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A Translated Stew of “Griefs and Sorrows”

December 2, 2012

One of the most recent English translations of Don Quixote is the one by James Montgomery in which the second sentence goes like this (with a footnote):

A daily stew consisting of more beef than mutton, hash almost every evening, “grief and sorrows”* on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and a pigeon or so on Sundays consumed three-fourths of his income….

*In Spanish: duelos y quebrantos (a popular name for “eggs and bacon”).

We might all see here how Montgomery has told the English reader — using his scare quotes — exactly what Cervantes surely means by duelos y quebrantos.  This raises the questions, of course, of 1) just how Montgomery knows and 2) whether “griefs and sorrows” must be all English readers get.

I want to suggest that Montgomery doesn’t know everything.  And that English readers and Spanish readers may get more than this one translator gives.

We get much more when translators play with language, when they recognize the play in language.  Unfortunately, especially in the discussions of Bible translation, there’s the “either / or” binary of “Dynamic Equivalence” v “Formal Equivalence.”  What gets glossed over all too often is how rich language is, and how translation best conveys this.

For example, at the Better Bibles Blog, Wayne Leman has read an reader-reviewer talking about Edith Grossman’s book Why Translation Matters.  In his post, “Why (Bible) translation matters,”  Leman gives a quotation from the book and concludes:  “Anyone concerned about full-throated accuracy in Bible translation, including accuracy at literary levels, must take seriously the principles of translation that Grossman promotes and practices.”

It’s so important that Leman wants blog readers to look at Grossman’s practices.  And I want us all to consider what she “promotes” by way of translation theory in light of what she practices.

Grossman does not at all shy away from wordplay, in practice.  Let me get to how she translates the second sentence of Don Quixote.  But first I just want to show how Grossman carefully attends to the wordplay of Cervantes.  The following is a page from her translation:


Now here’s how I started into the BBB conversation.  The hope is to move us all to more of an awareness that the literary (whether in the Bible or any other book Grossman would translate) includes wordplay.  Translation can move beyond the “either/ or” binaries Bible-translation discussions often get bogged down in.

What Grossman practices is what’s fascinating. Can it (always) be a product of what she promotes (i.e., the translation theory that would favor target language and context over the literary forms of the source)? Or have we, from the snippet quote above, really understood Grossman?

Let’s look at the second sentence of Don Quijote by Cervantes. Then let’s compare the English translations of this sentence and the phrases therein offered by three translators, Pierre Motteux (1700), Walter Starkie (1957), and Grossman (2003).

Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero,
salpicón las más noches,
duelos y quebrantos los sábados,
lantejas los viernes,
algún palomino de añadidura los domingos,
consumían las tres partes de su hacienda.

His diet consisted more of beef than mutton; and with minced meat on most nights, lentils on Fridays, eggs and bacon on Saturdays, and a pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three quarters of his revenue;

His stew had more beef than mutton in it and most nights he ate the remains salted and cold. Lentil soup on Fridays, ‘tripe and trouble’ on Saturdays and an occasional pigeon as an extra delicacy on Sundays, consumed three-quarters of his income.

An occasional stew, beef more than lamb, hash most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays – these consumed three-fourths of his income.

Does any of these three translators do a better job of attending “not to lexical pairings but to context–the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone, intention, and level of discourse”?

It should be clear that Grossman’s intended improvement over the two former translators is that she actually attends to lexical pairings of the Spanish of Cervantes and of his readers and her English for her readers. What the protagonist eats on Saturdays, for example, is served up to readers with a literary flare. The what is clearly a pair of things, which Motteux renders as two literal food items (e.g., “eggs and bacon”) but which Starkie and Grossman both read as a literal and a metaphorical food. Talk about mixing metaphors. :) Notice how Starkie, more than Grossman, suggests wordplay by Cervantes. Here isn’t the pair “duelos y quebrantos” rather marked as rhyme since the other food items in this list don’t seem to play together as well, in the very short context of this single sentence? Starkie uses English alliteration to suggest a poetry and marks the phrase with scare quotes: ‘tripe and trouble’. Grossman’s “eggs and abstinence” suggests humor, wordplay, (i.e., How can one’s stew on Saturdays include “abstinence”?), but she loses what Starkie gains, I think. The important point to make here is that each translator is interpreting, is deciding how much of the literal, how much of the metaphorical, how many of the various meanings in the literary, to convey. “Basic English” or simply ostensibly clear readings of the text would do it violence, would rob it, would lose much for the readers.

