A Quixotic Endeavor: The Translator’s Role and Responsibility in Bridging Divides in the (Mis)handling of Translations
“Translating from one language to another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and cannot be seen with the smoothness and color of the right side; translating easy languages does not argue for either talent or eloquence, just as transcribing or copying from one paper to another does not argue for those qualities. And I do not wish to infer from this that the practice of translating is not deserving of praise, because a man might engage in worse things that bring him even less benefit.”1—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Prologue
1. Somewhere in La Mancha
2. The Importance of Translation
When we engage with fiction we are both within and without the story we are reading or watching; we are simultaneously ourselves, locked into our own particular view on the world, and someone else, maybe even someone very different from us, feeling how he or she inhabits a very different world from ours. […] That ability to experience different and at times even contrary realities without rejecting one or the other is one of the main reasons we are so drawn to fiction, in all its forms.22
His own disappointments in turn seemed to prime him to be unusually attuned to the suffering and misfortune of others. In a time and culture when xenophobia was the national religion, when the poor were assumed to have deserved their lot, and when women were thought to be naturally subservient to men, Cervantes regularly used his writing to explore the feelings and experiences of religious and ethnic minorities, social outcasts, and women.30
You only have to imitate the style of what you’re writing—the more perfect the imitation is, the better your writing will be…So, fix your attention on bringing down the ill-founded framework of those chivalresque books, disposed by many, and praised by many more; for if you achieve this, you won’t have achieved little.33
Latinate words whose effect in English is often archaic, or even vague, such as amiable, whereas the Spanish counterpart amable is a common, vivid word. Or the betrayal of gender-identified nouns in Romance languages by the neuter noun in English: La luna is always more feminine than “the moon.”35
4. The Mishandling of Source Texts
5. Translation versus Adaptation (and the Idea of Untranslatability)
Drawing on philosophies of translation developed by Jacques Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Samuel Weber, Barbara Johnson, Abdelfattah Kilito, and Édouard Glissant, as well as on the way in which the Untranslatable is given substance in the context of Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (whose English translation I supervised with co-editors Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood), the aim is to activate untranslatability as a theoretical fulcrum of comparative literature with bearing on approaches to world literatures, literary world-systems and literary history, the politics of periodization, the translation of philosophy and theory, the relation between sovereign and linguistic borders at the checkpoint, the bounds of non-secular proscription and cultural sanction, free versus privatized authorial property, the poetics of translational difference, as well as ethical, cosmological, and theological dimensions of worldliness.45
Just as the manifestations of life are intimately connected with the phenomenon of life without being of importance to it, a translation issues from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife. For a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.49
6. There Can Only Be One First—The Shelton Translation
7. The Theft and Re-Appropriation of Don Quixote: The Phillips Translation
In some part of Mancha, of which the Name is at present slipt out of my Memory, not many years ago, there liv’d a certain Country Squire, of the Race of King Arthur’s Tilters, that formerly wander’d from Town to Town, Cas’d up in Rusty old Iron, with Lance in Rest, and a Knight-Templers Target, bestriding forlorn Pegasus, as Lean as a Dover Soft-Horse, and a confounded Founder’d Jade to boot.73
8. The Grossman Methodology: An Example of the Rise of “Good Enough”
I began the work in February 2001 and completed it two years later, but it is important for you to know that ‘final’ versions are determined more by a publisher’s due date than by any sense on my part that the work is actually finished. Even so, I hope you find it deeply amusing and deeply compelling. If not, you can be certain the fault is mine.87
As a first step toward accomplishing so exemplary an end, translators need to develop a keen sense of style in both languages, honing and expanding our critical awareness of the emotional impact of words, the social aura that surrounds them, the setting and mood that informs them, the atmosphere they create. We struggle to sharpen and elaborate our perception of the connotations and implications behind basic denotative meaning in a process not dissimilar to the efforts writers make to increase their familiarity with and competence in a given literary idiom.88
Two guiding principles obtain throughout the discussion that follows. The first is that translators are creative artists in their own right, on a par, and in partnership, with the author being translated. The renowned Spanish translator Gregory Rabassa91 has posited that the translator is “the ideal writer because all he has to do is write; plot, theme, characters, and all the other essentials have already been provided, so he can just sit down and write his ass off”. While the position is by no means universally accepted, it provides a useful lens through which to gauge the importance, responsibilities, and limitations of translation. The second principle is that translation is a practice. For all the many fascinating theoretical approaches one can take to the subject, I believe that ultimately it’s the end result that counts, the fruit of an activity.92
I decided, too, that I was not creating a scholarly work or an academic book, and therefore I would not study and compare editions—no more than I would begin my work by checking on how other translators had done theirs. And yet, despite my lack of academic intention, pretension, and purpose, for the first time in my translating career I chose to use footnotes…There was no reason I could think of for an intelligent modern reader to be put off by difficulties in the text that were not intended by the author.93
Conflicts of Interest
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See (de Cervantes 1970, p. 17).
