December 8, 2010

Don Q, via Cide Hamete Benengeli


Do we live in the age of translation?

Cervantes, an early instance of greatness in the "history" of the novel, has a ready answer in Don Quixote. The novel is presented as a translation by a Spanish-speaking Moor, from the Arabic of a certain historian named Cide Hamete Benengeli, of the history of the knight errant Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza. While the unnamed narrator recounts this "translated" history, he constantly reminds us of this fact. At several junctures in the novel, the narrator interjects the (i) translator's and (ii) his own annotations of the Arab's version of the events. In Part II, for example, the narrator interrupts the story to say:

Cide Hamete, the chronicler of this great history, begins this chapter with the words: 'I swear as a Christian and as a Catholic ...'; to which the translator adds that when Cide Hamete swore as a Christian and a Catholic, being a Moor, as he most certainly was, he only meant to say that just as when the Christian and Catholic swears something he swears, or should swear, the truth, and he swears to tell the truth in everything he says, so Cide Hamete was also telling the truth, as if he were swearing as a Christian and a Catholic, in everything he wrote about Don Quixote ... [Part II, Chapter XXVII, tr. John Rutherford]

Ah, the truth! And then Cide Hamete (through the translator, via the narrator) goes on to discuss a seeming "inconsistency" of previous events in the first part of the history, specifically the theft of Sancho Panza's donkey by the convict Ginés de Pasamonte. The inconsistency arises presumably from the "printers' carelessness" that led to the omission of the incident in the publication of the first part of the history. This "has led many people to offer their opinions and blame the printing mistake on the author's poor memory."

It appears then Cervantes craftily introduces a mistake in this long and clumsy history, but its teller (Cide Hamete), its translator, and its narrator are there to set the record straight. The mistake acquires a new kind of significance as Ginés, now a puppeteer and master of a fortune-telling ape, becomes embroiled again in the glorious adventure of our knight errant and his squire.

In an article in The New York Times, novelist Michael Cunningham argues that the act of novel writing is an act of translation: "the original novel is, in a way, a translation itself. It is not, of course, translated into another language but it is a translation from the images in the author’s mind to that which he is able to put down on paper." The sense of translation here is as an internal interpretation of the novelist's story before finally writing it down. This is for works in the original language. As for translated books: "The translator, then, is simply moving the book another step along the translation continuum. The translator is translating a translation." Cunningham completes his idea:

Here, then, is the full process of translation. At one point we have a writer in a room, struggling to approximate the impossible vision that hovers over his head. He finishes it, with misgivings. Some time later we have a translator struggling to approximate the vision, not to mention the particulars of language and voice, of the text that lies before him. He does the best he can, but is never satisfied. And then, finally, we have the reader. The reader is the least tortured of this trio, but the reader too may very well feel that he is missing something in the book, that through sheer ineptitude he is failing to be a proper vessel for the book’s overarching vision.

In the case of the Quixote, a pack bag of postmodern tricks and a vessel of wit, the act of its translation is more assiduously mapped. The translator is translating a translation of a translation of a translation of a translation. Confound the reader! To specify: the translator (Edith Grossman, or John Rutherford, or Burton Raffel, or Samuel Putnam, etc.) is translating a translation (by the unnamed narrator of the Quixote) of a translation (by the Moor who translates to Spanish) of a translation (by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli) of a translation (by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra). And lest we forget, the unnamed narrator is only the “second author” of the history, the “first author” being the one who was telling it right up to the section where the manuscript was supposedly truncated at the end of Part I, Chapter VIII.

In the case of Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", a ménage à trois between the novelist, translator, and reader is compounded by another interest, lost in flames. But that's for another post maybe.

To answer the question posed above, it may be best to quote again an interruption by our narrator regarding the integrity of Don Quixote's written history, demonstrating as it is how the telling of Truth in every History is ever so relative in every telling of it. At every remove, of the novelist from the story, of the translator from the source, of the teller from the tale, and of the reader from the page (not to mention the English translator's remove from the Spanish prose), the accumulation of subjective interpretations and authorial decisions is staggering.

It is said that in the original manuscript of this history one reads that when Cide Hamete came to write this chapter his translator did not render it as the Moor had written it, with some sort of complaint against himself for having undertaken such a dry and limited history as this one about Don Quixote, always feeling himself restricted to talking about him and Sancho, never daring to venture out into any digressions or more serious and entertaining episodes; and Cide Hamete added that to have his mind, his hand and his pen always constrained to writing about one subject and speaking through the mouths of so few characters was intolerable drudgery, which yielded nothing to the author's advantage, and that to avoid this problem he had in the first part had recourse to certain tales, like those of Inappropriate Curiosity and the Captive Captain, which stand, as it were, apart from the main story – although the other tales narrated there are events in which Don Quixote himself was involved and which could not be omitted. [Part II, Chapter XLIV]

And then the narrator went on to describe Cide Hamete's justifications for the apparent divergence of style between the first and second parts of the history. The translator and narrator of the Quixote both seem to be acting as apologists for the historian, smoothing out the wrinkles in the narrative, and justifying the choices and style of its composition. Cide Hamete is, at least according to the translator, undermining the very virtues of the history he is writing, stopping short of calling it “boring” in many places. These self-references constitute an assertion of the freedom of the “multiple storytellers” in Don Quixote to comment on the work at hand and play with realism, without which the story will indeed be just an assembly of “intolerable drudgery,” “a dry and limited history.”


I'm presently on page 792 of the book, which I'm reading intermittently since July as part of a group read, at Stu’s Winstonsdad's Blog. Obviously I was waylaid by other books and failed to stick to schedule.

(First posted in early form in Project Dogeared)

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