Don Quixote, a challenge for translators

An edition dated in 1605 of Miguel de  Cervantes famous novel Don Quixote.
An edition dated in 1605 of Miguel de Cervantes famous novel Don Quixote. / REUTERS
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  • On 23 April many in Spain remember the death of the author of the much-translated Don Quixote. This year, a French translator from Vélez-Málaga has finished his "less boring" English version of the story

The first modern European novel - Don Quixote - was published in two volumes, the first in 1605, and the second in 1615. Miguel de Cervantes' book was widely read around Europe. After the bible, it holds the distinction of being the second most-translated book in the world. On 23 April each year Spain remembers his death in 1616.

Seven years after the original Don Quixote appeared, the first part was translated into four languages - French, German, Italian and English. Thomas Shelton was the first translator of Don Quixote. In 1620, he translated the second part into English. According to critics, Shelton's version was far from satisfactory.

Around 1700, Pierre Antoine Motteux, a French-born English playwright and translator, produced an important translation of the Cervantes novel that received lasting popularity though it was also criticised by his followers for failing to represent the spirit and flavour of the original.

To understand better the gist and spirit of the book, Alexander James Duffield, a mining engineer and writer, had to learn Spanish and become a Hispanist by travelling to Spain.

This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth. In 1881, Duffield published a book under the title - Don Quixote, his Critics and Commentators, with a brief Account of the Minor Works of Cervantes and a Statement of the Aim of the greatest of them all.

English-speaking children learned about the immature middle-aged Spanish man fighting with windmills 100 years ago.

In 1921, the book under the title The Adventures of Don Quixote appeared in London, Edinburgh and New York. The version was abridged and adapted for children by Emily Underdown, and left out the risqué sections as well as chapters that young readers might consider dull. Probably, due to the embellishment of the original text, the title page actually omitted any mention of Cervantes.

The 21st century has already seen several new translations of Don Quixote into English. Edith Grossman's translation of the Spanish masterpiece, with an expanded PS edition, was nominated as one of America's best-loved novels. On her English version is described as the most transparent and least impeded among more than a dozen English translations going back to the 17th century.

Laurent Sueur.

Laurent Sueur. / SUR

This year, the English version by Laurent Paul Sueur joined Amazon's Don Quixote collection. Laurent is a historian whose describes his speciality as "the relationship between reason and madness". Ten years ago, he left Paris and settled in Vélez-Málaga. Here, he started translating classics from French into English because, in his opinion, "The old translations are full of mistakes."

Living in Spain, Laurent Sueur was able to deepen his understanding of the Spanish mentality and culture. As a result, he managed to translate Lorca's Gypsy Ballads, which sells well on Amazon. Two years ago, he started translating Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Laurent said: "In four centuries nobody has been able to understand what was written for various reasons. There are lots of mistakes in the editions of this book because the people who prepared the publications did not always understand what was written. I guess this book is like a papyrus with lots of holes in it: you must guess what the author wanted to write."

After scrupulously working at the language, Laurent says he did not try to copy Cervantes' style, as other translators had. "I have chosen to explain this novel, not to reproduce its style, which is awful. Unsurprisingly, when one tries to translate Don Quixote into any other language, the result is weird. In fact, I have removed all the words that were useless, shortened the sentences and changed the word-order for better understanding. As for the puns, they are also closely related to the meaning of the original, although they are more idiomatic and sophisticated.

"It is less boring. For the first time in four centuries, this opus is comprehensible and funny," he explains.