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.