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from the September 2015 issue

Flemish Tapestries: On Don Quixote in English

Rendered into some fifty languages (there are approximately five thousand languages in the world today), El Quijote is one of the most translated novels in history. Its length probably hinders it from translation to some extent, or it would surely surpass classics such as Alice in Wonderland (ninety-seven languages), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (sixty-five), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (fifty), and popular fiction like Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga (both sixty-seven). (Unsurprisingly, in terms of the number of translations into which a book has been rendered, the Bible is the undisputed winner.)

Spanish, of course, was Cervantes’s mother tongue. But, as previously mentioned, he lived temporarily in Naples, Italy, where he was stationed in the Infantería de Marina. And, on his way back to Spain, he was captured with his brother in the Mediterranean Sea and held captive in Algiers. He might at least have been acquainted with Italian and Arabic and was maybe even fluent in those languages. As a member of the intellectual elite of his time, he also knew some basic Latin. Unquestionably, Cervantes’s existential sojourns and his lifelong learning sensitized him to the nuances of language.

This, and the folklore around Cide Hamete Benengeli’s lost palimpsest, explains why El Quijote is built as a celebration not only of the act of reading but also of translation. The novel mentions authors like Cicero, Horace, and Torquato Tasso, as well as the works of Aristotle and La Chanson de Roland (circa 1040). And, of course, Don Quixote’s entire journey is based on his compulsive reading of chivalry novels by Amadis of Gaul and Tirant lo Blanc, among others, all of which were translated into Spanish from French, Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan, not to mention Latin.

In addition to the commentary surrounding the translator of Benengeli’s work, translation becomes a topic of discussion in the novel’s Second Part, chapter LXII, as Don Quixote and Sancho reach Barcelona. Their wanderings finally take them to the print shop, the equivalent of a modern bookstore where authors and translators gather, as well as a place equipped with machines to print books. The two end up speaking there with a translator (from the Italian into the Spanish):

“I would venture to swear,” said Don Quixote, “that your worship is not known in the world, which always begrudges their reward to rare wits and praiseworthy labours. What talents lie wasted there! What genius thrust away into corners! What worth left neglected! Still it seems to me that translation from one language into another, if it be not from the queens of languages, the Greek and the Latin, is like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side; for though the figures are visible, they are full of threads that make them indistinct, and they do not show with the smoothness and brightness of the right side; and translation from easy languages argues neither ingenuity nor command of words, any more than transcribing or copying out one document from another. But I do not mean by this to draw the inference that no credit is to be allowed for the work of translating, for a man may employ himself in ways worse and less profitable to himself. This estimate does not include two famous translators, Doctor Cristobal de Figueroa, in his Pastor Fido, and Don Juan de Jauregui, in his Aminta, wherein by their felicity they leave it in doubt which is the translation and which the original. But tell me, are you printing this book at your own risk, or have you sold the copyright to some bookseller?”

“Like looking at Flemish tapestries on the wrong side.” In Don Quixote’s view, translation diminishes rather than expounds meaning; instead of bringing light and clarity to a text, it darkens, it obfuscates. This is a rather pessimistic view for a book like El Quijote, which purports to be a translation—and a rather impromptu one, made by a morisco aljamiado—from the Arabic and which, ironically, has been accessed by the vast majority of its own readers in a language other than its original Spanish. Could it be that countless readers have only appreciated it from the wrong side?


The translators of El Quijote have been a rather motley gang. Officially, English isn’t the first language into which Cervantes’s novel was translated. César Oudin rendered the novella The Ill-Conceived Curiosity, featured in the First Part of El Quijote, into French in 1608, three years after it appeared in the original. Six years later, Oudin himself would translate the entire First Part. He followed it with a translation of the Second Part—thus completing a translation of the entire novel—in 1618.

France is notorious for having produced one of the most fraudulent of all translations, a truncated rendition by François Filleau de Saint-Martin. It was published in four volumes in 1677 under the title Histoire de l’admirable Don Quichotte de la Manche. Filleau de Saint-Martin deliberately sent the book to the printer without the last chapter because—mirabile dictum—he himself dreamed of writing a third part, composed of completely new adventures of the knight-errant and his squire, and maybe even a fourth.

Indeed, once his work as a translator was finished, Filleau de Saint-Martin wrote—in French—a version in which Don Quixote regains his use of reason and anoints his squire Sancho Panza a knight. Then, the couple sets out to continue their quest to mend the world. The sequence of events becomes muddy, not only in terms of the action but also because of the choice of narrative voice. One of their rendezvous is retold by a French dame and includes among its protagonists two more women, Silvia and Sainville.

