Don Quijote's woes: challenges in teaching don quijote in translation
Departament of English
As Knowlton claims in his article “The Untranslatable: Translation as a Critical Tool” something is lost in the process of translating literature. At times, the missing pieces may be part of the original content; at others, the omission will be found in re-creating the internal rhythm of the work or capturing the flavor of the original language. Texts read in translation afford an “illusion of transparency”, an effect which conceals the re-writers' intervention on a foreign text. The more fluent the translation, the more invisible the translator becomes (Venuti, 1-2), making the re-write (i. e. the translation) take the place of the work itself. The text becomes “domesticated”, even “familiarized”. One may argue that any translation requires a certain degree of domestication, of familiarity even, in order for the text to be intelligible; too much domestication and familiarization, however, results in adaptations of the original text, rather than faithful and accurate translations of the work into the target language. That has been the case of some of the translations of Don Quijote I have used as text books for my literature in translation class. In them, the text loses much of its “foreign spirit” due to the translator's attempt to erase this “foreignness” until it stops being “un-familiar”. Reading in translation, however, is almost inevitable. There are few Spanish-speakers who read Juan de la Cuesta's Princeps edition of Don Quijote, preferring (even in their own language) the “domesticity” of more modernized versions.
Domesticating texts, however, does not mean erasing them, and/or excising all traces of their “foreign” spirit in the target language, but rather making the translator almost invisible, as if he were a behind-the-scenes aid, working as an assistant to the author, and not posing as the author himself. Finding the perfect text which accomplishes this feat, I posit, is the greatest challenge to teaching literature in translation.
The second challenge for lecturers who teach literature in translation is how much contextual information, historical explanation and working knowledge of the mores, traditions and customs of a different culture they are to make available for their audience. Like translators, lecturers in translation should strive to find the perfect balance between digesting the text for easy understanding and providing enough clues to help contextualize the text (in a sense, to enable readers to familiarize themselves with the text, making it less alien and “foreign” without totally domesticating it and erasing the foreign spirit of the text).
Don Quijote de la Mancha is a case in point. Few scholars would disagree that the seminal novel of Cervantes is one of the masterpieces of the Spanish Golden Age; clarifying why for modern audiences is more complicated. A tentative explanation may be found by tracing how this narrative about a madman turned knight has become part of the collective unconscious of humanity. Words and phrases such as “quixotic”, “tilting at windmills” and “Don Quixote syndrome” are part of Cervantes' legacy. English, French, German, Portuguese and countless other languages claim re-written adaptations of the story of the madman from La Mancha or his damsel, Dulcinea. In the United States, where the work of the Spanish author was hardly known until late in the 18th century, some of the most beloved American writers (Longfellow, Lowell, Ticknor, Thoreau, Emerson, Irving and Twain, just to name a few) have recognized the influence of this particular Spanish novel. (1, 2) Beyond the literary achievement of Cervantes' masterpiece or the superb quality of his prose, however, the Spanish author's enduring power may be found in his portrayal of characters who are in effect citizens of the world. Although Miguel de Unamuno uses the adventures of the ingenious hidalgo to create a definition of what it means to be Spanish, the story itself is truly universal. As Heiser posits, the depth and richness of Cervantes' narrative is such that “Don Quijote is at the same time the most national and the most universal of works” (426). The characters of Sancho, Dulcinea, Sansón Carrasco, along with Alonso Quijano, become old friends with whom we identify, regardless of national origin, geographical borders, race or culture. Even if the narrative takes place in the arid plains of La Mancha, readers of Cervantes' ludicrous tall tale (with claims to have been translated as much as the Bible) travel the Spanish geography in search of the wits Don Quijote misplaced.
As an avid fan of the one-armed man of Lepanto, I confess I have not really found mine (nor, I am sorry to say, the knight's); thus, taking a cue from Cervantes himself, I will apologize in advance for this son of my loins, a bit ugly and disheveled, who pretends to be more than he really is, while trying to discuss the challenges of teaching Don Quijote in translation. Unlike the celebrated author, however, and for the sake of clarity, I have divided this paper into three parts: translations issues, acculturation and the complexity of the structure of the narrative.
