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Rec Room: Joel Whitney: Why Translation Matters

March 23, 2010


Joel_Whitney-small.jpgOn April 1st Guernica will publish an essay by Edith Grossman on the joys and travails of translating Don Quixote. The essay comes from her forthcoming, Why Translation Matters. And the prospect of publishing it reminds me of this particular moment from Quixote, when a fool is allowed to lead. Cervantes gives Sancho the insula he’d been promised by Don Quixote. The dialogue seems apt for April Fool’s Day.

At that moment a constable came up to them, holding a young man, and he said:

“Senor Governor, this lad was coming toward us, and as soon as he saw that we were the law, he turned his back and began to run like a deer, a sign that he must be a criminal. I went after him, and if he hadn’t tripped and fallen, I never would have caught him.”

“Why were you running away?” asked Sancho.

To which the young man responded:

“Senor, to avoid answering all the questions that constables ask.”

“What’s your trade?”

“A weaver.”

“And what do you weave?”

“The iron tips of lances, with your grace’s kind permission.”

“Are you being funny with me? Are you proud of being a joker? Fine! Where are you going now?”

“Senor, to take the air.”

“And where do you take the air on this insula?”

“Wherever it blows.”

“Good: your answers are right to the point! You’re clever, boy, but you should know that I’m the air, and I’m blowing at your back and sending you to prison. You there, seize him and take him away, and I’ll make him sleep without any air tonight!”

“By God!” said the young man. “Your grace will make me sleep in prison when you make me king!”

“You think so?” replied Sancho. “Take him right now to the place where he’ll see the truth with his own eyes, no matter how much the warden tries to use self-interested generosity with him; I’ll fine the warden two thousand ducados if he lets you take one step out of prison.”

“All this is laughable,” responded the young man. “The fact is that every man alive today won’t make me sleep in prison.”

“Tell me, you demon,” said Sancho, “do you have an angel who’ll take you out and remove the irons that I plan to put on you?”

“Now, Senor Governor,” the young man responded with great charm, “let’s use our reason and come to the point. Suppose, your grace, that you order me taken to prison, and there I’m put in irons and chains, and placed in a cell, and the warden will suffer great penalties if he lets me out, and he obeys every order you give him; even so, if I don’t want to sleep, and stay awake the whole night without closing my eyes, is all your grace’s power enough to make me sleep if I don’t want to?”

“No, of course not,” said the secretary, “and the man has proven his point.”

“Which means,” said Sancho, “that you wouldn’t sleep simply because it’s your will not to, not because you want to go against mine.”

“No, Senor,” said the young man, “I wouldn’t dream of that.”

“Well then,” said Sancho, “go with God back to your house to sleep, and may God give you a sound sleep, for I don’t want to rob you of that, but I do advise that from now on you don’t mock the law because you may come across a constable who’ll take the joke out of your hide.”


Bio: Joel is a founding editor of Guernica. Read his interview with Edith Grossman here. Read his last recommendation of the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ “here”:http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1609/for_those_of_you_still/.

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