Italians have a saying, tradutore, tradittore, meaning all translators are traitors. Rather than perceiving his task as simply bringing a text from the original to the target language, the French translator understood it more creatively, to the point of competing with Cervantes, or at least completing what in his view Cervantes had left unfinished. In any case, ironically, the French translator died before coming to the end of the sequel, which was then finished by Robert Challe, his pupil and a renowned literary figure at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century. At the end of the story, Don Quixote dies after drinking water from a well he believed to be the Fountain of Forgetting.

At any rate, there are more translations of El Quijote into English than into any other language. In fact, other than the Bible, no book has been translated into Shakespeare’s tongue as often. Here is the list of English translators, with the date of publication of their work in parenthesis:

Thomas Shelton (1612)

John Phillips (1687)

Peter Anthony Motteux (1700–1703)

John Stevens (1700)

Charles Jervas (1742)

Tobias Smollett (1755)

George Kelley (1769)

T. T. Shore (1864)

Alexander J. Duffield (1881)

John Ormsby (1885)

Henry Edward Watts (1888)

Robinson Smith (1910)

Samuel Putnam (1949)

J. M. Cohen (1950)

Walter Starkie (1954)

Burton Raffel (1995)

John Rutherford (2000)

Edith Grossman (2003)

Tom Lathrop (2005)

James H. Montgomery (2009)

In the face of such plentitude, the question arises: what language is richer in quixotic endeavors, Spanish or English? Spanish obviously owns the one and only sacred text. And its very sacredness deems it inalterable. For Cervantistas, changing even a dot or a conjugation in El Quijote is anathema. Attempts at modernizing it are often met with controversy. In English, on the other hand, the permutations are infinite. Each translator gives free range to his or her talent, creating a narrative that is also defined by the way the language is used in that particular historical moment.

I once set myself the task, during one full year, of reading all English translations available to that point. It was a fascinating (if also exhausting) undertaking. In doing so, one witnesses the changes of the English language through time, from its Elizabethan variety in the early seventeenth century to the one we use today, four hundred years later. The linguistic transformation becomes obvious against this historical procession: spelling and conjugations have changed; verb choices are different; and while articles and pronouns appear to be the most stable, they too have undergone a change in function.

Four of the English translators are American; the rest are British. One was a mailman; another was a painter. Several were professors. A number of them, including J. M. Cohen and Burton Raffel, were specialists in European languages, rendering into English works by Horace, Columbus, Montaigne, Teresa de Ávila, Rabelais, and Pasternak, as well as the Nibelungenlied. Walter Starkie, an Irish Hispanist who taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, knew Romany, the language of the gypsies, and was an authority on them. He was a worldwide traveler (Time magazine, in a profile, described him as a modern-day gypsy). His godfather was John Pentland Mahaffy, Oscar Wilde’s tutor.

More than one rendition reads as a hodgepodge of earlier translations into English, although only one translator gets the credit. And, in what seems like a hoax worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster movie, it is often repeated that one of the translators didn’t speak a single word of Spanish. But I should start at the beginning. About Thomas Shelton, the first on the list—the trendsetter—little is known. It appears that he was a personal letter carrier in London. He also served as a mailman in Dublin for the improbably named Sir William FitzWilliam, an English official in Ireland in the late sixteenth century. Later on, he was employed by Thomas Howard, who was the Earl of Walden, later Earl of Suffolk. Nothing remains of his work as a translator except his rendition of El Quijote, entitled The Historie of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha. Shelton completed the translation of the First Part in 1607 but didn’t publish it—perhaps because he struggled to find a printer to bring it out—until 1612. He didn’t use the Spanish original, published by Juan de la Cuesta, as his source. Instead, Shelton had in front of him the pirated edition of the Spanish one made in Brussels in 1607. For the Second Part, he did use the legitimate Madrid edition. His translation appeared in 1620.

In the dedication to the First Part—to his patron, the Earl of Suffolk—he states that he “translated some five or six yeares agoe, The Historie of Don-Quixote, out of the Spanish tongue, into the English . . . in the space of forty daies: being therunto more than half enforced, through the importunitie of a very deere friend, that was desirous to understand the subject.” It is known that Shelton approached the king of Spain on his patron’s behalf and that the patron’s wife, Catherine, Lady Suffolk, received an annual payment of one thousand pounds a year from the Spanish royals, although it is unclear why. Suspicions abound that Shelton and Lady Suffolk were involved in espionage. There is speculation as well that on his trips to Madrid, Shelton met Cervantes, but none of these hypotheses have been proved true.

