- Exemplary Novels by Miguel de Cervantes
Edith Grossman’s translation of the Novelas ejemplares strikes an effective balance between scholarship and art, preserving the salient features of Cervantes’s text while drawing upon the aesthetic potential of English. This edition contains an engaging introduction by Roberto González Echevarría, which provides background information on Cervantes and his work, as well as critical commentary on some of the novelas. Brief yet useful footnotes, usually fewer than ten per story, accompany the translation. Most of the notes are intended for a general audience and explain mythological references or aspects of Golden Age Spanish culture, while others appear intended for specialists, pointing out very specific historical allusions or discrepancies between Cervantes’s citations of Ovid and the original Latin. The book concludes with a short “Translator’s Note,” in which Grossman compares the Novelas ejemplares with Don Quijote and shares her experiences as a reader.
This translation is successful in multiple ways, but Grossman’s diction is her greatest achievement. Throughout the volume, Grossman seems always to choose the correct word, using language as a powerful means of establishing tone and depicting characters. In a superb reflection of Cervantes’s original, language calls attention to itself only when it should. An insolent remark in “La ilustre fregona,” for example, appears as “Oh yeah, sure” (256), while Grossman finds a phonetic equivalent of affected gypsy speech in “La [End Page 232] gitanilla”: “Do you, Theñoreth, with to give me a tip?” (18; my italics). Word choice is essential to characterization in “Rinconete y Cortadillo,” where malapropisms reveal the gaps among members of society, and Grossman offers humorous parallels in English. When the crime boss Monipodio mentions a celebration “con la mayor popa y solenidad,” an error that Rinconete later mocks, Grossman introduces “pop and circus-dance” (119), a particularly admirable solution because it imagines a mispronunciation of a common English phrase. A similar innovation appears in “El coloquio de los perros,” when the Latin formula Deum de Deo, comically misunderstood in Spanish as “dé donde diere,” appears in English as “Dare do derring-do” (373).
Grossman’s creativity and sense of humor also allow her to translate many of Cervantes’s puns and maintain the light tone of certain novelas. At the beginning of “El casamiento engañoso,” Campuzano uses a play on words to express his disappointment with marriage, calling his “casamiento” a “cansamiento.” This quip is based on the one-letter difference between the terms in Spanish, and translators to English face a difficult task, as “marriage” in no way resembles “tiredness.” A pun on “married” and “wearied” would be possible yet stilted. Grossman’s insight is to change the expression and apply an appropriate variation: “when I took my wife, or should I say my life” (355). With this translation, Campuzano considers his matrimonial deception a form of suicide. The phrasing here is stronger than in the original, to be sure, but Grossman follows Cervantes in evoking the character’s suffering as a result of venereal disease. Grossman reflects the tone of another ribald pun in “El licenciado Vidriera,” in which Tomás Rodaja describes “cortesanas” as having “más de corteses que de sanas,” and his English counterpart defines courtesans as “more courteous than sanitary” (193). Grossman’s translation is at its best when it manages to convey not only the humor but also the cultural context of Cervantes’s work. In the original, Rodaja witnesses an argument in which a Portuguese speaker swears by his beard, shouting “Por istas barbas que teño no rostro!” Rodaja, a bitter enemy of men who dye their beards, accosts the Portuguese man in the same language with a marvelous bilingual pun: “não digáis teño, sino tiño!” Grossman closely approximates this exchange, capturing the foreignness of the first utterance (“By dis beard dat covers my face!”) and the ingenuity of Rodaja’s reply: “don’t say covers...