Translations of ‘Don Quixote’ prove accessible, unique

Differing translations of “Don Quixote” by three authors showcase the famous Spanish-language novel in both intense and funny lights, making them all worthwhile reads./ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

John Rutherford translation: 3/5 stars

Edith Grossman translation: 5/5 stars

Burton Raffel translation: 5/5 stars

One of the least productive questions you can ask someone who reads a lot is what their favorite book is—not because they won’t have a favorite book, but because it opens up a very deep rabbit hole where the book-lover will pull out book after book after book and never reach a conclusion about any of the books they pull out.

I thought it would be cool to pull as many versions of a single book out of my own personal rabbit hole as I could. I’ve read three different translations of “Don Quixote”: Edith Grossman’s, Burton Raffel’s and John Rutherford’s.

“Don Quixote” is a Spanish novel originally written by Miguel de Cervantes that traces the romantic and knightly adventures of a noble, Don Quixote de la Mancha, and his hired sidekick and squire who provides witty banter, Sancho Pancho.

If you want to have intellectual discussions, you should read either Edith Grossman’s or Burton Raffel’s translation. For the sake of commentary, I think that all of these translations are unique in their own right, and I think they each deserve credit for their own merits.

Reviewing “Don Quixote” is a fool’s errand: I could sit up here and say it’s a classic and add absolutely nothing to the conversation, or I could stand on my soapbox and call it a piece of detritus, and people would just ignore me for obviously not doing the reading.

This being said, there are some people out there who don’t know just how interesting this book is. It is not good in the “it will change your life” type of way (any book can be that type of book), but good in the sense that this book has 500 years worth of literary history attached to it, and you can sense it on every page. I want to say that this book will suck you in and never let you go, but that sounds too toxic; this book is a friend that you will have for the rest of your life. This book sticks with you.

The book will not make you mad, but it will leave an impression upon your brain. Characters, movements, emotions and befuddlements are all on display in this story, just as they are on display in our lives.

Even better, this book will become more fascinating the more that you think about it. Don Quixote’s madness has been, and will continue to

be, one of the most contested character flaws out There.

Is his madness debilitating, or is it illuminating? Is Don Quixote the one worthy of critique, or is it those around him? You can easily come to your own conclusion about anything with this book and find oceans of ink arguing with or against you. You will never really close this book; you can only open the book and sit with it for the rest of your life. I’m willing to call this a guarantee. Now, onto the translations.

The first translation of “Don Quixote” with which I became acquainted with was John Rutherford’s, and I liked it. Given that it was my first version of the book t I read, I have a fondness for Rutherford’s translation that I don’t have for the others.

I think that the biggest strength of Rutherford’s version was that he translated all of the sonnets and other excerpts of verse into a form that actually felt poetic rather than just rendering the verse from Spanish into English with no regard for meter. Rutherford also nails some of the bluntness of the humor found throughout the first book. Don Quixote’s acts of vomiting, helmet-gathering and fighting the police left me laughing more than they did in the other versions.

However, what I’m not the biggest fan of with Rutherford is that there’s a sort of stiffness to the language spoken by the characters of the novel. After reading other translations and then going back to Rutherford’s, I noticed that there isn’t a clear distinction between the voice of the narrator and the voice of the characters. Don Quixote talks like the narrator, who also talks like Sancho Panzo.

This is a shame because this is really the only big complaint I have about any of the translations I read. Trying to choose between Raffel and Grossman’s translations is like picking between two equally ripe apples. There’s really nothing major that separates the works. If you’re interested in “Don Quixote,” you really can’t do better than these two translations other than reading the original Spanish.

Both of these translations captured a sense of lightness paired with a surprising depth that I now label as being sneaky in nature rather than anything intrinsic to the translator. The irony in the text resonates to great effect within Grossman’s and Raffel’s translations and the voices of the characters play beautifully off of the voice of the narrator.

Even better, I never felt as if I was getting lost within the text. “Don Quixote” is not a hard read for those of us accustomed to reading at the college level. This does not mean that the text lacks depth. In fact, I was astounded by the ease of access that both of these translations espoused. In both of these works, it is easy to glide across the page and find knot after knot of charming encounters and ideas without ever feeling tripped up. “Don Quixote” is a colossal book regardless of translation, but it is not a long read.

I’m not sure there’s much else to be said about these translations. I don’t want to devolve into too much praise, because then I’d just be spoiling the fun.

I’m not writing this review purely to talk about how great this book is or how deserving it is of the distinction of a classic. I am simply here to convince someone to read the book regardless of what they can bring to the text, or what text they choose. The text is there for everyone to read. What’s left is to set out and read it.

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