Don Quixote Makes Me Feel Guilty

This week my class and I are beginning the last book we’ll read together this semester, Don Quixote. The professor who designed the syllabus selected Edith Grossman’s translation, and since I hadn’t read it before (or any translation of the Quixote, if you can believe it) I was thrilled. I had the chance a few months ago to record a conversation for Reading the World with Edith Grossman, which will be going live in the next few weeks, and though we didn’t really talk about Quixote in any great detail, it whetted my appetite to read it.

But now I’m wracked with guilt. I’m totally bored by the book! I went into it expecting to love it, because of what I knew about it. I knew it to be a parody, a comedy, an action-adventure, full of witticisms, puns, and jokes. I’d watched, just a few weeks ago, Man of La Mancha and loved it! I’d expected the book to be an equally passionate defense of the imagination in world without hope.

And I’m extremely hesitant to criticize the translation, because Edith Grossman is an incredible translator. I’ll buy and read books just because she translated them. I’ve always deeply admired her work. But I find myself wondering about some of her choices in this text.

It struck me at points that the translation was aiming to produce a scholarly edition, replete with historical notes, rather than something one might read for pure pleasure. Rather than translating jokes, in many cases, or even (shock!) creating in English jokes that would carry the rhythm of the dialoge, she footnotes them. Same for the puns. Same for the names of the imaginary knights Don Quixote describes to Pancho as they gaze over the two flocks of sheep. That was the moment I was most saddened by this overarching strategy. Because Sir Esparragrass of the Forest is hilarious. And Espartafilardo del Bosque footnoted is not.

I think the story is engaging. I think it is funny. I’m just so disappointed that reading it in English feels like plodding through knee-deep mud – you get there but it takes much longer than if you were on solid ground. Has anyone else read this translation (or others)? Does it feel like this?

5 comments

  1. I read the translation by John Rutherford early this year. It’s far from academic and the jokes are quite funny. I explicitly bought it because Margaret Jull Costa endorsed it over Grossman’s version.

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  2. Pingback: Actually, There are Two “Erica Mena”s « Alluringly Short

  3. Cynthia M

    Hi Erica, hope you’re doing alright.
    Sorry to hear that Don Quixote bores you so; I really enjoyed listening to a book on tape this past spring. Gary Racz strongly recommended the Thomas Shelton English translation when I asked him about English translations about a year ago. This was before the 4th centenary translation of founding member of the Cervantes Society of America,Thomas Lathrop, was released. Lathrop’s motivations for translating sound interesting. Here’s a link from Conversational Reading containing links in the com box to a Lathrop interview regarding his translation. A second link contains reviews of several English translations of Don Quixote, and they are not kind to Grossman.

    Sometimes it seems that first drafts end up being final drafts and neither the translation nor the drafts are checked. Translation is so labor intensive that ,perhaps, some publishers’ timetable expectations are unrealistic? maybe they don’t want to pay a native speaker or linguistic or period expert to check over things. Fame may work against the writer in this case, in that the drafts are accepted and published based on reputation.

    I haven’t read Grossman’s translation and so can’t say yea or nay, but if it is not an acceptable translation the fault may not lie completely with her. I’m just saying.

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