It’s hard to say exactly how many English language translations of Don Quixote have been written. The reason is that there have been a small number of quasi-translations: effectively translations of translations. But, in general, there are 13 of what I think of as real. The very first, by Thomas Shelton, was published just seven years after the original Spanish language edition. And the most recent, by Gerald J Davis, was published just a few years ago in 2012. What’s remarkable about them is just how different they are. In many ways, my obsession with Don Quixote has taught me more about the art of translation than about the book itself.
What Is Don Quixote?
It’s sad that we refer to Don Quixote as a novel. It isn’t. It is two novels. The first one, Part I, was published in 1605. There is no indication that Miguel de Cervantes had intended it to be anything but a single novel. It’s just that the novel was an instant success. You can see that in the quickness that it was translated into English in 1612, followed closely by French, Italian, and German versions. Cervantes — or at least his creation — became a star “over night.”
The First Modern Novel
I do wish that Part I of Don Quixote were published as a single book. I think for most people, seeing these ridiculously thick books is intimidating. And the truth is that Part I is a thoroughly satisfying novel. In fact, the ending is brilliant in a way many modern novels are not. The last part of it brings together a number of earlier episodes.
A good example of this is discussed in an article I wrote many years ago, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote De La Mancha! In Chapter 4 of the book, before Don Quixote starts traveling with Sancho Panza, the knight tries to help Andrés, a boy who is being whipped by his employer (although it is probably better to think of the employer as a slave-master). The scene ends with Don Quixote riding off thinking that he has set things straight, but instead, he has simply set Andrés up for a much greater beating.
We know this, but in Chapter 31, it is very satisfying that Andrés turns up again and confirms all of this. He tells Don Quixote, “Look here, mister knight errant, if you ever come across me again, even if you can see that I’m being torn to pieces, for God’s sake don’t come to my rescue — just leave me alone with my troubles, because they can’t possibly be so great that your help won’t make them much worse. And God’s curses on you and on every single knight errant that ever was born.”
Part II is the more brilliant of the two books and it is the result of the popularity of Part I. The conceit of the first novel is that Cervantes is just presenting a rough translation of an Arabic book by Cide Hamete Benengeli. So I’m sure that Cervantes started playing the “What if?” game that all writers play. Now that his great creations Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were famous, what would happen if they really did exist? And so the second novel is primarily concerned with the collision of fiction with reality where Don Quixote runs into people who know him from having read the first novel.
Don Quixote is usually called the first modern novel. There are many reasons for this. One is, as noted, the way that the novel is more than just a collection of adventures; Cervantes ties everything together to create a satisfying whole. Another reason is that the characters are incredibly complex. Don Quixote has a rich inner life. And Sancho is as thoroughly drawn as any character I can think of in western literature. And this is all the more remarkable considering that he is not flashy but just a guy trying to make the best of his lot in life.
The First Postmodern Novel
But if the first part of Don Quixote is the first modern novel, I think the second part must be the first postmodern novel. I’ve always found the definition of “postmodernism” to be lacking — probably because we live in a postmodern world and so haven’t settled on a definition. But my take is that postmodern art turns in on itself.
The best example of this is the difference between Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Godot is thoroughly modern in its vague relationship with the concept of truth. Dead is more or less than same play thematically, but it is postmodern in its absolute contempt for the concept of truth. Instead, it is interested in having fun and playing around at the expense of truth.
Why not base a play on the “jingle” of one coin and have the audience get so “caught up in the action” that they become minor characters in Hamlet? It’s a play within a play within a play that just assumes that we are in a play. But it isn’t interested in such issues; it just assumes such insanity and makes the best of it. It is ultimately meta-theater: theater about theater, which is why I talk about how it “turns in on itself.”
The second Don Quixote does just this. It’s fiction that pretends to be a new reality about fiction that pretends to be an old reality. It’s really quite confusing and must have blown people’s minds at the time. It’s interesting that it would take a couple hundred years of modern novels for writers to manage catch up to this old novel. I don’t think people thought much about the profundity of it because they were too busy laughing and enjoying the story.
