Don Quixote/Volume 1/Prefatory

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Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by John Ormsby
Translator's Preface, About This Translation
Notes by John Ormsby


INTRODUCTION.




PREFATORY.


It was with considerable reluctance that I abandoned in favour of the present undertaking what had long been a favourite project: that of a new edition of Shelton's "Don Quixote," which has now become a somewhat scarce book. There are some—and I confess myself to be one—for whom Shelton's racy old version, with all its defects, has a charm that no modern translation, however skilful or correct, could possess. 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. Shakespeare himself most likely knew the book; he may have carried it home with him in his saddle-bags to Stratford on one of his last journeys, and under the mulberry tree at New Place joined hands with a kindred genius in its pages.

But it was soon made plain to me that to hope for even a moderate popularity for Shelton was vain. 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—in forty days he says in his dedication—and, as his marginal notes show, never revised by him. It has all the freshness and vigour, but also 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. With him "discreto"—a chameleon of a word in its way of taking various meanings according to circumstances—is always "discreet," "admirar" is always "admire," "sucesos" always "successes" (which it seldom means), "honesto" always "honest" (which it never means), "suspenso" always "suspended;" "desmayarse," to swoon or faint, is always "to dismay" (one lady is a "mutable and dismayed traitress," when "fickle and fainting" is meant, and another "made shew of dismaying" when she "seemed ready to faint"); "trance," a crisis or emergency, is always simply "trance;" "disparates" always "fopperies," which, however, if not a translation, is an illustration of the meaning, for it is indeed nonsense. These are merely a few samples taken at hap-hazard, but they will suffice to show how Shelton translated, and why his "Don Quixote," veritable treasure as it is to the Cervantist and to the lover of old books and old English, cannot be accepted as an adequate translation.

It is often said that we have no satisfactory translation of "Don Quixote." To those who are familiar with the original, it savors of truism or platitude to say so, for in truth there can be no thoroughly satisfactory translation of "Don Quixote" into English or any other language. It is not that the Spanish idioms are so utterly unmanageable, or that the untranslatable words, numerous enough no doubt, are so superabundant, but rather that the sententious terseness to which the humor of the book owes its flavor is peculiar to Spanish, and can at best be only distantly imitated in any other tongue.

The history of our English translations of "Don Quixote" is instructive. Shelton's, the first in any language, was made, apparently, about 1608, but not published till 1612. This of course was only the First Part. It has been asserted that the Second, published in 1620, is not the work of Shelton, but there is nothing to support the assertion save the fact that it has less spirit, less of what we generally understand by "go," about it than the first, which would be only natural if the first were the work of a young man writing currente calamo, and the second that of a middle-aged man writing for a bookseller. On the other hand, it is closer and more literal, the style is the same, the very same translations, or mistranslations, of "suceso,", "trance,", "desmayarse," etc., occur in it, and it is extremely unlikely that a new translator would, by suppressing his name, have allowed Shelton to carry off the credit.

In 1687 John Phillips, Milton's nephew, produced a "Don Quixote" "made English," he says, "according to the humour of our modern language." The origin of this attempt is plain enough. In 1656 that indecorous Oxford Don, Edmond Gayton, had produced his "Festivous Notes on Don Quixote," a string of jests, more or less dirty, on the incidents in the story, which seems to have been much relished; and in 1667 Sir Roger l'Estrange had published his version of Quevedo's "Visions" from the French of La Geneste, a book which the lively though decidedly coarse humor, cockney jokes and London slang, wherewith he liberally seasoned it, made a prodigious favorite with the Restoration public. It struck Phillips that, as Shelton was now rather antiquated, a "Don Quixote" treated in the same way might prove equally successful. He imitated L'Estrange as well as he could, but L'Estrange was a clever penman and a humorist after his fashion, while Phillips was only a dull buffoon. His "Quixote" is not so much a translation as a travesty, and a travesty that for coarseness, vulgarity, and buffoonery is almost unexampled even in the literature of that day.

Ned Ward's "Life and Notable Adventures of Don Quixote, merrily translated into Hudibrastic Verse" (1700), can scarcely be reckoned a translation, but it serves to show the light in which "Don Quixote" was regarded at the time.

A further illustration may be found in the version published in 1712 by Peter Motteux, who had then recently combined tea-dealing with literature. It is described as "translated from the original by several hands," but if so all Spanish flavor has entirely evaporated under the manipulation of the several hands. The flavor that it has, on the other hand, is distinctly Franco-cockney. 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.

