My Foolish Wisdom about Don Quixote, Urban Tuxedo Cat, and Edith Grossman’s Excellent Translation, with a Note from Harold Bloom Beyond the Grave

I have finally completed Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’ The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. It is my first time completing this classic of Western literature, except for all of those other times I’ve read it.

As I have not read much early modern Spanish with so many archaisms and Castillian influences since my years of captivity by Ottoman corsairs following the Battle of Torpiditolingua, I decided to consult an English translation. Thus, I searched all the known lands of knight-errantry for the best English translation of all the English translations that have ever been made, are being made, or will be made.

Sancho Panza, illustrious squire of the Knight of the Sorrowful Face, would tell us that

“if the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it’s bad for the pitcher.”

It is a thoughtful reflection upon translation theory. Tobias Smollett’s version captured most successfully a unique combination of traits, being the least accurate and most unreadable of all the versions I could find. John Ormsby’s translation was better, though required both more madness and more lucidity than I possess. Sancho says,

“the fool knows more in his own house than the wise man in someone else’s.”

In Ormsby, I found myself a homeless fool and a wise anchorite, so I needed another option.

Because fortune favours the fortunate, Sancho Panza might have said, but did not, though as Don Quixote did say, “because of my evil sins, or my good fortune,” I found a most beneficent translation of Don Quixote, the recent work of Edith Grossman. Grossman provides breathtaking clarity in her translation, allowing Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and all the rest to live on the page.

In literary criticism, Harold Bloom is perhaps the least praise-inclined of all those in the courts of praise for this translation. And he is a long-time lover of Cervantes’ great work. For my edition of Grossman’s Quixote, he retooled his Cervantes section of The Western Canon to provide a preface for the reader. It is a most puzzling preface to the reader, designed most clearly to be an epilogue for the critic and an encomium for the writer rather than a preface to the reader. But he does provide a more expertly evaluation of Grossman’s work than I could have done, providing even more praise than even Don Quixote for his Lady Dulcinea of Toboso:

 Though there have been many valuable English translations of Don Quixote, I would commend Edith Grossman’s version for the extraordinarily high quality of her prose. The Knight and Sancho are so eloquently rendered by Grossman that the vitality of their characterization is more clearly conveyed than ever before. There is also an astonishing contextualization of Don Quixote and Sancho in Grossman’s translation that I believe has not been achieved before. The spiritual atmosphere of a Spain already in steep decline can be felt throughout, thanks to the heightened quality of her diction.

Grossman might be called the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note. Reading her amazing mode of finding equivalents in English for Cervantes’s darkening vision is an entrance into a further understanding of why this great book contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is inescapable for all writers who have come after him. Dickens and Flaubert, Joyce and Proust reflect the narrative procedures of Cervantes, and their glories of characterization mingle strains of Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Granted, it may be as Sancho says, that “hunger is the best sauce in the world,” and I have just fallen for a translation that I happen to like, good or no. I am not inclined to think so, however, for there is no jewel in the world as valuable as a translation that can bring out all of the nuances of a text without mourning what of complexity is lost in translation.

And Harold Bloom agrees with me, which says something, for he has been dead for some years.

And, as Sancho Panza says,

“a bird in the hand is better than a vulture in the air, and if you have something good and choose something evil, you can’t complain about the good that happens to you.”

So I have appreciated this translation by Edith Grossman.

It could be that all my reading has addled my brain, but I have not been able to find a way to capture Don Quixote by review or character study or literary criticism. As we learn from Sansón Carrasco, who must be very wise for he is a Bachelor, tells us that

“it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

Observing my cat, Juno, while reading Don Quixote in the winter sunshine, I suddenly understood the Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha much better. To ask whether Don Quixote–or a cat–is either wise or insane is the wrong question of this book. Thus lacking all history and being a very poor poet, I endeavoured to capture Don Quixote in verse.

Bachelor Sansón also says that

“The wise man … left nothing in the inkwell; he says everything and takes note of everything.”

This is perhaps why I have written so little.

My Cat Like Don Quixote by Don Brentonio Dickvinci, Governor of The ínsula del Principe Eduardo

My cat like Don Quixote,
Windmill-tilting on window sills,
Stalking flocks of garden birds through lancet panes:
Dander raised, with animal ire,
Or neighbourly curiosity,
At every passing friend or fiend….

It is hard to know what a cat sees,
Who pricks forth at people feet with lance at ready,
Slaying giants with easing grace,
While showing unyielding loyalty
To Lady, Knight, and Squire–

Who sees in all his quixotic feline madness
A castle where a humble home resides,
And, unbidden, stands a-guard by night,
Driven by some gentry vow,
Hunting shadows and flashes of light,
Enthralled by wads of paper and threads askew,
Full-fleshed in kittens’ eyes–

And then morning comes to the castle,
Leaving evidence of wineskin giants
Defeated by night in shrouded spells.

