Don Quixote Part I: The Words and the Stories

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m reading Don Quixote this summer. It’s a long, riveting read, and it’s unfolding quite differently than I thought it would. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m more than halfway through, which means I’ve finished Part I, and I thought I would start blogging about it and get some feedback from those of you who have read this astonishing work. I plan to do a series of posts about it, on the topics that have struck me most thus far.

I’m reading the quite recent (2003) translation of Don Quixote, by Edith Grossman. Now, as you surely know, Cervantes is just about exactly contemporaneous with Shakespeare. But this translation is not what you would call Shakespearean. There’s no contrived 16th-century English here, no thees and thous, except when Don Quixote has fallen into a daze of chivalry and is speaking as if he’s in one of his books. (More on that later.) Instead, this novel reads excitingly, cracklingly modern. The idiom is up-to-date, the pace is swift, and the ideas, for the most part, are as complex and fruitful — no, more so! — than 95% of what you find in any contemporary bookstore. (Not that I believe old ideas are simple!) I’m sorry to say that Grossman’s introduction is extremely brief and paltry. I wanted to read thirty or forty pages about Cervantes’s language, about the mountains of obstacles she encountered en route to this translation, about the rationale she had for choosing this or that proverb. But instead, she states, calmly enough, that Cervantes wrote in a clear, modern Spanish at the time, that influenced others and still influences Spanish today. Righty-ho.

One thing I would really have liked her to address in her introduction is the chivalric language I mentioned a minute ago. Here’s an example in Don Quixote’s speech (p. 399):

‘Tis a common proverb, O beauteous lady, that diligence is the mother of good fortune, and in many grave and serious matters experience hath shown that solicitude canst bring a doubtful matter to a successful conclusion…

That “canst” is the second person singular, not the third person. And again, Dorotea answers him, “I thanketh thee, Señor Knight…” Totally wrong; that’s the third person, not the first. These errors (or “errors”) are quite frequent. I just want to know whether the errors are the characters’ errors, Grossman’s errors, or Cervantes’s errors, or, on the contrary, whether they are intentional, mocking the flowery chivalric language Don Quixote loves to use, and if so, to whose purpose: Cervantes’, Grossman’s, or, in this case, Dorotea’s.

This brings me to the satire inherent in the novel. Of course, the premise of the story — Don Quixote, run mad by reading too many chivalric romances (yet another person ruined by reading! And I think this is the first man I’ve ever read about who had this effect) — means that the primary satire is of those romances. Many of them are mentioned by name: Amadis of Gaul, The Song of Roland, Felixmarte of Hyrcania (?), and dozens of others. If you are the sort of person who likes to get your next reading list from inside the book you are currently reading, you are set for life.

But Cervantes ventures into other territory, too. He embeds stories into his own novel by the time-tested method of running into new characters and having them recount their life stories, and each of these stories pokes fun at a new genre. There is the pastoral, the epic, the picaresque, the romantic, the dramatic, the comic or farcical. There is even, in a very modern turn, metacommentary. At the beginning of Part II, Don Quixote is told about the book that someone has written about him and his adventures, and with a kind of painful wondering eagerness, he listens to find out whether he will be known as a brave knight errant or a laughing-stock.

I suppose what has surprised me so far about Don Quixote is that there is nothing static about it. It draws on conventions — the chivalric and the epic, embedded stories like The Thousand and One Nights (Moorish tradition as they have in Spain), roaming stories like the Decameron — but it makes something shockingly new out of them. The language is new, the story is new, the commentary twists round and bites its own tail. There’s a bit near the beginning where a sentence runs on from the end of one chapter into the beginning of another. I feel the way I always do when I am reading something terrific: as if I want to read it quickly, and see what happens, but also as if I want to read it very slowly and savor every word.

Tell me about Don Quixote. Tell me what I ought not to miss.

More coming soon, about cruelty and madness and the women in the piece.

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26 Responses to Don Quixote Part I: The Words and the Stories

  1. Alex says:

    I always manage to forget that Cervantes and Shakespeare are contemporaries and yet the first English translations of Don Quixote would have hit the book stands in St Paul’s Yard around May 1612 and the playwright almost certainly bought a copy as the plot of Cardenio testifies. In fact there are a dozen or so plays of the period which borrow from the Spanish story, so it was clearly very popular. And yet I’ve never read it; shame on me.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s really worth while. I am enjoying it hugely. And reading the Cardenio bits were so much fun, imagining what the lost Cardenio Shakespeare play would have looked like!

