19 February 2011

Don Q, via M. Menard

I have already told you that enchantment can take many different forms, and it could be that these have changed in the course of time, so that what happens nowadays is that the enchanted do all the things that I do, even though formerly they did not. So one cannot either argue against the customs of the times, or draw any conclusions from them. I know for certain that I am enchanted, and this is enough for the comfort of my conscience; because my remorse would be great indeed if I thought that I am not enchanted ...
- Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter XLIX, tr. John Rutherford

Jorge Luis Borges, author of "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," couldn't be more forthcoming. His analysis is unimpeachable (from the "unauthorized" translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni):

It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes's. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of great deeds, witness to the past, example and admonition to the present, warning to the future.

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the 'lay genius' Cervantes, this catalogue is no more than a rhetorical eulogy to history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

... truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of great deeds, witness to the past, example and admonition to the present, warning to the future.

Truth, the offspring of history. Now there’s an idea! The blind man couldn’t be more authoritative. By way of two short quotations from two ‘distinct’ sources (Cervantes and Menard), the self-appointed literary executor of the self-appointed author of the Quixote is almost committing that unpardonable crime in the republic of letters – plagiarism.

I don’t believe that a translator of the Quixote in English had yet the privilege to also translate the Pierre Menard story. But let us assume that the words of John Rutherford (translator of my Quixote Penguin edition) are faithful to the words of Cervantes. That is, its reliability as assured as the glorious recounting of the illustrious knight errant's history, by the Arab historian Cide Hamete, through his conscientious Moorish translator. Thus, the Borges persona in the Borges story will now gush, in translation, via Monsieur Menard (Part I, Chapter IX):

... truth, whose mother is history: the imitator of time, the storehouse of actions and the witness to the past, an example and a lesson to the present and a warning to the future.

If there is any objection to the veracity of these lofty thoughts, then they must read Anthony Bonner's translation, in Ficciones (Grove Press, 1962), who saw fit to include the original words [the brackets below are present in the translation]:

Written in the seventeenth century, written by the "ingenious layman" Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical eulogy of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

... la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo por venir.

[... truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.]

If there is another cause for objection to be made, then they must answer to Sancho Panza. As with Cervantes, it is always a revelation to read Borges on the conundrums of a perfect translation, the perfect transfer of truths, judgements, and meanings. And so the passage quoted in the ingenious history can be stretched to infer an equation of "history" with "translation." Just substitute the word “translation” with “history” and a striking duality is achieved. The history that Cervantes was recounting is labeled as a translation from the Arabic language, and the story that Borges was telling is about an unsung French scholar whose fluency in Spanish language is evident, isn't it, from thirty-nine words of wisdom. So in a sense, it is the role of the translator as historian, the ideal kind, that is being depicted and repeated. The translator as a practitioner of history can mean being a model student of contexts and milieus, word plays and puns, who happily immerse himself into the language where the work to be translated is happily swimming, baiting it out carefully and putting it in the happy aquarium of another language.

Truth is the offspring of history because true history derives its authenticity from a semblance of truth. History is hanging on to the truth, to the words that express this truth, like a squire who hangs on to his every master's words. So we recognize from the vagaries of translation the creation of something non-definitive and yet heroic for striving so hard to replicate the sense and the poetry of its source text. Each translation (history), is an artifice (document) in the service of art or life, a literary theory which stands trial to the test of time.

Cervantes could not have anticipated the multiple transfers of meaning, truth, and realism through translation, right? Menard did, yes? If we define History as a direct transfer of reality, the ongoing moment, or the unfolding of events, then the text of that History is another history. The historian tries as much as he can to replicate real events truthfully, in words and paragraphs and chapters. Otherwise, he stands accused as inventor of history. The same with translations, of poetry in particular. During the priest’s burning of books in Don Quixote’s study (Part I, Chapter VI), a translation of poems was summarily dismissed for its supposed failure to recreate the Italian original.

'Well, I've got that book in Italian,' said the barber, 'but I don't understand a word of it.'
'Nor would it be a good thing for you to understand it,' replied the priest, 'and we could have done without that captain bringing it to Spain and turning it into Castilian, because he left behind much of what was best in it, which is what happens to all those who try to translate poetry: however much care they take and skill they display, they can never recreate it in the full perfection of its original birth.

We are certainly lucky to have come upon Monsieur Menard's poetic endeavors, even if he demonstrated his mastery of translation in just a few precious words. The narrator of Don Quixote knew that only a 'truthful' Spanish rendering of the knight's tale from the Arabic can bring it to life, can give birth to history. And so he worked toward achieving the ideal of translation (Part I, Chapter IX, Rutherford translation):

I had to draw on all the discretion I possess not to reveal how happy I felt when I heard the title of the book [History of Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian]; and, getting in ahead of the silk merchant, I bought all the papers and notebooks from the lad for half a real; and if the lad himself had had any discretion and had noticed how much I wanted them, he could well have expected and indeed exacted more than six reals. Then I went off with the Moor to the cathedral cloister and asked him to translate the notebooks, or at least all those that had to do with Don Quixote, into Castilian, without adding or omitting a single word, and I offered to pay him whatever he asked. [my emphasis]

This sentiment was echoed by Don Quixote's friend Sansón Carrasco, BA, as Sansón distinguished between the poet and the historian (Part II, Chapter III):

'... it's one thing to write as a poet and quite another to write as a historian: the poet can narrate or sing events not as they were but as they should have been, and the historian must record them not as they should have been but as they were, without adding anything to the truth or taking anything away from it.'

The task then of the translator of a history, specially a history riddled with poems and song-and-dance numbers like the Quixote, is very hard indeed. For how does one strike a balance between narrating events objectively ("as they were") and interpretively ("as they should have been")? Clearly this applies to the genre of historical poem, or history in prose poem. It's wonderful how Pierre Menard found the solution to the problem: he subjected the text through a very careful scrutiny of its every nuance and substance. That is, through the most exacting of filters: the truth, only the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Menard’s version of the Quixote is timeless because it superseded any and all versions before and after it. Those who translated the Quixote (in any language) before Borges wrote his story can only be considered, at best, "proto-Menards." The proto-Menards are prefiguring Menard’s excellent job. Those who made further attempts to translate the Quixote after Borges published his story are, sorry to say it, just Menard-wannabes. Menard supplanted all possible translators. He is the definitive and restored version.

There are, however, two writers who have interesting opinions about this Menard affair, and I recently had a conversation with their ghosts. One is a certain Avellaneda, author of an extant second part of the Quixote. The other is a certain Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The former vehemently disputed the whole thing and would not accept the Frenchman's lucid version. He insisted that his inspired sequel can hold his own against the ravings of a madman, "an unpublished fraud" (to quote Avellaneda's strong words), and against the imagination of the madman's equally mad protégé Jorge Luis Borges, "inauthentic fanatic." The latter Cervantes, presumably the original author of the Quixote, was amused, smirking at the former's tantrums. Another writer, someone straight from the Ming dynasty, was close by, meditating.

I started Don Q in July as part of the "Windmills for the Mind" read-along, hosted by Stu at Winstonsdad's Blog. I finished it a few weeks ago.

Related posts:

Don Q, via Cide Hamete Benengeli

Half a Don Q

Don Q, via Cercas

Don Q, via translators

"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (Jorge Luis Borges)


  1. I need to get back to my own reread of DQ, Rise. In the meantime, I'm glad to have come across your concept of "proto-Menards." What an excellent idea/term!

  2. A really unforgettable reading experience, Richard. Humor is literally on every page. I can't blame Menard for being enchanted with it. :p