Needless to say, forty days seems like a record—even impossible—time frame for such an ambitious endeavor, considering that the original (the First Part only) has a length of roughly 180,000 words. There is debate over whether Shelton was indeed the translator of the First Part, since stylistically the translations of the two parts are different. Among those questioning the second effort are Alexander J. Duffield, who himself translated the novel in 1881. (His own rendition is largely forgotten.)

Since Shelton’s version uses Tudor English, it is seldom read now, although it remains in print. It was quite popular for at least 150 years, serving as the model against which to compete. James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, an early-twentieth-century British scholar of Spanish literature, Cervantes biographer, and fellow of the British Academy, as well as a member of the Real Academia Española, prepared an edition of the Shelton version in 1890. He considered him to be “Lord of the golden Elizabethan speech.” Shelton, Fitzmaurice-Kelly stated, “manifests himself an exquisite in the noble style, an expert in the familiar and with such effect as no man has matched in England.”

Successive translators have been less generous with Shelton. This is understandable: to pitch the making of a new translation, not only to a potential publisher but also to a readership interested in fresh new versions, many translators begin by discrediting previous translations. Since Shelton is the first in line, he receives the toughest blows. Take Charles Jervas, a popular Irish portrait painter (his portraits of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope hang in London’s National Portrait Gallery), whose translation of El Quijote was published posthumously in 1742, three years after his death. His translation misspelled his name on the title page as “Jarvis,” a typo that stuck forever. As it happens, the “Jarvis version” was the most popular in eighteenth-century England. In his preface, Jarvis accuses Shelton of translating not from the original but from the Italian rendition by Lorenzo Franciosini. Yet Franciosini’s translation was not published until 1622, two years after Shelton released his own version of the Second Part.

Undeterred, Jarvis makes the following case:

In the ninth chapter of the third book of the first part, Sancho’s ass is stolen by Gines de Passamonte, while Sancho is asleep; and presently after, the author mounts him again in a very remarkable manner, sideways like a woman, a la mugeriega. This story being but imperfectly told, Franciosini took it for a gross oversight: he therefore alters it, indeed a little unhappily; for, in defect of the ass, he is forced to put Sancho’s wallets and provender upon Rozinante, thought the wallets were stopt before by the inn-keeper, in the third chapter of the third book. This blundering amendment of the translator is literally followed by Shelton.

Again, in pursuance of this, Franciosini alters another passage in the eleventh chapter of the same book. Sancho says to his master, who had enjoined him absolute silence: If beasts could speak as they did in the days of Guisopete (I suppose he means Aesop) my case would not be quite so bad; for then I might commune with my ass, and say what I pleased to him. Here the Italian makes him “Commune with Rozinante”; and Shelton follows him with this addition, “Since my niggardly fortune has deprived me of my ass.”

Further along, Jarvis wonders if Cervantes made the mistake in order to make readers (including translators) stumble foolishly:

But what if Cervantes made this seeming slip on purpose for a bait to tempt his minor criticks; in the same manner as, in another place, he makes the princess of Micomicon land at Ossuna, which is no sea-port? As by that he introduced a fine piece of satire on an eminent Spanish historian of his time, who had described it as such in his history; so by this he might only take occasion to reflect on a parallel incident in Ariosto, where Brunelo, at the siege of Albraca, steals the horse from between the legs of Sacripante king of Circassia. It is the very defense he makes for it, in the fourth chapter of the second part, where, by the way, both the Italian and old English translators have preserved the excuse, though by their altering the text they have taken away the occasion of it.

In truth, it was the Italian translator Franciosini who consulted Shelton. But this wouldn’t have deterred Jarvis from discrediting his predecessors.

Taking a somewhat different approach is John Ormsby, a professional British translator who worked in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his long introduction, he discusses at length various early translation efforts. He simultaneously praises and attacks Shelton. On the one hand, he writes, “His fine old crusted English would, no doubt, be relished by a minority, but it would be only by a minority. His warmest admirers must admit that he is not a satisfactory representative of Cervantes. His translation of the First Part was very hastily made and was never revised by him. It has all the freshness and vigor, but a full measure of the faults, of a hasty production. It is often very literal—barbarously literal frequently—but just as often very loose. He had evidently a good colloquial knowledge of Spanish, but apparently not much more. It never seems to occur to him that the same translation of a word will not suit in every case.”

