Starting again on “Don Quixote”

There was a time when virtually everything I read, I read for the first time. Those were the years of heady discovery, when I would survey all that I had yet to read, and determine that I would conquer, if not all, at least as much as I possibly could. It could be said, with some justice, that I was not so much a reader as a train-spotter, delighting myself by ticking off newly spotted trains on my list.

I was, of course, young then, but even in my youth, I soon became drawn to re-reading certain books – partly because I wanted to enter again those fictional worlds that had so enchanted me, and more importantly because I realised that so much of what I had already read I had not adequately taken in. Sometimes, this realisation would strike me even as I was reading the work: I could quite often sense, though not quite grasp, powerful undercurrents in what I was reading, and I’d know that I needed time for the work to sink into my consciousness; I’d know I needed to revisit. And now, with more years of reading behind me than I could possibly look forward to ahead, I find myself at a stage when the majority of what I read I have read before. I have always known, of course, that in my pursuit of literary excellence, I would never, as Alexander had done, run out of new worlds to conquer; but that realisation no longer spurs me, as it once had done, to conquer as many worlds as I possibly could: I find myself less enchanted now with the idea of conquest. What I want now is to understand as much as I can.

So now, Don Quixote. It is my fourth reading, but in some ways, it is my first: this fourth reading is my first with the mindset I now have. All books need the reader’s response to complete them, and, inevitably, my response now will be different from what it had been before.

And the translation I am reading is different also: it is John Rutherford’s version, published by Penguin Classics, and is one of a triumvirate of recent translations (the other two being by Edith Grossman and by Tom Lathrop) that have all garnered praise both for their accuracy, and for their liveliness and wit.

The first time I read Don Quixote, I was fourteen. I read the older Penguin Classics version, translated by J. M. Cohen. I found out later that this version had a reputation for being very scholarly and accurate, but a bit dull and lifeless. Certainly, “dull and lifeless” would have been at the time my own appraisal of the book, but whether this was due to the translation, or my being, as I suspect, too young to take in such a book, I don’t think I am in a position to say. My second reading came in my late 20s, when, having read a glowing recommendation of it in The Observer by the late Anthony Burgess, I excitedly purchased a re-issue of a translation made in the eighteenth century by Tobias Smollett (who, of course, was a fine novelist in his own right). Smollett’s version was everything Cohen’s wasn’t: it was colourful, lively, and very, very funny. Perhaps inevitably, Smollett had cast it in the mould of his own times: in his hands, it became an eighteenth century picaresque novel, of the kind Smollett himself used to write. It was raucous and energetic, but, many opined, it lacked the qualities of inwardness and of nobility, and the melancholy of unfulfilled and unfulfillable aspiration that had led Dostoyevsky to describe this as the “saddest of all novels”. Further, standards of translation were looser then than they are now: Smollett’s version was not always, so I’m told, the most accurate.

But so taken was I with the qualities this version possessed, I was not so concerned with those that it didn’t. So when I tackled the book again in my early 40s, it was Smollett’s version again that I went for. But now, with the new translations so widely acclaimed and so easily available, there seems no reason to put off a fourth reading. It has been about fourteen years since I last read this book: I seem to encounter it every fourteen or so years, so now is as good a time as any. Especially as so much of my reading these days is of literature written in the times of Shakespeare.

So, how should I approach this book now? It is not possible to discard all the baggage that comes with a work such as this: it is not possible, however much one tries, to put out of one’s mind what one has already heard and read. That Don Quixote is at the same time insane, in that he mistakes windmills for giants and sheep for armies, and also sane, for he can perceive in life a rare beauty that others cannot; that Sancho Panza is the ideal complement to Don Quixote because he is down-to-earth and can see the windmills and the sheep for what they are; that the novel is thus both sad and funny at one and the same time; and so on and so forth – all truisms that anyone could spout about the book without even having read a single page. Is it possible, I wonder, to put this out of my mind when reading, so I can approach it fresh? No, I don’t think it is. Inevitably, my view of Don Quixote – or of The Iliad, or of Hamlet, or of Faust, or of Anna Karenina, or of any of those books that have so exercised our collective consciousness over the centuries – is a view seen through the lens of past readers and commentators.

Well, I have started it now. And soon, I shall be posting here, no doubt, comments on it, which, since it is unlikely that I can think of anything to say about this book that has not already been said, are likely to be mere re-creations of comments that had been made before. At least in this way I can out-Borges Borges, for Borges’ Pierre Menard had merely re-written Don Quixote, whereas I, if I go about this correctly, have the opportunity of re-writing its critical commentary.

So now, in my armchair at weekends, in bed at night, on commuter trains while commuting, I find myself transported into the world of the great Don Quixote and his loving squire Sancho Panza – for, amongst other things, Don Quixote is also a great love story: rarely have two characters loved each other to the extent that Don Quixote and Sancho Panza love each other.

And sometimes, when I am not reading, I find myself listening to recordings of Richard Strauss’ magnificent tone poem Don Quixote. And when I do, I cannot help thinking that, with all due respect to John Rutherford, to Edith Grossman, and to Tom Lathrop, and, indeed, to all others who have attempted this monumental task of translating Cervantes’ novel, it is Rchard Strauss’ translation of Cervantes’ novel into a musical form may well be the greatest translation of them all.

