07 May 2011

Don Q, via Cervantes


In which the blogger posts his final thoughts on the novel, with a nod to its real author.

The pleasures, the comedies, the verisimilitude of Don Quixote are bottomless, unrelenting, imaginative, that the reader, both the open and close ones, will be relishing its tricks and treats. A reader open to the unforgiving comedy will forgive the author for concocting all kinds of humor, from the slapstick to pitch black. The close reader, if by close we mean the closeness to the spirit of adventure, the willingness to be subjected to quixotic winks and, can I say, sanchic-panzic wit, in other words to be "in on the joke", will be rewarded with plenty of amusement. To be laughed about or lapped up. Or, being laughable, simply lopped off.

   '... If you do not believe me, Sancho, I beg you to do something that will correct your mistake and make you see that I am telling you the truth: mount your ass and stalk them [flocks of sheep], and you will soon see how, once they have gone a little way, they turn back into what they were at first and, ceasing to be sheep, become real men again, just as I described them to you. But do not go yet, because I have need of your assistance: come here and see how many of my teeth are missing, for it seems to me that there is not one left in my mouth.'
   Sancho came so close that his eyes were nearly inside his master's mouth ... [Part I, Chapter XVIII, Rutherford translation]

We are inside the mind of the author of the Quixote, who at this point is reading the translator's writing from the manuscript by the Arab historian Cide Hamete Benengeli. What happens next inside the mouth of our knight errant, where Sancho's eyes peered as close as any close reader of a text, is so gross it could turn one's stomach upside down and spew all the hibernating contents. For that was precisely what happened.

The history sometimes displays humor through puns so sprightly they could make one jump up and down:

   'I didn't cut any capers in the blanket.' Sancho retorted. 'I cut them in the air, and more of them than I'd have chosen to.'
   'I suppose,' added Don Quixote, 'that every history that has ever been written has its ups and downs ...' [Part II, Chapter III]

Somehow the comedy also paints a most disturbing picture of the times. Spain in the time of Cervantes being a time of inquisitive struggles.

   ... Sancho stood up and took himself a good way off, and as he went to lean against another tree he felt something touching his head; he raised his hands and they came into contact with two feet in their shoes and stockings. He shuddered with fear and went to another tree, and the same thing happened there. He screamed to Don Quixote for help. Don Quixote came and when he asked Sancho what had happened and what he was frightened of, Sancho replied that all those trees were full of human feet and legs. Don Quixote felt them, and immediately realized what the cause might be, and said:
   'There's no need to be afraid, these legs and feet that you can feel and cannot see must belong to outlaws and bandits who have been hanged from these trees; in these parts the authorities hang them twenty or thirty at a time when they catch them, from which I deduce that we must be near Barcelona.'
   And he was quite right, too. As they were leaving, they raised their eyes and saw the fruit that was hanging from those trees: bandits' corpses. [Part II, Chapter LX]

There's no need to be afraid. Yeah, right. Can anything be more surreal than some booted pairs of feet dangling lifeless from trees. Indeed, it could be an influence of a scene happening in the night. A powerful, disconcerting image in any context that it will give one pause (there's a striking passage, for example, in Laforet's Nada referring to a hanged man on a tree, quoted in Caravana de recuerdos.) What a strange and black sense of humor the historian must have had to include this unsolicited lesson on the death penalty. Poor Sancho. The comedy is not funny at all when you just plain jump in fright and it's your heart that goes up and down.
The translated "true history" was so grounded in the historical and the real that it contained some details that speak of events, conflicts and religious policies in the 16th/17th century. There was also, for example, the prejudice against races, particularly the Morisco people (converts from Muslim) who were forcibly driven out of Spain because of their race.

There was no respite to humor in the novel. Comedy was so well integrated into the history's base and superstructure that it functioned as a conduit for its telling. Humor and history closely accompanied each other.

In addition to poking fun of knightly misadventures and verisimilar historical events, the true history floated certain questions of authorship, translation, plagiarism, and the self-determination of characters. Humor also brought these questions to their feet.

Don Quixote, it turned out, had such a poor regard of translation that he inadvertently belittled his own true history, which was in the first place a purported text translated from the Arabic. In fact, the Quixote is not so much an early instance of metafiction as the progenitor of what could be termed as a meta-translation. That is, a written text that (i) is being put forward as a translation and (ii) is well-aware of the fact.