On the other hand, Ormsby sees Shelton for what he is: the first. That is, he inaugurated a tradition. He writes that Shelton “had the inestimable advantage of belonging to the same generation as Cervantes; Don Quixote had to him a vitality that only a contemporary could feel; it cost him no dramatic effort to see things as Cervantes saw them; there is no anachronism in his language; he put the Spanish of Cervantes into the English of Shakespeare.” The last statement is remarkable. It grants us an opportunity to meditate on various approaches to a classic. For Shelton, El Quijote was a popular contemporary book. Yet for Ormsby, as well as for anyone sufficiently distanced from the original publications in 1605 and 1615, it is a historical artifact. A translator of a contemporary work moves from one linguistic present to another. Ormsby, on the other hand, needed to travel from the past (early-seventeenth-century Spanish) to his present (late-nineteenth-century English). He needed to make his own reader feel Cervantes’s time without re-creating Shakespeare’s language. All this invites these questions: Could someone today produce a historical translation into English of El Quijote? Would it read like Shelton’s version, which Ormsby calls “a racy old version,” one that “with all its defects, has a charm that no modern translation, however skillful or correct, could possess?"


Shelton, in any case, is not the only guinea pig. Another member of the gang, Peter Anthony Motteux, also called Pierre Antoine Motteux, famous for delivering El Quijote with a Cockney accent, is also a favorite target. His translation, released in four volumes starting in 1700, is probably the most frequently reprinted, often in revised form. This is bizarre, given how untrustworthy it is. Worse even, it does not appear to have been really his.

Again, biographical information on Motteux is scarce. A playwright, editor (he was in charge of The Gentleman’s Journal between 1692 and 1694), and translator, he completed Thomas Urquhart’s translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Motteux was born in Normandy. That is, French was his first tongue. He arrived in England in 1685, at the age of twenty-two. Fifteen years later, he published The History of the Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote of La Mancha. Can a person only a decade and a half into a life in a new language convey the nuances of a foreign literary text in his adopted tongue?

Motteux seems to have consulted the Spanish editions. He also had at his side the English versions by Shelton and John Phillips, the latter a nephew of John Milton and another translator of scores of French books as well as El Quijote. In addition, Motteux used several versions of El Quijote in French and Italian. The use of these variants enabled him to contrast different approaches. Given all this information, the statement on the cover of Motteux’s rendition is mind-blowing: “translated from the original by several hands.” It provokes numerous questions: Did he hire others to do the job? How was his army of translators composed? Did they know each other? Did they collaborate? What kind of editing was done to homogenize the material? By whom? Or was he simply giving credit to the many sources he had consulted? History doesn’t offer an answer to these questions.

Samuel Putnam, an American translator, called Phillip’s rendition “the worst ever made,” one that “cannot even be called a translation.” Ormsby agreed:

Anyone who compares it carefully with the original will have little doubt that it is a concoction from Shelton and the French of Filleau de Saint Martin, eked out by borrowings from Phillips, whose mode of treatment it adopts. It is, to be sure, more decent and decorous, but it treats “Don Quixote” in the same fashion as a comic book that cannot be made too comic.

What is unquestionable is that the work feels discombobulated. Using sly irony, it often makes fun of the knight-errant and his squire. It is condescending, not to say demeaning. His portraiture of women verges on the obscene. And the translation displays some Cockney jargon. This is the beginning of the First Part, chapter XVI, which takes place as the knight-errant, beaten up, arrives with his squire at the inn. Motteux’s women come to the fore:

The innkeeper, seeing Don Quixote lying quite athwart the ass, asked Sancho what ailed him. Sancho answered, it was nothing, only his master had got a fall from the top of a rock to the bottom, and he bruised his sides a little. The innkeeper had a wife very different from the common sort of hostesses, for she was a charitable nature, and very compassionate of her neighbor’s affliction: which made her immediately take care of Don Quixote, and call her daughter (a good handsome girl) to set her helping hand to his cure. One of the servants in the inn was an Asturian wrench, a broadfaced, flat-handed, saddle-nosed dowry, blind of one eye, and the other almost out. However, the activity of her body supplied all other defects. She was not above three feet high from her heels to her head; and her shoulders, which somewhat loaded her, as having too much flesh upon them, made her look downwards oftener than she could have wished. This charming original likewise assisted the mistress and the daughter; and, with the latter, helped to make the Knight’s bed, and a sorry one it was; the room where it stood was an old gambling cock-loft, which by manifold signs seemed to have been, in the days of yore, a repository of chopped straw.