A 1508 version (the earliest surviving printed copy), written by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, was very popular during the time that Don Quixote was written. Cervantes makes reference to this Castilian novel in a scene where a priest and a barber search through Don Quixote’s library to burn all of his books of chivalry, which they perceive to be the cause of Don Quixote’s “madness” (De Montalvo 2003, p. 5).
See (de Cervantes 2011, p. 19).
See (de Cervantes 2003, p. 25).
See (de Cervantes 2005, p. 19).
It is worth noting that the big publishers will always have copies in bookstores. Editions like the John Rutherford Penguin edition and the Edith Grossman Harper Perennial will likely be available at all bookstores over something like the Tom Lathrop Signet or the James H. Montgomery Hackett publishing translations.
It is important to note that the rise of ebook copies has complicated matters even further. Often, when choosing a digital copy, the choice becomes less of an aesthetic preference but rather one of availability and cost. If people are willing to pay for a digital copy, questions arise: Which edition? Is it cheaper than its paperback or hardcover version? Is it free? Most will pick up a digital copy of a free edition, which will most often be one of the older translations that are out of copyright, like the 1885 translation by British Translator John Ormsby.
See (de Cervantes 2016a, p. 27).
Translated by Cesar Osuna.
In fact, in the paragraph that follows in Chapter 1, it can be assumed that Quixote would not have amassed such a collection given that “[his] curiosity and folly got to such an extreme that he sold many acres of farmland in order to buy romances of chivalry to read, and he took home every one of them he could find.” (de Cervantes 2011, p. 20).
The word “hidalgo” is a word that has no real equivalent in English. In his Don Quixote Dictionary, Lathrop defines “hidalgo” as a “member of lesser nobility, gentleman.” Even so, it does not quite capture the same connotation that it has in Spanish.
It is worth mentioning that La Mancha is a region in central Spain. As Cervantes scholar Roberto González Echevarría says in his introductory lecture to his undergraduate class on the Quixote at Yale, “La Mancha is flat, arid, and monotonous.” It was not a desirable place, much less a memorable one for the narrator of Don Quixote to remember (González Echevarría 2015, p. 7).
See (de Cervantes 2016b, p. 14).
See (de Cervantes 2017, p. 21).
See (de Cervantes 2001, p. 43).
RAE (Real Academia Española) defines “hidalgo” as “Persona que por linaje pertenecía al estamento inferior de la nobleza.” (Person that by lineage belonged to an inferior class than nobility, https://dle.rae.es/hidalgo).
A translator has to be able to properly define such a term in the footnotes, glossary, etc. for a reader to properly understand such a term. Quixano is not poor, but he is not part of the higher ranks of nobility either. He is wealthy enough and has land to sell in order to buy books. The fact that La Mancha is somewhere the narrator does not care to remember also implies that it is a humble Castilian village, further giving indication of Quixano’s socio-economic standing.
