PW: You are seen as one of the great translators of Spanish-language literature. What was it like to get offered the translation of Don Quixote?
Edith Grossman: It would be the goal of every translator in Spanish to work on that book. So I was both enthusiastic and terrified. Don Quixote is a great monument of world literature, a pillar of the Western literary tradition, and it's at the center of the Spanish-language literary tradition, so the responsibility and challenge of translating it into another language was just enormous. Up until the present, I had translated only living authors, which meant that, when I was stymied, there was someone I could call. Certainly I couldn't channel Cervantes. So it was a leap into an abyss.
PW: Why the need for another translation? There have been several editions already.
EG: If Don Quixote were written in English, we'd read it more than once. Classic books require more than one reading. For the same reason, I think classic books require more than one translation. This is a way, hopefully, to bring this book to a new set of readers.
PW: Can you comment on the modernity of the language in your translation?
EG: In my translator's note, I mention something that happened with Julián Ríos, the Spanish novelist. I translated a couple of his novels. I sent him a note to tell him that I was doing the Quixote and that I was exhilarated and terrified. "Don't be scared," he said. "Cervantes is the most modern writer we have. All you have to do is translate him the way you translate everyone else." It was the most liberating thing that anyone could have said to me, because that meant I didn't have to think about it in archaic 17th-century language. Cervantes was a very modern, very innovative writer. The book wasn't a monument when he wrote it. Cervantes was creating a language and a genre and that allowed me to be modern.
PW: What is the upcoming anniversary surrounding this classic?
EG:Don Quixote was actually two different novels. The first one was published in 1605 and the other was published in 1615. And in between these publications, somebody else using a pseudonym published a continuation of Don Quixote's adventures while Cervantes was in the middle of writing the second volume, so Cervantes went berserk. In the prologue to the second part, the 1615 novel, Cervantes says that Don Quixote dies because nobody is going to be able to continue his adventures. So the anniversary would be for the 1605 novel. In the 1615 novel, there is reference made to the book that was written about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which is the 1605 novel. And there's a character in the second part who claims to have met Don Quixote, but who he met was the false Quixote. So he says, "No, no, I'm the real Quixote!" Cervantes was taking a jab at his imitator.
PW: Which edition did you work with?
EG: I worked with Spanish editor Martin de Riquer's version, which was based on the very first printing of the novel. So it has mistakes. Someone called DQ the most careless masterpiece ever written. There were mistakes even Cervantes talked about in the prologue of second book. I love the idea of using the first printing and using the book that had the mistakes and the slips and the errors. For example, Sancho Panza's wife has four different names, sometimes in the same paragraph. It's very funny. And I wanted to do that. The apologies and the explanations that Cervantes makes in the second part really wouldn't make any sense when errors aren't there in the first part.
PW: Were you trying to bring out the comedy?
EG: I don't think it's possible for a translator to efface herself. And that's certainly the reason there's more than one translation. Each translator had a different take on the world and the book. But the interesting thing is that I read only one translation of DQ in my life but read the various Spanish editions at least 10 times. The first time I read it I was in school and I thought it was the most tragic book I ever read—the browbeating, the torture of Don Quixote broke my heart. That tragic element remains. Every great comedy has an underpinning of tragedy. But as I grew older, I found myself laughing more and more. Part of the greatness of this book is that you can compare it to the last plays that Shakespeare wrote. I think great writers reach a point at which their take on the world is somewhat bemused and rather ironic. And I think that was deep in the nature of Cervantes.