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The Art of Translation

Fresh off the press, Don Quixote caused a literary sensation, provoking countless theories and interpretations of his story. Almost immediately, Thomas Shelton completed the first English translation of the great Spanish novel. Since then, several attempts were made by various writers to "update" the translation. In 1885, Englishman John Ormsby completed his version, taking the novel to new levels of "modernization." Ormsby has written a brief history about the evolution of Cervantes' translation. Click here to read this history.

Below, the introduction to the two most popular translations have been excerpted. Have a look at the differences. What strikes you at first?


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Translation by Thomas Shelton (1605)

The Author's Preface To The Reader

Thou mayst believe me, gentle reader, without swearing, that I could willingly desire this book (as a child of my understanding) to be the most beautiful, gallant, and discreet that might possibly be imagined; but I could not transgress the order of nature, wherein everything begets his like, which being so, what could my sterile and ill - tilled wit engender but the history of a dry - toasted and humorous son, full of various thoughts and conceits never before imagined of any other; much like one who was engendered within some noisome prison, where all discommodities have taken possession, and all doleful noises made their habitation, seeing that rest, pleasant places, amenity of the fields, the cheerfulness of clear sky, the murmuring noise of the crystal fountains, and the quiet repose of the spirit are great helps for the most barren Muses to show themselves fruitful, and to bring into the world such births as may enrich it with admiration and delight? If ofttimes befalls that a father hath a child both by birth evil - favoured and quite devoid of all perfection, and yet the love that he bears him is such as it casts a mask over his eyes, which hinders his discerning of the faults and simplicities thereof, and makes him rather deem them discretions and beauty, and so tells them to his friends for witty jests and conceits. But I, though in show a father, yet in truth but a step-father to Don Quixote, will not be borne away by the violent current of the modern custom nowadays, and therefore entreat thee, with the tears almost in mine eyes, as many others are wont to do, most dear reader, to pardon and dissemble the faults which thou shalt discern in this my son; for thou art neither his kinsman nor friend, and thou hast thy soul in thy body, and thy free-will therein as absolute as the best, and thou art in thine own house, wherein thou art as absolute a lord as the king is of his subsidies, and thou knowest well the common proverb, that 'under my cloak a fig for the king,' all which doth exempt thee and makes thee free from all respect and obligation; and so thou mayst boldly say of this history whatsoever thou shalt think good, without fear either to be controlled for the evil or rewarded for the good that thou shalt speak thereof.

Translation by John Ormsby (1885)

The Author's Preface

IDLE READER: Thou mayest believe me without any oath that I would this book, as it is the child of my brain, were the fairest, gayest, and cleverest that could be imagined. But I could not counteract Nature's law that everything shall beget its like; and what, then, could this sterile, illtilled wit of mine beget but the story of a dry, shrivelled, whimsical offspring, full of thoughts of all sorts and such as never came into any other imagination- just what might be begotten in a prison, where every misery is lodged and every doleful sound makes its dwelling? Tranquillity, a cheerful retreat, pleasant fields, bright skies, murmuring brooks, peace of mind, these are the things that go far to make even the most barren muses fertile, and bring into the world births that fill it with wonder and delight. Sometimes when a father has an ugly, loutish son, the love he bears him so blindfolds his eyes that he does not see his defects, or, rather, takes them for gifts and charms of mind and body, and talks of them to his friends as wit and grace. I, however- for though I pass for the father, I am but the stepfather to "Don Quixote"- have no desire to go with the current of custom, or to implore thee, dearest reader, almost with tears in my eyes, as others do, to pardon or excuse the defects thou wilt perceive in this child of mine. Thou art neither its kinsman nor its friend, thy soul is thine own and thy will as free as any man's, whate'er he be, thou art in thine own house and master of it as much as the king of his taxes and thou knowest the common saying, "Under my cloak I kill the king;" all which exempts and frees thee from every consideration and obligation, and thou canst say what thou wilt of the story without fear of being abused for any ill or rewarded for any good thou mayest say of it.