This struggle led Cervantes to having odd jobs when not serving as a soldier, including working as a tax collector. Irregularities in his accounts led to Cervantes’ 1597 stay in Seville’s municipal jail. It is during this time in prison that it is believed that the idea of Don Quixote first came about.
As is the case with any translated novel.
See (Felstiner 1980, p. 5).
See (Egginton 2016, p. xv).
See (Zhang 2015, p. 3).
Suzanne Jill Levine’s comment in response to my paper presented at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese conference, “The Fabricant: Symposium on the Figure of the Translator”, 16 November 2018.
This lack of accuracy in translations can be seen when looking at collections of poetry by the Persian poet, Rumi; the Spanish playwright, poet, and novelist, Lope de Vega; the Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani; and the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Their poetry often suffers from mistranslation. Their translators may conflate various lines of a poem, rewrite the poem as they see fit according to their own ideas instead of the poet’s, or eliminate stanzas altogether. Poets like Neruda or Rumi often have their works reedited and collected in different editions in order for the publisher to profit from a new collection. It is even more disturbing when this happens to poets whose work is not readily available to the masses because their work is out of print or limited to their country(ies) of origin, like Nizar Qabbani or Lope de Vega.
See (Felstiner 1980, p. 14).
At “The Fabricant: Symposium on the Figure of the Translator” conference, the translators present argued that such demands for explanations on translation practices could not be met. The idea of having a detailing of editorial choices they made as translators was met with the suggestion that I was asking that an entire book be written alongside each translated work, when, in fact, I was asking merely for a slightly more detailed version of the kind of translator’s note often seen alongside the introduction to a novel.
There are already codes of ethics for translation and interpretation. Organizations in place with codes of ethics include the American Translators Association, the International Federation of Translators, the Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators, and more. However, even with such organizations in place, many literary translators opt not to join. An argument could be made that they be required to be in such an organization that would have standards of practices to adhere to.
In addition to excusing themselves with Walter Benjamin, the names of Jorge Luis Borges and Alexander Pope are consistently raised when arguing against what has become the status quo in translations and translation theory. Translators attempt to shield themselves from any criticism by going on the defensive. Gregory Rabassa, famous translator of Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar, wrote a defense that he deemed a “memoir”, where he details how difficult translation is, and titled it If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents. Perhaps the best way to sum up the tone of the 2018 conference “The Fabricant: Symposium on the Figure of the Translator” at the University of California, Santa Barbara came from translator and professor Jerome Rothenberg, who offered this comment: “It’s very difficult to be a translator”.
See (Egginton 2016, p. xx).
Vega, in fact, would show his disregard for Cervantes’ “old way” of composing plays with a poem titled The New Art of Writing Plays in Our Time. As stated in the introduction to William T. Brewster’s translation of The New Art of Writing Plays, Cervantes had “plentiful lack of sympathy for the so-called Aristotelian rules”, such as those that Vega would go on to write four years after Cervantes had published the first part of Don Quixote (de Vega 1914, p. 16).
See (Egginton 2016, p. xxi).
See (de Cervantes 2011, p. 9).
This is, of course, for translators who choose to consult with a source text or any other text to begin with.
See (Grossman 2010, p. 2).
See (Jill Levine 2009, pp. iii–iv).
See (Jill Levine 2009, p. 5).
El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha is the original title by Miguel de Cervantes. The two-part volumes are now more commonly titled simply as Don Quixote.
See (Rico 2005, pp. 100–1).
“No tenemos ninguna noticia directa sobre el autógrafo de Cervantes que constituiría la primera redacción completa de El Ingenioso Hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, pero hubo de tratarse de un manuscrito que no brillaba por la claridad ni la uniformidad. El volumen publicado con aquel titulo…contiene paginas escritas en diversas épocas y que a veces tuvieron o pudieron tener vida independiente.”