      • Alex says:

        The RSC staged a reconstructed version last year based on Theobald’s ‘Double Jeopardy’. It was great fun, but really didn’t feel very much like Shakespeare. Goodish second-rate Fletcher, I thought.

      • Jenny says:

        The idea of lost pieces and lost libraries is intriguing, but I don’t know what good reconstructing them really does. We can’t know. I think there are some novels out there that play with the premise, though.

  2. It may be worth mentioning that someone in fact did write an unauthorized continuation of Don Quixote’s adventures. This apparently drove Cervantes into a rage, the consequences of which run all the way through Part II.

    Since you are in Part II, you already have all the evidence you are going to get from DQ about Cervantes’s virtues as a writer of prefaces. You ought not to miss, someday, C.’s Exemplary Stories, particularly the prefaces, particularly the preface to “The Dialogue of the Dogs.”

    I guess Shakespeare would have died before he could have read Part II (1620 in English), which is a shame. He would have loved it.

    Edith Grossman has a longer piece on translating this book in one of the chapters of Why Translation Matters. Samuel Putnam’s translation includes a substantial essay that addresses earlier translations, among other things. Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote are brilliantly idiosyncratic – if nothing else, he certainly reads the text with attention.

    • Jenny says:

      On translation, from p. 48: “…here we would pardon the captain if he had not brought [The Mirror of Chivalry] to Spain and translated it into Castilian, for he took away a good deal of its original value, which is what all who attempt to translate books of poetry into another language do as well: no matter what care they use and the skill they show, they will never achieve the quality the verses had in their first birth.” Shame on you, Edith Grossman!

      Nabokov on Don Quixote will almost certainly have to wait. I’m reading Invitation to a Beheading next. But knowing it’s out there makes my life richer.

    • rebeccareid says:

      Yes, Shakespeare would have loved Part 2. So much better than part 1 in my opinion!

  3. What a good post! No really. This is such a pity expression of the reasons why this novel keeps firing our imaginations, time and place and culture notwithstanding.

  4. Lu says:

    You might already know this, but when Shakespeare is translated into foreign languages, it is translated using modern syntax and vocabulary. Also, in terms of language changes, Spanish doesn’t change quite as quickly as English does, because English is so much more malleable. And we don’t have a Royal Academy, apart from perhaps the OED, telling us what is English and what isn’t. While it doesn’t affect slang, the Academy did, and does, affect the written word.

    • Jenny says:

      Okay, I didn’t know that about Shakespeare, but it makes perfect sense. Translating him into… what? Molière’s French (which isn’t really that different, just different conventions) wouldn’t make much sense except as an exercise, like playing Bach on period instruments. France, of course, does have an Académie. This was a really helpful comment, Lu! Just what I wanted to know!

  5. Richard says:

    I’ve been meaning to reread DQ for a while, Jenny, so this juicy post of yours serves as quite the incentive. Glad you’re enjoying the book, but your translation question above is a little tricky. In the first instance, that part about “solicitude canst bring a doubtful matter to a successful conclusion” would seem to be Grossman’s mix-up re: the second and third person rather than Cervantes’ because Cervantes has DQ use the third-person singular to say that solicitude “trae a buen fin el pleito dudoso” [literally “brings a doubtful case/complaint/quarrel to a good end” ]. Maybe Grossman was counting on the fact that most people wouldn’t know that “canst” was second person singular? I know I didn’t! As far as Dorotea’s “I thanketh thee,” I’m not sure that Grossman was left with much of a choice. Dorotea actually uses the second person plural of you to address DQ in accordance with the formal address conventions of the time: kings and queens and nobles were addressed as “vosotros” even when only one person was being addressed because royals and other nobles were addressed in the plural whether it was one or more people. Today Dorotea would probably use “usted” (formal you singular) to address DQ, and she would only use “vosotros” (informal you plural) to address multiple DQs with whom she was on familiar terms. Too much info? Ah, well, Tom addressed the serious business quite nicely, so this is all I have left!

    • Jenny says:

      Richard, this was so helpful. I wish I could drag you through the entire book with me! I read a little Spanish, but not enough to know these sorts of details. The idea that that “vosotros” used to be for nobles (like the “royal we” only the “royal you”, right?) is just the kind of thing I need to know. Not too much information at all. My complaint is that “I thanketh thee” is just bad English, and it wasn’t bad Spanish. In my view, it’s a poor translation (of that phrase, not of the whole work) for that reason. I’m a language person, so I love to nitpick this stuff.

