Don Quixote - Part I (Translators Preface, page 1 of 30)


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I: ABOUT THIS TRANSLATION

It was with considerable reluctance that I abandoned in favour of the
present undertaking what had long been a favourite project: that of a new
edition of Shelton's "Don Quixote," which has now become a somewhat
scarce book. There are some--and I confess myself to be one--for whom
Shelton's racy old version, with all its defects, has a charm that no
modern translation, however skilful or correct, could possess. Shelton
had the inestimable advantage of belonging to the same generation as
Cervantes; "Don Quixote" had to him a vitality that only a contemporary
could feel; it cost him no dramatic effort to see things as Cervantes saw
them; there is no anachronism in his language; he put the Spanish of
Cervantes into the English of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself most
likely knew the book; he may have carried it home with him in his
saddle-bags to Stratford on one of his last journeys, and under the
mulberry tree at New Place joined hands with a kindred genius in its
pages.

But it was soon made plain to me that to hope for even a moderate
popularity for Shelton was vain. His fine old crusted English would, no
doubt, be relished by a minority, but it would be only by a minority. His
warmest admirers must admit that he is not a satisfactory representative
of Cervantes. His translation of the First Part was very hastily made and
was never revised by him. It has all the freshness and vigour, but also a
full measure of the faults, of a hasty production. It is often very
literal--barbarously literal frequently--but just as often very loose. He
had evidently a good colloquial knowledge of Spanish, but apparently not
much more. It never seems to occur to him that the same translation of a
word will not suit in every case.

It is often said that we have no satisfactory translation of "Don
Quixote." To those who are familiar with the original, it savours of
truism or platitude to say so, for in truth there can be no thoroughly
satisfactory translation of "Don Quixote" into English or any other
language. It is not that the Spanish idioms are so utterly unmanageable,
or that the untranslatable words, numerous enough no doubt, are so
superabundant, but rather that the sententious terseness to which the
humour of the book owes its flavour is peculiar to Spanish, and can at
best be only distantly imitated in any other tongue.

The history of our English translations of "Don Quixote" is instructive.
Shelton's, the first in any language, was made, apparently, about 1608,
but not published till 1612. This of course was only the First Part. It
has been asserted that the Second, published in 1620, is not the work of
Shelton, but there is nothing to support the assertion save the fact that
it has less spirit, less of what we generally understand by "go," about
it than the first, which would be only natural if the first were the work
of a young man writing currente calamo, and the second that of a
middle-aged man writing for a bookseller. On the other hand, it is closer
and more literal, the style is the same, the very same translations, or
mistranslations, occur in it, and it is extremely unlikely that a new
translator would, by suppressing his name, have allowed Shelton to carry
off the credit.

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