Edith Grossman on Translating Don Quixote

For almost a year now, Don Quixote has been sitting on my book shelf.  I’ve even picked it up once or twice – and gotten about half way through Harold Bloom’s introduction before putting it back up onto the shelf.  It’s an intimidating looking book – a sinister knight-errant’s helmet staring at you, slightly out of focus, swimming in a background of blood-red.  Take a good look at that cover and tell me it’s not a bit ominous.  Bet you can’t.

Still, sinister looking or not, it’s on top of my TBR list.  And, to get me in the mood, I found a great essay by Edith Grossman, whose creepy looking translation has received wonderful reviews.  In the essay, Grossman talks about the difficulty of even approaching such a seminal work.  I especially liked her comments about tackling the opening sentence.

In the back of my mind was the rather fanciful notion that if I could successfully translate the opening phrase—probably the most famous words in Spanish, comparable to the opening lines of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in English…then the rest of the novel would somehow fall into place. The first part of the sentence in Spanish reads: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…” I recited those words to myself as if they were a mantra, until an English phrase materialized that seemed to have a comparable rhythm and drive, that played with the multiple meanings of the word lugar (both “place” and “village”), and that echoed some of the sound of the original: “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…” It felt right to me, and with a rush of euphoric satisfaction I told myself I might actually be able to translate this grand masterpiece of a book.

As I mentioned, I’ve started this book twice already before putting it down for various reasons.  I have a long holiday coming up starting next Thursday; hopefully, the third time will be a charm.



  1. LOL Great post and link…. I have that same addition, in the same state as yours….picked up, moved to the nightstand, put back, then occasionally stared at without guilt. It must feel like the pretty girl at the dance that no one asks to dances because she’s so intimidating. I’m anthromorphizing a book!

  2. on the subject of translation relating to both lolita & quixote have you read george steiner’s book After Babel it deals specifically with the subject of the art of translation & is also a real good read. have read cervantes book its worth the 3rd attempt & as for lolita its something one should despise but the writing raises it above the subject matter, i suppose that differentiates it , makes it a work of art.

  3. This very book is on my TBR list. One thing I like to do is skip the introduction; I read that after I’ve read the book, when it usually makes more sense, and I’m more able to decide whether I agree with that writer’s perspective on the book. Skipping the introduction also increases the odds that I will actually begin the TBR book.

  4. @Amy: great anthropomorphization (how’s that for a Scrabble word!) of a book. Hopefully, soon, I’ll work up the courage to ask that lady in red to dance.
    @Parrish: The only Steiner I’ve read is The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. That was a brilliant book. I’ll put After Babel on my list.
    @Lisa: I get the feeling that Don Quixote is on a lot of people’s TBR list. It’s one of those books that looms over western literature, yet seems so distant and intimidating. Perhaps the in the same way Moby Dick looms over American literature. A few years ago, I did manage to sit myself down and read Moby Dick and really, really enjoyed it. I have the feeling that Quixote will be just as rewarding once I can motivate myself to get into it.
    As for skipping the intro, I’ll probably do that this time around. Harold Bloom can be annoying and dense anyhow.
    Thanks for the comments!

  5. i m organzing a readalong late summer for don quixote the edith grossman translation ,there is a great interview with here on abc’s book show (aussie) ,found your blog via book blogs

    1. Thanks for the heads up. I’m about half way through it already and will certainly be finished by the summer. Still, let me know where the discussions will be hosted and I’d love to take part.

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