To attempt to improve the humor of "Don Quixote" 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. That it should have been popular in its own day, or that a critic who understood the original so little as Alexander Fraser Tytler should think it "by far the best," is no great wonder. But that so admirable a scholar as Ticknor should have given it even the lukewarm approval he bestows upon it, and that it should have been selected for reproduction in luxurious shapes three or four times within these last three or four years, is somewhat surprising. Ford, whose keen sense of humor, and intimate knowledge of Spain and the Spanish character, make him a more trustworthy critic on this particular question than even the illustrious American, calls it of all English translations "the very worst." This is of course too strong, for it is not and could not be worse than Phillips's, but the vast majority of those who can relish "Don Quixote" in the original will confirm the judgment substantially.

It had the effect, however, of bringing out a translation undertaken and executed in a very different spirit, that of Charles Jervas, the portrait painter, and friend of Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, and Gay. Jervas has been allowed little credit for his work, indeed it may be said none, for it is known to the world in general as Jarvis's. It was not published until after his death, and the printers gave the name according to the current pronunciation of the day. It has been the most freely used and the most freely abused of all the translations. It has seen far more editions than any other, it is admitted on all hands to be by far the most faithful, and yet nobody seems to have a good word to say for it or for its author. Jervas no doubt prejudiced readers against himself in his preface, where among many true words about Shelton, Stevens, and Motteux, he rashly and unjustly charges Shelton with having translated not from the Spanish, but from the Italian version of Franciosini, which did not appear until ten years after Shelton's first volume. A suspicion of incompetence, too, seems to have attached to him because he was by profession a painter and a mediocre one (though he has given us the best portrait we have of Swift), and this may have been strengthened by Pope's remark that he "translated 'Don Quixote' without understanding Spanish." He has been also charged with borrowing from Shelton, whom he disparaged. It is true that in a few difficult or obscure passages he has followed Shelton, and gone astray with him; but for one case of this sort, there are fifty where he is right and Shelton wrong. As for Pope's dictum, anyone who examines Jervas's version carefully, side by side with the original, will see that he was a sound Spanish scholar, incomparably a better one than Shelton, except perhaps in mere colloquial Spanish. Unlike Shelton, and indeed most translators, who are generally satisfied with the first dictionary meaning or have a stereotype translation for every word under all circumstances, he was alive to delicate distinctions of meaning, always an important matter in Spanish, but especially in the Spanish of Cervantes, and his notes show that he was a diligent student of the great Spanish Academy Dictionary, at least its earlier volumes; for he died in 1739, the year in which the last was printed. His notes show, besides, that he was a man of very considerable reading, particularly in the department of chivalry romance, and they in many instances anticipate Bowle, who generally has the credit of being the first "Quixote" annotator and commentator. He was, in fact, an honest, faithful, and painstaking translator, and he has left a version which, whatever its shortcomings may be, is singularly free from errors and mistranslations.

The charge against it is that it is stiff, dry—"wooden" in a word,—and no one can deny that there is a foundation for it. But it may be pleaded for Jervas that a good deal of this rigidity is due to his abhorrence of the light, flippant, jocose style of his predecessors. He was one of the few, very few, translators that have shown any apprehension of the unsmiling gravity which is the essence of Quixotic humor; it seemed to him a crime to bring Cervantes forward smirking and grinning at his own good things, and to this may be attributed in a great measure the ascetic abstinence from everything savoring of liveliness which is the characteristic of his translation. Could he have caught but ever so little of Swift's or Arbuthnot's style, he might have hit upon a via media that would have made his version as readable as it is faithful, or at any rate saved him from the reproach of having marred some of the best scenes in "Don Quixote." In most modern editions, it should be observed, his style has been smoothed and smartened, but without any reference to the original Spanish, so that if he has been made to read more agreeably he has also been robbed of his chief merit of fidelity.

Smollett's version, published in 1755, may be almost counted as one of these. At any rate it is plain that in its construction Jervas's translation was very freely drawn upon, and very little or probably no heed given to the original Spanish.

The later translations may be dismissed in a few words. George Kelly's, which appeared in 1769, "printed for the Translator," was an impudent imposture, being nothing more than Motteux's version with a few of the words, here and there, artfully transposed; Charles Wilmot's (1774) was only an abridgment like Florian's, but not so skilfully executed; and the version published by Miss Smirke in 1818, to accompany her brother's plates, was merely a patchwork production made out of former translations. On the latest, Mr. A. J. Duffield's, it would be in every sense of the word impertinent in me to offer an opinion here. I had not even seen it when the present undertaking was proposed to me, and since then I may say vidi tantum, having for obvious reasons resisted the temptation which Mr. Duffield's reputation and comely volumes hold out to every lover of Cervantes.

