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Don Quixote

After 863 pages of the man from la Mancha, that book is finally finished. Normally such length wouldn’t be a real obstacle, but this time I found myself reading half a dozen more contemporary novels between the time I started and finished the classic, just to remind myself that I enjoy reading. I come away from it with the deep conviction that the only way to truly enjoy a book like this is to read it in the original language–I read the Grossman translation.

The problem is that as far as I can tell, a huge part of the appeal of this book is the authorial voice: sly, witty, full of puns and references. Unfortunately, witty writing is particularly difficult to translate. Prose that’s sly in Spanish is cumbersome in English, if the humor can be translated at all. More than a few times, it couldn’t: a non-sequitur would be footnoted with an explanation of how it was actually a quite clever formulation in Spanish.

Once you’ve stripped away the authorial voice and wordplay through translation, and the cultural references are after 400 years only comprehensible through footnotes, all that’s left of the story are the bare bones of the events. This is unfortunate, because aside from about a dozen pages at the beginning and end narrating the premise and his eventual death, the rest of the book breaks down into an endless series of identical episodes. In each one, the Don meets someone or something, responds inappropriately based on his conviction that he’s a mighty knight, and both he and Sancho suffer in consequence. Over and over and over again.

I can’t call Don Quixote an enjoyable book to read. On the other hand, it’s not just the first modern novel in any language; it’s a story that we’re still telling: Kick-Ass is nothing more than a modern skin on this ancient framework. For the experience of having read it, it was worth making the effort at least once. I just don’t ever expect to pick up that book again.

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1 Comment

Comment by Dad Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 3.6.3
2010-05-05 06:37:41

Unfortunately, witty writing is particularly difficult to translate.

It can be done, though. I have never attempted to read Cyrano in the original French, but I’ve both read and sat through really bad, dull translations. So I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Which makes the Brian Hooker translation a particular gem. I really couldn’t say whether even he fails to properly convey the full sparkle of Edmund de Rostand’s wit — or whether, perhaps, in some respects he exceeds it — but I can assure you that that particular translation is a joy.


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