January 1, 2008

A few days ago I started reading Don Quixote in the new (well, published in 2003) and highly praised translation by Edith Grossman. Critics have lauded the “extraordinarily high quality of her prose” (Guardian Unlimited) and called the translation “an honest, robust and freshly revelatory Quixote for our times” (Los Angeles Times).

Now, I have never read Don Quixote before. Man of La Mancha, the 1965 Tony-Award-winning musical, is one of my favorite pieces of theater, so I know a little about the overall arc of the story. But I felt that not having read the book considered by many to be the best novel ever written was a character flaw that, being redeemable, unlike many of my other character flaws like thinking secretly (and very disappointedly) that Jillian is a better trainer than my soul mate Bob on The Biggest Loser, ought to be addressed.

So I started reading, and not only did I love it but I also totally agreed that the translation was high quality and robust. Not having read the original I cannot say whether it was also honest and revelatory but the prose felt right: it flowed very smoothly, in a distinct, readable, and layered style.

Until page 32.

At which point this is what the translator has Don Quixote saying, when a mule driver tries to move his armor out of the way of the mules:

“O thou, whosoever thou art, rash knight, who cometh to touch the armor of the most valiant knight who e’er girded on a sword! Lookest thou to what thou dost and toucheth it not, if thou wanteth not to leave thy life in payment for thy audacity.”

And I was like, WTF?

I mean, it’s not that I believe the ability to conjugate Early Modern English verbs correctly should be a requirement for showing one’s face in society (although I do). But more importantly I feel that, if one is going to make five basic errors in the space of two sentences, one should perhaps think twice before publishing.

Error #1: “cometh” (who cometh to touch)

If Don Quixote had been speaking of somebody not present this would have been fine. But the second-person singular ending is est, not eth, which is reserved for the third-person singular.

Error #2 “lookest” (Lookest thou to what thou dost)

Here we find the correct second-person singular ending est. But here the verb is in the imperative mood, not the indicative, and there should be no ending at all.

Error #3 “toucheth” (toucheth it not)

Here we get two errors for the price of one. Not only is the third-person singular eth ending present where the verb is in the second person, but it’s also an imperative, and so, as we remember from Error #2, there should be no ending at all.

Error #4 “wanteth” (if thou wanteth not to leave thy life)

Another twofer, this one more alarming. Of course we get eth instead of est–by now we’ve been so brutalized as to be almost insensible of the difference–but there’s a more serious problem; namely, that it’s the wrong verb altogether. “Want” has not yet acquired the meaning “desire”; it means only “lack” (e.g. waste not, want not). So in this case we should find not “want” but “would,” with the second-person singular ending.

Error #5 “thy” (thy audacity)

“Thy” behaves like the indefinite article in modern English: you get a if the next word begins with a consonant and an if it begins with a vowel. Similarly, “thy” precedes consonants. What precedes vowels is “thine.”


Having gotten through the problems bloody but unbowed, we are now in a position to say what the speech ought to have been:

“O thou, whosoever thou art, rash knight, who comest to touch the armor of the most valiant knight who e’er girded on a sword! Look thou to what thou dost and touch it not, if thou wouldst not leave thy life in payment for thine audacity.”

I checked a few other translations, hoping that perhaps Cervantes had intended to portray Don Quixote as a buffoon unable to speak olde tyme language, but no dice. I checked a few other translations and the language was correct. [Edit: After a friend took me to task for relying on translations I looked up the original and, while I haven't studied Spanish, I know enough Italian and French to get by, and in the passage in question all the language seems to be correct:

¡Oh tú, quienquiera que seas, atrevido caballero, que llegas a tocar las armas del más valeroso andante que jamás se ciñó espada, mira lo que haces, y no las toques, si no quieres dejar la vida en pago de tu atrevimiento!]

And I haven’t been able to read further. I tried, I really tried, but I can’t. And though this post is supercilious (unlike the rest of the blog, hahaha), about this I’m being serious. It’s okay if you’re not familiar with the grammatical and phonological intricacies of a language no one has spoken for hundreds of years (though I learned what I know solely from literature, so it’s not like it’s that difficult, but deep down it really is okay (don’t tell anybody I said that)).

But if you write a version of history’s greatest novel in which you use that language without either knowing what you’re doing or running it by somebody who does–I’m sorry, but I don’t trust you anymore. Which is really a shame, because up to that point it was gold, and I have to assume that most of the remaining 801 pages is too.

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13 Responses to A few days ago I started reading Don Quixote in the new

  1. signalite says:

    Oh dear, all I can think about now is where I have misplaced my Holy Hand Grenade.

  2. birdfarm says:

    My assumption, when I first read the quote, was that he was supposed to be speaking a buffoonish caricature of old-time language. How could anyone mess it up that badly, without doing it on purpose? My powers of expression in standard English are declining daily, but it sounded horrendous even to my ears.

    Perhaps there is still hope. May I suggest that if this translation is supposed to be so much better than the others, one of its areas of superiority could be its precise and careful rendition of this type of mangled classical speech?

    May I also suggest that a Spanish lit scholar might be more reliable a source than the other translations….

  3. Aidan says:

    You are sooooo cute. I would write more, but you scare me just a little bit.

  4. it was just like being back in an English class with Mrs. Bruthorn.

  5. birdfarm says:

    lmao i am mrs. bruthorn, taco baby! back to haunt you!! lol ;)

  6. Andy says:

    This turned me on.

  7. Justin says:

    E.S. KNOWS you’re like this and still proposed to you? You do realize he’s worth his weight in gold?

  8. TED says:

    Much as I hate to add to what must be your giant pile of woe, I have to tell you that when I searched for “best novel ever written” on Google, the first hit was an online forum asking the question “What is the best novel ever written,” and the first response to that question was Atlas Shrugged.

    Anyway, I’d hazard a guess that most of the many who believe Don Quixote is the best novel ever written are no longer with us. My policy, whenever someone pretends to have read and loved it, is to say, “Ah, yes, well, you know I simply won’t read it in translation. I’m sure I’ll get around to it in time, but I’ve promised myself to finish mastering Sanskrit before I tackle Spanish.”

    I’m not sure why one would translate only dialogue into Early Modern English, but then I haven’t even seen Man of La Mancha, so I don’t know whether the other characters use the same language. If they don’t, then the buffoonery explanation is plausible. If they do, well, native speakers of a language generally know how to conjugate common verbs. It still seems an odd choice: it’s not like there’s a shortage of other ways to indicate pomposity through speech.

    It’s hardly surprising, though, that such errors would make it into publication. I don’t imagine many editors are familiar with Early Modern English. Perhaps we should lock them all in their offices with copies of the KJV Bible and not let them out until they’re able to recite the genealogical passages from memory.

  9. cbb says:

    If E.S. is writing his own wedding vows I hope he has the good sense to run them by an editor first.

    I’d hate to see him left alone at the altar due to a grammatical error.

  10. Shawn says:

    I’m so turned on right now I’m going to have to go take a cold shower.

  11. JamesR says:

    Methinks someone is trying to avoid wedding plans, hmm??

  12. Kenny says:

    During a particularly inspired moment during my senior year of high school, I thought it would be a good idea to read Don Quixote (IN SPANISH) as an independent study project for AP Spanish. I got to about page 100 before I decided I preferred sanity to brown-nosing.

    The point of my story is that I can verify that the Spanish passage that appears in your post is indeed correct. I remember reading it specifically, which weirds me out a little bit.

  13. Peter says:

    Maybe the translator was just trying to replicate the fabulouth Cathtillian accthent with all the etheth?

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