For Sundays’ fare, there’s “algún palomino de añadidura” in the soup. It’s a pigeon (either “extraordinary” or “occasional”) for Motteux and Starkie respectively. But Grossman, in this context, seems to want to pair her English lexis with Cervantes’s Spanish lexis more tightly than her two counterparts do. So she makes it “sometimes squab.” This is clever – because the English reader and the Spanish reader see and hear what’s literary: the marked alliterations in the phrase. Grossman here, likewise, is using an English culinary term (i.e., “squab”) to match other terms for meat (i.e., “beef” and “lamb”). Otherwise, I think most “natural” English readers would be just fine with “pigeon.”  Grossman also lexically pairs her “sometimes” with Cervantes’ “algún” – and this is so very important to her (and to her readers) because Cervantes has started in this way – “Una olla de algo” – which lexically ties the pigeon to how the sentence opens; Grossman starts “An occasional stew.”

This raises the question of whether James Montgomery knows everything about the ingredients of the stew and if English readers, on the Saturdays, have to get it merely as “griefs and sorrows.”  The whole discussion raises other questions:

Does Grossman pull off in translation practice what she would promote in theory? To understand just exactly what Grossman means to promote, isn’t it instructive to look at how closely, in practice, she does attend to “lexical pairings” and is also “faithful to words”?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2012 1:52 pm

    Ah this is one of the hoariest examples that translator theorists love to point to — but it never gets old. Thanks for this contribution. You are absolutely correct: Grossman goes to some effort to try preserve Cervantes’ word play. (If I recall correctly [my library is not at my fingertips], Montgomery includes a note explaining this particular translation, so if my memory is correct, with the note he presents a version better than you make it out to be.) (In fact, I see that you were careful to reproduce the footnote, and I think with that, it is not a terrible translation.)

    I would be very happy if the average Bible translation rose in level to the quality of the average Cervantes translation. By any measure, Cervantes receives much more respect from translators than Holy Writ does — and while there are many reasons for this, the “make it simple” philosophy that Wayne sometimes seems to espouse is partly at fault for at least some translations. For better or worse, the Hebrew Bible, at least, is not a simple easily-accessible work of literature.

  2. December 2, 2012 3:05 pm

    By the way, one of my favorite translations of Cervantes is the Tobias Smollet translation — which has been quite heavily criticized in some quarters (with the most extreme criticism being a claim by some scholars that Smollett did not even know Spanish.) Still having a classic Spanish humorist being translated by a classic English humorist is quite delightful, as is the now-antiquated effect of Smollett’s 18th century English. Carlos Fuentes claimed that this was his favorite translation, writing a fawning introduction to one edition of Smollett’s translation — and saying that Smollett’s Quixote “reads much like Humphry Clinker, and this seems appropriate and, even, delightful. The family relationship is there.”

    But Fuentes changed his mind when Grossman’s translation came out, and now prefers her translation.

  3. December 2, 2012 3:35 pm

    Hmm, this post encouraged me to look on Amazon and it seems there is now an inexpensive but seemingly well-annotated Spanish version of Don Quijote readily available. I think it is time for me to tackle this work in the original!

  4. December 2, 2012 4:33 pm

    Yes, Grossman’s translation is worthy of the top place Carlos Fuentes gives it. One reason hers is so good is that she does tackle the wordplay (despite how one reads her translation theory as being for “full-throated accuracy.”)

    As you note, Montgomery has also worked not only to understand Cervantes’ wordplay
    but also to reflect it as much as possible. I am far too hard on Montgomery in the post, not taking into account all that he does do.

