Ecco, October, 2003.
Hardcover, 940 pages.
It has been said that one should read Don Quixote three times in one's life: in youth, in middle age and in one's senior years. This is probably good advice, since the book has been a model for subsequent literature and a textbook for writing devices since its appearance. Therefore, reading one of the most admired books of Western Civilization becomes important. For most readers, this will be undertaken by seeking out the best translation into English that is available.
Clearly there were translations of Don Quixote almost as soon as it appeared on the streets of Spain, being read by all levels of society. If you could read, you would be reading Don Quixote and laughing all the while. Don Quixote went into ten editions before Cervantes's death, on April 23, 1616, ironically, the same day that William Shakespeare died. Most of the editions were printed on cheap paper, in an early version of paperback books, so that they could be sold at a low price. Cervantes is quoted as marveling that persons from all walks of life were seen reading and laughing at the adventures of the noble knight and his ignoble squire.
Western civilization was blessed simultaneously with both William Shakespeare and Miquel de Cervantes, and while we can be almost sure that Cervantes did not read Shakespeare in translation, we are titillated by the mystery of whether Shakespeare read Cervantes. Don Quixote was translated into English in 1612, into French in 1614, and into Italian in 1622 John Ormsby, who translated Don Quixote in 1885 notes in his preface that Thomas Shelton, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare's, "put the Spanish of Cervantes into the English of Shakespeare." Since Shelton's sometimes careless translation into English, every succeeding generation has had it translator.
Therefore the question is, "Why do we need a new translation of Don Quixote when there are so many translations already?" The answer is quite simple. Each generation must translate anew because, while the work being translated remains the same, contemporary language constantly changes. The flavor of Cervantes must be translated into our constantly changing vernacular. This fact is easily illustrated when we compare the origin of the name of Don Quixote's horse in John Ormsby's nineteenth century translation of the word "rocin". Rocin in Spanish means a horse in very bad condition. Ormsby translates the word as "hack" so that the name, Rocinante means the first and foremost of all the hacks in the world. The word "hack" has changed a great deal in meaning since Ormsby's time. Grossman translates the same word as "nag" so that Rocinante's name becomes a name, "that was noble, sonorous, and reflective of what it had been when it was a nag, before it was what it was now, which was the foremost nag in all the world." On checking with the original Spanish, this reviewer found that this was by far a superior translation and that it has a more acceptable meaning to the twenty-first century reader.
Finally, it probably should be said that many of the most often cited translations of world classics are so pedantic and boring that they will hardly give the reader the experience he or she is seeking. As a matter of fact, they will even do damage to the reader's understanding of the importance of the work, and it will be judged as dull and uninspiring. Ms. Grossman's translation, on the other hand, reaches a contemporary readership. No one will have to wade through the long-forgotten vernacular of the nineteenth century and be distracted by the changes that have taken place in written and spoken English. With Grossman's translation, the reader can concentrate on enjoying the genius of Cervantes.
--Sarah Reaves White
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This review was published in the January-February, 2004 of The Internet Writing Journal.
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