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Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America

Volume XIII, Number 1, Spring 1993





Vice President

JOHN J. ALLEN (1994)



Executive Council


Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America


Book Review Editor: EDWARD H. FRIEDMAN

Editor's Advisory Council


Associate Editors


Cervantes, official organ of the Cervantes Society of America, publishes scholarly articles in English and Spanish on Cervantes' life and works, reviews, and notes of interest to cervantistas. Twice yearly. Subscription to Cervantes is a part of membership in the Cervantes Society of America, which also publishes a Newsletter. $20.00 a year for individuals, $40.00 for institutions, $30.00 for couples, and $10.00 for students. Membership is open to all persons interested in Cervantes. For membership and subscription, send check in dollars to Professor WILLIAM H. CLAMURRO, Secretary-Treasurer, The Cervantes Society of America, Dept. of Modern Languages, Denison University, Granville, Ohio 43023. Manuscripts should be sent in duplicate, together with a self-addressed envelope and return postage, to Professor MICHAEL MCGAHA, Editor, Cervantes, Department of Modern Languages, Pomona College, Claremont, California 91711-6333. The SOCIETY requires anonymous submissions, therefore the author's name should not appear on the manuscript; instead, a cover sheet with the author's name, address, and the title of the article should accompany the article. References to the author's own work should be couched in the third person. Books for review should be sent to Professor EDWARD FRIEDMAN, Book Review Editor, Cervantes, Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese, Ballantine Hall, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 47405.

Copyright © 1993 by the Cervantes Society of America.



ArribaAbajo Translating Cervantes: Una vez más1

Burton Raffel

Basándose en las teorías lingüísticas y en algunos análisis específicos de su próximo estudio The Art of Translating Prose (Penn. State Univ. Press, 1994), Raffel hace una detallada comparación de las traducciones impresas del Quijote -por Smollett, Ormsby / Douglas / Jones, Putnam, y Cohen- y de su propia traducción (Bantam, 1994). Raffel plantea que, en general, las traducciones anteriores desfiguran el sentido de algunos aspectos claves de la prosa de Cervantes y, por tanto, falsifican la esencia de la obra considerada, por el nuevo traductor, como la mejor novela del mundo.

Vladimir Nabokov, whose critical opinions tend to be both absolute and absolutely untrustworthy, did not think much of Don Quijote. If I do not misread his words, he could and did read the novel only in translation, which explains a good deal, for virtually all the translations into English have been at best (in Nabokov's words) only «more or less adequate»2, and at worst execrable. It is risky, not to say foolhardy, to evaluate what all native speakers of Spanish and many others beside have for centuries called the greatest novel ever written3 But Nabokov wrote not as a critic, with the responsibilities and also with the relative humility of the scholar, but as a practicing novelist of unlimited ambition and boundless arrogance. It seems to have been a professional obligation for him to like very little that others (except Russians, and by no means all of them) had written: there would of course be more room at the top, where he placed himself, if fewer rivals were left to occupy those heights. «The [emigré Russian] author that interested me most», he records in a memoir, Speak Memory,   —6→   «was naturally Sirin... Among the young writers produced in exile he turned out to be the only major one»4. Sirin was of course Nabokov's own pseudonym, under which he published, in Russian, his first novels. All of Nabokov's considered judgments, accordingly, have most emphatically to be considered in the light of who framed them, and why:

Don Quixote has been called the greatest novel ever written. This, of course, is nonsense. As a matter of fact, it is not even one of the greatest novels of the world... the book lives and will live through the sheer vitality that Cervantes has injected into the main character of a very patchy haphazard tale, which is saved from falling apart only by its creator's wonderful artistic intuition that has his Don Quixote go into action at the right moments of the story5

It may not seem of any particular significance, in a discussion focussed on translating Don Quijote, to show how easy it would be for so brilliant a writer as Vladimir Nabokov, reading Cervantes' book only in English translation, to be so incredibly wrong about the greatest novel ever written. Nabokov's motivations are indeed of no relevance, here, but since translations may well have been the source for his error, and for similarly flagrant misjudgments by others, both living and dead, the inadequacies of those translations are extraordinarily relevant.

Let me begin with a deceptively simple-looking metaphor, in chapter 7 of Don Quijote's second volume. The addled knight's housekeeper, terrified that he is going to «break out» and «go off again» -i. e., ride away on Rocinante, Sancho Panza trailing after, seeking resplendent adventures- runs to seek help from a new friend, a recent and very cocksure university graduate, Samson Carrasco. In describing how her master appeared, on returning home from earlier adventures, she describes him as having looked


flaco, amarillo, los ojos hundidos en los últimos camaranchones del celebro

«weak/thin, yellow, his eyes sunk/drowned/merged in the last/furthest/final attic/loft of his skull/brain»

Although there is in British usage an excellent and fairly exact translation for at least the central meaning of the word camaranchón (again, meaning a kind of attic store room; the British term is «lumber room», and it has no true equivalent in American usage), the Penguin Classics British translator, Mr. J. M. Cohen, chooses to omit the metaphor completely. He translates, that is, as though the Spanish read, quite straightforwardly, «los ojos hundidos en el celebro», «his eyes sunk right into his skull»6 This sort of determined levelling is, as I have said elsewhere, typical of his work, and of the approach taken by virtually all the translators in the Penguin Classics series -not that this is quite so bad a rendering as some other Penguin translations. All the same, there is a specific, imaginative force to «los ojos hundidos en los últimos camaranchones del celebro» which simply is not present in the more familiar, predictable «los ojos hundidos en el celebro». Finding an exact English-language equivalent is of course a genuine difficulty: even «lumber room» is not exact, because although it means «a room where unused furniture is kept»7, that room can be anywhere, on any floor. Not only does «lumber room» have no necessary connection to an «attic» room, but a camaranchón is quite specifically in the attic, and this particular camaranchón is «en los últimos camaranchones», «the very last of all the camaranchones», or, in short, «all the way up in the attic». That highly specific location further complicates the translator's task, if he is to carry over the full sense and flavor of the original -and faced with such a degree of difficulty we may, along with virtually all translators of Don Quijote, stop and ask ourselves: Is this metaphor really worth all the trouble? Is it in   —8→   fact important enough so that the translator needs to wrestle with it, rather than simply cutting the Gordian Knot and getting on with his business? The answer, it seems to me, is the key to really translating Cervantes' novel, and though the answer given by earlier translators has been a consistent, no, it is not worth it at all, we have other fish to fry, I insist that if Cervantes thought the metaphor important enough to put into his masterpiece, the translator had damned well better find it of equal importance. Working directly in Spanish, a language of peculiarly subtle nature, almost indeed a language more of indirection than of forthright statement8, Cervantes quite likely did not have to wrestle with the formulation of his metaphor. But what has that got to do with the translator, who may not have the advantage of working in Spanish, but who ought not to forget that he, alas, is not Cervantes. If Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wanted his reader to see Don Quijote's emaciation in these exact terms, then that is what the translator is required to do. As both translator and critic of translators I can be, and I have been, less insistent about the absolute primacy of the original, in dealing with the translation of lesser authors. But the greatest novel ever written cannot be translated like any ordinary book: the more the writer of such a book is capable of, the more his or her translator is obliged to do.

