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Philosophy and Literature 24.2 (2000) 387-405

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Symposium: Cervantes

Don Quixote: Translation and Interpretation

James A. Parr

What I propose to do first is discuss three translations of Cervantes's seminal narrative. I then make a transition to interpretation by showing how one particular rendering by J. M. Cohen leads to an amusing but embarrassing gaffe by an otherwise perceptive critic. The final section offers a more global perspective on interpretations of "the Quijote" (as it is referred to by Hispanists), including a few of my own contributions.

I call the Quijote a seminal narrative, taking my cue from Robert Alter in his book, Partial Magic, where he cites Cervantes's text as the wellspring of two major narrative traditions: the realistic novel of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and also the more self-conscious novel of our own time. If a Hispanist were to make such a sweeping statement, one might consider it self-serving. For someone outside my specialty to do so may give it greater credibility.

The Quijote is an extended satire, with elements of novel and romance, originally published in two parts. Part I appeared in 1605, Part II in 1615. The complete 1605 title is El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha, and it contains 52 chapters. The title of the 1615 continuation is modified to suggest a promotion in rank for the protagonist, from hidalgo to caballero, and that volume contains 74 chapters. Both parts are published in Madrid by Juan de la Cuesta. The number of subsequent editions in Spanish is legion. The original pronunciation of "Quixote" was "key-SHOW-tay," and it was originally written in Spanish as we now write it in English, "Quixote." Today we write it "Quijote" in Spanish and pronounce it "key-HO-tay."

Of the several translations available, only three offer sufficiently close approximations to the tone and tenor of the original to merit serious [End Page 387] consideration at this point in time. One is Charles Jarvis's 1742 version, corrected, annotated, and provided with an up-to-date bibliography by Edward C. Riley, the dean of Cervantes scholars, in 1992. The other two are by American translators, Samuel Putnam (in 1949) and Burton Raffel (in 1995). The latter is a professor of English and professional translator. I shall focus mainly on the Jarvis/Riley and Raffel versions, since they are the most recent and also the main competitors for market share.

The E. C. Riley edition of Jarvis offers a charming, archaic English that is reasonably close linguistically, in that regard, to Cervantes's Spanish of the previous century. It is also rather British, and may therefore hold a certain charm for American readers. Burton Raffel resorts to what he calls syntactic tracking, in addition to the customary attention to lexical equivalencies, and produces a text that is also close to the original, not in its archaism, but in rhythm and rhetoric, in length of sentences, patterning, and colloquial dialogue. Raffel is also able to capture certain subtleties better than some of his predecessors, although at times this becomes a quest for innuendo, leading him astray. His Americanized version may nevertheless appeal to some readers in the United States.

The juxtaposition of a few short passages should serve to convey the flavor of Riley's revision of Jarvis, as well as Raffel's rendering, while at the same time calling attention to certain problems. I give the original Spanish in each instance, citing from my own 1998 edition, prepared in collaboration with Salvador Fajardo of SUNY, Binghamton, indicating part and chapter in parentheses. The first gives the narrator's disparaging editorial comment on Don Quixote's disjointed and misdirected speech on the Golden Age:

Toda esta larga arenga (que se pudiera muy bien escusar) dijo nuestro caballero, porque las bellotas que le dieron le trujeron a la memoria la edad dorada, y antojósele hacer aquel inútil razonamiento a los cabreros, que, sin respondelle palabra, embobados y suspensos, le estuvieron escuchando. (I.11)

Riley's revision of Jarvis reads as follows:

Our knight...


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