    “famous but fanciful fiction”: the Spanish princeps edition has: sonada soñadasinvenciones (sonadas = “famous”; soñadas = “imaginary”; invenciones = “inventions” or “fiction”). All subsequent editors in Spain, failing to appreciate this play on words, have dropped sonadas, considering it a printing error. Because I have been unable to reproduce the intended effect in English, I have feebly resorted to alliteration.

    I believe its too early into the work (the second sentence after all) for Montgomery to start suggesting that his “grief and sorrows” is the best he can do with duelos y quebrantos. Thank you for noting that his footnote (as I quote him in the post) brings in the Spanish and its literal translation (as the popular “eggs and bacon”).

    If I’d had and/or taken more time writing the post, I would have added the struggle Starkie had with this little bit of bacon and eggs. Mike Parker, at his blog “A Celebration of Reading“, recalls this:

    I took Cervantes at the university from Walter Starkie and his lecture on Don Quixote started out discussing the dilemma whether he should accurately translate a 16th century idiomatic expression or whether it would be best to substitute a well-known modern idiom which is used in English to give the same sense. He chose the English, or in his case probably Irish, expression. The irony is that whether the original Spanish “rashers and eggs” or the more modern English “tripe and trouble” expression was used, how many readers understand the idiom today? Think of it: it fifty or sixty years, or maybe even centuries, students will stop to read the gloss in their copy of Gravity’s Rainbow to help them identify and relate to some obscure event called World War II … in fact, there is current evidence that this era is fading from memory as we speak (although the War of Northern Aggression is still keenly remembered here in South Carolina).

    Thank you, as always, for your insightful comments! “Make it simple” is just, well, too simple. In fairness to Wayne, at least he is expressing an intention to read Grossman’s book and he does suggest he’s moving toward “accuracy at literary levels.”

    Speaking of hoariness, here’s something fun: Grossman tackles Luis de Góngora’s The Solitudes: A Dual-Language Edition with Parallel [Spanish/English] Text. For “siempre cano / sátiro de las aguas” she has “ever hoary satyr / of the water.”

    Thanks for all those links! You’re making me want to attempt Cervantes in his own language too. (I’m still reading two Spanish translations of my fav English language novels. So maybe after these.)

  5. December 2, 2012 9:36 pm

    Of the offered translations, I like “tripe and trouble” the best. I might not know exactly what it meant — I’d need the footnote for that — but it does convey an actual foodstuff as well as the impression of a common saying.

    “Eggs and abstinence” doesn’t work at all: abstinence to Catholics means “no meat”, so while it might do for a dish of eggs and potatoes, it cannot possibly be stretched to include bacon!

  6. December 3, 2012 6:50 am

    “abstinence to Catholics means “no meat”, so while it might do for a dish of eggs and potatoes, it cannot possibly be stretched to include bacon!”

    Well put, my co-B. l. t. blogger! And how would an Abstinence-Lettuce-Tomato sandwich taste, lol? Thanks for your observation!

  7. December 7, 2012 4:56 am

    I did buy that Vintage Español edition of Don Quijote (and I picked up Vintage E.’s edition of Borges’s Ficciones for good measure.) I cannot review it yet, because it will be quite an effort to read it in Spanish, but it seems to be excellent with detailed annotations and a useful introduction. What a treat to find a major (US) American publisher producing serious fiction in foreign languages at reasonable prices.

    Much cheaper and faster than importing books from Spain (or Latin America)!

  8. Piru permalink
    October 29, 2015 6:38 pm

    La Mancha was packed with Jewish Converts and they had better watch out what they ate, vis a vis the rest of the populace, so it was a good idea to publicize the list of your weekly meals, so as to show that you were not into kosher food, but, instead, you ate pork.

    This was specially important during the Sabath, which features mainly Saturday, and on that day, the conversos made a point to eat bacon, sausage etc., in front of the servants (who often would tell on neighbors, as happened to Gracia Nassi, who was outed by her maid).

    How can Grossman miss this? James Montgomery’s translation is right on the money.


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