gordon Lightfoot had never read Don Quixote.

Now I know better than most that Don Quixote means many different things. There is an often repeated quote that every man should read the novel three times in his life: when young, middle aged, and old — because it will mean different things each time. That’s very true. For myself, Don Quixote doesn’t mean anything in particular. There are simply elements that stand out more some times than others.

But I don’t see how Gordon Lightfoot’s song has anything to do with the book. The song is about the parts that we play in life and how we are really very complex. The horseman stands above this, accepting his contradictions. And part of this is, “Tilting at the windmills passing.” That’s the only reference to Don Quixote. But Don Quixote tilts at windmills because he is hallucinating. And he is hallucinating because he has totally lost his grip on reality and submerged himself into the part of a knight errant.

But “Don Quixote” is a good song. I just wish he would have given it a different title. But maybe I’m the one who’s wrong. If someone can explain to me why the song is corrected titled, I’d very much appreciate it.