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John Phillips’s Translation of Don Quixote and “the Humour of our Modern Language”
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In his 1680 preface to Ovid’s Epistles Translated by Several Hands, John Dryden considers the choices any translator must make. Whereas the fidelity of a word-for-word translation is “a faith like that which proceeds from Superstition,” the translator who endeavors “not to Translate [the author’s] words, or to be Confin’d to his Sense, but only…to write, as he supposes that Authour would have done, had he liv’d in our Age, and in our Country” adopts a “libertine way of rendring Authours.” Dryden fears that “mischief may arise … from…so bold an undertaking” (9v-10r). Seven years later, John Phillips—the nephew, pupil, and collaborator of John Milton—fulfilled Dryden’s prophesy, publishing The History of the most Renowned Don Quixote of Mancha: and his Trusty Squire Sancho Pancha, Now made English according to the Humour of our Modern Language. Dryden would have probably judged this translation “libertine… mischief ” (10r).

Peter Anthony Motteux, the main contributor to a 1700 English translation of Don Quixote, certainly did:

Never did Spaniard suffer more by Drake, than our Knight of La Mancha by the Writer of that English-Spanish Quixote…. He has… chang’d the Sense, ridicul’d the most serious and moving Passages, remov’d all the scandalous places in London into the middle of Spain, and all the Language of Billingsgate into the Mouths of Spanish Ladies and Noblemen. He has…added a World of Obscenity and scribling Conceits…and to be sure will plead Design for his Mistake …and that his Piece is an Improvement, not a Translation of Don Quixote.

We expect subsequent translators to criticize their predecessors in order to make room for a new translation. Still, judgments of contemporary readers echo Motteux’s harshness: the “senceless” imposition of English place-names and slang turns Phillips’s translation to “nonscence” (qtd. in Randall and Boswell 496, 602).

This essay will argue that the translation project of Milton’s well-educated, well-read nephew was neither “nonscense” nor “senceless”; he had a “Design,” as even Motteux grants, although he deems it a “Mistake.” Explicating Phillips’s design to make Cervantes’s novel “English according to the Humour of our Modern Language” will require reviewing Phillips’s education, sampling his style, and placing his translation in the context of his career as a professional writer. This context will allow us to compare Cervantes’s negotiation of the perils of publication in Counter-Reformation Spain to Phillips’s negotiation of the London book trade in the era of the Popish Plot, the Exclusion Crisis, and the ascendency of James II.


After the death of Milton’s sister, Phillips came to live with his uncle from 1639–40 to 1651–52, during the formative years between eight OR nine and his majority (Shawcross 96). If we can assume that Milton taught Phillips according to the plan outlined in “Of Education” (1644), Phillips’s education was both classical and progressive. After due attention to the sensible/material world, as Bacon would have approved, Milton’s students turn to the more abstract disciplines of logic, rhetoric, and poetry, practicing “the fitted style of lofty, mean, or lowly,” and learning “what decorum is, which is the grand masterpiece to observe” (Milton 636–7).

Once he reached his majority and moved out of Milton’s lodgings, Phillips graduated from pupil to collaborator with his uncle in Interregnum pamphlet warfare. In 1652 Milton trusted the 21-year-old Phillips to respond to an attack on Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (1651). Expressing pride in being trusted to defend his uncle and teacher from such a nonentity as the anonymous author of the attack, Phillips loads Joannis Philippi Angli Responsio Ad Apologiam Anonymi (1652) with linguistic jokes and learned invective. Of course, Milton himself would later use the same salty style in Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda (1654). Because a “lowly” style fits the decorum of pamphlet warfare—written in Latin so that only the educated, who were presumably less subject to corruption, would get the salacious jokes—Milton valued and found perfectly appropriate his young nephew’s flair for wicked, even scurrilous satire (Coiro...

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