The first rubric (precisely because, as a born Spanish-speaker, I feel it has more relevance) deals with issues in translation. It is hardly surprising that a text purporting to be the Castilian translation of an Arab historical document presents a series of technical difficulties. Don Quijote de La Mancha is not only a serious reflection about authorship, target and original language, and meta-fiction, but there are different translation levels within the narrative. Each of the characters in the story re-writes the Spanish language to suit their literary persona. Quijote speaks the flowery discourse of the chivalric tradition, Sancho's peasant rhetoric is both funny and difficult to understand. The captive, Marcela and Dorotea speak from within a different literary tradition, as reflected in their speech patterns. From re-worked pastoral themes to elements of the picaresque and the Spanish Romancero, Cervantes' novel (which he called an historia) is fraught with translation issues.
As Raffel claims, the style of Cervantes' prose, although wonderfully rich, witty and evocative, uses impossible archaisms, which makes the musicality of the Spanish language and the syntactical structure “literally unstransportable into any other language” (xvii). Knowlton notes that, in the process of translation, even when there doesn't appear to be much loss of the content, “much of the original 'flavor' of the original has been sacrificed” (125). Thus the cadence and rhythm of the Cervantine prose, along with the special brand of rhetoric each character brings forth is compromised in the target language.
In the last four years, I have used four different translations of Don Quijote: Edith Grossman, Burton Raffel, J. M. Cohen, and a mass produced edition with beautiful illustrations and an unnamed translator (most appropriate for a narrative whose purported author is a fake Arab historian whose name can be translated as Sir Eggplant). I chose these translations after deliberating carefully which would be best for English department students, Freshmen many of them, who have very little access to Spanish literature. Although I favored translations with a more scholarly bent, their availability for an introductory Literature class was sometimes limited.
Raffel, Cohen, and the unnamed translator mentioned above excise the versos rotos, the introductory poems, as well as the letters of reference which frame the narrative.(3) The unnamed translator even excises the prologue, vital to a good understanding of the narrative.
While Grossman does a good job of keeping the introductory poems, she excises the letter of Juan de Amézquita and the tasas reales.(4)The translator explains that her primary obligation was to recreate for the English reader “the experience of the reader in Spanish” (xi). She does keep some Spanish-flavored terms, such as maravedí, real, reales, arrobas, fanegas, azumbre Coronado, ardite, sueldos, escudos and ducados, as well as the Latin insula. Her use of the archaism “whoreson” for hideputa is also successful. Although this translation is possibly the best of the ones I have studied in respect to the use of footnotes and references (Grossman takes the time to explain for modern readers literary allusions, characters from chivalric novels, specific meanings of words – within the text – and other pertinent information), the "acculturation" of the text is hit and miss. Grossman utilizes common English phrases such as “cakes and icing”, “beat to a pulp”, “consider himself a dead man”, and some Mexican-derived words which have little to do with the original meaning of the narrative. Readers fail to feel transported into the wonderful world of the chivalric novel, with its twisted explication of reality, its complicated explanation for missing objects and persons, as well as its dimwitted reasoning process, an example of which is the following paired argument, taken from Raffel, whom I judged wittier in his translation than Grossman:
If one has to judge from the asinine reasoning process quoted above, it is no wonder the protagonist of the story loses his marbles; while contemplating the meaning of the convoluted pseudo-syllogisms found in the many chivalric tales the hero favors, Alonso Quijano misplaces his own ability to reason; the main character so buried “(himself) in his books, that he read all night from sundown to dawn, and all day from sunup to dusk, until with virtually no sleep and so much reading he dried out his brains and lost his sanity” (Raffel, 14).
