A new Sancho Panza speaks for the knight-errant

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College and the author of many books, including "The Poetry of Pablo Neruda" and "Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language."

If a classic is defined as a book whose imperfections are alleviated by the passing of time and by translation, “Don Quixote” fits the bill exactly. It is, even from the viewpoint of its author, a flawed novel: chaotic, repetitive and stylistically inconsistent. Miguel de Cervantes, at least in the first half, seems to have worked without a roadmap, in a haphazard fashion. Sancho Panza isn’t even a consideration until Chapter VII, when it is evident that, to extract the inner thoughts of the errant knight, a Dr. Watson of sorts is needed to Don Quixote’s Sherlock Holmes. Elsewhere the author tells us that the original story of the errant knight, known as “The History of Don Quixote de La Mancha,” was composed in Arabic by the historian Cide Hamete Benegeli and that he found it in an open market in Toledo, but this device is often contradicted as the plot progresses.

More perplexingly, Cervantes, a wrecked tax collector and soldier infatuated with his own battlefield experiences, introduces items he later forgets about and embeds novellas, such as the autobiographical Moorish episode “The Captive’s Tale” and “The Novel of the Curious Impertinent,” that seem to have been taken out of the drawer of “unpublished stuff.” Indeed, were “Don Quixote” to debut today, it would be panned by most critics.

When Part I appeared in 1605 and Part II in 1615, the Spanish intellectual elite was unkind: The book was either attacked or simply left unnoticed. But common readers -- who in the end are always the ultimate judges -- embraced it enthusiastically. Since then, every generation approaches Cervantes’ masterpiece anew, emphasizing the imperfections it deems important.


“The extraordinary significance and influence of this novel were reaffirmed, once again, in 2002,” Edith Grossman writes in a note to her important new translation, published by Ecco Press. “One hundred major writers from fifty-four countries voted ‘Don Quixote’ the best work of fiction in the world.”

This might be partly explained by the many reactions readers have had to the figure of Quixote. For some, like W.H. Auden, the knight is a saint. Miguel de Unamuno believed him an endearing madman able to rise above the mendacity of the wasteland that was Spain in the 17th century. Unamuno even suggested that Cervantes was too mediocre an author to fully understand the implications of his own creation. Franz Kafka thought “Don Quixote” was a dream by Sancho. In Vladimir Nabokov’s eyes, this novel is among the cruelest ever written. For Milan Kundera, Alonso Quixada (or Quesada), whose metamorphosis is far less theatrical than that of Gregor Samsa, is at once an anti-establishmentarian and a fatalist. And for V.S. Pritchett, this amorphous piece of art “killed a country by knocking the heart out of it and extinguishing its belief in itself forever.”

A confession: I’m obsessed with the endless versions of “Don Quixote.” I hunt in antiquarian stores and on the Internet for old and new editions -- in whatever language -- and, over the years, have collected 82 Spanish versions as well as renditions into Korean, French, Arabic, Mandarin, Portuguese and Yiddish. I even attempted, to the chagrin of more than one friend, a rendition of Part I, Chapter 1, in Spanglish -- the hybrid parlance spoken by Latinos north of the Rio Grande: “En un placete de La Mancha, of which nombre no quiero remembrame, vivia, not so long ago.”

English is the first foreign language in which “Don Quixote” was mentioned in print, reviewed and translated -- and the first to offer a biography of Cervantes. It is also the language with more translations than any other. Think: How many Macbeths are there in French, Raskolnikovs in Italian and Cyranos in German? The answers never come even close to the number of full-fledged English-language renditions of “Don Quixote”: a total of 15 by the mid-1990s.

The first remodeling was by Thomas Shelton, who published the first half in 1612 and the rest in 1620, just four years after Cervantes’ death. After Shelton, there was John Phillips in 1687, Peter Motteux in 1712, Charles Jarvis in 1742, Tobias Smollett in 1755, Alexander J. Duffield in 1881, John Ormsby in 1885, Henry Edward Watts in 1888, Robinson Smith in 1910, Samuel Putnam in 1949 and, in 1950, a popular version by J.M. Cohen. The sheer number is exquisite: There are Victorian and Elizabethan “Quixotes,” as well as Romantic, modernist and post-structuralist ones. Unlike other classics, earlier translations of “Don Quixote” almost never go out of print. Intriguingly, the Smollett and Putnam variations are distributed by the same house, The Modern Library, in different editions, which proves that if necessity is the mother of invention, market competition is the recognized father. This isn’t a case, however, in which less is more. One can spend hours comparing passages and imagining translators attacking their respective strategies face to face. For, needless to say, this isn’t an admirable camaraderie. Motteux’s legacy is abominable (he “forgot” to include entire paragraphs), and some of his successors have done nothing but cover him up, reconfiguring his strategy but little else.

Others have made Cervantes’ prose far more solemn and rigid than it actually is. Accusations of plagiarism have been pervasive among the translators and their supporters. Smollett was accused of not knowing enough Spanish to find his way to the nearest toilet even in Brussels. Unlike “The Arabian Nights,” in which translators even inserted new characters, the abuses to which Cervantes has been subjected are somewhat constrained. And yet the ignominious consequence of this trans-historical travesty is that irony in Cervantes -- his most enduring contribution -- has been turned into farce and Don Quixote the passionate thinker at times shows up as a clown.


Pritchett described the Putnam version in the New Yorker as “clear” and “toned down” vis-a-vis previous excesses. It has also been, up until now, the most readable. Lionel Trilling’s august quote -- “It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of ‘Don Quixote’ ” -- is made far more concrete by Putnam than by anyone else: The reader gets the sense that this, indeed, is a fabulously complex creation.

