From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
8.2 (1988): 225-30.
Copyright © 1988, The Cervantes Society of America
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INVESTIGATIONS dealing with Thomas Shelton the first translator
of Don Quixote, Part I, 1612 compel me to venture a response
to the remarks made some years ago, but reiterated lately, by P. E. Russell
with regard to translations of Don Quixote in general and in particular
to the translations of the motto, El Caballero de la Triste Figura,
given to the knight by Sancho in I, 19. I would disregard these contentions
and others similar to it made by the hard critics except for
the fact that their effect, I think, has been undeservedly influential, to
the extent that many Cervantists, though they may not wish to admit this,
have been intimidated into taking cautious stands in forwarding any
interpretation of Don Quixote which might bear signs of adherence
to (or contagion from) the romantic or idealistic the
soft approach. I do not attempt to review here the polemics
of the general debate but limit my observations to Russell's use of Shelton's
translation in partial but important support of his argument.
Russell, you will remember, contended that modern translators were much to be blamed for the misinterpretation of Cervantes' intentions and for having helped romanticize Don Quixote, promoting the view of the protagonist as an ideal or symbolic figure. I quote here not from Russell's 1969 article, 'Don Quixote as a funny book
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(Hispanic Review, 64, 312-26), but from Chapter 8 of his book Cervantes (Oxford, 1985), entitled Don Quixote as Romantic Hero:
The Romantic approach, or attitudes derived directly from it, have continued to dominate much criticism down to the present time. These attitudes have also affected those of modern translators of the book from Spanish, so making the Romantic approach spuriously self-fulfilling. One example illustrates the point. In Part I.19 Don Quixote has his face smashed and his teeth knocked out by stones thrown at him by some shepherds whom he has annoyed. Sancho thereupon attaches to his name the new descriptive epithet Caballero de la Triste Figura which Thomas Shelton, in 1612, correctly translated as Knight of the Ill-favoured Face a comment on the knight's smashed-up visage. Modern translators however regularly come up with linguistically anachronistic phrases like Knight of the Sad Countenance or Sir Knight of the Sorrowful Figure, with their deliberate implications of superior, even Christlike, suffering. Were we dealing with a modern Spanish writer, such a translation would be permissible; used here, it simply fails to translate Cervantes' ironic words or convey the situation he has taken pains to explain (pp. 99-100).
Russell's observation about Shelton's translation
is correct only up to a point. One is unlikely to argue against the assumption
that Sancho's choice of triste figura stems, as he himself suggests
jokingly, from the mala figura Don Quixote has after his stoning
by the shepherds. The term triste in Spanish, like the term
sad in English, obviously has several connotations, and Cervantes,
who loved playing with words, at this point is skillfully using one of them.
With this in mind, we can logically ask, does Cervantes ever insinuate another
meaning for this word triste? The perceptive Shelton himself
would seem to have thought so. Russell, in his zeal to substantiate his thesis,
fails to note these variations.
From the Harvard Classics edition, the most readily available (New York: Collier & Son, 1970, 63rd printing) of Shelton's translation of Don Quixote, Part I, we note that Shelton, from Chapter 5 of Book III (I, 19) through Chapter 4 of Book IV (I, 31), does use the expression Knight of the Ill-favoured Face some eighteen times without change. Cervantes, playing with and perpetuating the newly applied epithet, uses it eleven times, Sancho seven, and Don Quixote once as he signs his letter to Dulcinea. The epithet Russell uses this word to further the pejorative, burlesque sense he attaches to the motto is used mechanically by Shelton who continues to render the initial meaning. Signing the letter to his fair lady, Don Quixote himself would hardly have used triste with the connotation smashed-up, unless
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he meant something like scarred as in a battle. Shelton, at this
point, intelligently begins to vary his interpretation of the phrase, and
changes not noted by Russell occur from IV, 10 (I, 37) on. Sancho, having
noticed Dorothea kissing Fernando, suggests that his master keep on sleeping.
In Spanish he addresses Don Quixote as Señor Triste Figura.