      Much more to come!

      • Richard says:

        “The royal you,” I love it! Language-wise, another weird thing about vosotros is that its diminutive, “vos,” lives on in Argentina and in a couple of other Latin American countries, but it is treated like “tú,” the second-person singular. Quite the evolution for that one little word! On the translation issues you mention, I should note that I compared some of Grossman’s translation with my battered copy of DQ a year or two ago and was quite surprised at what I discovered–namely, alongside some wonderful translations of very difficult passages, there were a few minor gaffes and some delicious puns that got lost in translation. Although my sample size was way too small to read anything serious into, I suspect that parts of the Grossman translation were either rushed or at least might have benefited from footnotes explaining some of the translation choices that were made. It seemed to “read well,” though, at least. P.S. Are you familiar with Borges’ short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote? If not, that would make a great 10-page dessert for you if you haven’t had your fill of DQ after Part II.

      • Jenny says:

        You’ve got me howling that I don’t read enough Spanish to do this kind of side-by-side analysis myself, or simply read it in the original. I would much prefer to. Alas! If you think of anything specific — any delicious puns I may be missing — please pass them on!

        I have read NO Borges yet. He is also coming up this summer! I will keep your apres-Cervantes mouthful in mind, thank you!

    • rebeccareid says:

      Fascinating! I was going to say that, having read Grossman’s translation of DQ I liked the sound of the “thankest thee” like phrases because it gives it a satiric feel….It was helpful to learn what it was in Spanish…and that Grossman’s translation was in err.

      • Richard says:

        Rebecca, belated thanks to you for letting me know you found that translation stuff interesting. Jenny asked some great questions, no? :D

  6. Sly Wit says:

    Great post. I agree that is almost shocking how modern DQ is, at least compared to other “classics.” Especially with the meta. I didn’t really notice it myself until well into the Second Part, but that’s mostly because I found the repetitive nature of the First Part so tedious that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. It was only after abandoning it for awhile and picking it up again where I left off that I could really appreciate what Cervantes was doing.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m about 200 pages from the end now, and it continues to fascinate and surprise me in that way. The metacommentary is particularly interesting, with Cervantes and the translator and the “author” all entering the story to put in their two bits.

      I didn’t find the first part repetitious! There are several embedded stories, but they are all so different!

      • Sly Wit says:

        I think it was more a question of the underlying abuse (for lack of a better word). While the stories themselves are different, I felt it was difficult to keep reading about what was essentially the same set-up: DQ misinterprets something and then suffers horribly as a result–like an SNL sketch that goes on far too long and the punchline just isn’t very funny to begin with. That said, I adored the Second Part, which is why I tell people that if they find DQ intimidating they should just read the First Part for as long as they can stand and then move on to the Second Part. For me it’s really two different books. Not quite as bad as the Wuthering Heights split, but still.

  7. I read the abrided version of Don Qwuixote a long long time ago, when I was a kid. It would be refreshing to re-read it all over again for better insight. Thanks for sharing

    • Jenny says:

      Did the abridged version tell you what it was leaving out? Some versions do that, where they give you little summaries. In any case, this is well worth the time.

  8. Donna says:

    Just finished reading DQ in a discussion class. I was amazed at the events which start out as comic quickly turn. The idea of imagining two flocks of sheep to be warring armies is funny; getting trampled by animals or beat up by the shepherds is not. Think about the meta-fiction in connection with the Duke & Duchess in Part 2. Our group went at this work for 90 minutes a week for 11 weeks. It was WAY too short. We could have doubled the time and number of classes and still not gotten all of the meaning out of this. (And we didn’t even consider the translation issues you raise.)

    • Jenny says:

      This is one of my major regrets about not taking English classes in school (though of course DQ is not English literature!) I don’t get the benefit of discussion or a professor. My lovely commenters are all I have, and very wonderful they are too. I agree that 11 weeks is not nearly enough. I will write more on this than on any other book I’ve read so far, and I won’t scratch the surface.

      • rebeccareid says:

        That’s exactly how I felt about it. There is so much in DQ and while it wasn’t ultimately my favorite book ever so I can’t see myself revisiting anytime soon, I easily could write on it for weeks too! Looking forward to reading your other posts!

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