The hunger for English variations has led to three new translations: by Burton Raffel in 1995, John Rutherford in 2000 and now by Edith Grossman. Raffel is known for his renditions of “Beowulf” and “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” while Rutherford is a fellow at Queen’s College, Oxford, responsible for the translation of “La Regenta” by Leopoldo Alas “Clarin.” Grossman inherited from Gregory Rabassa the mantle of the official translator of Latin American letters and has illustriously rendered Gabriel Garcia Marquez and many other writers into English.

Each of these translations represents the way our generation embraces Cervantes, but Grossman and her colleagues have different approaches to the craft. This is beneficial to the reader: The more distinct a rendition might be, and the more coherent, the better. Nabokov believed that translation should always stress its artificiality. But the opposite Flaubertian approach -- to make the translator’s role as invisible as possible -- is also true.

An emblematic passage from Part I, in which Don Quixote and Sancho discuss the difference between military and literary affairs, allows for a comparison of approaches. The knight’s fears of progress are obvious: He suspects the days of knight errantry to be over soon, largely as a result of the considerable advances in the area of weaponry. His future is in doubt. Still, the fragment is significant because it displays Cervantes’ tacit belief in Fate, which he sought to conceal from the clerics of the Inquisition. Out of loyalty, I’ve added Putnam’s version.


“And so, from this point of view, I could almost say that it grieves my soul that I should have taken up the profession of knight-errant in an age so detestable as this one in which we now live. For, although no danger strikes terror in my bosom, I do fear the powder and lead may deprive me of the opportunity to make myself famous and renowned, by the might of my arm and the edge of my sword, throughout the whole of the known world. But Heaven’s will be done.”


“I must say that my heart is heavy, having taken on this profession of knight errantry, in an age as loathsome as that in which we live, because although I am myself afraid of nothing, nevertheless it makes me regretful to think that gunpowder and tin may deprive me of the chance to acquire fame and great reputation, across the known world, for the coverage of my arm and the keenness of my soul. But Heaven’s will must be done.”



“And when I think about this I am tempted to say that it grieves me to the depths of my soul that I ever took up this profession of knight-errantry in such a detestable age as this one in which we are living, because even though there is no danger that can strike fear into me I am concerned when I think that gunpowder and lead might deprive me of the opportunity to make myself famous all over the face of the earth by the might of my arm and the blade of my sword. But let heaven do what it pleases ... “


“When I consider ... the profession of knight errant in an age as despicable as the one we live in now, for although no danger can cause me to fear, it still fills me with misgivings to think that powder and tin may deprive me of the opportunity to become famous and renowned throughout the known world for the valor of my arm and the sharp edge of my sword. But God’s will be done ... “

Putnam’s mandate was to cleanse “Don Quixote” of the misdemeanors of its early translators. He struggled with difficult proverbs and sometimes stilted dialogue. Raffel places Cervantes in the Renaissance tradition, highlighting his anti-religious debt, buried throughout the novel, to Erasmus of Rotterdam. His version seems more tortured than the others. Rutherford is fixated on asymmetries: He presents a book at once serious and humorous, a knight idealistic but also realistic. His attempt is to simultaneously modernize the novel and keep it old.

Grossman goes a step further: She makes “Don Quixote” strictly non-baroque. This is significant because, at 58, already a seasoned if mediocre author, Cervantes was a product of the Spanish Golden Age, a period of colonialism, financial bankruptcy and military disasters known for its ornate, labyrinthine frame of mind. She has demonstrated her skill before in translating the work of Julian Rios, a Joycean stepchild in the Iberian Peninsula recognized for his obtuseness.

But Grossman’s version isn’t exuberant in the least: Her motto appears to be a line in the prologue to Part II, in which Cervantes establishes his maxims as a stylist: fine prose, he underscores, is “plain,” “bare” and “unadorned.” Grossman has a jazzy approach that might scandalize some -- I’ve already heard accusations by some of her furious colleagues that her version is “disrespectful” and that Cervantes’ language wasn’t actually in sync with Spanish as it was spoken in the 17th century.

Nevertheless, Grossman’s translation of “Quixote” has a je ne sais quoi that makes this reader confident. Her implicit argument is that when Cervantes wrote his novel, the Spanish he used was neither archaic nor quaint. Instead, he wrote freshly, with an updated verbal reservoir. He was modern before modernity even arrived. So there is no need to make his effort anachronistic. At a more concrete level, Quixote’s monologues in her rendition feel crisp and immediate.


This is not to say that Grossman’s translation is perfect. Some word choices are questionable. “Senor Knight,” for instance, sounds too streetwise. Grossman also says that she began her effort in February 2001 using Martin de Riquer’s edition of 1955, which is based on the first printing of the book and includes discussions of problematic words that emerge from English, French and Italian translations. This allowed her to have the history of “Don Quixote’s” journeys across European languages at her fingertips. But in 1999, a magisterial two-volume edition became available, under the supervision of Francisco Rico and Instituto Cervantes and Critica in Barcelona; it includes a history of the novel in translation, a superb critical apparatus, substantial commentary on 17th century Spain and more. Grossman’s lack of access to this authoritative oeuvre seems suggested by her occasional footnotes, which are sometimes outmoded and even wrongheaded.

In any case, it is thrilling to add Grossman’s to the bookshelf of “Don Quixote” possibilities. Her rendition confirms that Cervantes’ imperfect masterpiece is as much at home in Shakespeare’s tongue as it is in Spanish. In fact, English is at an advantage, for think of it: The fact that there is only one Caballero de la Triste Figura for readers of the original is somewhat impoverishing, whereas the sheer multiplicity of “Knights of the Sorrowful Figure” at the disposal of English-language readers is nothing short of incredible.