riding a horse in front of the sun

Let’s take, as a sample, the first sentence of chapter IV of the first part of Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. This great and classic novel was written and published in the early 1600s in Spanish. Part I was published first. Ten years later, part II was published. The two parts are now together known as Don Quixote and most often sold together as one book. Don Quixote has been translated from Spanish into English numerous times over the centuries.

(I obtained this original Spanish sentence from the Project Gutenberg.)

Original Spanish:

La del alba sería cuando don Quijote salió de la venta, tan contento, tan gallardo, tan alborozado por verse ya armado caballero, que el gozo le reventaba por las cinchas del caballo.

I took five years of middle/high school Spanish and can identify the little words. I recognize, for example, “the,” “from/of,” “already,” “that,” and “when.” I also think I see a word that means something like “will be” or “would be” or “would have been.” The word “contento” is suspiciously similar to the English word “content.” I see Don Quixote in there, spelled slightly differently than what I’m used to. And, oh! I see the word “horse.” Alright, so this sentence is saying something about Don Quixote and a horse, and maybe one of them, or something else, is or was or might be content!

Obviously, this is not getting me very far. I need the help of a translator.

Google Translate

Let’s enter the sentence into Google Translate and see what pops out!

Original Spanish:

La del alba sería cuando don Quijote salió de la venta, tan contento, tan gallardo, tan alborozado por verse ya armado caballero, que el gozo le reventaba por las cinchas del caballo.

Google Translate:

Dawn would be when Don Quixote left the inn, so happy, so gallant, so overjoyed to see himself already knighted, that joy burst from the horse’s girths.

Awesome. Sometimes Google Translate shoots out gibberish, but this is quite sensical. I can also see it matching up to the Spanish words I had identified, so I can see that the translation is literal, . . . as would be expected from a good, obedient robot like Google Translate.

I can also see, or at least suspect, that there is an artistry to Cervantes’s use of language in this sentence. I like the way the sentence begins with “Dawn” and goes on to describe Don Quixote’s joy. Right from the beginning of the sentence, we are sensing that joy, since the rising of the sun is associated with new beginnings and happiness.

I can also see that there is something very artful about Cervantes describing Don Quixote’s joy in such a way that it actually exceeds the bounds of his own body. His joy is so great that it is transferred to the horse’s girths. That’s a cool and very apt way to describe joy, for when you are experiencing joy, it does indeed seem to extend beyond the bounds of your own body! And indeed, it seems to me that the experience of joy could be transmitted to a nearby animal, especially one you happen to be hugging with your legs.

However. Our dear, obedient robot has created a sentence that is perhaps less elegant than the original. It’s hard for me to judge, not being much acquainted with Spanish, especially not early-17th-century Spanish. But I’m guessing that the original version sounds less clunky than the English clause “Dawn would be when.” A human translator is needed to convey not just the literal meaning, but also the feel of the sentence. No easy feat—but necessary if the work’s nuances and charm are to be understood and appreciated by a non-Spanish speaker.

The Bargain-Bin Translation, AKA “Avoid Like the Plague”

Here’s how the sentence appears in the book that I obtained from a bargain bin and read in my 30s. (See my previous post for the backstory on this mistake.)

Original Spanish:

La del alba sería cuando don Quijote salió de la venta, tan contento, tan gallardo, tan alborozado por verse ya armado caballero, que el gozo le reventaba por las cinchas del caballo.

Google Translate:

Dawn would be when Don Quixote left the inn, so happy, so gallant, so overjoyed to see himself already knighted, that joy burst from the horse’s girths.

Bargain-Bin Translation, AKA “Avoid Like the Plague”:

Aurora began to usher in the morn, when Don Quixote sallied out of the inn, so well pleased, so gay, and so overjoyed to find himself knighted, that he infused the same satisfaction into his horse, who seemed ready to burst his girths for joy.

Okay. There are some VERY BIG problems here. This is a mess. This is an actual travesty. Let me count the ways.