Ormsby is right: to improve the humor of El Quijote by “an infusion of cockney flippancy and facetiousness, as Motteux’s operators did, is not merely an impertinence like larding a sirloin of prize beef, but an absolute falsification of the spirit of the book, and it is a proof of the uncritical way in which ‘Don Quixote’ is generally read that this worse than worthless translation—worthless as failing to represent, worse than worthless as misrepresenting—should have been favoured as it has been.”

Obviously, as the rowdy gang of English translators of Cervantes became more professionalized, their disapproval of previous renditions was exacerbated. The lack of rigor drove some of them nuts.

Despite its flaws, Motteux’s translation made El Quijote extraordinarily popular in eighteenth-century London. For instance, Samuel Johnson, ever a hero of mine, once stated, “Was there ever yet anything written by mere man that was wished longer by its readers, excepting Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and The Pilgrim’s Progress?” And Lord Byron was a devout admirer of El Quijote (as well as of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso [1516]), and either made reference or else borrowed from it profusely. For instance, Byron discussed Cervantes in Don Juan, canto XIII, stanzas 8 to 11:

I should be very willing to redress

Men’s wrongs, and rather check than punish crimes,

Had not Cervantes, in that too true tale

Of Quixote, shown how all such efforts fail.


Of all tales ’t is the saddest—and more sad,

Because it makes us smile: his hero’s right,

And still pursues the right;—to curb the bad

His only object, and ’gainst odds to fight

His guerdon: ’t is his virtue makes him mad!

But his adventures form a sorry sight;—

A sorrier still is the great moral taught

By that real Epic unto all who have thought


Redressing injury, revenging wrong,

To aid the damsel and destroy the caitiff;

Opposing singly the united strong,

From foreign yoke to free the helpless native:—

Alas! must noblest views, like an old song,

Be for mere Fancy’s sport a theme creative,

A jest, a riddle, Fame through thin and thick sought!

And Socrates himself but Wisdom’s Quixote?


Cervantes smiled Spain’s chivalry away;

A single laugh demolished the right arm

Of his own country;—seldom since that day

Has Spain had heroes. While Romance could charm,

The World gave ground before her bright array;

And therefore have his volumes done such harm,

That all their glory, as a composition,

Was dearly purchased by his land’s perdition.

While Byron saw the book as the end of an era, others among his contemporaries saw in it the beginning of a new one, full of possibility. By mid-century, Charlotte Lennox fashioned a woman’s adaptation called The Female Quixote: or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752), which to some is a defining text in the history of the British novel. The heroine is an insatiable reader of French romance novels who loses the sense of the world by believing her life must be defined by adventure, at one point even throwing herself into the Thames in order to escape some horsemen she is sure are haunting her. She speaks of fiction as “more true” than reality. Ultimately, she gives up her quixotic dreams when she agrees to marry her cousin.

In what is perhaps the highest tribute, Laurence Sterne, known as the father of experimental fiction, modeled the character of Uncle Toby in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) after Cervantes’s knight-errant. As a whole, Sterne’s novel is an embrace of the aesthetic affinities of El Quijote: a humorous, self-referential narrative that is concerned with poetry and philosophical questions about life in general (John Locke and the Metaphysical poets are constantly being invoked), all while the reader is being reminded, time and again, that fiction is a conceit, an artifice—not an escape from reality but an anchor in it.

The connection between Cervantes and Sterne, who read El Quijote in Motteux’s rendition, has been eloquently explored by Milan Kundera. In his essay “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes” (part of The Art of the Novel [1986]), he writes that Sterne is playful, just like Cervantes, in that he poses lasting philosophical questions while recognizing that philosophy no longer has the answer and that literature—the novel as a literary genre, in particular—is an artifact where ambiguity and the lack of certainty are offered as more suitable answers to the sensibility of modern readers. That, in his view, is how Sterne assimilates Cervantes’s legacy—that is, he recognizes that the world doesn’t have “a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths (truths embodied in imaginary selves called characters).” With the popularity of Motteux’s version, and as a result of the desire of other translators to improve on his discombobulated narrative, El Quijote was rendered into English a total of four times in the same century. The most controversial of these translations was by Tobias Smollett, the celebrated Scottish author of such novels as The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748). Though Carlos Fuentes naively called the Smollett version “the homage of a novelist to a novelist,” it has been marred by accusations of impostorship since its release in 1755.

