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Q&A: Translating one of the great works of literature, "Don Quixote"

January 15, 2004

Widely regarded as the world's first modern novel, "Don Quixote," is a 16th-century Spanish classic, a pillar of the Western literary canon. Its author, Miguel de Cervantes, is routinely compared to Shakespeare. A new translation by Edith Grossman brings to life for English readers the "Man from La Mancha" and his lovable, fallible, ever-so-human squire, Sancho Panza. Ms. Grossman discusses her role as "translator," and why "Don Quixote" is a book for all time, to be read by young and old alike, with's Jim Bencivenga

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Translating great works of literature is an art and a science. The translator must have a keen sense for the "spirit" of the language of the original work and the language into which it is being translated (the art); the translator must be rooted in the historical setting, the actual manners, customs and mores of the work's time and place (the science). How did you strike a balance between the two? Or does your superb translation reflect a natural "gift" that translators just have (or must develop)?

I have no doubt about the art of translating, but I'm not sure about the science. I think I prefer the word craft. Someone - it may have been Gregory Rabassa - said that you can teach craft but not art. The art of translation includes intuition, natural gifts, a talent for writing, an ear for language (the same kind of ear that good musicians have). Craft has to do with the mechanics of how one goes about creating a translation - ways of reading and hearing a text, revising techniques, editing.

W.H. Auden said one can't appreciate opera until at least the age of 40. The canvas is too large, the language too exaggerated. Do you think this is true of "Don Quixote" by Cervantes? Is this a book that young people will read and delight in? In truth, lo many years ago I was required to read "Don Quixote" in high school and college and it did little for me. From the first page of your translation my chair was transformed into a literary Rocinante (Don Quixote's fabled horse), and I haven't stopped riding yet.

When one has reached what is delicately called a certain age, it begins to seem that maturity brings with it a ripened sensibility. But the experience of great art should not be denied anyone, no matter how young or how likely they are to miss certain crucial aspects of a work. I think people of all ages can enjoy "Don Quixote," though their responses to the book may differ. Soon after "Don Quixote" was published, someone said that if you see a young man walking down the street, reading a book, and periodically slapping his forehead and bursting into laughter, you can be sure he's reading "Don Quixote." Then too, the younger you are when you first read the book, the more opportunities you have to reread it in your lifetime; each reading will bring with it a new set of insights, pleasures, and perceptions.

Was Cervantes a feminist, albeit a 16th century feminist? I know it is dangerous to equate a contemporary zeitgeist with someone writing almost four centuries ago, but his sensitivity to women wanting to make decisions for themselves - Marcela (the countess who leaves her privileged state to live as a shepherdess) and Dulcinea (the simple peasant women idealized by Don Quixote) - certainly suggests a sensitivity to women seeking their own identity.

Cervantes a feminist! It never occurred to me. I tend to doubt it - at least in any modern sense of the word. I think the issue is less a matter of "women seeking their own identity" and more a question of women disguising themselves as men to escape untenable situations, taking certain risks to claim the husbands who are rightfully and legally theirs, or, in one case, to convert to Christianity. Yet Cervantes seems to admire his strong, virtuous female characters, and by the same token, I don't think it is a coincidence that the cruel and sadistic duchess has ulcers on her legs.