So as the 2014 version of Spanish Literature Month draws to a close, and as regular visitors to this blog may have noticed, things have been a little quieter around here, it is time to come clean. I’ve spent the month reading Roberto Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives”, Bolano a writer the New York Times’ James Wood described as “one of the greatest and most influential modern writers” and the book as a long novel. This has of course taken me a while to read. However I’m not here to discuss Bolano, that will come in a few days time when I’m done, but I also tackled the greatest of Spanish novels, “Don Quixote”.
This review is not going to be a critical assessment of Miguel de Cervantes’ work, I can do that twitter(esque). A nobleman reads too much, goes mad, thinks he’s a knight, enlists an aide (Sancho) and goes on some adventures, some funny, some sad. There is no need for me to point out the tale, for various reasons it’s become part of folklore, nearly everybody knows about tilting at windmills, just as we know about a contemporary of Cervantes, Shakespeare and his Romeo and Juliet, although in my neck of the woods, they teach us about one of those writers in school and not the other.
This “review” is a little different to the ones I normally post here, however I couldn’t let Spanish Literature Month go by without mentioning not only “the greatest monument of literature in Spanish but a pillar of the entire Western literary tradition”. Fair words they are – but who would write such a bold statement? They come from the “Translator’s Note to the Reader” in the latest translation of Cervantes work – they are written by possibly the most well known translator of Spanish works, Edith Grossman.
If you read reviews of translated works, and if you’ve been participating in Spanish Literature month I think it is a pretty good bet that you would have come across Grossman’s name. A translator of seven of Gabriel Garcia Marquez works and six of Mario Vargas Llosa books, that’s thirteen novels by Nobel laureates, she has also translated a raft of other notable works (for example, I recently reviewed Antonio Munoz Molina’s epic “In The Night of Time” which was also translated by her).
However she tells us that the most daunting of tasks was to take on Cervantes. With decisions such as spelling Quixote with an “x” not a “j”, to ensure the connection to the English “quixotic” to be immediately apparent, whether to use a translating journal (she’s never kept one), the use of footnotes (this book was the first time that she has used footnotes) and having to reference another translation of the same work. These subjects alone make up only a few short pages of the “Translator’s Note to the Reader” but are fascinating as the art of translation becomes clearer to the reader.
“And here we would pardon the captain if he had not brought it to Spain and translated it into Castilian, for he took away a good deal of its original value, which is what all who attempt to translate books of poetry into another language will do as well: no natter the care they use and the skill they show, they will never achieve the quality the verses had in their first birth.”
Even the text of “Don Quixote” itself discusses the merits of a decent translation, or the art of translation never being able to capture the quality of the original. To illustrate how different translations can repel, entrance, confuse, assist, explain or welcome the reader I have chosen a small section from Chapter XIX where Sancho verbally defends Don Quixote after yet another misunderstanding.
Edith Grossman translation
At this the bachelor rode off, and Don Quixote asked Sancho what had moved him to call him The Knight of the Sorrowful Face at the moment and no other.
“I’ll tell you,” responded Sancho. “I was looking at you for a while in the light of the torch that unlucky man was carrying, and the truth is that your grace has the sorriest-looking face I’ve seen recently, and it must be on account of your weariness after this battle, or the molars and teeth you’ve lost.”
“It is not that,” responded Don Quixote, “but rather that the wise man whose task it will be to write the history of my deeds must have thoughts it would be a good idea if I took some appellative title as did the knights of the past: one was called The Knight of the Blazing Sword; another, The Knight of the Unicorn; yet another, The Knight of the Damsels; this one, The Knight of the Phoenix; that one, The Knight of the Griffon; the other, The Knight of Death; and by these names and insignias they were known around the world. And so I say that the wise man I have already mentioned must have put on your tongue and in your thoughts the idea of calling me The Knight of the Sorrowful Face, which is what I plan to call myself from now on; and so that this name may be even more fitting, I resolve to have depicted on my shield, when there is time, a very sorrowful face.”
Tobias Smollett translation
Thus dismissed, the bachelor pursued his way, and the knight asked what had induced Sancho, now, rather than at any other time, to style him the Knight of the Rueful Countenance. “Truly, answered Sancho, I have been look at you some time, by the light of that torch the unfortunate traveller held in his hand; and in good faith, your worship cuts the most dismal figure I have almost ever seen; and it must certainly be occasioned either by the fatigue you have undergone in this battle, or by the want of your teeth.” “That is not the case, replied his master; but, the sage who is destined to write the history of my exploits, hath thought proper that I should assume some appellation, by the example of foreign knights, one of whom took the title of the Flaming Sword; another, of the Unicorn; a third, of the Ladies; a fourth, of the Phoenix; a fifth, of the Griffin; a sixth called himself the Knight of Death; and by these epithets and symbols, they were known all over the face of the earth, and therefore, I say, that the fore-mentioned sage hath now put it into thy thoughts, and directed thy language to call me the Knight of the Rueful Countenance, an appellation that henceforth I adopt; and that it may suit me better, I am resolved to have a most woeful figure painted upon my shield, with the first opportunity.”
P.A. Motteux Translation (Everyman’s Library)
When the Batchelor was gone, Don Quixote ask’d Sancho why he call’d him the Knight of the woeful Figure? I’ll tell you why, quoth Sancho; I have been staring upon you this pretty while by the Light of the unlucky Priest’s Torch and may I ne’er stir if e’er I set Eyes on a more dismal Figure in my Born-days; and I can’t tell what shold be the Cause on’t. Unless your being tir’d after this Fray, or the Want of your Worship’s Teeth. That’s not the Reason, cry’d Don Quixote; no, Sancho, I rather conjecture, that the Sage who is commission’d by Fate to register my Atchievements, thought it convenient I should assume a new Appellation, as all the Knights of yore; for one wall call’d the Knight of the Burning Sword, another of the Unicorn, a third of the Phoenix, a fourth the Knight of the Damsels, another of the Griffin, and another the Knight of Death; by which By-names and Distinctions they were known all over the Globe. Therefore, doubtless, that learned Sage, my Historian, has inspired thee with the Thought of giving me that additional Appellation of the Knight of the woeful Figure; And accordingly I assume the Name, and intend henceforwards to be distinguish’d by the Denomination. And that it may seem the more proper, I will with the firsth Opportunity have a most woeful Face painted on my Shield.
I will leave it up to you to decide which of the above sections flows better, it goes without saying that the Grossman version is the more modern and therefore more likely to appeal to modern readers. Sorrowful Face, Rueful Countenance or woeful Figure?
An odd “review”? Essentially I couldn’t let Spanish Literature Month go by without dabbling into the “greatest modern novel”, and what better way to do it that by comparison of the various versions that are available. The fact that a book first published in 1605 recently made the New York Times Best Seller list is testament alone to the power of this great work and the amazing work that Edith Grossman has done for Spanish literature. This is one book that you should add to your collections (if you don’t already have a copy that is).