Even if Quijote were a perfectly lucid individual endowed with Cartesian reasoning powers, the task of translating what some scholars consider to be the first modern novel is herculean. The length and breadth of Cervantes' masterpiece notwithstanding, the four versions I use to teach literature in translation lack a true translator's invisibility. On the contrary, although some fare better than others, the main problem I have encountered is an almost total domestication of Cervantes' inimitable style, which makes their texts more an independent re-writing of Cervantes' story than the work of the original author. Grossman's translation, for example, has problems with loss of content. From a weak attempt to transport to her work the mock reality of the chivalric universe, to a failure to translate the unusual patterns of speech of the main characters, her text is somewhat lacking in texture, a bit too bland and uniform, bereft of the subtleties of the original Cervantine prose. Sanchica, Teresa Panza and the Duchess's distinctive use of language falls flat in the target language. Sancho's idiosyncratic speech pattern is almost entirely lost in translation. Grossman makes little distinction between the oratory of the knight and that of the squire, as the following paragraph demonstrates:
The original Spanish version I prefer (Allen) makes that distinction quite clear:
The repetitive use of pronouns alluding to the self in Sancho's parliament lets readers know that the speaker comes from a lower socioeconomic background than that of his master. Sancho misuses the reflexive form of the pronoun and emphasizes the personal pronoun by placing it within an identical chain of forms of the I, which acts as a synonym for itself (yo de mío me, literally translated would be “I of me myself”). The wonderful earthiness of the peasant´s colloquial language (and his stubborn and sometimes childlike mania of placing the I´s for emphasis) vanishes in translation. At times, I felt as if both characters' discourses —in Grossman's English edition— were interchangeable.
Although Raffel substitutes words associated with American culture (for example, dollars for maravedí —page 55), both Cohen and the former make an effort to translate Sancho's speech patterns and lexicon, but fall short of completely “transporting” the wonderful simplicity and common sense of the peasant. As Young points out, “the novel is constructed as one long, complex dialogue between Don Quijote and Sancho, frequently interrupted by standing jokes or the intrusion of many difficult characters” (378). The illiterate squire quickly learns to translate the rhetoric of the chivalric speech of Don Quijote in order to obtain a measure of communication with his master. Panza proves himself to be an apt student. Although puzzled at the beginning by such convoluted barroquismos as his master uses, he understands that it is pointless to argue for windmills when fighting giants have been decreed, and thus decides that discretion, both figuratively and literally, is the better part of valor. In return, Don Quijote teaches Sancho how to speak properly (or as properly as a relic of the chivalric world can speak). While the latter trounces proverbs, refranes (popular wisdom, which usually rhymes) and sayings, calling the balsam of Fierabrás (el bálsamo de Fierabrás) “el feo Blas” (ugly Blas) (Allen, 203), or saying “litado” (licree/meaningless word) for dictado (decree/dictate) — another example of the different levels of translation within the narrative, Panza is content with transforming and renaming everyday objects into magical tools.
Sancho also shares his master's penchant for the nominative. The good peasant demonstrates the peculiar characteristic of christening anew any unknown object that appears before his consciousness, with little regard for what the object is or what name it already has; thus, after a particularly vicious fight, he comically baptizes his master as the Knight of the Sorrowful Face (de la triste figura), and that is just the beginning. Language, for Sancho, is about communication. Whereas Don Quijote insists in aping the rhetoric of the caballero andante, Sancho utilizes words as a means to convey emotions, express problems, and solve riddles; thus, when he tells a story, as in the case that follows, he repeats every sentence twice. When his master scolds him for bombastic (and redundant style) of delivery, he replies that it is “the way tales are always told where I come from” (Raffel, 113):
Just as in the case of the concatenation of the reflexive and personal pronouns, iteration for Sancho is a way of communication. Figuratively speaking, for an illiterate peasant like Panza, the magic of language lies in the possibility of bringing stories to life. When these stories cannot be written, or recorded for future reference, it is imperative that one repeats them to ward off forgetfulness. Mimicking Sancho's style of delivery, then, becomes essential to a good understanding of the text.
