Miguel de Cervantes, 1605
Translated by Edit Grossman, 2003
Don Quixote is one of those books engraved on the “to-read” list of many a reader. Although this is subject to academic debate, it is often cited as the “first” novel and this esteemed honor is entwined in historical influence, for it can be argued that all other novels build off of the foundation established by Don Quixote. This influential role creates an aura around Don Quixote as a book that is cherished by many – even if the many have never read it.
Despite these popular acclaims heralded within the literary circle, Don Quixote was never really high up there on my list. It landed somewhere between Moby Dick and Ulysses; books that that I’ve told myself that I should read but have never really found the motivation to turn to. For one, it is long: 940 pages long. Who has the time for that? Secondly, it is old: 408 years old. I’m a reader that gravitates toward modern and postmodern experimental writing. Why would I want to read something that is potentially outdated in its style and themes? Finally, it was originally written in Castilian Spanish of the medieval period and although I’m not shy towards reading non-English, translated works (in fact my favorite books are not originally written in English) I’ve had some trepidation about finding the right translation to Don Quixote to motivate me to read this classic canonical work.
When I discovered that Edith Grossman had translated Don Quixote in 2003 that last hangup became the primary force to pique my excitement and finally motivated the beginning of my reading of the misadventures of the Man of La Mancha. Edith Grossman is a Spanish translator that I’ve grown to love through her excellent translations of the works of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So, when discovering this translation of Don Quixote I reasoned that since Edith Grossman plays a significant role in penning the English version of my most cherished book, she most certainly must do justice to the acclaimed Don Quixote. My supposition was correct and in the past week and a half I have been swept away by Cervantes’ mad knight errant and the ridiculous exploits cataloged within Don Quixote. Grossman’s translation is fluid and captivating. A book that I thought would take me months to read may be finished by this month’s end due to the insightful and engaging modern translation. With appreciation for her skill in translation, I wondered what Grossman thought of the following passage spoken from the voice of the village priest who sifts through Don Quixote’s library to burn the books that have influenced the madness of the errant knight:
“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 matter the care they use and the skill they show, they will never achieve the quality of verses had in their first birth.” (48)
Although I don’t claim any capability to ever experience the impact of Cervantes’ original Castilian text, I will say that Grossman does achieve a quality that gives a modern life to Cervantes’ prose and verse. Having finished the first part of Don Quixote I have gained a respect for the audacious scope of this novel originally penned in 1605. It contains within it artistic conceits that are admirable, such as the authorship of a novella within the novel and the constant troubles self-inflicted by the wild actions of the insane protagonist. I have been entirely surprised by the violence and the sadness that is penned within this work. Don Quixote and his foolish squire, Sancho Panza, suffer many injuries due to the mad knight’s bold charge into adventures that are above his abilities as he is beaten and wounded by many peasant folk that realize that the insane knight is foolishly motivated towards unrealizable ideals of an extinct chivalry. There are also many slapstick moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, such as the pathetic experience when Don Quixote vomits into the face of Sancho Panza after the knight drinks a nauseating elixir followed by the squire returning the favor by vomiting into his master’s mouth with disgust. I was amused to find that the most famous scene of Don Quixote, when the knight battles with the windmills, occurs as a brief side-story within the first sixty pages, causing me to think that many readers hardly made it past the first 100 pages of a less engaging translation, since this iconic scene is humorous but hardly meaningful in the greater scope of the book.
The first 200 pages or so are devoted entirely to the misadventures and sufferings of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Although these first 200 pages are amusing with a sense of pathetic catharsis, in my reading I began to wonder how Cervantes was going to maintain the same level of amusement and wonder with the knight’s foolish exploits for an entire 940 pages when he took some artistic deviations through the introduction of a trio of intertwined lovers and a diversion with a discussion of a novella within the novel. With these artistic diversions, the novel diverts its focus away from the madness of Don Quixote while remaining focused on chivalrous themes of love, fidelity, trust, and honor.
From the lens of a modern reader, there are some narrative exploits that I wouldn’t accept from a modern or postmodern writer, such as the ease with which characters bump into each other and the simple manner in which the plot folds together nicely, but this plot style is very Shakespearean in its method in which many of the love-crossed characters come together and forgive each other’s misgivings and errors and this is very characteristic of the writing of the time when Cervantes penned this work. Despite these minor criticisms, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with Cervantes’s Don Quixote and look forward to the direction that Cervantes and Grossman take with the second part of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
“””I have already told you, my friend,” replied the priest, “that these books are intended to amuse our minds in moments of idleness; just as in well-ordered nations games such as chess and ball and billiards are permitted for the entertainment of those who do not have to, or should not, or cannot work, the printing of such books is permitted, on the assumption, which is true, that no one will be so ignorant as to mistake any of these books as true history,”” (270)