Don Quixote Microscale Translations
When people ask me which translation of Don Quixote they should read, I always tell them the same thing, “You should read whichever translation you happen to have.” While it is true that the translations are quite different, they aren’t so different that you should wait to read it. Just grab a copy and start reading it. Just the same, if you are going to buy a new copy, I recommend John Rutherford’s translation from Penguin Classics. It is laugh-out-loud funny — most likely providing the closest experience that early 17th century Spanish readers got from the original.
The Prologue Sentence
I first decided to read Don Quixote back in early 2010. At that time, I had no money, so I looked at the six translations that my local library had. And I wrote an article about it, About to Read Don Quixote. I had a silly idea: to look at the first sentence of prologue of the first book. It’s a fun and cheeky article that is worth reading. But it does show that I didn’t know much about Don Quixote at that time.
Cervantes is being playful here. He’s very big on self-deprecating humor. So he started his prologue by saying that he had intended his book to be good, but of course it isn’t, because he wrote it. As he goes on to say “like gives birth to like.” It’s quite funny. But the first sentence is just getting started.
Given that I only had access to six of the translations, I thought it would be good to lay out all of the translations that I now have:
- Cervantes (1605)
- Descoupado lector: sin juramento me podras creer que quisiera que este libro, como hijo del entendimiento, fuera el mas hermosa, el mas gallardo y mas discreto que pudiera imaginarse… (Idle reader: I swear you can not believe that I would this book as a child’s understanding, was the most beautiful, the most gallant and more discreet than one might imagine…)
- Thomas Shelton (1612)
- Peter Motteux (1712)
- You may depend upon my bare word, reader, without any farther security, that I could wish this offspring of my brain were as ingenious, sprightly, and accomplished as your self could desire…
- Charles Jarvis (1742)
- You may believe me without an oath, gentle reader, that I wish this book, as the child of my brain, were the most beautiful, the most sprightly, and the most ingenious, that can be imagined…
- Tobias Smollett (1755)
- Idle reader, without an oath thou mayest believe, that I wish this book, as the child of my understanding, were the most beautiful, sprightly, and discreet production that ever was conceived…
- John Ormsby (1885)
- Idle reader: thou mayest believe me without any oath that I would this book, as it is the child of my brain, were the fairest, gayest, and cleverest that could be imagined.
- Samuel Putnam (1949)
- Idling reader, you may believe me when I tell you that I should have liked this book, which is the child of my brain, to be the fairest, the sprightliest, and the cleverest that could be imagined…
- JM Cohen (1950)
- Idle reader, you can believe without any oath of mine that I would wish this book, as the child of my brain, to be the most beautiful, the liveliest, and the cleverest imaginable…
- Walter Starkie (1954)
- Idle reader, you need no oath of mine to convince you that I wish this book, the child of my brain, were the handsomest, the liveliest, and the wisest that could be conceived.
- Burton Raffel (1999)
- Leisurely reader: you don’t need me to swear that I longed for this book, born out of my own brain, to be the handsomest child imaginable, the most elegant, the most sensible.
- John Rutherford (2000)
- Idle reader: I don’t have to swear any oaths to persuade you that I should like this book, since it is the son of my brain, to be the most beautiful, elegant, and intelligent book imaginable…
- Edith Grossman (2003)
- Idle reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine.
- James H Montgomery (2006)
- Idle reader, you may be assured, without my swearing an oath, that I should like this book, as the child of my intellect, to be the most beautiful, the most elegant, and the most tasteful one imaginable.
- Gerald J Davis (2012)
- Gentle reader, you may believe me, without my swearing an oath, that I would willingly desire this book, as a child of my imagination, to be the most beautiful, and most graceful, and the wisest that can be conceived.
One thing that’s interesting is that none of translations are all that different. Chalk that one up to the fact that I didn’t pick a very good sentence.
Don Quixote’s Sorry Face
In Chapter 19 of the first novel, Don Quixote “helps” a group of priests who excommunicate him. But Sancho, very much still a believer at this point in the book, tells those “helped” that they can thank “el caballero de la triste figura.” This is more or less: the knight of the sad figure. Don Quixote loves the moniker and takes it as his own.
In general, translators have taken “figura” to mean “face” rather than “figure.” But most of the translators find their own version, as you can see from this altered table from my article, Don Quixote and His Sorry Face — Translation Comparison.