The paragraph above will also serve to illustrate another of the challenges that, for the purpose of reading in translation, the story presents. The convoluted internal structure of the narrative and its use of different competing discourses make the text difficult to understand. As González Echevarría claims, the unity of the book, although broken by the style of delivery, which “recycles narrative traditions and incorporates discourses which lie outside the literary” is given by the protagonist, Don Quijote (4). The main character is a bad listener, constantly interrupting Sancho, correcting his vocabulary and mocking his earnest attempts at conversation. The knight accuses the peasant of talking too much, and has little respect for his squire's intelligence. In terms of communication, both Sancho and Quijote's discourses are parallel, and not in the actual form of dialogue. The problem, however, lies not in the story telling, language skills (or lack thereof), or even the archaisms present throughout the book, but in the constant interruption of the narrative flow. The story weaves back and forth, with characters who come and go, speech patterns which are maddeningly similar, yet quite different, and interruptions that keep readers puzzled and intrigued as to where the story will go. Like us, poor lost souls befuddled by Cervantes' prose, Sancho does his best to follow his master's a-logical mind. Not only does Panza “elevate” his language to mock that of his master (and ends up speaking quite like him in the Second Part of Don Quijote, what I would term another example of “internal translation”), but he needs to make subtle adjustments for instruments (things) he has never heard of and for which he has no factual knowledge of their existence; these strange articles he encounters along the way to glory following the footsteps of his master appear to be concrete everyday items, like the helmet of Mambrino (for him —and us— a barber's basin) which becomes a new object, an enchanted golden head-piece granting magical properties to its wearer. The wooden horse Clavileño turns into a winged creature which transports poor Sancho into the air, rather painfully, at the behest of Don Quijote; while the talking head becomes a magical illusion intent on setting a trap for unwary travelers. Without delving too deeply into theories of perception, the problem of objective reality and philosophical arguments about Neo-Platonism in Cervantes' novel which explain the nature of the examples above, the story abounds with unexplained events and seemingly contradictory characters. An in-depth study of Cervantes' works may reveal, for example, that the author forgot the donkey was stolen after the episode of the Sierra Morena, and it wasn't until later (in the second edition) when this oversight was corrected (at the suggestion of the editors) and given an explanation (an enchantment). Still, to the novitiate reader such apparent lack of internal cohesion in a narrative universally hailed as a masterpiece is difficult to understand.
Indubitably, a text which speaks about a second author (and narrator, an Arab historian whose work must be translated into Castilian), using a peasant's rhetoric, followed by the flowery discourse of the chivalric novel, added to the many intrusions of language attributed to pastoral and other types of novels (The Man who was Recklessly Curious, the story of Marcela, and that of the Captive, just to name a few), can be very complicated to translate. In addition to reckoning with all these internal translations, the translator must find proper synonyms which convey both meaning and cultural mores, while maintaining the complex yet maddeningly a-logical structure of the narrative. So far, we have mainly spoken about the first part of the narrative. If we go in detail into the second part of the Ingenious Adventures of Don Quijote de La Mancha, with its meta-narrative allusions, the allusions upon the allusions present in the text, and the interference of the narrator, who by turns praises and attacks Cide Hamete Benengali for his story, I would have to concede that it makes a translation of Don Quijote a truly quixotic enterprise. Grossman agrees, arguing in the prologue to the book:
The problem, however, goes beyond the actual act of translating. The Spanish language edition I most often use, John Jay Allen's version, although “translated” into modern terminology, preserves the flair of “old Spanish” while still giving readers a glimpse into how the Princeps read before the cajistas changed it. Allen uses the more modern spelling, substituting f for h, regularizing the vowels e and ie for i; u for o; cc for c; gn, for n, as in significant; changing bj, for j (subjeto for sujeto); and ct, for t. Unlike Raffel or Grossman, who utilized solely Riquer's edition (1980), Allen consulted the Princeps of Juan de la Cuesta, using as well the versions of Rodriguez Marín, Cortejón, Schevill and Riquer. Perhaps thanks to that, his work is closer to the original text (even if indeed it is a translation of Don Quijote from “old Castilian” into modern Spanish) than that of the other translators mentioned in this paper.