“We have no direct information about the autograph of Cervantes that would constitute the first complete editing of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, but it had to be a manuscript that did not shine by clarity or uniformity. The volume published with that title…contains pages written at different times and that sometimes had or could have had independent life.” (Rico 2005, p. xcvii).
See (de Cervantes 2011, p. xvi).
See (Egginton 2016, p. 3).
See (Apter 2013, p. 9).
See (Apter 2013, p. 10).
One is tempted to assume that many translation scholars have not bothered to read the original essay themselves, since all-too-often, Benjamin’s ten page essay is reduced to one or two quotes which all of Benjamin’s adherents seem to have memorized.
See (Benjamin 2002, p. 253).
See (Benjamin 2002, p. 254).
See (Benjamin 2002, p. 254).
Deleuze and Guattari refer to these “lines of flight” and “assemblages” as ways to explain the ever-changing nature of any given thing. Their point is that nothing remains static, it is constantly evolving, constantly changing, and if it does become static, it dies and becomes what they define as “molar.” This line of thinking comes from a similar school to that of Benjamin, if not heavily influenced by it.
See (Benjamin 2002, p. 256).
We actually do this as well, except with works in English, any altering of the text is given the respect of being called an adaptation or reinvention. It is not always done with good intentions though. The works of Shakespeare suffer a similar fate to that of these older works in translation. Readers and scholars find the language to be too archaic and too difficult to read, implying that it is not worth the effort. Thus, we see “modernized” versions of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the ever-popular No Fear Shakespeare series.
They also reference One Thousand and One Nights. They argue that the additions to that text are what have become more popular and loved the most by readers, but what choice does the reader have if that is what is available to them? If you think of Rumi, the translations of Coleman Barks do the same. They are rewritten in the same way to give readers something easier to quote. We have become obsessed with something that is easily quotable. Which sounds more quotable: “In a village in La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind” or “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember”? “Somewhere in La Mancha” certainly has a better ring to it, but is it accurate?
Also known as Novelas Ejemplares or Exemplary Novels.
See (de Cervantes 2015, p. xxi).
See (de Cervantes 2015, p. xxi).
See (de Cervantes 1970, p. 9).
Remarks such as this by Shelton work in two distinct ways; it is either a way to self-praise for completing a translation in such a short period of time, or it can serve to excuse themselves for any errors made in haste.
That is not to say that this mediocre achievement should be celebrated, but it should be noted that a translation done in haste can still retain a reasonably high level of fidelity to the source text. If a translator were to dedicate more time and effort in crafting a translation, it could be possible to get close to what the author intended.
See (de Cervantes 1970, p. 17).
Aside from the fact that no translation should employ free adaptation when moving between languages, as stated in the term itself, it then becomes an adaptation, not a translation.
The point being that most English translators of Don Quixote do not have much transparency in their methodology, their editorial choices, and their choices of which texts to consult.
See (de Cervantes 1970, p. 3).
This argument is often made by scholars or those in the translation field. The idea is that a level of creativity should be employed by the translator to make the translation work. It is problematic to assume from the project’s origin that the work needs to be “fixed” or altered to make it work. These stylistic, linguistic, and contextual changes are often thought of as necessary by translators. In fact, a number of scholars and translators at recent academic conferences have used the example of “translating” a novel to the big screen. Certain elements are said not to work when changing mediums, but that is where their argument falls flat. When moving between mediums, it is no longer an act of translation, but rather adaptation. The 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff is no more a translation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than is Kenneth Branagh’s film of Hamlet a translation of Shakespeare’s play. If any kinds of changes are made that were not in the original source, it is no longer a translation, but rather an adaptation.
James H. Montgomery and Hackett Publishing Company published his translation of Don Quixote in 2009.
See (Montgomery 2006, p. 212).
See (de Cervantes 2000).
See (de Cervantes 1795, p. xii).
See (de Cervantes 1795, p. xii).
