by Miguel de Cervantes (translation by Gerald J. Davis)
“I know very well who I am,” answered Don Quixote, “and I know who I can be.”
Don Quixote, fed up with a world of sin and despair, takes it upon himself to become a knight errant, an occupation he’s often read of in his books of chivalry, and heads out into the world to right its wrongs. A man from his village, Sancho, accompanies Don Quixote as his squire in return for promises of riches.
The trouble is our knight errant has a kind of dementia when it comes to matters of chivalry, and Sancho is just a little too dim to realize the situation in time. All manner of hilarity ensues, tempered with a story that’s constantly threatening to veer off into the tragic due to our protagonist’s illness.
The book’s got a lot of heart, because the lead character’s got a lot of heart. Quixote’s trying so hard to do the right thing it’s going to make you ache a little, but his actions and the results thereof are so dangerous that the man cannot be allowed to continue. One can draw parallels to some modern religious fanatics, and this just underscores the danger. Intentions tend not to matter as much as outcome when it comes to consequence.
There is deep tragedy here, but have faith; it’s between the lines. While the novel starts out promising to be one of the saddest stories ever written, the author doesn’t really let it go that direction, instead focusing on the loss at one adventure and the transition into the next. A few times throughout, concentrated more towards the end, tangents of stories-within-a-story dominate the text.
Here’s the big problem: Translations.
This is a classic work, with the first volume published in 1605, which leaves a lot of time for translators to reimagine the work, oftentimes going back to other author’s interpretive translations instead of getting as close to the original work as possible. One of the most famous versions is John Ormsby’s 1885 translation, while probably the most popular today is Edith Grossman’s (supposedly simplified) from 2003. The first was by Thomas Shelton in 1612, a version said to preserve the original tone but to be extremely difficult for the modern reader.
The version read for this review was translated by Gerald J. Davis in 2012, which uses Shelton’s original translation as source and updates some of the obscure phrasing to more recognizable terms. Davis’ goal was to preserve the tone and flow that Shelton maintained on the first translation, and a common critique of the many other translations is that authenticity and richness of wording is sacrificed in favor of ease of reading for modern audiences.
There are many to choose from, but the Davis version is rich and recommended. At up to around 400,000 words, depending on version, you’ll benefit from doing a little homework on the numerous translations before settling on one. Here’s a start:
This is certainly an important work dramatically and historically, so pick a version that you think’ll gel for you and get to reading. Together, we shall put an end to the madness and civilize the world.
Be at peace, you who are the cause of my war.
(Note: The version pictured below is the limited Franklin Library release, translated by J.M. Cohen and illustrated by Gustov Dore. When it’s time for a second go-around, this will be the copy read and the review will be appended.)