- The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Tobias Smollett
Deutsch, 846 pp, £15.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 233 97840 2
The fame of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza became known to the work in which they appear. In discussing itself as it goes along, the work examines the question of their fame, and in the second of its two parts it even takes avoiding action in respect of its own apocryha. Their fame has lasted from that day – the first years of the 17th century – to this. Quixote, his squire, his adventures and enchanters, still matter; they are one of the legends of the romantic modern world.
The literature of Romanticism seized on the work in order to discuss itself. Smollett’s translation of 1755, now reissued, pre-dated this capture, and perhaps it may be said that the translation assisted a romantic reading of Cervantes which it was also equipped to avert. His opinion of the work, expressed a little earlier in the Preface to Roderick Random, was ‘classical’ enough: Cervantes’ ‘inimitable piece of ridicule’ was said to have ‘reformed the taste of mankind, representing chivalry in the right point of view’. A conversion of romance had been effected by Cervantes, which had allowed it to make itself useful by pointing out ‘the follies of ordinary life’. Sancho’s common sense and creature comforts are shown to advantage in this translation: the scene where he fouls himself in his master’s presence, adding a ‘new affair’, a new terror, to the mysterious reverberations of the fulling mill, is very well told. But then few translators could do much to prevent such a showing, and Smollett is no less alive to the behaviour of the master, the lean, lank, long-faced first of the fogeys, panoplied in kitchenware, as he goes about righting his wrongs and wronging his passers-by. Quixote’s lucid intervals contain the wisdom of Cervantes, and he ends in an odour of pious good sense, having shed his illusions: this last lucidity, and all sense of the follies of chivalric romance, are keenly rendered by Smollett, whose efforts were to be succeeded by a special sympathy for this hero in his hour of illusion. Not that Smollett can often have been rated an enemy in the new age. ‘I want Smollet’s works,’ wrote Robert Burns, ‘for the sake of his incomparable humor.’ And he may also have wanted them for their romantic intervals.
Smollett was, in fact, to imitate the inimitable Cervantes for the rest of his life. He translated him, then re-translated him in a novel, Sir Launcelot Greaves, which sets a mad knight amid the asylums and coaching inns of his own time; and Quixote’s ghost can be found to flit through other fictions of his. Humphrey Clinker and, in the same novel, the Scotch curmudgeon Lismahago can be caught in the acts of a Quixote. Good men are seen to be mistaken and to take tumbles, to be pursued by farce. Such were the Cervanticks which British writers had taken to copying. Rowlandson was to illustrate the scene in which Lismahago, fleeing a fire reported by a joker, descends a ladder from a first-floor window, with bystanders looking up his nightie, in their 18th-century way, at his ‘long lank limbs and posteriors’ – the plight of the heiress who flees, in another Rowlandson, the confinements of family life. There is something Cervantean, incidentally, about the adventures of Rowlandson’s Dr Syntax.
A scholar has said, as scholars will, that Smollett is now ‘discredited’ as a translator from the Spanish, and his version does not always read as pointedly or as intelligibly as Walter Starkie’s of 1957. But it has great gusto, and it is funnier; it is none the worse for being the early work of an accomplished comic novelist with a fellow-feeling for the right-thinking and for the satirical and knockabout sides of Cervantes. ‘Some new affair’, when Sancho fouls himself, is very funny, and so is the reference to the ‘under-hermit’ left behind by the anchorite to mind a solitude visited by the wanderers, who also address each other, at one point, as follows:
‘The cause of that pain,’ said Don Quixote, ‘must doubtless be this; as the pole or staff by which you have suffered was long and large, it extended over thy whole back, comprehending all those parts which now give you pain; and if it had reached still farther, the pain would have been more extensive.’ ‘Fore God,’ cried Sancho, ‘your worship has taken me out of a huge uncertainty, and resolved the doubt in delicate terms. Body o’ me! was the cause of my pain so mysterious, that there was a necessity for telling me, I feel pain in those parts that were cudgelled?’
This is not a passage which proves the point in the book about translations – that they are poor things, like the turning inside out of a tapestry, with the figure in the carpet more or less preserved, but with all the knots and threads on display. The joke about being beaten up is replayed, and ruined, in Sir Launcelot Greaves, when the squire says of an assault upon himself by his master that ‘it was as common as duck-weed in his country for a man to complain when his bones were broke.’ Whereupon the knight thrashes him with a horse-whip. There is too much in the way of grievous bodily harm in Don Quixote. There is a lot more in Launcelot Greaves.
Don Quixote is a comedy of errors not all of which are made by Don Quixote. The knight-errant makes errors, and there is a novelist-errant who makes, and corrects, some further errors. His commentators err in placing their permissible and forced constructions, and in correcting some of his errors. Smollett makes errors too. And now André Deutsch has done so, in reissuing this erroneous work – a reissue which includes two essays by Carlos Fuentes. No notes, save Smollett’s perfunctory few. No errata. ‘I am resolved to seize occasion by the forelock, which she now so complaisantly prevents’: this is to turn the meaning inside out. The 18th century’s f’s for s’s is a trap which opens in the opening paragraph, where a prison is called (rather wonderfully) a ‘feat of inconvenience’. A strange cart later becomes ‘a fort of waggon’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
You are not logged in
 The Letters of Robert Burns, edited by J. De Lancey Ferguson. Second edition, edited by G. Ross Roy, 2 vols, Oxford, 493 and 521 pp., £45 each, 19 December 1985, 0 19 812478 3 and 0 19 812321 3. For the reference to Smollett see Vol. I, p. 296.
 Jacques the Fatalist by Denis Diderot, translated by Michael Henry, with an Introduction and Notes by Martin Hall. Penguin, 261 pp., £3.95, 30 January, 014 044472 6.
 The Duchess’s Diary: Faber, 127 pp., £8.95 and £2.95, January 1985, 0 571 13441 6.