In the translator’s note written in the third person, Smollett claims his aim was to maintain that “ludicrous solemnity and self-importance by which the inimitable Cervantes has distinguished the character of Don Quixote, without raising him to the insipid rank of a dry philosopher, or debasing him to the melancholy circumstances and unentertaining caprice of an ordinary madman; and to preserve the native humor of Sancho, from degenerating into mere proverbial phlegm, or affected buffoonery.” Smollett adds that the translation “endeavored to retain the spirit and ideas, without servilely adhering to the literal expression, of the original; from which, however, he has not so far deviated, as to destroy the formality of idiom, so peculiar to the Spaniards, and so essential to the character of the work.”

That last remark might have been an act of defense avant la lettre. In an evasive, unsigned review (by Ralph Griffiths) of Smollett’s translation that appeared in The Monthly Review in September 1755, Griffiths quietly yet insistently compares the Jarvis and Smollett translations. That he offers no strong opinion on this matter is bizarre since the primary accusation targeted at Smollett is that he copied Jarvis’s work without attribution. Perhaps the reviewer was Smollett’s friend, or at the very least his acquaintance. There could have been some sense of debt involved. In any case, successive critics have gone further.

The scholar Carmine Rocco Linsalata of Stanford University devoted an entire 1956 study to what he calls “the hoax.” In his view, Smollett’s translation “is a gem in the realm of fraudulent acts.” Analyzing parallel passages from Cervantes, Jarvis, and Smollett, he finds them strikingly similar, if not identical. Second, he compares Smollett to several other previous translators: Shelton, Phillips, Motteux, and Stevens. And, crucially, he spots numerous mistranslations of numbers by Smollett that, damningly, were also mistranslated previously, such as, in the First Part, chapter X, cuatro o cinco becoming “three or four,” and in chapter VIII, los primeros días emerging as “the first two days”; and in the Second Part, chapter II, docientas resulting in “a thousand,” and in XX, dos becoming “a dozen.” She uncovers the fact that other arbitrary translations and errors committed by Jarvis were repeated by Smollett, and that Smollett copied Jarvis’s footnotes.

Smollett certainly had Jarvis’s translation before him. As Rocco Linsalata argued, Smollett plagiarized, paraphrased, rewrote, and inverted Jarvis’s translation. This, he believed, is done consistently except in the last three chapters of the First Part. Rocco Linsalata doubted that Smollett even knew Spanish. Since all sorts of strategies are in play, he concluded that the work is not that of a single man but a group. Several Smollett biographers share this view. The members of the novelist’s hack school (a practice, by the way, not more common then than it is today) did their job, depending on the biographer, sometime between 1752 and 1763. Why would Smollett engage in such a hoax? With the critical and commercial acclaim following Roderick Random in 1748, he was financially stable. Perhaps, since his name would certainly sell books, a hungry publisher approached him to retranslate El Quijote.

On a happier note, the club of English translators finally included a woman—and an American to boot—in 2003: Edith Grossman. Prior to rendering El Quijote in English, Grossman was known as a professional translator of celebrated Latin American works, including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera; Álvaro Mutis’s Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll; a couple of novels by Mario Vargas Llosa, including The Feast of the Goat; and Mayra Montero’s books/novels, among them The Last Night I Spent with You. But she had also translated novels by Spanish baroque authors like Julián Ríos. And she had worked on Spanish Golden Age poetry, rendering in English the poems of Lope de Vega, Góngora, and Quevedo, among others.

In interviews, Grossman has said 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 tradition of El Quijote across European languages at her fingertips.

Intriguingly, no recent rendition into English has generated as many accolades as Grossman’s. It has been enthusiastically embraced by readers, but it has also been attacked by some Cervantistas. Is it because she is female? Or because her inclination is to modernize, to bring the seventeenth-century narrative into the present? One reviewer of her rendition wondered, in an aside, if women read books differently than men. If so, it follows that male and female translators approach a text in divergent fashion. Still, while her approach scandalized the most puritanical of Cervantes scholars who took exception with her overall approach, it pleased a large audience, turning the book into an unexpected best seller. Harold Bloom wrote in his introduction to her translation that “the vitality of [Don Quixote and Sancho’s] characterization is more clearly rendered than ever before.” Carlos Fuentes called it “a major literary achievement.”

Grossman’s decisively modern, unadorned style makes the knight-errant’s monologues feel crisp and immediate. Her implicit argument for translating in this way was that during Cervantes’s own time, his text was neither archaic nor quaint. Instead, he wrote freshly, with an updated verbal reservoir. That is, he was modern before modernity even arrived. So there is no need to make his effort anachronistic, even if, for my taste, “Senor Knight” sounds too streetwise.