From the foregoing history of our translations of "Don Quixote," it will be seen that there are a good many people who, provided they get the mere narrative with its full complement of facts, incidents, and adventures served up to them in a form that amuses them, care very little whether that form is the one in which Cervantes originally shaped his ideas. On the other hand, it is clear that there are many who desire to have not merely the story he tells, but the story as he tells it, so far at least as differences of idiom and circumstances permit, and who will give a preference to the conscientious translator, even though he may have acquitted himself somewhat awkwardly. It is not very likely that readers of the first class are less numerous now than they used to be, but it is no extravagant optimism to assume that there are many more of the other way of thinking than there were a century and a half ago.

But after all there is no real antagonism between the two classes; there is no reason why what pleases the one should not please the other, or why a translator who makes it his aim to treat "Don Quixote" with the respect due to a great classic, should not be as acceptable even to the careless reader as the one who treats it as a famous old jest-book. It is not a question of caviare to the general, or, if it is, the fault rests with him who makes it so. The method by which Cervantes won the ear of the Spanish people ought, mutatis mutandis, to be equally effective with the great majority of English readers. At any rate, even if there are readers to whom it is a matter of indifference, fidelity to the method is as much a part of the translator's duty as fidelity to the matter. If he can please all parties, so much the better; but his first duty is to those who look to him for as faithful a representation of his author as it is in his power to give them, faithful to the letter so long as fidelity is practicable, faithful to the spirit so far as he can make it.

With regard to fidelity to the letter, there is of course no hard and fast rule to be observed; a translator is bound to be literal as long as he can, but persistence in absolute literality, when it fails to convey the author's idea in the shape the author intended, is as great an offence against fidelity as the loosest paraphrase. As to fidelity to the spirit, perhaps the only rule is for the translator to sink his own individuality altogether, and content himself with reflecting his author truthfully. It is disregard of this rule that makes French translations, admirable as they generally are in all that belongs to literary workmanship, so often unsatisfactory. French translators, for the most part, seem to consider themselves charged with the duty of introducing their author to polite society, and to feel themselves in a measure responsible for his behaviour. There is always in their versions a certain air of "Bear your body more seeming, Audrey." Viardot, for example, has produced a "Don Quixote" that is delightfully smooth, easy reading; but the Castilian character has been smoothed away. He has forced Cervantes into a French mould, instead of moulding his French to the features of Cervantes. It is hardly fair, perhaps, to expect a Frenchman to efface himself and consent to play second fiddle under any circumstances; but to look for a translation true to the spirit from a translator who holds himself free to improve his author is, as a Spaniard would say, "to ask pears from the elm tree."

My purpose here is not to dogmatise on the rules of translation, but to indicate those I have followed, or at least tried to the best of my ability to follow, in the present instance. One which, it seems to me, cannot be too rigidly followed in translating "Don Quixote," is to avoid everything that savours of affectation. The book itself is, indeed, in one sense a protest against it, and no man abhorred it more than Cervantes. "Toda afectacion es mala," is one of his favorite proverbs. For this reason, I think, any temptation to use antiquated or obsolete language should be resisted. It is after all an affectation, and one for which there is no warrant or excuse. Spanish has probably undergone less change since the seventeenth century than any language in Europe, and by far the greater and certainly the best part of "Don Quixote" differs but little in language from the colloquial Spanish of the present day. That wonderful supper-table conversation on books of chivalry in Chap. xxxii. Part I. is just such a one as might be heard now in any venta in Spain. Except in the tales and Don Quixote's speeches, the translator who uses the simplest and plainest every-day language will almost always be the one who approaches nearest to the original.

Seeing that the story of "Don Quixote" and all its characters and incidents have now been for more than two centuries and a half familiar as household words in English mouths, it seems to me that the old familiar names and phrases should not be changed without good reason. I am by no means sure that I have done rightly in dropping Shelton's barbarous title of "Curious Impertinent" by which the novel in the First Part has been so long known. It is not a translation, and it is not English, but it has so long passed current as the title of the story that its original absurdity has been, so to speak, effaced by time and use. "Ingenious" is, no doubt, not an exact translation of "Ingenioso;" but even if an exact one could be found, I doubt it any end would be served by substituting it. No one is likely to attach the idea of ingenuity to Don Quixote.[1] "Dapple" is not the correct translation of "rucio," as I have pointed out in a note, but it has so long done duty as the distinctive title of Sancho's ass that nobody, probably, connects the idea of color with it. "Curate" is not an accurate translation of "cura," but no one is likely to confound Don Quixote's good fussy neighbor with the curate who figures in modern fiction. For "Knight of the Rueful Countenance," no defence is necessary, for, as I have shown (v. Chap. xix.), it is quite right; Sancho uses "triste figura" as synonymous with "mala cara."

The names of things peculiarly Spanish, like "olla," "bota," "alforjas," etc., are, I think, better left in their original Spanish. Translations like "bottle" and "saddle-bags" give an incorrect idea, and books of travel in Spain have made the words sufficiently familiar to most readers. It is less easy to deal with the class of words that are untranslatable, or at least translatable only by two or more words; such words as "desengaño," "discreto," "donaire," and the like, which in cases where conciseness is of at least equal importance with literality must often be left only partially translated.