The reason I wrote the article was because I was reading Rutherford’s translation and I noticed “sorry face.” The whole point of Rutherford translation is to wring every bit of comedy out of the novels as can be had. And “sorry face” is indeed funny — and in exactly the way that Cervantes would have liked. It’s insulting, “Look at that sorry face!” But in Don Quixote’s delusion, it is noble. As I wrote:
I think this lists of names for Don Quixote’s face gives a surprising amount of information about the translations and what the translators were trying to do. But it also provides a good idea of fashion in translation, because I think “figura” really does imply the entire person. And “sorry figure” is probably a better translation, because it isn’t so much Don Quixote’s face that is absurd, but his entire person.
I’m a bit unclear as to what exactly I’ve written about when it comes to Don Quixote, so at least for now, I’m going to provide a listing. I do know that there are roughly speaking two kinds of articles: those about the books and those about the writer.
Articles About Don Quixote
- Anniversary Post: Don Quixote
- On 16 January 1605, the first book of Don Quixote was published. According to that article, we don’t know the exact date that the second book was published. That’s curious.
- Will Terry Gilliam Destroy Don Quixote?
- This article raises a good question. I am very fond of Terry Gilliam as a filmmaker. Just the same, he’s hit-and-miss. And it is exactly this kind of material that he is most likely to screw up. And the truth is that Don Quixote is easy enough for anyone to screw up. The iconography is interesting, but it isn’t the soul of the book. And the iconography comes from Gustave Doré anyway.
- Translating Malaprops in Don Quixote
- One of the funniest things in Don Quixote is Sancho’s frequent malaprops and the arguments that he and Don Quixote have about them. This article discusses the difficulties with translating malaprops and how translators tend to just follow each other when they find a good solution.
- Origins of Don Quixote
- A brief quote from Walter Starkie about the difficulties of Cervantes’ life and how they resulted in Don Quixote.
- Rutherford, Humor, and Don Quixote
- In this article, I discuss the translation of a sentence in Don Quixote. John Rutherford translated it such that it became a joke, but I question this translation. I think that Rutherford was just too eager to find humor in the book where it otherwise didn’t exist. I did later correspond with Rutherford about this and he argued that his translation was the correct one. At this point, I’m not sure if I ever wrote about that. If not, I’ll have to get to that.
- Making Don Quixote Dramatic
- This was an early discussion of how to make Don Quixote work on the stage or screen. I have since come up with better ideas.
- Raffel’s Unique Don Quixote
- This is a brief introduction to Burton Raffel’s translation, which focuses on getting the sound of book correct. There is also a discussion of his non-translation of malaprops.
- Don Quixote and the Death of Culture
- In 1940, the Boston Public Library put on an exhibit called “Don Quijote’s Library.” It featured important copies of the book itself, but was most focused on all the chivalric books that the character had in his libraries and that are believed to be responsible for his insanity. The article focuses on an article about the exhibit written by Esther B Sylvia, which I have made available as a PDF. Any Don Quixote fanatic will want to have it.
- Don Quixote Abridged: Putnam’s Omissions
- The first Don Quixote copy I had was Samuel Putnam’s abridged version. I take this as an opportunity to discuss what was removed by Putnam in Chapters 11 through 14. I also compare his translation to that of Edith Grossman. I will admit to being a bit biased against the Grossman translation. It it a fine translation, but it is undeserving of its stature as the translation. As I discuss, she does a very poor job of translating the poetry — not that anyone really cares about the poetry.
- Don Quixote in Pieces on the Ground
- This article goes over some of the early chapters, in particular, when Don Quixote first get Sancho Panza to be his squire. This is really where the book begins. Without Sancho, there isn’t much to the first book other than Don Quixote sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. The title of the article is a reference to one of my copies of Don Quixote falling part. This is another reason why it should be bound as the two novels that it is.
Articles About Cervantes
To Be Continued…
This page is a currently ongoing project to create a long introduction to Don Quixote and its English language translations. New updates will be announced via the Frankly Curious blog. Eventually, I will cover everything I’ve gone over in the blog over the years. And more!