Samuel Putnam's translation, «his eyes were deep-sunken in his head»9, is in part less bland: «deep-sunken» is livelier than «sunk», and therefore evokes somewhat more of the energy and strength of the original. But not only does Putnam's version similarly omit the metaphor, it still further compromises Cervantes' meaning by misleadingly translating «celebro» («skull, brain») as «head». Another translator, Walter Starkie -Irish, rather than English- translates the phrase as «with his eyes deep sunk in the recesses of his skull»10. This is still better than Putnam's rendering, because «recesses» at least echoes, even if it does not   —9→   translate, the metaphor. But «better», as I have said, is still not good enough, not for Don Quijote. Omission of the metaphor will not do.

John Ormsby's British translation, published in 1885, has been revised by two Americans, Joseph R. Jones and Kenneth Douglas. It is a dogged rendering, somewhat improved by being lightly modernized; it is generally reasonably close to the word-meanings of the original, though as I have said elsewhere mere verbal «meaning» is emphatically not all the meaning a text possesses, and Ormsby frequently seems so closed to all other kinds of meaning that it would be hard to understand, without access to the Spanish, why Cervantes' characters are saying and doing what he tells us they are up to. Those who already know the Spanish can more readily relate to this translation. But those who know only English will find it, as a host of university students can testify, unbearably dull. Messrs Ormsby, Jones, and Douglas blandly translate the snippet here at issue «with his eyes sunk deep into his skull»11.

Finally, Tobias Smollett (or whatever eighteenth-century British person or persons did the work to which Smollett affixed his name) translates our snippet with a bright, cavalier hand: «his eyes sunk into the very lowest pit of his brain»12. All the same, reversing the direction permits Smollett (or his surrogate) to at least give his readers a metaphorical description. Nor is the metaphor he creates by his reversal quite so cavalier as it may seem: «sunk into the very lowest pit» is in fact an imaginative touch, bringing across quite a lot of the original, and certainly a great deal more than is transmitted by any of the other versions. To be sure, «pit» carries associations that have nothing to do with un camaranchón. And seeing an object in the mirror, or standing an object on its head, are surely not preferred methods of translation. Cervantes certainly deserves the very best translation he can receive. But Smollett's rendering seems to me the most adequate of an essentially inadequate lot.

I would not have translated Don Quijote, had I found any of the extant translations satisfactory. To that extent, every new translator of a classic book makes a distinctly egocentric claim.


Nor would I have completed my translation, nor certainly would I have allowed it to see print, if I did not think it in fact a better version than anything that has been available in English -though the very first words of my prefatory «Translator's Note» say bluntly that «No one can reproduce Cervantes' style in English»13. In any event, I was determined not to relinquish Cervantes' metaphor and, after I no longer remember how many experiments, finally came up with this version: «his eyes shrunk way up into the attic storerooms of his skull». Lacking a suitable English idiom, what I have done, essentially, is combine (or at least juxtapose) two native English terms, «attic» and «storerooms», thereby producing something comprehensible, more or less idiomatic (at least, not jarringly unidiomatic) and, most importantly, a translation significantly closer to what Cervantes actually meant and wrote than I believe any of my predecessors has been able (or has cared) to do. This alone probably would not have swayed Vladimir Nabokov; he was in general not a man who liked to change his opinions for any reason, bad or good. But perhaps a myriad such careful trackings of Cervantes' Spanish might have obliged him to modify, if not change, his judgment of Don Quijote. Perhaps -though this is still less likely- so careful a translation might even have made him aware that Spanish as a language possesses subtleties and capabilities of which the non-Spanish speaking person cannot be aware. Nabokov knew this of Russian, and judged translations from that language accordingly. Remarkably few people seem to know this of Spanish, the formal regularity of which makes it relatively easy to speak, but the flavors and fragrances of which are not observable to casual visitors into a linguistic territory where even long acquaintance does not readily yield up the full bouquet14.

And when we even slightly expand our horizons, taking in a passage just a bit lengthier, we can see perfectly clearly that   —11→   Spanish in general, and Don Quijote's Spanish in particular, can present us, in spaces no larger than a single sentence, with truly delicate and important meanings of many sorts, and on many levels. Failure to transmit these important aspects of Cervantes' novel -meanings so central to the overall meaning of the novel that, not to transmit them in English amounts, as I have said, to substantial failure to actually translate the book- constitutes not casual error but serious betrayal.

The long section of volume two, dealing with the duke and duchess of an unnamed and unidentifiable realm, is a clear case in point. If there is one part of the novel which, to my direct personal knowledge, «turns off» uninformed readers with no command of Spanish, it is these pages. As Englished by earlier translators, they seem dull, stagey, and -still worse- more or less pointless. Many readers begin to skip, not long after the novel introduces the duke and duchess; many who plod on find themselves powerfully disappointed. Is this really the greatest novel ever written, they ask plaintively?