Shelton, now rightly sensing a need for a different word for triste
comes out with Sir knight of the heavy countenance (page
366). Three pages later Dorothea goes back for the last time to Valorous
knight of the Ill-favoured Face, in simple repetition of the initial
application. Don Quixote (374), more appropriately now, calls himself, as
Sancho just did, the knight of the Heavy Countenance. Chapters
later, after coming out of the Sierra Morena and after many events occurring
at the inn, a very important distinction is made. Dorothea trying to
calm the furious Don Quixote who has upbraided Sancho for insisting Dorothea
was not a princess uses (462) Sir knight, of the Sad
Face. Shelton, it appears, convinced it no longer made sense to
continue with the connotation ill-favoured in this situation,
turned to sad, though, in truth, the knight was now plainly more
furious than sad. The motto is used only twice more in Part I, but note its
last form: the caged knight is called by both the barber (464) and the curate
(471) the Knight of the Sad Countenance! Inasmuch as the scene is
a burlesque one, the perspicacious Shelton has decided that the caged knight
is unhappy enough to be tagged sad. Without our turning to Part
II, we see that the translator, writing in Cervantes's time, has come
a long way from Ill-favoured, and with seeming good reason. These
changes may be coincidental, of course, but it is more probable that Shelton
did truly sense, as the work progressed, a need to express and to use, on
occasion, meanings other than the knight of the smashed-up face,
which particular image, by the end of Part I, may even have been forgotten
by the author himself.
In considering usage of the motto in the first English translation of Part II, I interject parenthetically here that in a soon to be published article entitled The putative Shelton Don Quixote, Part II, 1620, with Leonard Digges as the likely translator, I contend that Thomas Shelton did not translate Part II. This does not change the present discussion of the two earliest translated versions of the expression in question in any way, since the translator or translators are writing still during that period in which, according to Russell, everyone assumed Don Quixote was simply a funny book, and would not have thought of using triste as meaning unhappy or sad.
It happens that in the putative Shelton Part II, the expression used
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continuously is the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, the term
sorrowful now implying one meaning only: that of sadness. To
help confirm the accuracy of this connotation I call attention to the name
frequently applied to Cardenio, the Knight of the Sorry Countenance,
whose experiences in the woods gave him a wild appearance. Sorry
in this case is truly meant to mean smashed-up, or better yet,
scratched-up. In reference to Don Quixote sorrowful
is meant to mean sad. Sorrowful; unlike
sad, cannot be interpreted in any way other than full of
Since the translator of Part II is other than Shelton and his use of the motto, Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, remains unchanged, we cannot ascertain how he came to use the term sorrowful. He may simply have followed Shelton's example, or, indeed, he may have read the book carefully through to the end and noted on his own, despite that grand and gently humorous canopy of parody, that there are many instances of the knight's showing sadness. In the end, according to the doctor who attends him, he dies of melancholy.
This brief examination of Shelton's and his successor's versions of El Caballero de la Triste Figura invalidates Professor Russell's declarations regarding this epithet. The 1612 Shelton and 1620 Anonymous English translations of this expression as noted above appear in five forms. Four of these are different from the first (the one noted by Russell) and imply sad more than they do smashed-up, and therefore do not support his contentions. The book certainly was considered funny, but there were times, quite evidently, when the protagonist was allowed a measure of unhappiness by his translator-interpreters. Modern translators using the motto the Knight of the sad Countenance are no more linguistically anachronistic than Shelton was when he used the same phrase. Modern translators therefore cannot be accused of perpetuating romantic attitudes by the use of the phrase, unless one is ready to admit that these same attitudes can be traced back two hundred years before the Romantics, to Shelton himself.
It is interesting to note that after the episode of the Lions during which Don Quixote decides to call himself the Knight of the Lions, neither expression appears again to any extent. The duchess in her chat with Sancho (II,33) calls Don Quixote for the last time the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.