 Here is the original text of the article “About to Read Don Quixote“:
The Need for Translators
Perhaps I am being too hard on Cervantes; had he been born in, say, England, he would have written in that transitional early modern English—which really means, “not modern English”. In fact, at least Miguel (if only he had been born 420 years later in California, I’m sure we would have been on a first name basis) is translated. These days, Shakespeare’s plays are set everywhere other than where and how they were intended, but we’re still left with the same damn language. I often wonder why we can’t get over this. Let’s just acknowledge that we all know all the common Shakespeare misquotes (like “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” which is way more pithy than what that bard actually wrote anyway) and let the translators have at those plays. And by “have at”, I don’t mean in that Tom Stoppard “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” way; I mean in the way that translators of de (if only he had been born 420 years later in California, I’m sure we would have been on a second name basis, too) try to recreate the experience the original readers had for modern readers. (Or translators of Goethe or Rabelais—writers who, strangely, I like a lot more than that bard.)
But this does present a problem. You see, being as I am a poorly educated physics PhD (“fud”), I have been working for years trying to read all the books that my humanities studying friends always seemed like they had read. (I later found out that they had not read most of those books—they had simply read about them; but that has not quelled my urge.) I have only two books left that I must read: Moby Dick and Don Quixote. So recently, I decided to buy a copy of DQ (I already own a copy of MD), and I went into a bookstore: one of those big ones with the coffee and multiple floors (no, not Powell’s Books—I would have noticed if I had been there; it was Borders or Barns and Noble or something like that; not a bad bookstore, but certainly not a good one, and certainly not one with any used books; but I digress). And I go to the Literature section and after much difficulty (I have real trouble alphabetizing), I find Don Quixotes. That’s right: plural. There were six different translations. Imagine if I had been in Powell’s?!
Which Don Quixote will I read?! There is no one around to help, or rather, the help I am offered is like that from my sister, who tells me, after reading Moby Dick in high school, “You don’t need to read it.” I have two options: go to a used bookstore and read the cheapest version I can find, or determine for myself which translation to read. I settle on the latter, so I can write this article. If you are starting to imagine the snowball effect, I assure you, it is more like Sisyphus.
Obviously, I can’t read all the translations in order to determine which transition to read. I needed a test. I decided to take a single sentence from Don Quixote and compare how the different translators handled it. In this way, I figured that I could find the one with the most modern punch—the one that would thrill me like “A Confederacy of Dunces”. I chose the first sentence of the Prologue of Part One. Here it is in Spanish:
Google translates this as follows:
Are computers good at translating or what? Based on this, you would think Cervantes was a nut-job: he’s talking gibberish here! But you can glean a few things from this “translation”. First: Miguel was a nut-job, but in a good way; he is directly addressing the reader, but he’s being sarcastic—I think. Second: he seems to be promising something, and that something seems to be that this book is, while not exactly good, a lot better than you would expect from him. Third: I can’t think of anything. And this is after reading six human translations of this sentence. Google Translate has me completely confused. “I would this book as a child’s understanding”?! And these guys are billionaires!
The Modern Library translation uses the not so modern translation of the great Samuel Putnam. For years, this seems to have been the translation, because it is the one I find in many different forms most often in used bookstores. It is the only copy I currently own, but this should not be taken to mean I believe it the best. Putnam translates our sentence thusly:
Actually, Putnam goes on to the next sentence by use one of my favorite punctuation symbols: the semicolon. And this makes sense, but I cannot go into it here, we have many other translations to get to. Let me just say about this translation that it isn’t bad. Sure, “the child of my brain” is kind of Google-like. Just the same, it is clear that Putnam “gets” the humor. I particularly like the phrase, “should have” that no other translator uses; I think it makes a great deal of difference.
Also, one cannot avoid a few facts about this translation. First, it is considered to be the first truly modern translation. Of course, we are in the post-modern period, which is why we have so many different translations now: who is to say which is the best? (Harold Bloom, of course.) Second, Putnam has pretty much been in print ever since it was published—over sixty years. That must say something, but don’t ask me what.
The Norton Critical Editions version of Don Quixote was translated by a live guy—in 1999: Professor Burton Raffel. Here’s his shot:
Okay, the prose is better than Putnam, but Raffel had 50 years to out-do him. And here, I really like the phrase, “I longed for.” This edition does include a very helpful map of “Spain at the End of the Sixteenth Century.” But I am not one to be swayed by such editorial tricks.