Milton biographer Willam Riley Parker dismisses Edward Phillips as “a hasty hack writer” who made a practice of literary opportunism (Parker 1996). It is Phillips that most scholars identify as the source for the odd—even incredible—story of Milton supposedly teaching his daughters to pronounce languages they could not actually understand, in order that they might “read” to him in those languages after he had gone blind. According to Phillips, Milton’s daughters Mary and Deborah were:
The first French translation in 1614 by King Louis XIII translator, Cesar Oudin.
See (de Cervantes 1687, p. 3).
Charles Patterson, in his translation, Cervantes’s Eight Interludes (of which there were more than eight), changes references to a German musician to Michael Jackson for an American audience.
See (Rabassa 2005, Back cover).
Neil Gaiman has also gone on record stating that the primary focus of any “translation” of his work should be to capture the spirit rather than the literal. Again, that is the author’s choice, but it presents the work differently because an accurate translation it is not. The problem is that these authors can decide what they value most about their work when moving them between languages, but by not having the author available to state such things, the code of ethics would be critical with works by Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Tolstoy, etc. Even the works of Gaiman and Garcia Marquez should have their own translations that fit this code of ethics.
See (de Cervantes 2016a, p. 29).
See (de Cervantes 2005, p. 20).
His 1885 translation, while free and easily accessible on the internet, has had a lasting popularity amongst translations of Don Quixote. While his language might seem a bit “antiquated”, Ormsby captures the tones and characters of the Cervantes original. For the 400th Anniversary Edition, Restless Classics, a subdivision of Restless Books, chose Ormbsy for their anniversary edition.
See (de Cervantes 2013, p. 26).
See (Grossman 2010, p. 11).
See (Grossman 2010, pp. 66–67).
See (de Cervantes 2005, xviii).
See (de Cervantes 2005, xviii).
See (Grossman 2010, p. 68).
Interestingly enough, John Rutherford’s Penguin edition of Don Quixote also has a translator’s note, “Translating Don Quixote”. He spends eight pages explaining the “impossible” task of translating instead of explaining more than just a couple of his editorial choices. This practice of explaining the idea of untranslatability is common amongst big-name translators. Near the end of his proving the impossibility of translations, Rutherford concludes that “the translation of Don Quixote does turn out to be logically impossible, after all.” (de Cervantes 2003, p. xxxi).
See (Grossman 2010, p. 69).
See (Grossman 2010, p. 15).
See (Grossman 2010, p. 19).
This book is a manifesto that tried to explain what translation is and is not. It is an attempt to excuse the choices that translators have to make and the difficulty that accompanies said choices. Like the oft-quoted Walter Benjamin essay “The Task of the Translator”, it attempts to inoculate translators against the consequences of their choices.
One thing worth noting is that a lot of these translators who justify their mishandling of texts tend to align themselves with those who do the same and are equally as famous in the world of translation studies. Often, translators like Suzanne Jill-Levine, Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, and Ilan Stavans will compliment each other’s work. Their arguments are all similar and all reference Borges, Pope’s Homer, and Benjamin when defending their work.
See (Polizzotti 2018, p. xiv).
See (Grossman 2010, p. 63).
See (Rabassa 2005, p. 98).
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Osuna, C. A Quixotic Endeavor: The Translator’s Role and Responsibility in Bridging Divides in the (Mis)handling of Translations. Humanities 2020, 9, 119. https://doi.org/10.3390/h9040119
Osuna C. A Quixotic Endeavor: The Translator’s Role and Responsibility in Bridging Divides in the (Mis)handling of Translations. Humanities. 2020; 9(4):119. https://doi.org/10.3390/h9040119Chicago/Turabian Style
Osuna, Cesar. 2020. "A Quixotic Endeavor: The Translator’s Role and Responsibility in Bridging Divides in the (Mis)handling of Translations" Humanities 9, no. 4: 119. https://doi.org/10.3390/h9040119