Russell's chief objection a well taken one, but again only up to a point is to those who seem unwilling to accept that Cervantes' book is truly funny. These are, according to Russell, the Romantics who
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fail to read the text and thereby miss the point that Cervantes' only intention
was to satirize the novel of chivalry. It is a curious paradox of Romantic
criticism, he chides in a catchy line, that, by turning away
from the text Cervantes actually wrote towards the myth which has achieved
a separate existence from the book, it seems to turn its back on the reality
before its eyes in exactly the determined way the knight himself did
I am sure this statement has sent many of the tainted (or the anointed?) scurrying for cover. To admit the book is funny is one thing, but to deny the book is sad even at the end, as Russell apparently does, is another. Don Quixote's sadness has been turned by Russell into an element crucial to the interpretation of the novel. It is, after all, from this sadness that the idea of an idealistic and symbolic figure develops, leading directly to the formalized views of the Romantics and their twentieth-century counterparts, the existentialists, so disparaged by the hard critics. Russell, in denying the existence of this sadness and so bolstering his thesis, is being equally stubborn, just as erroneous, and just as unwilling to face reality, perhaps, as those he accuses of not reading Cervantes' text.
Cervantes' stated intentions are evident enough and not disputed here, but his descriptions of Don Quixote's sadness, as we read the text, are another matter and a partial cause of the problem. Each time the knight is placed in a position to express his sadness, he is quickly countered by an equal amount of humor which neutralizes and obscures the sadness. Nevertheless, though it may be out of place in a work that is obviously a parody, the sadness is there, permeating the end. The closer we get to the end, the less Cervantes tries to hide it. Victor Hugo's comments, mentioned by Russell himself as sticking to the mind, are relevant here: One might suspect the Spanish author of having attempted to mock ideals, but that was a defect more apparent than real. If one looked carefully it would be seen that the smile was accompanied by a tear ... (98) Hugo could be more right than wrong.
I offer examples (J. M. Cohen translation, The Penguin Classics, 1950) of what I mean by Cervantes' countering Don Quixote's sadness with humor. Don Quixote is run over by the bulls, II 58 (funny); he thinks of letting himself die of hunger (sad); Sancho counters with let Martha die, but with her belly full (funny). Don Quixote is defeated, II 64, on the beach at Barcelona (sad); Sancho thinks It would hardly be a pity if his [Master's] madness had been knocked out of him (funny); they attempt to sleep; Don Quixote,
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pining for his love, sings a madrigal (funny); Cervantes says: With
each line he sighed and shed some tears, groaning as if his heart
were pierced through by grief at his overthrow and by his absence from
Dulcinea. Obviously, the author here means for Don Quixote's behavior
to be very funny. Most readers do take it as such. However, Don Quixote,
who is deliberately made to appear to be playing the fool, seems to
other readers at this point to have reason to be truly grieving. Beneath
the fools's mantle these readers believe he has been forced to wear,
he can be taken, now, to be truly sad. Then: Don Quixote lies dying
(sad). It was the doctor's opinion [he had not been in on the horse
play] that melancholy and despondency were bringing him [Don Quixote] to
his end (II, 74, Cohen, p. 935), confirmation by a neutral
bystander, it certainly would seem, that the cause of the death of the would-be
knight errant, who has served all along as the butt of mockery and the mainstay
of Cervantes' parody, is, as indicated, sadness.
I shall not discuss here the enigma of Don Quixote's recovery of his sanity and what would seem then to be an incongruous death, a death without real cause. Surely, if Don Quixote, having regained sanity, is to renounce the life he has attempted to lead in imitation of the books of chivalry, he must then ignore his defeat, deny his lady fair, Dulcinea, grieve and be sad no more, and live on to a ripe old age in his newly acquired wisdom. Cervantes' ending is very perplexing, perhaps even contradictory, and it extends far beyond the limits of parody, that of the funny book Russell has wished to make of it.
The Knight of the Sad Countenance, a phrase used by Thomas Shelton himself three hundred and eighty years ago, seems to be, in view of all the above, a more legitimate motto, with all its deliberate implications of superior, even Christlike suffering, than Professor Russell has been ready to admit. Don Quixote's revealed sadness and suffering, separated from the juxtaposed humor detracting not a whit from that humor justifies the use of the motto. We may forget about a smashed jaw and missing teeth, easy enough to do with the slap-stick comedy at which Cervantes is delightfully adept, but it is more difficult to ignore or overlook those moments painful to the knight, shrouded in humor as they may be, which lend credibility to his sorrows. Cervantes, who tried, it seems, only half-heartedly to cover these with his gentle humor, may in this way have been revealing his sympathy for his mad knight.
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