And yet, when that morning comes,
With table open to all befitting the generosity of a knight,
The hero passes with leonine stride,
A purring smile, a pussy’s pride, that feline right (like Sancho)
To sleep now the day away in sunbeam’s bright,
Content, surrounded by the chaos his night’s errand left behind.

For who in any tale
Heard of any knight errant
Who surrendered to the long dark hours and slept
While those within the castle dream?

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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11 Responses to My Foolish Wisdom about Don Quixote, Urban Tuxedo Cat, and Edith Grossman’s Excellent Translation, with a Note from Harold Bloom Beyond the Grave

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This was fun – thank you! But it leaves me perplexed, having loved some abridgement or retelling early, and never having managed the fuller abridgement I have, much less the whole thing (in translation) – for, I’ve picked up a second-hand Dutch one, but should I seek out Edith Grossman, instead? At that length, this slow reader wants to get it right!

    Before arriving at this review, I had just noticed a Quixote reference in Baroness Orczy’s The Laughing Cavalier, set in the Netherlands in the early 1620s, and wondered, was that anachronistic, or historically possible – and, now I think the latter, so swiftly and widely spread its fame!

    Linking to reading and viewing Shakespeare and his contemporaries, let me commend Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which, when I saw a delightful Edinburgh Festival Fringe performance, thought might be playing with Quixote – but it seems too early for that (though I’m no expert on it!). But they do invite comparison…

    You have also – with Juno as well as Quixote – suddenly got me wondering if there is any conscious play by Lewis with some “dozen Dwarfs” in chapter 13, about which and whom I have been brooding lately…


  2. theodoresavage says:

    Thought you might be interested in John Clute’s analysis of C. S. Lewis’s work in Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror. Very acute.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I am not part of the “Books to Borrow” program, there, but the “Limited preview” of page 161 has got me thinking about what might be “adamantly held […] convictions about the nature of the world” at different times of his writing and publishing life – what was he expressing, and how was he expressing it, not least (to whatever degree) ‘mythopoeically’,
      as the author of Spirits in Bondage, and again, how similarly or differently as the author of the dystopian fantasy, Dymer, as someone who embraced “much of twentieth-century thought” and “depth psychology”, at least in its forms up to the early 1920s, and while the author of his contributions to the philosophical ‘Great War’ with Owen Barfield and also working on ‘The Queen of Drum’? I am sadly insufficiently acquainted with so much of the ‘scholarly literature’ on Lewis of, say, the last 30 years, that I do not know who, if anyone, has attempted comparative analyses of his thought and its literary, ‘mythopoeic’ expressions at these different periods and in such different works, before as well as after he came to his theistic and then Christian experiences and convictions – and, if undertaken, with what success they have done so. It seems a worthwhile undertaking – and if anyone knows of a ‘critical literature’ survey of what has been done to date along those lines, I would be grateful to learn where I could consult it!


  3. Jettie H. van den Boom says:

    “I have finally completed Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’ The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha.” you say…OMG .. The title is wrong.. and besides Cervantes did not write it. “the history of the valorous and wittie Knight-Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha”, never La Mancha.. that did not exist until 75 years later.
    Why do you read a translation out of the English into the Spanish and then translated into English again..
    Sorry, but you better read the original History in the original language: English.
    Doesn’t sound nice, but it is not nice to repeate this 5 years..


    • I’m obviously being jocular and goofy in this post, so I might not be understanding your response. It’s probably a joke of some sophistication that I don’t understand. Can you help me out? I presume Pierre Menard knows all about it, but I don’t.


  4. Jettie H. van den Boom says:

    are you really open to the truth? Because hardly anyone listens. Yet next March I will publish an English translation of my book from 2015: the deciphering of the Don Quixote & the unmasking of Avellaneda”. I can tell you now that the original “Don Quixote” is an English book. The Spanish translations appeared in 1605 and 1615, much earlier than the original English publications in 1612 and 1620. Between these two periods, in 1614, a “false” Don Quixote was published under the name Avellaneda. The original English text was never released. So if you are interested, you can order it.
    jettie h. van den Boom

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your idea. fAs a non-scholar, I’ll see what experts do with your thesis. What was strange was your response, this idea that you have to still keep telling people this information that no one knows except you. Good luck.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kevin Rosero says:

    This was fun, and very much in a Cervantian way! I read Burton Raffel’s translation, and plan to read Grossman whenever I re-read the novel. Thank you for this review!

    Liked by 1 person

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