Consider, to start with, the first point in the novel at which the duchess, destined (though the reader new to the book does not know it) to be a major character, speaks for herself15. We have seen her, initially, at a distance and from across a field, on horseback, with a falcon on her arm, and engaged in hunting; we glimpse her as she is first visible to Don Quijote and Sancho Panza. Then we have some typically jocose byplay between master and man, in the process of Don Quijote dispatching Sancho to greet this still unknown but obviously regal lady. After that we have Sancho's florid speech of greeting, which is wonderfully ridiculous, drawn with such broad strokes that, almost no matter how it is translated, the humor survives. At this point the lady responds, and we can begin to fill in our portrait of her at first hand:

«Por cierto, buen escudero», respondió la señora, «vos habéis dado la embajada vuestra con todas aquellas circunstancias que las tales embajadas piden. Levantaos del suelo; que escudero de tan grande caballero como es el de la Triste Figura, de quien ya tenemos acá mucha noticia, no es justo que esté de hinojos: levantaos, amigo, y decid a vuestro señor que venga mucho en hora buena a servirse de mí y del duque mi marido, en una casa de placer que aquí tenemos».


If Cervantes is the master, and Don Quijote is the masterwork it is supposed to be, this carefully prefaced and orchestrated speech ought to tell us a great deal. The earlier paragraphs have shown us Don Quijote and his squire acting and speaking in ways very familiar to all readers of the novel, the knight anxious to meet and to obtain the great lady's favor, Sancho equally impressed but, inevitably, unable to deliver a knightly message in properly knightly terms -and it is against this deft backdrop that the duchess' response has been set. It is a neatly crafted speech she gives, framed in exquisitely courteous language which she, and we, know is totally inappropriate to Sancho Panza's inspired, earnest ridiculousness. She says that Sancho has performed his errand exactly as all such errands must be performed; she asks him to rise, for the squire of such a knight as Don Quijote -and not only do we know what sort of knight he in fact is, but as she goes on to reveal, she knows, too- ought not to be down on the ground on his knees. She has heard a great deal about Sancho's master, she says, and though she does not say how or where she has had «mucha noticia» («a lot of news/information») of our knight, we of course know that like so many people all over Spain she has been reading the sensationally popular 1605 first volume of the novel. The duchess finishes her speech by giving Sancho a fascinating message to bring back to his master. Tell Don Quijote, she says, with a delicate hint of eroticism, that his coming is very opportune and he is most welcome («en hora buena») -and why? So that she, and also her husband, the duke, can be taken advantage of («a servirse») by Don Quijote, «in a pleasure home we maintain here», she concludes suggestively. We may at this point have some doubt as to exactly the kinds of pleasure she has in mind -though as far as Don Quijote is concerned, we know that the erotic sort is impossible: our knight does not take entertainment, but instead furnishes it. The duchess' final words clearly indicate that the regal pair are, as it were, «on vacation», having -or trying to have: there is a fascinating note of «exquisite boredom» about the duchess, here and hereafter, and her husband is portrayed as even more narrowly concerned with his own pleasure- a good time at a summer castle/vacation home they have in the vicinity.

What this speech conveys, plainly, is that the duchess, like any high-spirited aristocrat, and especially one on vacation, naturally loves a good time, especially at someone else's expense,   —13→   and that as an aristocrat she fully intends to make sure that a good time is indeed what she has, given so ripe an opportunity as the appearance in the flesh of so superb a source of entertainment as Don Quijote. No concern for the personal interest or, except in a general sort of way, the well-being of her «victims» will (or, in her eyes, should) sway her: lesser folk have been put on earth, runs the aristocratic code by which she has lived her entire life, for the express purpose of providing, in every way possible, for their betters. We can see at once that of course she has no intention of letting either Don Quijote or Sancho know what she, and by extension her pleasure-loving husband, are going to be up to. That would not only spoil the fun, but would involve the impossible admission that non-aristocrats have rights equal to those exercised by aristocrats. We as readers are by this point rubbing our hands in anticipatory delight, as -figuratively- she too is rubbing hers. Predictably, she is a superb actress. Watching her first appearance on stage, we are given abundant (and important) evidence of just how cool and collected she is16.

Here then is how the Penguin translation gives us this crucial first speech -and pity the poor duchess, for as we are continually assured, these days, none of us has more than one chance to make a first impression:

«Indeed, good squire», answered the lady, «you have delivered your message with all the ceremony that such messages demand. Rise from the ground; for it is not right for the squire of so great a knight as he of the Sad Countenance, of whom we have already heard a great deal here, to remain on his knees. Rise, friend, and tell your master that he is most welcome to come and serve me and the Duke my husband, in a country house of ours near here»17.

Where is the sly, gentle sarcasm? In Cervantes, the duchess gently lays it on, fooling Sancho but carefully not fooling us. But in this translation, she is forthright, almost businesslike: «Indeed, good squire...». In the Spanish, she does not say anything about proper «ceremony», but only that Sancho has performed his task exactly as it ought to have been performed   —14→   a delicately two-edged compliment readers find delightful and Sancho swallows whole. Cohen does not permit the duchess any gracefulness of speech: «Rise from the ground», she says clunkingly, in phraseology just barely English, let alone graceful. The message to be returned to Don Quijote, in the original, is that he «venga mucho en hora buena», «he comes very much at the right time». Cohen utterly flattens (and indeed mistranslates) this into «he is most welcome to come», thus losing all the slyness. The regal residence, in the original, is «una casa de placer»: without knowing much Spanish, and having in front of you only Cohen's translation, you would think that, since casa means «house», placer must therefore mean «country». But what placer actually means is «pleasure/comfort/joy», and what casa de placer means, accordingly, is «summer/holiday house/residence». Once again, Cohen has painstakingly levelled the original to the ground, transforming life-giving sparkle into life-depriving drabness, draining away sophisticated cunning in the interests of flat, humorless, humdrum communication, and of course destroying any possibility of letting the innocent reader become even faintly aware of Cervantes' true meaning. Cohen's duchess is a petty bureaucrat, a minor civil servant, duly and mechanically acknowledging receipt of a message.

«Good squire», replied the lady, «you've certainly delivered your message exactly as such messages are supposed to be delivered. Rise, for the squire of such a great knight as He of the Sad Face, of whom we have heard a great deal, should not be down on his knees -rise, my friend, and inform your lord that he is most welcome to take advantage of me, and of the duke, my husband, in a pleasure home we maintain here»18.