  1. Right off the bat, I see that this translation is significantly longer than both the original version and the Google Translate version. I suspect that the translator has inserted something extra into this sentence. The translator’s job is to convey the sentence as accurately as possible, and to insert extra stuff is an egregious problem.
  2. “Aurora began to usher in the morn” sounds pretentious. Are we in a bad romance, or are we in one of the greatest works of literature ever written?
  3. The original Spanish used only one word for “dawn”: the word “alba.” Why, then, did the translator use two words for “dawn,” “Aurora” and “morn”?
  4. The translator introduced a verb (an action) not in the original: the action of a god (Aurora) who “began to usher.” There was no god, or action of a god, in the original.
  5. It’s not advisable to use the word “gay” in a modern translation to mean “happy.” Many decades ago, “gay” meant “happy”; but nowadays this is not its primary meaning, and using it in this way makes the passage sound antiquated and awkward.
  6. The entire clause “that he infused the same satisfaction into his horse” is not in the original. The original implied that this might or might not have been the case: it was ambiguous. The playfully artful nuance of the original is gone here, to be replaced by a clunky fact, decided arbitrarily by the translator.
  7. The last clause, “who seemed ready to burst his girths for joy” has the same problem of removing the ambiguity of the original.
  8. The original uses one word for joy, “gozo,” but the translator uses two words, “satisfaction” and “joy,” which is unnecessary and inaccurate.
  9. The overall vibe of the sentence is sentimental, wordy, and out of date. It’s as if the translator went to the opposite extreme of the Google Translate version (which was too robotic) and infused the sentence with an excess of misplaced emotion.

The Edith Grossman Translation, AKA the Recommended Edition

Let’s see what Edith Grossman did with this sentence. Wow, the work of a translator must be so difficult! ¡Tan difícil!

Original Spanish:

La del alba sería cuando don Quijote salió de la venta, tan contento, tan gallardo, tan alborozado por verse ya armado caballero, que el gozo le reventaba por las cinchas del caballo.

Google Translate:

Dawn would be when Don Quixote left the inn, so happy, so gallant, so overjoyed to see himself already knighted, that joy burst from the horse’s girths.

Bargain-Bin Translation, AKA “Avoid Like the Plague”:

Aurora began to usher in the morn, when Don Quixote sallied out of the inn, so well pleased, so gay, and so overjoyed to find himself knighted, that he infused the same satisfaction into his horse, who seemed ready to burst his girths for joy.

Edith Grossman Translation:

It must have been dawn when Don Quixote left the inn so contented, so high-spirited, so jubilant at having been dubbed a knight that his joy almost burst the cinches of his horse.

This seems pretty great to me. It adheres very closely to the original. Where it differs from Google Translate, the effect is only to make the sentence sound more natural and less robotic.

  1. “It must have been dawn when” is so much less awkward (to my English-speaking ears) than “Dawn would be when.”
  2. “at having been dubbed a knight” is so much less awkward (to my English-speaking ears) than “to see himself already knighted.”
  3. The sentence ends with the word “horse,” as it does in the original Spanish (“caballo”). This gives the sentence a solid-sounding conclusion, as in the original, and unlike in either of the other translations.
  4. The sentence retains the nuance and artistry of the original Spanish. For one thing, the beginning of the sentence still focuses on dawn, as in the original.
  5. For another thing, it’s ambiguous, as in the original, whether Don Quixote’s joy only seems to be moving out of the emotional world and into the physical world, or whether there is actually something physical going on with the cinches of the horse.
  6. The overall vibe of the sentence is storytelling that flows well and sounds natural and unobtrusive, and that retains as much of the literal original sentence as possible.

Final Thoughts on the Three Don Quixote Translations

It’s amazing what different experiences I had from reading two different Don Quixote translations. I remember, while reading the bargain-bin translation, that there were large chunks of the story that didn’t make a lot of sense. And I remember there being basically only one joke, repeated over and over again.

But when I read the Grossman version, almost all of the scenes made perfect sense. In instances where they didn’t quite make sense, Grossman made sure to include an explanatory footnote to clear things up, . . . or at least explain that the reader is not alone in their confusion at that part. I was also astonished at the richness of nuance and language and wit that leaped out at me in the Grossman version. How could I have possibly thought there was only one type of joke? I wondered. No, this book is rich with multiple kinds of humor!—not to mention meta tricks, fabulous storytelling, perceptive descriptions, and deep tragedy.

The back of my book has this description, which I absolutely agree with:

“. . . one of the funniest and most tragic books ever written . . .”

Edith Grossman coaxed all of that humor and pathos into a form accessible by English readers. Thank you, Edith: you are amazing.


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I hope some of you out there found this blog post interesting, informative, or in some way worthy of reading. If you speak Spanish and English, I would absolutely LOVE to hear your thoughts on the above passages. Let me know—did I miss anything here? Do you have extra insights to share as a Spanish speaker?

And of course, also feel free to offer your thoughts if you don’t speak Spanish. What do you think about these Don Quixote translations?

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