I am fully aware that “translators mediate between literary traditions” and are constrained by “the times in which they live, the literary traditions they try to reconcile and the features of the language they work in” (Lefevere, 6), so much so, that Lefevere calls translating “re-writing.” I can also sympathize with the problem of defining with certitude what an equivalence is; however, simple changes are what makes a translation of any kind a better one: maravedí for dollar, a different tone for Sancho or getting rid of the Americanized allusion to cakes and the icing, substituting instead for something less “related” to American culture. Although, as Lefevere claims, translation may indeed be acculturation, the purpose of translating is not to assimilate the text into the receiving culture, but rather to assimilate the reader into the text, making him discover a different world, an exotic universe which he could not otherwise visit/re-visit on his own.
Leaving translation matters aside, as well as having introduced the problem of acculturation (both due to translation difficulties as well as to the challenge of keeping the “content” intact), one must then contend with the complex structure of the narrative, a subject I briefly introduced before. From the logical standpoint, Don Quijote does not follow any of the traditional rules of time, place, and action. The flow of the narrative is constantly interrupted. Stories follow other unrelated stories without rhyme or reason. Characters show up only to magically vanish and then reappear in other parts of the story with other names and other professions.
Within the text, contradictions abound: maidens become men, and men turn into maidens, a former bandit reappears as a puppeteer, shepherdesses turn into maidens and finally into princesses, knights rename themselves at will... until the reader wonders where the actual plotline will go. The narrative weaves back and forth between parallel timeframes, which would make Einstein turn green with envy. Everyone appears to be playing several roles at the same time: Aldonza/Dulcinea; Quijote/Quijano; Sansón Carrasco/The Knight of the Mirrors; The Bearded Ladies/The maidens; Dorotea/The shepherd/Princess Micomicona..., making it difficult to keep track of who is doing what and when.
This episodic plot, which Gonzalez Echevarría sees as a legacy of the picaresque novel, is also a characteristic of romances such as Orlando Furioso or Amadís de Gaula, to whom Cervantes constantly pays homage throughout the story. Arguably, the structure of the narrative is very entertaining, yet the constant leaps and non sequiturs can be quite confusing for the inexperienced reader. The wealth of characters who traipse throughout the novel contradicting themselves, as well as the veracity of the narrative itself, is astonishing. Even when readers are well versed in the narrative style of epic poems, romances and chivalric tales, it is still difficult to follow along the footsteps of the protagonist, when that protagonist is an invention of his owner, Alonso Quijano, who in turn invents other characters, such as Dulcinea, and has other characters invent other newcomers to add to the plot.
Georgina Dopico Black suggests that Don Quijote is “a book about books, about the dangers and seduction of the printed page” (115); likewise, it is also a text about literature and the nature of authorship. Consequently, the characters invent literary creations of their own to keep them company on their literary journey. Almost everyone of consequence in the historia has an alter ego (or two or three, as is the case of Quijote): Aldonza Lorenzo is Dulcinea, Sancho makes himself up (with help from the Duke and Duchess) into a Governor of an Insula; the bandit Ginés de Pasamonte becomes Maese Pedro, the puppeteer; the bachiller, Sansón Carrasco turns, fittingly, into the Knight of the Mirrors. Every allusion in this wonderful fiction about fictions has a corresponding figure in reality, inasmuch as that reality is an invention of a narrator who purportedly recovers a manuscript from an Arab historian, thus deeding fiction a patina of verisimilitude. And it is the latter, the pretend quality of truth that Cervantes insists on for the narrative, which brings us to the last part of this paper. The extremely complicated structure of the novel, with its meandering ways through detours which only make sense when considered as partial accounts of the adventures of a mad man, can be explained only by reflecting on who narrates the story. Unlike most traditional narratives, with a first or third person narrator, Don Quijote de la Mancha has a plurality of story-tellers at its service. The text baffles us with its many different narrators, different points of view and perspectives, as well as casting doubt on the faithfulness and veracity of everyone narrating the story.