Having set out my own version, which I think comes a good deal closer to what Cervantes in fact wrote, let me add that, just as we speak, in English, of a stallion «servicing» a mare, so too there is a palpable whiff of sexuality about the Spanish verb servirse, which can mean «to court/woo», as well as «to seek the favor of». This is emphatically not the primary meaning of servirse, here; it is at best a kind of subliminal association, almost more aura than clear intention -but it is there, nor does it fit badly with (a) the sort of character the duchess may well be, given her position and this speech, or (b) the duchess as she   —15→   actually is, when we subsequently learn still more about her. Again, to trample all such possible meanings out of her opening speech is betrayal of a very serious order. But it gets still worse. Without stopping to examine other manglings of this delicately written sally -for the other translators handle it much as Cohen does (though none of them quite have his peculiar and distinctive ability to betray both the Spanish and the English language at the same time: «Rise from the ground» is in those terms a remarkable achievement)- let me take us two chapters further along, to another crucially important colloquy between Sancho and the duchess. What Cohen and, once more, all the earlier translators manage, in this passage, is to disinfect Cervantes' Spanish. That is, the sexual meanings are here not at all subliminal, but perfectly clear: what earlier translators have accomplished is bowdlerization not in the interests of «safe sex» but in the name of «no sex».

-No tengáis pena, amigo Sancho -dijo la duquesa-; que yo haré que mis doncellas os laven, y aun os metan en colada, si fuere menester.

-Con las barbas me contento -respondió Sancho- por ahora, a lo menos; que andando el tiempo, Dios dijo lo que será.

-Mirad, maestresala -dijo la duquesa-, lo que el buen Sancho pide, y cumplidle su voluntad al pie de la letra19.

This exchange comes just after the regal pair's serving maids, without the duke and duchess knowing they plan to do so, have used the after-dinner washing of guests' hands as a pretext for elaborately and publicly washing Don Quijote's beard, to the accompaniment of great billows of rolling suds that half swallow the poor man's head. The duke politely insists that his beard, too, must be washed, and in this same fashion; Sancho, amazed, has just observed that «un lavatorio de éstos antes es gusto que trabajo», «a washing like this one just now is more pleasure/fun than labor/punishment». The serving maids are young and pretty. Don Quijote is as chaste as a rock, though now and then the rock stirs a bit -but Sancho, though safely married, has more than once indicated both that he is not immune to female seduction and that he cannot truly understand Don Quijote's immunity.


The key phrase is «aun os metan en colada», «even get involved/mixed up with you». Sancho, remember, has just remarked that the girls' behavior strikes him as more gusto than trabajo, and the duchess immediately replies that pena («sorrow/ penalty/punishment/grief») is exactly what he is not to experience: «No tengáis pena.» Nor does she leave either Sancho or Cervantes' readers in doubt as to just why Sancho is to be feeling no pain: «Yo haré que mis doncellas os laven, y aun os metan en colada», «I'll have my serving girls wash you, and even get involved/mixed up with you». Sancho understands perfectly. «Con las barbas me contento», «I'll be satisfied with just the beard», he answers, adding at once, «por ahora, a lo menos», «for now, at least». Afterwards -well, we'll see what we'll see, he says. «Dios dijo lo que será», «God only knows what will happen». It is worth noting that what we in fact see, not too long after, is that, with Sancho gone and Don Quijote visibly much depressed by his squire's absence, the duchess assures our knight that, among others, there are «doncellas... en su casa, que le servirían a satisfación de su deseo», «serving maids/girls/damsels in her house who would [future conditional tense] serve him so that his every desire would be satisfied». Don Quijote asks simply to be left alone. But «no ha de ser así», «it doesn't have to be like that», insists the duchess, becoming even more explicit, «que le han de servir cuatro doncellas de las mías, hermosas como unas flores», «because I've got four serving maids/damsels that you can have to serve you, each of them as lovely/beautiful as a flower». Predictably, Don Quijote declines, and squirms out of her offer, concluding with the immensely courteous and, under the circumstances, delightfully wry disclaimer that he knew all along she was not really serious, because «en la boca de las buenas señoras no ha de haber ninguna [habla] que sea mala», «there can never be anything immoral in the mouths of good/virtuous/moral ladies»20. Here then is the Penguin translator's version of the colloquy between Sancho and the duchess:

«Don't you worry, friend Sancho», said the duchess. «I will have my maids wash you, and scrub you if need be». «I'll be content if they do my beard», answered Sancho, «at least for the present; but for the rest Heaven will provide in due course».


«Butler», said the duchess, «see what the good Sancho wants, and comply with his wishes in all respects»21.

Where is the gusto («pleasure/delight») that Sancho has perceived, and the duchess has assured him he can have, if and when he wants it? Her maids «will scrub [him] if need be», which is neither what the Spanish says nor what either the lady or Sancho Panza has in mind. It may be sufficiently arousing for Mr. Cohen, but the duchess is neither so inexperienced nor so naive, and neither is Sancho. He declines but, obviously tempted, declines just barely, indicating that, «que andando el tiempo, Dios dijo lo que será», «as time goes along/afterwards, God only knows what will happen». Cohen has him say, blandly, «but for the rest Heaven will provide in due course». This is civil servant rhetoric, as before, but neither the words nor the meaning square with the original. The butler is instructed to «comply with his wishes in all respects». There is no room for sly innuendo, in such dull verbiage.

Messrs. Ormsby/Jones/Douglas similarly bowdlerize:

«Don't be uneasy, friend Sancho», said the duchess. «I will see that my ladies wash you, and even rinse and bleach you if necessary». «I'll be content with the beard», said Sancho, «at least for now; and as for the future, God knows». «Attend to worthy Sancho's request, steward», said the duchess, «and do exactly what he wishes»22.

Unless there is a risqué flavor to being rinsed and bleached, of which I am unaware, the sexuality has been scrubbed from this passage. Again, too, the maestresala («butler/steward») is told to «attend to worthy Sancho's request». How solemn our duchess has become! And how boring. (Who, by the way, ever said that Sancho was «uneasy»? He is nothing of the sort; rather, he is drolly interested, both inclined and disinclined, and plainly sorely tempted. The words of the Spanish may justify such a rendering, but the meaning absolutely does not.)

