There Once Was A Man From La Mancha...
Idle Reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine.
—Miguel de Cervantes, from the Prologue
Shortly before I began work [translating Cervantes] I mentioned my fears to Julian Rios, the Spanish novelist . . . he told me not to be afraid; Cervantes, he said, was our most modern writer, and what I had to do was translate him the way I translated everyone else—that is the contemporary authors whose works I have brought over into English.
Edith Grossman, responsible for the enormous task of translating Don Quixote into English from its original Spanish for the umpteenth time since its publication in 1605, has delicately and lovingly translated the novel in a voice so fluid that, had it been marketed to a broader audience, it would have, without a doubt, become a monster bestseller. Grossman has cleverly omitted the ubiquitous thous and thys that have plagued more traditional translations and has instead opted to use them for effect rather than authenticity, rendering the novel as contemporary as a book by Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace.
The novel, for those of you who skipped that week in English lit, tells the tale of a man, Don Quixote, an avid reader of chivalric literature, who is driven to madness by his obsession of yarns spinning epic tales of knights and dragons, kings and damsels in distress.
Fantasy begins to blur reality when he is convinced that he is an honorable knight who must seek out adventures in order to win the heart of his beloved Lady Dulcinea of Toboso, in reality a farmer’s daughter from his hometown of La Mancha. After acquiring a faithful squire, the infinitely endearing Sancho Panza, he sets off on an epic quest, encountering inn-keepers, whom his delusional mind mistakes for Kings, monks transporting a lady, whom he mistakes for bandits, and a disillusioned knight who’s been driven mad by a rejected lover.
At every turn Don Quixote and poor Sancho Panza are beaten and bruised, robbed and dejected, derided and scorned, usually to great comic effect. The novel, written in 1605 and 1615 respectively, is considered the father of the modern novel; the corner stone of all western literature whose ideas and themes are still explored in contemporary novels—A Confederacy of Dunces and You Shall Know Our Velocity immediately jump to mind—whose structure and technique have been filtered into every novel that’s come after it.
The book is an epic, sprawling some 940 pages, and, had it been written today, it’d still be considered a radically and breathtakingly ambitious work. But the one thing that took your faithful reviewer aback was the one thing that every reviewer neglects, and that’s how truly, remarkably funny it is. Forget Kurt Vonnegut, John Kennedy Toole, David Foster Wallace, Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, this is, hands down, the funniest book you are likely to read in your lifetime.
Cervantes brilliantly combines highbrow and lowbrow humor, often in the same sentence. There is one particularly funny passage, early in the book, where Don Quixote, having drank a balm that’s supposed to heal all wounds—but, in reality, does nothing more than makes the soul unfortunate enough to drink it projectile vomit—opens his mouth and has his faithful squire check a tooth only to spray poor Sancho Panza with vomit.
The book, for all its wackiness, has a heart of gold, and that heart is constantly beating inside the chest of Sancho Panza. The faithful squire, who dubs Don Quixote the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, is a poor, uneducated farmer who’s lured into squiredom by the idea that he will, by following his Master, one day become Governor of his very own island.
Sancho provides reason to Quixote’s insanity, logic to his delusions, morals to his madness. He encapsulates everything that’s right and pure in a world gone mad. He is the reason, above all else, to read this novel. Simply put: He may very well be the greatest, most realist and endearing character in all of Western literature.
The prose of Grossman’s admirable translation is fluid and funny, intelligent and graceful—despite the occasional clunky sentence. Her love and admiration for the material is apparent throughout and her liberal use of footnotes—as a footnote, I’d like to commend her for her use of footnotes as opposed to endnotes. Yes, ladies and gentleman, you need only one bookmark here—are informative and never excessive. Yet somehow, despite the fact that she’s speaking in a modern vernacular, the novel remains as authentic as a Spanish language edition.
This new translation, certain to elicit more than its share of scoffs from the literati, will without a doubt replace countless older translations—according to Publishers Weekly, there’s well over one hundred separate translations—in schools throughout the country. Your faithful reviewer would like to thank her personally for giving us a new, modern translation that will turn on those who’ve always been afraid to tackle such a seemingly daunting book.
As Harold Bloom puts it in his excellent introduction: “Grossman might be called the Glenn Gould of translators because she . . . articulates every note.”
He goes on to state: “The aesthetic truth of Don Quixote is that it makes us confront greatness directly. If we have difficulty fully understanding Don Quixote’s quest, its motives and desired ends, that is because we confront a reflecting mirror that awes us even as we yield to delight.”
Your faithful reviewer couldn’t have put it any better.