Of course a translator who holds that "Don Quixote" should receive the treatment a great classic deserves, will feel himself bound by the injunction laid upon the Morisco in chapter ix. not to omit or add anything. Every one who takes up a sixteenth or seventeenth century author knows very well beforehand that he need not expect to find strict observance of the canons of nineteenth century society. Two or three hundred years ago, words, phrases, and allusions where current in ordinary conversation which would be as inadmissible now as the costume of our first parents, and an author who reflects the life and manners of his time must necessarily reflect its language also.

This is the case of Cervantes. There is no more apology needed on his behalf than on behalf of the age in which he lived. He was not one of those authors for whom dirt has the attraction it has for the blue bottle; he was not even one of those that with a jolly indifference treat it as capital matter to make a joke of. Compared with his contemporaries and most of his successors who dealt with life and manners, he is purity itself; there are words, phrases, and allusions that one could wish away, there are things—though very few after all—that offend one, but there is no impurity to give offence in the writings of Cervantes.

The text I have followed generally is Hartzenbusch's. But Hartzenbusch, though the most scholarly of the editors and commentators of "Don Quixote," is not always an absolutely safe guide. His text is preferable to that of the Academy in being, as far as the First Part is concerned, based upon the first of La Cuesta's three editions, instead of the third, which the Academy took as its basis on the supposition (an erroneous one, as I have shown elsewhere) that it had been corrected by Cervantes himself. His emendations are frequently admirable, and remove difficulties and make rough places smooth in a manner that must commend itself to every intelligent reader; but his love and veneration for Cervantes too often get the better of the judicious conservatism that should be an editor's guiding principle in dealing with the text of an old author. Notwithstanding the abundant evidence before him that Cervantes was—to use no stronger word—a careless writer, he insists upon attributing every blunder, inconsistency, or slipshod or awkward phrase to the printers. Cervantes, he argues, wrote a hasty and somewhat illegible hand, his failing eyesight made revision or correction of his manuscript an irksome task to him, and the printers were consequently often driven to conjecture. He considers himself, therefore, at liberty to reject whatever jars upon his sense of propriety, and substitute what, in his judgment, Cervantes "must have written."

It is needless to point out the destructive results that would follow the adoption of this principle in settling the text of old authors. In Hartzenbusch's "Don Quixote" it has led to a good deal of unnecessary tampering with the text, and, in not a few instances, to something that is the reverse of emendation. He is not, therefore, by any means an editor to be slavishly followed, though all who know his editions will cordially acknowledge his services, among which may be reckoned his judicious arrangement of the text into paragraphs, and the care he has bestowed upon the punctuation, matters too much neglected by his predecessors. Nor is the valuable body of notes he has brought together the least of them. In this respect he comes next to Clemencin; but the industry and erudition of that indefatigable commentator have left comparatively few gleanings for those who come after him.

To both, as well as to Pellicer, I have had frequent recourse, as my own notes will show.

The tales introduced by Cervantes in the First Part have been printed in a smaller type; they are, as he himself freely admits, intrusive matter, and if they cannot be removed, they should at least be distinguished as wholly subordinate.

It is needless to say that the account given in the appendix of the editions and translations of "Don Quixote" does not pretend to be a full bibliography, which, indeed, would require a volume to itself. It is, however, though necessarily an imperfect sketch, fuller and more accurate, I think, than any that has appeared, and it will, at any rate, serve to show, better than could be shown by any other means, how the book made its way in the world, and at the same time indicate the relative importance of the various editions.

The account of the chivalry romances will give the reader some idea of the extent and character of the literature that supplied Cervantes with the motive for "Don Quixote."

Proverbs form a part of the national literature of Spain, and the proverbs of "Don Quixote" have always been regarded as a characteristic feature of the book. They are, moreover, independently of their wit, humor, and sagacity, choice specimens of pure old Castilian. The reader will probably, therefore, be glad to have them in their original form, arranged alphabetically according to what is of course the only rational arrangement for proverbs, that of key-words, and numbered for convenience of reference in the notes.


  1. "Ingenio" was used in Cervantes' time in very nearly the same way as "wit" with us at about the same period, for the imaginative or inventive faculty. Collections of plays were always described as being by "los mejores ingenios"—"the best wits." By "Ingenioso" he means one in whom the imagination is the dominant faculty, overruling reason. The opposite is the "discreto," he in whom the discerning faculty has the upper hand—he whose reason keep the imagination under due control. The distinction is admirably worked out in chapters xvi., xvii., and xviii. of Part II.