Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

National Post -- November 15, 2003

Don of a new era

'The sloppiest masterpiece in existence' gets translated -- for the umpteenth time

by Ian Garrick Mason

Nearly 200 years ago, officers of the Duke of Wellington's army in Spain often chose to while away the long winter days before the start of each campaigning season by reading Spanish literature in translation. They were particularly fond of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, which was already 200 years old by then. They were likely reading Tobias Smollett's 1755 version, which was, for many years, the most popular English translation. A novelist himself, Smollett's idiosyncratic rendering brought out Cervantes' humour with particular strength.

As one of the foundation stones of modern literature -- "It has been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato. It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote," wrote Lionel Trilling -- it is natural that we should continue to treasure and reprint this classic. But we've done more than reprint it: we've re-translated it, again and again. Smollett's was not the first English translation of Don Quixote, but the sixth. Thomas Shelton wrote the first between 1612 and 1620; he was followed by John Phillips (a nephew of John Milton) in 1687, John Stevens in 1700, Peter Motteaux in 1700-3, and Charles Jarvis in 1742. After Smollett came 19th-century translators like John Ormsby (1885) -- who called John Phillips' version "a travesty that for coarseness, vulgarity, and buffoonery is almost unexampled even in the literature of that day" -- and 20th-century translators like Samuel Putnam (1949), Walter Starkie (1964), and John Rutherford, author of the latest Penguin Classics edition in 2000.

And now, this month, comes yet another version -- this one by Edith Grossman, the award-winning translator of such modern literary giants as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ariel Dorfman, and Mario Vargas Llosa. The book's publisher, HarperCollins, heralds it as the "definitive English translation." And perhaps it will prove to be so. Yet, given the book's long list of predecessors, there is a more obvious question to be answered: If Smollett's translation was good enough for Wellington's officers, why isn't it good enough for us? Why do we keep translating Don Quixote, or any of our other foreign language classics?

Perhaps the primary reason, or at least the most prosaic, is that previous translations are often inaccurate. "The person who desires to turn a literary masterpiece into another language, has only one duty to perform, and this is to reproduce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text," wrote Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps a bit dogmatically. John Rutherford believes that in this regard, Smollett's translation is wanting: "It is funny and has a certain style and flair. Trouble is, it's inaccurate." And even though "trends in translation theory have moved away from a concentration on being accurate and toward a concentration on functioning well as a text within the target culture," he says, both goals are still important.

Accuracy helps the translator achieve a higher aim: that of conveying the original artistic vision of the author. Argues Edith Grossman, "Translators get to know the text better than anybody because we spend so much time with it. We try to determine what the subterranean intentions of the words are in addition to the surface intentions, which is how you make a choice of words when you translate." This focus on authorial intent is what distinguishes good literary translation from a mere re-packaging of a story into modern English. Says Richard Pevear, who with his wife, Larissa Volokhonsky, has translated many of Fyodor Dostoevsky's works, "Our aim was not to 're-tell' the works for a modern audience and sensibility -- Dostoevsky is modern enough as it is -- but to sensibilize non-Russian readers to the specific qualities of Dostoevsky's prose, and therefore of his artistic vision."

Much can be achieved through careful attention to style, for example, by removing "qualities in the 'language of arrival' that are not intrinsic to the translation but accidental to the translator's time and sensibility (archaisms, Victorianisms, bowdlerisms), like the cleaning of a painting," Pevear explains. To capture the author's tone correctly may even require the modification of English itself, by allowing it to be influenced by the language of translation. "I thought that making English do some of the things that Dostoevsky's Russian does might help to loosen things up a bit. If translation is a dialogue between two languages, it ought to go both ways."

A translation can have a large impact on simple readability, too. When Rutherford's daughter was attending university, she read an English translation of Don Quixote (in preparation for reading it in Spanish, she hastened to assure her father). "I don't understand why everyone raves about it," she told him. "This book is so boring!" A little stunned by her assessment -- after all, he thought, Don Quixote is anything but boring -- Rutherford read the translation. His daughter was right. "It was indeed boring. All the wit and comedy had been steamrollered out of it. The whole thing fell flat," he recalls.

Rutherford blames it, at least partly, on the Romantics. "In the old days," he says, "no one thought of Don Quixote as a 'classic.' They just thought it was a good, funny book. Then the Romantics misread it as a solemn work, and misread Don Quixote as a deep, tragic, romantic hero. But comedy can be just as deep as tragedy." It was this gloom that infected Ormsby's Don Quixote, a translation that Rutherford thinks was "very bad on the comedy, though very accurate and meticulous."

Ironically, Cervantes' original work was far from meticulous. It has been called "the sloppiest masterpiece in existence," says Grossman, who chose the error-ridden first edition (printed four months before a corrected second edition) as the source text for her new translation. Although Cervantes "gave Sancho Panza's wife four different names" in the first part of the book, she says, he refers to these errors in the second part (which was published 10 years later, in 1615); without using the correct source text, these references make no sense. Grossman, of course, provides careful footnotes to guide the modern reader through this minefield of accurate errors.

So is a "definitive" translation a meaningful goal for a translator? Says Grossman: "If 'definitive' means a standard against which all other translations are measured, then a translation can be definitive for 50 or 100 years. But not eternally definitive." Rutherford agrees: "All translators like to think that they're aiming at producing the definitive translation. But history shows that's not true, that translations don't last, no matter how good they are." And though a few great translations have endured -- "Thomas Urquhart's Rabelais, Dryden's Plutarch, Chapman's Homer, Pope's very different Homer, Gavin Douglas's Aeneid, Marlowe's Amores, and perhaps Arthur Golding's Metamorphoses, which Ezra Pound called the most beautiful book in English," says Pevear -- "these are not 'definitive translations of classic works', they are works in themselves."

Given such transience, and the heaviness of a translator's labour -- as Smollett described, a labour of "care and circumspection, which ought to be exerted by every author, who, in attempting to improve upon a task already performed, subjects himself to the most invidious comparison"-- why do it at all? Edith Grossman, writing in her own Translator's Note, provides a reassuring answer: "I call the undertaking utopian in the sense intended by Ortega y Gasset when he deemed translations utopian but then went on to say that all human efforts to communicate -- even in the same language -- are equally utopian, equally luminous with value, and equally worth the doing."