The first narrator tells his tale until chapter VIII, when Cide Hamete Benengali, esteemed Arab historian at times, or fraud whose mendacity is continually questioned, magically shows up in the form of old papers among some abandoned books. As expected, Cide writes his story in Arabic; thus, the first narrator (who finds the papers bearing Cide's name) finds himself in need of an unnamed translator, a convert presumably, whose translation skills are, at best, suspect. Narrator, historian (suspected of fabrication, but whose profession as a historian gives him a degree of respectability), and translator from the Arabic manuscript coexist with secondary characters who take turns relating stories which they have heard from others or have experienced themselves. As the tales are told from different perspectives (such as the story of Cardenio and Luscinda, Dorotea and Fernando...), novice readers cannot help but feel puzzled by so many points of view. Riley claims that “it is the privilege of books like Don Quijote to contain far more than the author could be aware of putting in” (129). The different perspectives the author allows for in the story portray precisely that sentiment. The book describes much more than Cervantes could have possibly intended. In terms of following the narrative thread, however, the result is a collage of characters, actions and events appearing to function within a structure without rhyme or reason (a fitting analogy for the internal workings of Quijano's poor fried brain).
As Menéndez Pidal claims, placing so many narrators within the text was deliberate. Cervantes wanted his narrative to be confusing, to “allow the action to be fraught with all the trifling inconsistencies of improvisation”(76). If the story tells the tale of a madman, then it must resemble (and portray) the addled wits of the protagonist who would conjure explanations out of thin air without any respect for the laws of logic or common sense. Improvisation, in this case, is not a flaw, but rather a requirement. The Spanish literary historian suggests that the novel must have been based on the Entremés de los Romances (1591), the story of a poor peasant, Bartolo, who goes mad because of his knowledge of Spanish ballads. Eerily reminiscent of Cervantes' masterpiece (according to the former scholar, this apocryphal text was also authored by Cervantes), both texts share the same structure. The Entremés and Don Quijote are satirical pieces, written with the intention of mocking other literary styles. The former makes fun of the Romancero (a compilation of Spanish verses and folk ballads very popular in Spain during the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance ); the latter of the chivalric tales. Both works present interruptions in the narrative flow, followed by different narrators who abruptly cut each other off, as if in a race for the title of who comes first to tell the story. In addition to the “traditional” narrators, almost every character in both stories acts as a narrator at one time or another, thus obscuring the plotline and the narrative flow.
Although the comic effect is achieved, particularly in the case of Don Quijote, readers struggle to keep pace with each successive narrator, puzzling about the constant interruptions in the adventures of the madman and his squire, trying to follow the meandering narrative flow (which seldom traverses the straight line), while also striving to remember characters, events and facts which were presented in previous chapters and alluded to just briefly. There are, also, literary clues and discourses that, although quite accessible to the contemporaries of Cervantes, mystify modern audiences (the Discourse on the Arms and Letters, for example), making it imperative for modern readers to be provided with an explanation of their meaning, as well as a working knowledge of the rhetoric and conventions of Pastoral literature and the picaresque novel (among other literary traditions present in the novel) just to keep afloat and learn to enjoy the tale. The challenge for translator and lecturer of Don Quijote in translation alike is to make sure none of those components are missing from their texts.
In truth, the historia of the Adventures of the Ingenious Don Quijote de La Mancha is a mystifying tale; its use of language and its structure is so complex that it would take more than a few pages to explain a handful of the challenges faced by anyone brave enough to attempt to teach it, let alone translate it. In spite of this, I argue that it is precisely the quixotic enterprise of teaching it, in translation or otherwise, which pays homage to the work itself, in which a madman sets the world to rights while managing to remind us all what is it about mankind that really counts.
CERVANTES, Miguel de, Don Quijote de la Mancha (ed. John Jay Allen), Madrid, Cátedra, 1985.
(1) Shortly after its publication in Spanish, Cervantes' novel was translated into French and Italian. Before Cervantes had even published part II, Thomas Shelton published a translation of Part I in English. See González Echevarría, prologue.
© 2009 SGR 873 TRADIA 1611 (Traducción ibérica y americana)
Departamento de Filología Española y Departamento de Tradución, UAB | Spanish Philology Department and Translation Department, UAB | Departament de Filologia Espanyola i Departament de Traducció, UAB