Comparing various translations of Don Quixote demonstrates not only the evolution of the English language but also the different choices and liberties our group of translators have taken with the text. I have chosen a segment from the Second Part, chapter XVII, in which Don Quixote faces a cage full of lions, the scene where he utters the famous line “¿Leoncitos a mí? ¿A mí leoncitos y a tales horas?” in which the knight-errant displays the type of male bravado I mentioned in the previous section, or a critique of it:

Miguel de Cervantes (1615):

A lo que dijo don Quijote, sonriéndose un poco:

—¿Leoncitos a mí? ¿A mí leoncitos y a tales horas? Pues ¡por Dios que han de ser esos señores que acá los envían si soy yo hombre que se espanta de leones! Apeaos, buen hombre, y pues sois el leonero, abrid esas jaulas y echadme esas bestias fuera, que en mitad desta campaña les daré a conocer quién es don Quijote de la Mancha, a despecho y pesar de los encantadores que a mí los envían.

Thomas Shelton (1620):

To which quoth Don Quixote, smiling a little, “Your lion whelps to me? to me your lion whelps? and at this time of day? Well, I vow to God, your General that sends ’em this way shall know whether I be one that am afraid of lions. Alight, honest fellow, and, if you be the keeper, open their cages, and let me your beasts forth; for I’ll make ’em know, in the midst of this champian, who Don Quixote is, in spite of those enchanters that sent ’em.”

Peter Anthony Motteux (1700–1703):

What! Said Don Quixote, with a scornful Smile, Lion-Whelps against Me! Against Me those puny Beasts! And at this time of Day! Well, I’ll make those Gentlemen that sent their Lions this Way, know whether I am a Man to be scar’d with Lions. Get off, honest Fellow; and since you are the Keeper, open their Cages, and let ’em both out; for maugre and in despite of those Inchanters that have sent ’em to try me, I’ll make the Creatures know in the midst of this very Field, who Don Quixote de la Mancha is.

Charles Jarvis (1742):

At which Don Quixote, smiling a little, said, “To me your lion-whelps! your lion-whelps to me! and at this time of the day! By the living God, those who sent them hither shall see whether I am a man to be scared by lions! Alight, honest friend; and, since you are their keeper, open the cages, and turn out those beasts; for in the midst of this field will I make them know who Don Quixote de la Mancha is, in spite of the enchanters that sent them to me.” 

Tobias Smollett (1755):

To which intreaty, Don Quixote answer’d with half a smile, “What are your lion whelps to me, and at this time of day too! Are lion whelps brought against me! I’ll make those who sent them hither, yes—by the holy God! I’ll make them see whether I am a man to be scared by lions. Come, honest man, get off, and as you are their keeper, open the cages and turn them out; for, in the midst of this plain, will I make the savage beasts of the wilderness know who Don Quixote de la Mancha is, in defiance of the inchanters who have sent them against me.”

John Ormsby (1885):

Hereupon, smiling slightly, Don Quixote exclaimed, “Lion-whelps to me! to me whelps of lions, and at such a time! Then, by God! those gentlemen who send them here shall see if I am a man to be frightened by lions. Get down, my good fellow, and as you are the keeper open the cages, and turn me out those beasts, and in the midst of this plain I will let them know who Don Quixote of La Mancha is, in spite and in the teeth of the enchanters who send them to me.”

Samuel Putnam (1949):

“Lion whelps against me?” said Don Quixote with a slight smile. “Lion whelps against me? And at such an hour? Then, by god, those gentlemen who sent them shall see whether I am the man to be frightened by lions. Get down, my good fellow, and since you are the lionkeeper, open the cages and turn those beasts out for me; and in the middle of this plain I will teach them who Don Quixote de la Mancha is, notwithstanding and in spite of the enchanters who are responsible for their being here.”

J. M. Cohen (1961):

To which Don Quixote replied with a slight smile: “Lion cubs to me? To me lion cubs, and at this time of day? Then I swear to God the gentlemen who have sent them here shall see if I am a man not to be frightened by lions. Get down, my good fellow, and if you are the lion-keeper, open these cages and turn out these beasts for me. For in the middle of this field I will teach them who Don Quixote de la Mancha is, in despite and defiance of the enchanters who have sent them to me.”

Burton Raffel (1999):

Don Quijote smiled faintly.