Starkie's translation squirms a bit more, in doing away with the vitality of the passage, but does the dirty deed nonetheless:

«Do not worry, friend Sancho», said the duchess; «I will make my maids wash you, and even put you in the bath if necessary».


«I'll be content with the beard», said Sancho, «at any rate for the present. As for the future, it's God's will what'll happen». «Carry out the worthy Sancho's request, seneschal», said the duchess, «and do exactly what he wishes».23.

Starkie has so managed things, however, that if any sexual activity on Sancho's part is to result, the duchess' instructions to her «seneschal» would seem to indicate that he, the male servant, and not the doncellas, is to engage in it. «Do exactly what he wishes», she commands. I need hardly say that this was not what Cervantes had in mind.

Nor does Smollett come off any better:

«Give yourself no concern, friend Sancho, said the dutchess [sic], for, I will order my maids not only to wash, but also to lay you a bucking, should it be necessary». «I shall be satisfied with the lathering of my beard, replied the squire, at least for the present; and God will ordain what is to happen in the sequel». The dutchess turning to the major-domo, «Remember, said she, what honest Sancho desires, and gratify his inclination with the utmost punctuality»24.

«To lay a bucking», a somewhat archaic expression, is not entirely clear, here; it may mean to «wash with lye», though that would truly be something about which Sancho might feel «uneasy». In any event, the colloquy is turned from lightly spiced to heavily squashed.

«Don't worry, friend Sancho», said the duchess, I'll make sure my young ladies wash you -and I'll even have them go further than that, if you like». «Taking care of my beard will be good enough for me», answered Sancho, «at least for now -and later on, God knows what might happen». «Butler», said the duchess, «pay attention to my good Sancho's request, and make sure he gets exactly what he wants»25.

That is my own translation, and I'm afraid I can't help affirming that this is both what the passage says and what it means. Note, too, that people's speech is here represented in speechlike terms. Cervantes knows the difference between expository and   —19→   conversational prose, and so should his translator. I suspect that my readers will know not only that these are human beings speaking, but pretty exactly what kind of human beings. Nor do I think that Cervantes' charming characters will seem boring, dull, bureaucratic, or weary of the whole business.

Cervantes' handling of speech, indeed, is a major source of information for his readers. How the characters speak, as well as what they say, is extremely important. Don Quijote chatting with Sancho Panza, as they jog along, is stylistically a completely different affair than Don Quijote making a formal address to the duke or the duchess. And Cervantes is even more skilful, for Don Quijote by the end of the book does not speak quite the way Don Quijote did in the beginning. It is clear that he has learned from Sancho Panza -as Sancho Panza, too, has learned from Don Quijote. The colloquies between the two men shift in tone, subtly but palpably, across the long length of the novel. By the end, Don Quijote is quoting proverbs (Sancho's forte), and Sancho is sounding like the «retired» administrator he has (briefly) been. The literate man becomes more colloquial; the illiterate man becomes as good as lettered. It is marvellous writing -but how does one translate it?

As his master likes to complain, Sancho Panza's mouth is always open, his tongue always working. His words, quite as much as Don Quijote's, deeply, indelibly flavor the entire novel: getting them right, or as close to right as possible, is plainly crucial to any translation. Here is the very first thing Sancho ever says, the first time he in fact opens his mouth:

«Mire vuestra merced, señor caballero andante, que no se le olvide lo que de la ínsula me tiene prometido; que yo la sabré gobernar, por grande que sea».

Sancho's second speech, after a response from Don Quijote which is more than five times the length of his squire's comment, and is spoken in a very different tone and structured far more complexly26, is again in this same «downhome» style. And since both these speeches are very short, let me quote this second one as well:

«De esa manera», respondió Sancho Panza, «si yo fuese rey por algún milagro de los que vuestra merced dice, por lo   —20→   menos, Juana Gutiérrez, mi oíslo, vendría a ser reina, y mis hijos infantes»27.

Neither of these speeches show, or at this early point in the novel should show, Sancho in full conversational flight. Cervantes is far too subtle and masterful a writer to hurry either himself or his characters. What we are given, here, is an important but succinct introduction to several dominant themes and styles: (1) Sancho has become our knight's squire because he has been bribed, and he therefore takes Don Quijote's promises very seriously; as a nonliterate man, and -at this stage of the novel- someone who is not supposed to be overly bright, he wants explicit (and repeated) reassurance about those promises, and wants that reassurance in the only way meaningful to him, namely, orally; (2) Don Quijote may soar into elaborate historical (or pseudo-historical) flights, but Sancho's feet remain firmly on the ground; and (3) Sancho's rhetoric, at this stage of the novel, is elementary, basic in both lexicon and in its non-employment of abstract or conceptual materials. Here are my versions of these two speeches:

«Now be careful, your grace, sir knight errant, you don't forget that island you promised me, because no matter how big it is I'll know how to govern it».

«So», said Sancho Panza, «if I become a king, by one of those miracles your grace is talking about, at the very least my old lady, Teresa, would get to be a queen, and my kids would be princes».

Sancho is polite, by his peasant standards; he is respectful, again by his standards; but he is blunt, insistent, and obviously as out of touch with reality, on some levels, as is his master. He is a mild braggart; he is also keenly aware both of his own low economic and social standing, and also of the fact that only through someone ranked higher than himself can he possibly raise his own standing. His rhetoric, as I have said, is colorfully folk-like, but culturally and socially limited, and it is important not to elevate it, just as it is important to present Sancho's speech as stylistically consistent: much of the character's «meaning» (as opposed to mere lexical meaning) depends on the clarity of that presentation. And if, as we know he will, the character of Sancho   —21→   is to develop and grow, and those later stages are to be accurately depicted, these initial representations must allow room for his development to be clear.

Here then are the same two speeches, as translated in the Penguin version:

«Mind, your worship, good Sir Knight Errant, that you don't forget about the isle you promised me; for I shall know how to govern it, never mind how big it is».

«At that rate», said Sancho Panza, «if by any of those miracles your worship speaks of I were to become king, Juana Gutierrez, my poppet would be a queen, no less, and my children princes»28.