Here is our knight on the subject of translation (a passage used as epigraph in translator John Rutherford's introduction to the book):

And yet it seems to me that translating from one language into another, except from those queens of languages, Greek and Latin, is like viewing Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, when, although one can make out the figures, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and one cannot appreciate the smooth finish of the right side; and translating from easy languages is no indication of talent or literary ability, any more than transcribing or copying a document on to another piece of paper is. [Part II, Chapter LXII]

Arabic being one of these "easy languages" instantly made the present written history of our knight already suspect, presumably because it has hidden the smooth finish of the fabric. (Of course, the English translation stitched from the Spanish doubly concealed the lining. So we didn't really stand a chance.) For although Don Quixote extols the virtues of his historian for his supposed accuracy in laying down his adventures, his idea of the inadequacy of translation to deliver the nuances of the whole pattern of the tapestry, humbled the entire enterprise of the paid translator. This seeming inconsistency was yet another manifestation of the pragmatic attitude of the storyteller toward his own tale that harks back to the very first sentences of the novel, where the narrator confessed that the idea for the book (likened to a "son") was conceived while he was in prison.

Idle reader: I don't have to swear any oaths to persuade you that I should like this book, since it is the son of my brain, to be the most beautiful, elegant and intelligent book imaginable. But I couldn't go against the order of nature, according to which like gives birth to like. And to what can my barren and ill-cultivated mind give birth except the history of a dry, shrivelled child, whimsical and full of extravagant fancies that nobody has ever imagined – a child born, after all, in prison, where every discomfort has its seat and every dismal sound its habitation? [Prologue]

Ah, truth in storytelling is never as slippery as when one tries to efface the traces of active authorship by electing to be humble before one's own creation. How could something living and vital be willed to be born if the mind that constructed it was, from the start, dry and barren, hence infertile?

One last note. Going back to the idea of translation as the reverse side of the tapestry, this novel metaphor yet proved original thinking on the part of the speaker.

Or not.

It may be possible that this fabric thing was fabricated from another source, in the same way that several lyrics and verses in the novel were filched from other writers and appropriated by Don Quixote as his own. A similar idea on translation was alluded to in The Book of Tea (1906) by Kakuzo Okakura:

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade—all threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound?

The idea of translation as the reverse of tapestry [PDF] was attributed to an author of the Ming dynasty, whose reign at least overlapped with the lifetime of Cervantes. Who was this Ming author and what exactly did he say, in what book or scroll? Whether the brocade/tapestry idea was independently formulated by Cervantes or whether he absorbed it from the Ming directly or indirectly, is still an open question. In the meantime, those threads were indeed obscuring the design, preventing us from admiring the full frontal beauty of the original.

But why does a viewer choose to look from behind? One can always turn the carpet around and look for the embroidery. An imaginative translation of a meta-translation, from any language, king or queen or subject, has the capacity to reveal the intricate colors by approximating the loops the threads make in the original, using different kinds of fibers. If it is any good, it could even weave another textile of its own, one whose subtlety and smoothness can approach the original patterning. The workmanship preserved regardless of how the translator has woven the materials or operated the loom.

Do not believe the blogger when he said this will be his final post on the subject. He has mooched another adaptation that promises to explore some catholic ideas about the nature of truth, or that will probably tackle faithfulness to the source text, if not the author's faith to his brainchild. "Don Q, via Greene" goes like this:

[T]he author continues to explore moral and theological dilemmas through psychologically astute character studies and exciting drama on an international stage. The title character of Monsignor Quixote is a village priest, elevated to the rank of monsignor through a clerical error, who travels to Madrid accompanied by his best friend, Sancho, the Communist ex-mayor of the village ...

Doesn't that sound the least bit heretical?

(Image source: Rank badge [China] (1988.154.1) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


  1. I really enjoyed this post. Everything you say is in Don Quixote is there. And, of course, more. And endless book, and I am not basing that on my cognitive limitations, since I do not even remember that amazing scene with the hanged men.

    I've only ever half-, or maybe three quarters-, understood the translation as tapestry metaphor. The back of a tapestry can be fascinating.

  2. Thanks, AR! It was a book to be mined and mined and the riches will still not run out. Many light scenes amuses. Some like the hanged men give serious pause. And the tapestry idea was a very visual metaphor to behold.

  3. I too really enjoyed this post, Rise. The tapestry metaphor has me rummaging my brain (and Google) for a kind of textile-making I vaguely recall hearing about when I was in China years ago and developed an interest in Miao textiles. Someone had mentioned a method by which the backside of the brocade was given nearly as much attention as the front. I can't seem to find it (other than an article on Yunjin weaving, which is close but not what I'm trying to remember). In any case, I'm only hoping to find it in order to be able to complicate further that wonderful but - as you point out - rather inadequate translation metaphor.

  4. Thanks, Scott. Reversible tapestry - now that's a great solution to the translation problem. A very nice complication. It adds another stitch of fun to the Quixote.