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

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 csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga

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.

Did you find any linguistically incompatible concepts in translating Spanish into English? And if you did, how did you reconcile the final version you published?

I'm not sure what you mean by "linguistically incompatible concepts." I think most concepts are translatable, even if some specific words may not be. One of the reasons I used footnotes was to explain certain puns and word plays, as well as to clarify allusions and references that might have been obscure for contemporary readers.

Don Quixote is often called the first modern novel. Without getting too academic, would you share a few reasons why you agree or disagree with that statement.

I agree that "Don Quixote" is the first modern novel. The primary reason, I think, is that the central characters grow, develop, and change. At the end of the book Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are not who they were at the beginning. They are influenced by each other, by the people they meet, by what happens to them; they affect the world, and the world has an impact on them. This may be at the heart of narrative realism, and you could make a case for realism (what Cervantes called "verisimilitude," the lack of which was the reason for his attack on books of chivalry) as the great constant in the western novelistic tradition.

The human condition presents us with examples, and/or experiences, of brutality that seem to overwhelm us. There are many cruel scenes in "Don Quixote." Isn't part of Cervantes' genius (and a precursor of the tremendous versatility of the novel as a genre) in the way he considers life's hardships through the sensibility of both Sancho and Don Quixote? Is it that somehow tragedy seems more understandable when shared?

The novel has always been a kind of mixed genre, with humor, joy, comedy, brutality, sadness, and tragedy appearing in the same work. I don't mean brief comic interludes in a tragedy (the gravediggers in "Hamlet," for instance); rather, I think an almost inseparable combination of these elements is intrinsic to the structure of the novel.

If you were pressed, however arbitrarily, what do you think are the two greatest similarities between the times of Don Quixote and Sancho in the 16th century and today? The two greatest differences?

The similarities between the 16th century and today: the nature of human beings has not changed. Their reactions are recognizable. In both cases the times were (or are) turbulent, dangerous, and in transition. The differences: modern technology, especially in communications, has changed the world drastically; in the industrialized world at least, the majority of people are literate. As a consequence, the oral tradition at Sancho's disposal is becoming - or already may be - extinct.

In Harold Bloom's introduction to your translation of "Don Quixote," the renowned critic compares Cervantes to Shakespeare. In your opinion, how legitimate is this comparison?

I think the comparison of Cervantes to Shakespeare is valid. Each created archetypal figures that still resonate today; each wrote lines and invented characters known to people who have never read their works; each created literary worlds that teem with life and relevance. I find it fascinating that musical theater has dipped into their works for inspiration ("Kiss Me Kate," "West Side Story," "Man of La Mancha" come immediately to mind).

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