Rhetoric rather than failure to track syntactical flow is the chief problem, here. (It would of course be difficult to succeed in disturbing syntactical flow, with such short and straightforward syntax to work with.) «Mire» («consider/watch out/be careful») translated as «mind» rather jars on American ears, but it is standard British usage; the same is true of Cohen's rendering of the appellation «vuestra merced» («your grace/worship»). British lawyers, for example, address the judge as «your worship» rather than «your honor», and there is in general a good deal more «worshipping» those of higher rank in the more class conscious world of Britain than there is in the United States. But the second appellation Cervantes puts in Sancho's mouth is a plain, straightforward «señor caballero andante» («sir knight errant»): to add «good» to that appellation, as Cohen does, suggests a formal elevation of diction false to Sancho's characterization. Spanish requires «que» («that») in front of «no se le olvide» («you don't forget»); English does not, and using «that» again incorrectly elevates the diction (and Sancho). Nor would Sancho, were he speaking modern English, use the poetic usage «isle»29 for «ínsula» («island»), rather than the straightforward «island». Sancho's colloquial «que» («because»), instead of the more formal «porque» («because»), quite escapes Cohen, who turns this colloquial usage into the stiffly formal «for» -and this stiffness is still further emphasized by his rendering of «sabré gobernar» («I'll know how to govern») as «I shall know how to govern». Both the   —22→   auxiliary itself and the auxiliary's unspeechlike form («I shall know» rather than «I'll know») present Sancho as someone he most definitely is not. Much the same thing happens when Cohen translates «de esa manera» («in that way») as the highly formal «at that rate», a learned locution which Sancho simply would not use. The subjunctive «fuese» («were») was and still is relatively common in Spanish, but in contemporary English even well-educated and literate people often go through their entire lives without ever using the subjunctive. To put it into Sancho's mouth is therefore a grave error. The Spanish «fuese rey» must be Englished «become a king»; «become king», as Cohen makes Sancho say, means something quite different, namely, «to become the king». When a Spaniard speaks of «becoming king», absent any more explicit reference we are obliged to understand him as saying «become king of Spain». Sancho is saying nothing of the sort. Translating «dice» («says») as «speaks» is tonally false, as is «no less» for «por lo menos» («at least»). Although «poppet» may be good colloquial usage in England, it cannot be used for «oíslo» (a slang word for «wife», when used by a man, and for «husband», when used by a woman), since in British usage it specifically refers to a small child, usually a little girl -not surprisingly, since its primary meaning was and to some extent still is «doll» or «marionette». To deprive «oíslo» of its marital context is, yet again, to bowdlerize -not perhaps consciously, but what does it matter whether bowdlerization is conscious or not?

Translating Cervantes' closely and carefully wrought textures and tones into such an ill-assorted mélange, how can a translator ever replicate the slow, subtle, and vitally important change in Sancho's speech? The answer, of course, is that he cannot: starting Sancho's spoken usage in such an unholy mixture of written and speech styles (and continuing him in such unsteady fashion, as Cohen does), no translator can hope to present a Sancho who comes close to matching Cervantes'. I cannot here trace out the entire process. But listen to Sancho almost at the end of the novel, reassuring his master that he, Don Quijote, has seen signs and omens where no such things are to be found:

«He aquí, señor, rompidos y desbaratados estos agüeros, que no tienen que ver más con nuestros sucesos, según que yo imagino, aunque tonto, que con las nubes de antaño»30.


«Here you are, my lord: now these signs and omens of yours are smashed to pieces and all gone -and, anyway, it seems to me, fool though I may be, these things have no more to do with what happens to us than last year's clouds»31.

Sancho has not become a bishop, or a university graduate. But can anyone doubt that the level of his discourse has been very significantly raised? The reader may not consciously think of it, but the change is (or should be) so marked that the reader -in no matter what language he happens to be reading the novel- cannot help, on some level, becoming aware of it. Sancho's first speeches, juxtaposed against this almost final one, tell one large part of the story of Cervantes' great book.

«Here, sir, are these omens broken and destroyed. They have nothing more to do with our fortunes, to my mind, than last year's clouds»32.

Although this is only one sentence in a three-sentence speech, Cohen manages to level it both in structure and in meaning. Sancho's way of speech has acquired some of the sweep and lexicon of his betters, but by breaking this not overly long sentence into two, Cohen deprives it of any significant forward movement. Further, although Sancho is careful to say «según que yo imagino, aunque tonto» («according to how it seems to me, though I'm a fool»), Cohen turns him into a crisply authoritative admonisher of his master. «To my mind», Cohen translates, dropping both the explicitly deferential tone and also any reference to Sancho terming himself a fool. But Cervantes has not changed Sancho that much: Cohen here raises an already elevated tone to totally inappropriate levels.

Something of the same sort -though, again, we cannot fully trace out a process about which entire books have been written- happens, although in reverse, to Don Quijote's speech. His long and delectable response to Sancho's first-ever speech, mentioned above, runs like this:

«Has de saber, amigo Sancho Panza, que fue costumbre muy usada de los caballeros andantes antiguos hacer gobernadores a sus escuderos de las ínsulas o reinos que ganaban, y yo tengo determinado de que por mí no falte tan agradecida   —24→   usanza; antes pienso aventajarme en ella: porque ellos algunas veces, y quizás las más, esperaban a que sus escuderos fuesen viejos, y ya después de hartos de servir y de llevar malos días y peores noches, les daban algún título de conde, o, por lo mucho, de marqués, de algún valle o provincia de poco más a menos; pero si tú vives y yo vivo, bien podría ser que antes de seis días ganase yo tal reino, que tuviese otros a él adherentes, que viniesen de molde para coronarte por rey de uno dellos. Y no lo tengas a mucho: que cosas y casos acontecen a los tales caballeros por modos tan nunca vistos ni pensados, que con facilidad te podría dar aún más de lo que te prometo»33.

