windmills in Consuegra Spain

I have read the masterpiece Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, twice in my life.

The two experiences were quite different.

This was in large part due to the fact that I read two very different translations of the book.

Don Quixote Reading #1: Bargain-Bin Translation

The first time, I was in my early 30s. I had picked up the book from a bin at a bargain book store. I used to often get my classics that way. Later, I realized that books can be of lower quality when obtained at a bargain store. This was obviously true of things like home goods. But books? My reasoning was, Same words, lower price, what’s the problem?

But the words are, unfortunately, not the same. Books can be poorly edited and proofread and contain copious errors. There can also be printing errors that result in, for example, missing pages or print that’s cut off the page or illegible. Books can be older editions, released before scholars pieced together a more definitive edition that more exactly matches the author’s probable intentions for the book.

And books in translation are a particularly big minefield: these books can be vastly different from one another, depending on the translator.

My bargain-bin copy of Don Quixote had a chunk of bent, torn, and messed-up pages. But the defect only affected the margins. The book seemed otherwise okay. I read it, and I thought it was hysterically funny. I also thought it was often obscure and confusing. But, on the whole, I enjoyed it—especially the recurring joke of the squire Sancho Panza being witty at the expense of his master, Don Quixote.

Don Quixote Reading #2: Edith Grossman Translation

When the pandemic began last year, a friend of mine decided to host an online book club. The club’s first book was going to be Don Quixote. My friend recommended, but did not require, a particular translation: the one by Edith Grossman, published in 2003. I did a Google search to see what I could learn about this and other translations. I thought it would be interesting to read the book again, by a different translator than before.

Lo and behold, I found this Reddit page where someone helpfully ranked the translations. Grossman was #1 on this redditor’s list. Now I had two people recommending Grossman. And so Grossman is the translation I bought and read.

But back to the Reddit page. . . . I was half disturbed and half amused to see that the translation I had read in my early 30s was labeled “Avoid like the plague.” Hmm. Oops?

Now in my early 40s, I attacked Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman, and introduced by Harold Bloom, as if it were a vicious windmill!!!!

This is not a bad description for what I did to this book. Far from joining the book club, I ended up descending into concussion hell, regressing to the point where I could not look at a computer screen or read or talk or walk or find my sanity anywhere. And then I slowly fought back. I read a few easier books and magazine articles, and when I was recovered enough, I fought through Don Quixote: valiantly, every page a new victory, a new giant slain; and when my messed-up brain tossed me as if in a blanket, I kept fighting for glory, reason, and one more page.

Eventually, I made it through all 940 pages.

Don Quixote Translation Comparison

Don Quixote is a masterpiece. Like, wowowowowowowowowow. I appreciated this book so much more the second time I read it, than the first time. This is probably in large part due to the superior translation. But, admittedly, there were probably other factors in my greater appreciation upon the second reading, one of which is that it was a second reading!—which of course allowed me to pick up on more things than in the first reading; and the other of which is that I was a full decade older, wiser, and more well read.

But let’s contrast these two vastly different translations. Here is a list of elements that are superior in the Grossman translation, versus the “Avoid like the plague” translation.

Actually, just kidding. That’s a big topic. Let’s save that for next time. Stay safe, stay well, and if you see a windmill, don’t be afraid. But if you see a blanket, be very, very afraid. Good advice for wise and gentle souls. Sometimes a good night’s rest or two is needed. Next time, we will proceed.

Have you ever read two different translations of a book? Or, if you speak multiple languages, have you ever read a book in its original and also in translation? What types of differences did you notice?


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