Now we must go way back to the 1742 publication of the painter Charles Jarvis (or Jervis, depending upon whom you ask). Note that this was when the translation was first published; Jarvis must have done the translation some time before then, because he was dead at that time. It is now used as the basis for the Oxford World Classics version. Here’s Jarvis’ crack:
Again with the brain! The main thing to notice with the last two translations is that they aren’t hooking into the humor. Cervantes is playful, and while you hear this with Putnam, you just don’t with Raffel and Jarvis. In Raffel’s defense, he gets going after this sentence and his translation is far better than Jarvis’ and in some ways better than Putnam.
I originally thought that Peter Motteux’s translation dated from the Victorian period, because of its pomposity. In fact, it is the earliest translation that I looked at—dating back to 1712. Predating Jarvis by only three decades (When a decade meant something!), this translation seems like it comes from another world. I still find its writing style “sticky.” Are you ready to get gooey? Motteux will now hit us with his best shot:
This translation actually does sound humorous, but it does not capture the irony and self-deprecation of the original. In fact, it reads as parody. This is the stuff of Monty Python lampoon; you can imagine the “great” Shakespearean actor reciting these lines with much bombast. And in this way, the translation only gets better. But for my purposes, it gets worse.
There is at least one nice thing to be said about the Motteux translation: It was used as the basis for a “young adult” condensation of the story in 1939, The Adventures of Don Quixote De La Mancha by Leighton Barret and illustrated (beautifully) by Warren Chappell. It is perhaps a day’s read for a very slow reader, and worth the effort if you do not feel up to the full text.
Moving on to 1964 and Walter Starkie’s unabridged translation (yes, he did it more than once), which is found in the Signet Classic Don Quixote. Let’s just get to it, shall we:
A little dry, I think. Like Raffel, however, he does get a bit of a groove going after this. Unfortunately, also like Raffel, it isn’t that good a groove. It definitely seems readable, and at $7.95 for a new copy, it is the cheapest, I have found.
The Blue Whale: Edith Grossman
But now all of the Sperm and Humpbacks must scatter, because the Blue Whale has arrived: Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation of Don Quixote. I must admit to starting out with a bit of a prejudice against this version because of its stamp of approval by the ranting—western civilization is going to hell because of post-modern scholarship, even though I am a post-modern scholar—Harold Bloom. But let us leave this for now; I can rant about Bloom’s ranting some other time. Let’s see what Dr. Grossman has to offer:
It does have a certain self-deprecating charm that is not found in any of the other translations. And it doesn’t use the word “brain”! (Although I think this is academic; to me, the word is “mind”; what Cervantes goes on to talk about is what we would now call the workings of his “mind” or his “creativity”—not his “understanding”.) But after it, the humor becomes more muddled than that of most of the other translations. Perhaps this is due to age, she is about to turn 74; maybe she just isn’t feeling that funny. Plus, she’s probably had to spend some time with Bloom.
But there are other problems. You will notice that this translation has the most words of the lot, except for Putnam, who has the same number: 37. And it has bigger words; her translation has far more characters than any other. She probably does capture aspects of Don Quixote that no other translator has (Bloom makes this claim, and as much as I may dislike his popular writing, he is a very intelligent and erudite man). But I am not looking for a Don Quixote that makes me feel “the spiritual atmosphere of a Spain already in steep decline”; I want a fun read.
Where does this leave me? (Probably without readers as of the appearance of Putnam several screens back.) There are many more translations; what I have presented is quite incomplete. But from what I’ve seen, from Putnam onward, there isn’t much difference between the translations. This is based upon very little evidence, of course—but more than just the sentence I have been discussing.
My decision is to read Putnam. It helps that I already own it, but this is not why I am choosing it. Raffel’s translation is quite good. I think it is a close second to Putnam, but it is second. After him would probably come Starkie.
If I were looking for something other than a good read, I might well go with what looks like the most scholarly of the translations: Edith Grossman’s. If it came down to it, Jarvis’ almost 300-year-old translation seems quite readable. As for Motteux, I don’t think I would read it at all if I had to put up with such prose.