14 responses to this post.

  1. This must be a sign. Over the past year or so, I have been downloading many of the classics from the Gutenberg Project to my Kindle and I was wondering, now that I have a bit more leisure time, which of them to read next. I must confess to never having read “Don Quixote” and was hesitating between it and “Les Miserables” (which I have never read either). So, as I said, maybe your post is a sign 🙂


  2. I have only read Don Quixote once, but I thought that the first 200 pages or so were brilliant, but then Cervantes starts to repeat himself. I think The Pickwick Papers – which of course Don Quixote influenced – is ultimately a better novel.


    • From what i remember of my last few readings, after a wonderful opening 200 or so pages, Don Quixote does get bogged down with the Cardenio-Luscinda story, and in the other interpolated stories (although I did find the Prisoner’s Tale very interesting). However, even in this part of the novel, the chapters dealing with the Don and with Sancho are wonderful. The second part I had no problem with at all: I loved it without reservation. But what i’ll make o it all this time round, I’ll just have to read on and find out, I guess!


  3. I can recommend the version by Charles Jervas, written a few years before Smollett tried his hand at it. Apparently, some people think it’s rather stiff, but I found it wonderfully entertaining.

    It says much about the boundless brilliance of Cervantes that such a long book should leave me disappointed, after having reached the end, that it wasn’t twice as long again.


    • It would be wonderful to read all the available translations through the centuries, and derive from those readings an understanding of changing styles and tastes over the years! The Jervas translation is indeed a famous one, although I haven#t read it myself.

      For various reasons, I have not had as much time for reading as I had hoped this last week, but I am loving it so far.


  4. I first read Don Quixote at college using the unabridged Signet editions (DQ & EN) translated by Walter Starkie. By an amazing coincidence, the upper level course was taught by Walter Starkie, on loan from Trinity I suppose. I remember Walter as being somewhat frail but he certainly knew his Cervantes. I have read DQ subsequently in various translations but the Starkie will always be the best. I hated the Grossman version: Walter Starkie took great amusement in pointing out all the fluffs and errors in Cervantes’ work … Grossman cleaned everything up and saved the reader from wondering how Sancho was riding on his donkey when only a few pages earlier the beast had been stolen by bandits.

    Have you read DQ (excerpts even) in Spanish? Well worth the effort.


    • I am a poor linguist, I fear. I know no Spanish, and am entirely dependent upon translators.

      It does seem a strange decision on Grossman’s part to correct Cervantes’ error. Smollett goes in the other direction, and draws attention to the error by pointing it out inn a footnote! Rutherford doesn’t go as far as pointing it out, but he does retain Cervantes’ mistake. As you say, much that is to come in the second part would make little sense without it.

      I do envy you, incidentally, for having had the opportunity to study Don Quixote under so eminent an expert.


  5. I read it in Cohen’s translation, which I thought was pretty fine, actually. Not stiff or dull at all. Next time I’ll read it, maybe I’ll give Smollett or Starkie a go.

    The second book of DQ is maybe less entertaining in a comic picaresque sense, but it certainly brings home the idea that romantic knighthood, or any sort of active saintliness, is dead in the world and can only be viewed as madness; it’s the great tragedy of the novel, very sad and moving, I thought.


    • I was possibly too harsh on Cohen’s translation inn that case: most likely, I wasn’t ready for the book at that age.

      I agree with you about the second half: I remember it being quite magnificent, and I look forward to getting to it shortly.


  6. Any thoughts on Burton Raffel’s translation? my quick perusal of some of the options led me to choose it over the others, and I am enjoying it so far for my first read of DQ.


    • I should have mentioned Raffel’s translation as well, shouldn’t I? Not knowing any Spanish – and certainly not the Spanish of Cervantes’ time – I cannot comment on translations other than to say how it read in English, or to pass on comments I have read by reviewers who are capable of judging how well or otherwise the translation reflects the original. I can’t remember seeing reviews of Raffel’s translation, which is why i didn’t mention it, but having done a quick google search, I think I really should have done.

      I see also that Raffel has translated Rabelais to much acclaim: that could well be my next big reading project!


  7. Posted by alan on June 7, 2015 at 10:18 am

    I’ve only read the first book in Grossman’s translation, some ten years ago I used to read it to my young son in order to get him to sleep.
    There is sufficient ambiguity in the work to wonder what Cervantes purpose was. Perhaps he looked back with some irony about the beliefs of his younger self that fought and was seriously wounded in the battle of Lepanto, but perhaps that irony was mixed with a desire to honour courage.
    I’d like to learn something about the history of the time and see how his contemporaries viewed their recent history.


    • From what I remember from my previous readings, and from what I have read so far, the novel is chock-a-block with various levels of ironies and ambiguities, and often contradictory purposes that nonetheless hold together. I don’t know that one necessarily needs to know the history of his times to appreciate these various ambiguities Cervanteds certainly wouldn’t have been either the first or the last author both to honour heroism and to see its absurdities.


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