Verbally, at least, Don Quijote is here riding very high indeed. And the steady, thoughtful sweep of his meditative, authoritative (not to say magisterial) words is, as Cervantes intends, positively hypnotic. Oh, the things I could tell you, he suggests, because for knights errant the world throws up such unexpected and wonderful rewards, «por modos tan nunca vistos ni pensados, que con facilidad te podría dar aún más de lo que te prometo» («by methods/ways/procedures so utterly unprecedented and even unthought of, that it might easily happen that I'll be able to give you even more than I've promised you»). The Penguin translator is of course more at home with such high and elevated pomposities, but for all that he manages to destroy the steady, thoughtful march of Don Quijote's words. This is accomplished by (a) turning Cervantes' two sentences into four, and (b) permitting Don Quijote none of the quiet grace which, early and late, marks virtually his every utterance. Cohen's Don Quijote does not meditate; there is nothing dreamy about his speech, as though his words are delighting and indeed hypnotizing himself, even as they are having much the same effect on Sancho Panza. This is a Don Quijote intent on the stark transmittal of information:

«You must know, friend Sancho Panza, that it was a custom much in use among knights errant of old to make their squires governors of the isles or kingdoms they won; and I am determined that, for my part, so beneficial a custom shall not lapse. On the contrary, I intend to improve on it: for they often, perhaps most often, waited till their squires were grown old; and when they were worn out in their service, from bad days and worse nights, they gave them some title of count, or perhaps marquis, of some valley or province of more or less   —25→   importance. But if you live and I live, it may well be that before six days are gone by I may win some kingdom with others depending on it, and one of them may prove just right for you to rule. Do not think this any great matter, for adventures befall knights errant in such unheard and unthought-of ways that I might easily be able to bestow on you even more than I promise»34.

Don Quijote does not in fact pause, and then say «on the contrary». Instead of breaking the sentence with a period, thus setting up a black and white antinomy, Cervantes goes on, gracefully, «antes pienso» («rather, I think/propose/plan...»). That graciousness is an important part of our knight's characterization; it needs to be transmitted at every point where Cervantes wants it to be transmitted. In his second sentence, too, Cohen falls into the dangerous trap of using «they» and «their» almost as they are used in the Spanish, with the result that pronoun references become distinctly confusing. But Don Quijote is a masterful rhetorician, throughout the novel. So too the Spanish says «les daban algún título de conde» («gave them a title like count»), and once more Cohen mechanically apes the Spanish, turning this into the unidiomatic «They gave them some title of count». Again, Don Quijote does not ever speak this way -or this poorly. Our knight carefully fudges just what size of landed estate he may give his squire: «algún valle o provincia de poco más a menos» («some valley or province, more or less»). But Cohen cobs this into «some valley or province of more or less importance», though it is size and not importance that is at issue, and the reason for Don Quijote's fudging is thus quite obscured. It is of course size, and therefore wealth, that Sancho is concerned with: the point is subtle but important. And what polished, smooth-talking aristocrat -a role in which Don Quijote casts himself would ever say, clumsily, «Before six days are gone by»? «Otros a él adherentes» can mean, as Cohen translates it, «others depending on it». But it does not mean that, here; rather, it refers to subordinate realms which owe (and pay) allegiance to some larger kingdom.

Accordingly, Don Quijote's speech, as I understand it, sounds like this:

«You must know, Sancho Panza my friend, that it used to be very common, in ancient times, for knights errant to make   —26→   their squires governor of whatever islands or regions they conquered, and I am resolved not to neglect this gracious custom -indeed, I intend to improve on it, for occasionally, and I suspect most of the time, they waited until their squires had grown old and fed up with such service, enduring bad days and even worse nights, and then gave them a title -count, or more often marquis of some valley or province, more or less. But if you and I both live, it could be that in less than a week35 I'll have conquered a kingdom to which others pay allegiance, which would be just right for crowning you ruler of one of these subordinate domains. Nor should you think this in any way remarkable, for no one can possibly foresee or even imagine the way the world turns for such knights, so it could easily happen that I will be able to grant you still more than my promise»36.

Toward the end of their final journey, however, when Don Quijote passionately advises Sancho Panza (who has no intention of whipping himself at all) not to whip himself so hard that he does serious damage, our knight's speech has become plainer and, having accommodated itself to Sancho's, also pithier and more worldly:

«Mira, amigo, que no te hagas pedazos; da lugar que unos azotes aguarden a otros; no quieras apresurarte tanto en la carrera, que en la mitad della te falte el aliento; quiero decir que no te des tan recio, que te falte la vida antes de llegar al número deseado. Y porque no pierdas por carta de más ni de menos, yo estaré desde aparte, contando por este mi rosario los azotes que te dieres. Favorézcale el cielo conforme tu buena intención merece»37.

The Penguin translation registers virtually none of these rhetorical changes: it remains in the same stilted key throughout:

«Mind you do not cut yourself to pieces, friend. Let there be a pause between the strokes. Do not rush headlong forward and have your breath fail you in the middle. Do not lay it on so strong, I mean, that your life fails you before you reach the required number. And for fear you may lose by a card too   —27→   many or too few, I will stand close by and count the lashes on this rosary of mine. May Heaven favour you as your good purpose deserves!»38

Don Quijote's four breathless instructions, unwound in one tumbling sentence, here have the breathlessness literally knocked out of them: perhaps for the imagined convenience of the determinedly middle-brow, modern reader, Cohen presents each instruction in a separate, flatly worded sentence of its own. I would like to think that even the modern reader is capable of appreciating Cervantes' prose as Cervantes wrote it:

«Be careful, my friend, not to cut yourself to pieces; take your time, stroke by stroke; don't rush and, halfway through, find you're out of breath; what I mean is, don't whip yourself so hard that, before you reach the required number, you leave this life behind. And so you keep an exact count, neither too much nor too little, I will stand over here and use my rosary beads to count the lashes you give yourself. May Heaven smile on you, as your good intentions deserve that it should».

I should like to rest my case (and conclude this discussion) with the comparatively unremarkable paragraph that closes the nineteenth chapter of volume two. There is to be a hugely expensive rural wedding, to the great pleasure of a rich man named Camacho (who does not really deserve but has won the lady to be married), and to the infinite and apparently fatal sadness of a poor man named Basilio (who deserves but has lost the lady). The last sentence of the paragraph immediately preceding reads, in my translation, «Indeed, peace and happiness seemed to be leaping and frolicking all over the meadow».

