It is nearly 400 years since the death of one of Europe’s greatest writers, Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), author of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Cervantes once complained that reading a work in translation is “like viewing a piece of Flemish tapestry on the wrong side.” But without translations, readers the world over would be the poorer.
Three new translations into English of Don Quixote appeared in the first decade of the 21st century. The first was by John D. Rutherford (2000), the second by Edith Grossman (2003) and the third by Tom Lathrop (2005, the year of the novel’s 400th anniversary). In a review in The New York Times (2 November 2003), Carlos Fuentes called Grossman’s translation a “major literary achievement” and another critic (14 November 2003) called it “the most transparent and least impeded among more than a dozen English translations going back to the 17th century… agile, playful, formal and wry.”
Modern translators used to take as their model the 1885 translation by John Ormsby (1829-95), whose translation was said to be the most honest, without expanding thee text or changing the proverbs. Ormsby’s translation has seen more editions than any other 19th century English version of the novel and was the first English version of Cervantes’s book to appear complete on the Internet. Ormsby wrote an extensive introduction which makes interesting reading, although he was castigated for being overly critical of Cervantes’ style of writing.
The American literary critic Harold Bloom includes Cervantes in his canon of immortals. Bloom wrote an Introduction to Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote in which he said:
“Grossman might be called the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note. Reading her amazing mode of finding equivalents in English for Cervantes’s darkening vision is an entrance into a further understanding of why this great book contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is inescapable for all writers who have come after him. Dickens and Flaubert, Joyce and Proust reflect the narrative procedures of Cervantes, and their glories of characterization mingle strains of Shakespeare and Cervantes.”
Miguel de Cervantes died in Madrid on 22 April 1616 and was buried on 23 April, the date used by UNESCO to commemorate International Day of the Book and the deaths of both Cervantes and William Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare and Cervantes died on different days: Shakespeare on 23 April 1616 of the Julian calendar used in England and Cervantes on 22 April 1616 of the Gregorian calendar used in Spain. Since the Gregorian calendar was ten days ahead of the Julian, Cervantes actually died ten days earlier than Shakespeare, whose date of death according to the Gregorian calendar was 3 May 1616.
Of Cervantes’s grave nothing is known, except that he was buried, in accordance with his will, in the neighboring convent of Trinitarian nuns. Isabel de Saavedra, Cervantes’s daughter, was supposedly a member of this convent. A few years afterwards the nuns moved to another convent and carried their dead with them. Whether the remains of Cervantes were included in the removal no one knows, and any clue to his final resting place is irrevocably lost.