“Lion cubs against me? Against me—lion cubs? And right when they’re hungry? Well, we’re going to show the gentlemen who sent them here whether I’m the man to worry about a couple of lions! Out of your cart, you, and since you’re the lion keeper, open those cages and let these animals come out against me, and right here in the middle of this meadow I’ll let them know just who Don Quijote de La Mancha is, and the devil with all the enchanters who sent them here after me.”

John Rutherford (2000):

To which Don Quixote said with a smile:

“Lion-whelps now, is it? Is it now lion-whelps, and at this time of day? Well, by God, those fellows sending them here will soon see whether I’m the sort to be afraid of lions! Climb down, my good man and, since you’re their innkeeper, open these crates and turn the animals out: here, in the middle of this field, I will show them what sort of a man Don Quixote de la Mancha is, in spite of all the enchanters who have sent them after me.”

Edith Grossman (2003):

To which Don Quixote, smiling slightly, said:

“You talk of lions to me? To me you speak of these little lions, and at this hour? Well, by God, those gentlemen who sent them here will see if I am a man who is frightened by lions! Get down, my good man, and since you are the lion keeper, open those cages and bring out those beasts, for in the middle of these fields I shall let them know who Don Quixote de La Mancha is, in spite and in defiance of the enchanters who have sent them to me.”

Tom Lathrop (2005):

To which don Quixote said with half a smile: “Little lions for me? For me, little lions, and at this time of day? Well, by God, those men who sent them to me will see if I’m a man to be frightened by lions or not. Get down, my good man, and since you’re the lion keeper, open those cages and send those beasts out—for in the middle of this field I’ll show them who don Quixote de La Mancha is, in spite of all the enchanters who have sent them to me.”

James H. Montgomery (2009):

To which Don Quixote responded with a slight smile:

“Tiny little lions against me? Against me, Don Quixote? And at such hour? Well, by heavens, those gentlemen who have sent them here shall see whether I am a person who fears lions! My good man, since you are the lionkeeper, kindly dismount, open those cages, and release those beasts, for in the middle of this field I shall show them who Don Quixote de La Mancha is despite all the enchanters who may have sent them here.”

One sees in these excerpts the gorgeous evolution the English language has undergone over a period of four hundred years. The dashes present at the beginning disappear as versions come closer to our time. Motteux resorts to an archaic and arbitrary use of uppercase letters that became normalized by the mid-twentieth century. Then come the divergent choices. Motteux describes the lions as “Lion-Whelps,” whereas Grossman calls them “little lions.”

More worrisome—or, depending on how one sees it, perhaps more commendable—are the cases of outright interpretation. Putnam, following Shelton, says, “Lion whelps against me?” the preposition against highlighting the threat of the encounter. Rutherford eliminates the emphasis by simply stating, “Lion whelps now, is it?” In this he follows Jarvis, who writes, “To me your lion-whelps!” Smollett modifies Jarvis by announcing, “What are your lion whelps to me, and at this time of day too!”

Whatever opinion one might have about a translator’s right—that is, freedom—to interpret, all of these translations are remarkably similar. It can’t be otherwise: the task of bringing a text from the source language to the target one allows for some flexibility, but it also has its limits. Translators are working with similar tools applied to the same raw material. Earlier on, I described Smollett as a plagiarist, since in my mind the evidence proves he did not perform the task of translation on his own. But perhaps it is true that all the renditions I have quoted might be described thus.

Less inflammatory and no doubt more pertinent is the question of why all these twenty-plus translations exist, notwithstanding the fact that some are out of print. Once a classic enters the public domain, any publisher is able to capitalize on its enduring bankability. Meanwhile, society changes in its tastes, and language continues to evolve. New renditions are needed because new generations of readers want to access the classic in their own terms, that is, in their own language. And publishers want to continue making profits.

Yet El Quijote has not been translated into French this many times, or into any other language for that matter. There is, it seems to me, a unique obsession with the novel in the English-speaking world. This linguistic habitat has constantly made room for it. There is also the fact that English is the lingua franca of today, as Latin was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. There are more non-native English-language speakers in the world now than non-native speakers of any other language, making English a global language, nurtured by all sorts of influences and influencing a whole array of cultures. For that reason, the United States and Britain export more translations than do the economically advanced countries in other linguistic habitats, say Germany, France, and even Spain.

Cervantes’s novel is the most translated novel into English because English speakers have identified it as a cornerstone of Western civilization; because they are drawn to it as a source of nourishment for the idealism ingrained in human nature; and because it is an open-ended classic that allows—nay, invites—for multiple interpretations.


From Quixote: The Novel and the World, published this month by W.W. Norton. © Ilan Stavans. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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