Otros muchos andaban ocupados en levantar andamios, de donde con comodidad pudiesen ver otro día las representaciones y danzas que se habían de hacer en aquel lugar dedicado para solenizar las bodas del rico Camacho y las exequias de Basilio. No quiso entrar en el lugar Don Quijote, aunque se lo pidieron así el labrador como el bachiller; pero él dio por disculpa, bastantísima a su parecer, ser costumbre de los caballeros andantes dormir por los campos y florestas antes que en los poblados, aunque fuese debajo de dorados techos; y con esto, se desvió un poco del camino, bien contra la voluntad de Sancho viniéndosele a la memoria el buen alojamiento que había tenido en el castillo o casa de don Diego.


I have termed this an unremarkable paragraph (but only in comparative terms), for the writing is neither as explosive nor as brilliant as much to be found in the novel. All the same, it seems to me an excellent test of the translator, weaving together narrative and thematic strands in amazingly deft language -unremarkable, indeed, as I have suggested, only in comparison to Cervantes himself, elsewhere in the book. It is rich, mellifluous prose -and here is how other translators have handled it:

Several other persons were engaged in erecting a platform from which people might conveniently see the plays and dances that were to be performed the next day on the spot dedicated to the celebration of the marriage of Camacho the rich and the obsequies of Basilio. Don Quixote would not enter the village, for all the urgings of peasant and bachelor alike. He excused himself on the grounds, amply sufficient in his opinion, that knights-errant customarily slept in the fields and woods in preference to towns, even were it under gilded ceilings. So he turned aside a little from the road, very much against Sancho's will, as the good quarters he had enjoyed in the castle or house of Don Diego came back to his mind39.

Would it have been possible for Cervantes to write so ghastly a sentence as the first one, here? And -to focus on only two items- even though the Spanish word order is «en el castillo o casa de don Diego» («in the castle or house of Don Diego»), can anyone doubt that Cervantes wants us to understand that, though it is in fact simply a house, to Sancho, at this moment, Don Diego's hospitable residence seems glowingly like a castle?

Here is another version:

Some others were briskly erecting platforms, from which people might more comfortably see the plays and dances that were to be performed the next day on the spot dedicated to the celebration of the marriage of the rich Camacho and the obsequies of Basilio. Don Quixote refused to enter the village, though the peasant and the bachelor urged him to do so, giving what he thought was a most valid excuse, that it was the custom of knights-errant to sleep in the fields and woods in preference to populated places, even though it might be under gilded roofs, and so he turned aside from the road, much against Sancho's will, for he had still lingering memories of the good lodgings he had received in Don Diego's house or castle40.


Applying the same two standards, Starkie too has mangled the flowing prose of the first sentence and, though he has reversed the order of «house» and «castle», has not taken the trouble to make either word meaningful.

On to Tobias Smollett:

A great many were employed in raising scaffolds, that they might view from them more commodiously the plays and dances which were to be in that place, to solemnize the nuptials of Camacho the rich, and the obsequies of Basilius. Don Quixote refused to enter the village, tho' both the batchelor and the countryman invited him; but he pleaded what he thought a sufficient excuse, the custom of knights-errant to sleep in fields and forests, rather than in towns, tho' under gilded roofs; and therefore he turned a little aside, grievously against the will of Sancho, who had not yet forgotten the good lodgings he had enjoyed at the house of Don Diego41.

Smollett has caught much of the swing and lilt of the first sentence; even his somewhat dated language cannot disguise the freshness of the writing, here. But on the second test Smollett fails, for the only way he seems to have seen open to him was to eliminate the «house/castle» comparison. His version makes good sense -better sense, clearly, than any of the versions thus far- but is it Cervantes' sense?

Here then is the Penguin translation:

There were many others busily raising platforms, from which next day they would be able to see in comfort the plays and dances which were to be performed in that spot, dedicated to the celebration of the rich Camacho's wedding and Basilio's funeral. Don Quixote refused to enter the village, although both the peasant and the student begged him to, giving what seemed to him a most sufficient excuse: that it was the custom of knights errant to sleep in the fields and woods rather than in towns or villages, even though it were under gilded roofs. Therefore he went a little way off the road, much against Sancho's will, for the good lodging he had had in Don Diego's castle or house was still fresh in the squire's memory42.

In capturing the style of the first sentence, Cohen does somewhat better than some, but not nearly so well as Smollett. This is not ghastly prose, and that is of course the Penguin standard: «not ghastly» = «acceptable». Can Cervantes be thus translated?


That is, when you translate by such a standard, can you hope to come up with a translation that in any true sense of the word is Cervantes' book? Cohen's handling of the second item, the «house/castle» comparison, is manifestly as bad as any.

Finally, here is my own forthcoming translation:

There were a good many people putting up scaffolding, from which, the next day, they would be better able to watch all the dancing and the performances scheduled to take place, in honor of the rich Camacho's wedding and poor Basilio's funeral. Don Quijote would not enter the village, though both the peasants and the university students begged him to, but excused himself (more than sufficiently, to his way of thinking) by explaining that knights errant customarily slept in the fields and forests, rather than in populated places and under gilded roofs. So he rode a little way off the road (much against Sancho's better judgment, who could not help remembering how well he'd been accommodated in Don Diego's house -or castle, as it seemed to him.)

To apply the test of tracking syntactic flow, developed and discussed at some length in my forthcoming study, The Art of Translating Prose43: The Spanish spreads through two very long sentences, clause after rolling clause. My translation uses three sentences, broken by 10 commas and a pair of parentheses; Ormsby/Jones/Douglas employ 4 sentences and 5 commas; Starkie uses 2 sentences and 8 commas; Smollett uses 2 sentences, 8 commas, and 2 semi-colons; and Cohen uses 3 sentences, 7 commas, and 1 colon. This test alone is sufficient to disqualify Ormsby/Jones/Douglas; plainly, and not surprisingly -for as I have explained elsewhere this is a negative, sine qua non standard and not a positive one- it is not sufficient to fully evaluate the other translations. Lexical and other sorts of examinations demonstrate, however, that although Smollett well matches the original in some respects, in others he fails. Willy-nilly, I am thus obliged to argue that only my own version passes tests on all the assorted levels, though it is perfectly clear to me, as to all Cervantistas and indeed to anyone of sound literary sense, that no one can or ever will match the magnificent prose offered us, with imperishable generosity, on every page of the glorious Spanish original.