Tobias Smollett, Author of Don Quixote
“Fame is a form of incomprehension—perhaps the worst,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges in “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” It should not be surprising then that the most famous novel of all time is one of the most misunderstood classics of world literature. I’m always outraged when I hear people state, “I read it as a child.” It is possible that an extremely precocious child could read the novel in its entirety, but Don Quixote is not a novel for children. It is one of the bloodiest, most graphically violent, shamelessly sexual, and sadistic novels ever written. Nabokov was not entirely in the wrong for disliking the novel for its appalling violence and cruelty. (Parents who allow their children to read Don Quixote should be arrested for putting at high risk the mental health of their offspring).
Don Quixote is also the best-known least read book of all time. I’ve met hundreds of people who have started it, but never finished it. It’s even all right for an American novelist as prominent and honored as Jonathan Franzen to confess that: “I have started Moby-Dick … Don Quixote, without coming anywhere near finishing them.” In the English-speaking world when I mention the novel in conversation, many people immediately will say, “I love Man of La Mancha;” some even begin to hum a bar or two of the infectious “To Dream the Impossible Dream.”
As befits a work of such importance, there are hundreds of translations of Don Quixote in all known languages, and close to twenty into English—most of them mediocre, but a few of them exceptional works in their own right. When I meet English-born speakers who say to me: “I read it in Spanish and it should never be read in translation,” I know they haven’t read it or didn’t understand much of it. With malevolent satisfaction, I remind these people that Borges (who was obsessed with the novel) said once that he loved it when he read it in English as a child but found it disappointing when he read it as an adult in the original. I should point out, though, that Borges, like his immortal creation, Pierre Menard, had the “ironic habit of propagating ideas that were the exact opposite of those he himself held.”
Still, to read the novel in Spanish (despite Cervantes’s modernity—he’s the first meta-fictional novelist) is a daunting task. The man who practically invented Castilian (the language we know as Spanish) used thousands of words whose meaning time has obscured. Without the aid of profuse footnotes, it is exceedingly hard for most Spanish readers nowadays to grasp their meaning. When Edith Grossman’s magnificent new translation appeared in the United States, I mentioned it to a poet friend during a visit to Spain. His comment: “Now she should translate it into Spanish so we can understand it.”
How often we forget that the novel itself, Cervantes claims, is a translation into Castilian of the work of the Moor Cid Hamet Benengeli, who is often referred to as “a liar.” I have read and studied Don Quixote in its original language, but I’ve always taught Tobias Smollet’s translation, which first appeared in 1755. Smollet must have identified with Cervantes and his hero on many levels. His own novels are influenced by the episodic and picaresque nature of Cervantes’s work. The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, his vicious and hilarious satire of English society in the XVIII century, owes a great debt to Cervantes’s masterwork, right down to its ramshackle structure. In an act of further madness and identification, Smollett wrote Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves, a rewriting of Don Quixote, set in England.
Salman Rushdie wrote that Cervantes was lucky to find a translator whose “rambunctious personality” ideally matches that of the author. And Cervantes was nothing if not irreverent. Smollet takes other extraordinary liberties with the novel. For example, he does away with all the sonnets that introduce the narrative (even though the one spoken by Don Quixote’s horse, Rocinante, is among the most delightful things Cervantes ever wrote.) In many places, Smollet cuts and adds as he pleases; his own footnotes are masterpieces of irony, playful mimicry of style, and erudition: “Here Don Quixote seems to have been too scrupulous for, tho’ no squire was permitted to engage with a knight on horseback, yet they were allowed, and even enjoined, to assist their masters when they were unhorsed or in danger, by mounting them on fresh steeds, supplying them with arms, and warding off the blows that were aimed at them. Davy Gam, at the battle of Agincourt, lost his life defending Henry V. of England, and St. Severin met with the same fate in warding off the blows that were aimed at Francis I of France, in the battle of Paris.”
There are scholars who claim that Tobias Smollet did not know Spanish, that he must have translated the novel from the French. I’m more impressed with how, following Pierre Menard’s method of writing Don Quixote, Smollet almost became Miguel de Cervantes. He joined the English navy and participated in an epochal battle of his time. He was a surgeon mate on HSM Cumberland, during the Battle of Cartagena in 1741, which turned out to be one of the greatest defeats the mighty English navy ever suffered. Cervantes himself, as is well-known, was a soldier in the Battle of Lepanto, where he lost the use of his left arm. Eventually, the life of the author and translator intersected: Cervantes had petitioned the court of Phillip II to grant him a job in the Colombian port of Cartagena where, after suffering as many defeats as his mad knight, and as Smollet himself, the novelist hoped to have a fresh start.
Tobias Smollett is not only the most audacious and ingenious translator of Don Quixote; we should honor him as being one of its first Pierre Menards. Of all the books I’ve read in translation, it is one of the very few that seems to me to be as great as the original.
Published PEN America 14 2011
Monday, August 15, 2011
Tobias Smollett, Author of Don Quixote