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Updated: October 10, 2013 16:38 IST

Of wit and windmills

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Cervantes’ Don Quixote doesn’t yield all of its charm upon the first read. It is a book that grows on you. It is a book of satire, of irony, of human psychology. It is the book that resulted in expressions such as ‘haves and have-nots,’ ‘tilting at windmills’ and ‘quixotic.’

Among Cervantes’ many admirers was Freud, the father of psycho-analysis. One wonders if Cervantes himself suffered from depression because of the trials he faced in life. Did he seek solace in dreams, to escape from the unhappiness of his life?

In the end, when he is about to die, Cervantes’ hero, Don Quixote has no illusions about anything. His illusions die before he himself does. And one can’t help wondering if the dispelling of his illusions had hurried the knight towards death. There is something comforting about illusions, because reality is so often painful. Illusion is the opiate of not just the masses, but the classes too, and when illusion dies, often, so do we.

Don Quixote has been translated into English many times, and the translation under review, is the first in Tamil. It is a translation of Ormsby’s English version, which was published in 1885. There have been other translations too, including a recent one by Edith Grossman. In the book under review, the translator does not explain why he relies on Ormsby’s translation and not any of the subsequent ones.

Don Quixote, in this Tamil translation, does earn our sympathy and shakes us out of our zone of delusional comfort. But one wonders how much of that effect is because one has read English versions, and has enjoyed them.

Don Quixote’s appeal is not restricted by contextual limitations. Still, it would have helped if the translator had given a detailed introduction to the historical background against which the narrative is set.

There are instances where the translator fails to bring out the irony and subtle humour of the work. For example, in Ormsby’s translation, in Chapter VI, where the curate decides which books have to be preserved, he admits that a book of poems has “certain vulgarities.” And yet the curate insists that the book be preserved, because the author is a friend of his, although he does add that other “loftier works” have been written by the same author. In the Tamil translation, the author leaves out the word ‘because’, and that omission robs the sentence of its punch.

In Chapter XII, the shepherdess Marcela points to the silliness of those who die when their love is unrequited. This is a beautiful passage and the Tamil translation is faithful to Ormsby’s English version, capturing the force and passion of Marcela’s argument.

The name of Don Quixote’s horse is Rocinante, not Rocinate, as in this Tamil version. The translation is good in parts, but it could have been better.

Don Quixote - First Part

Tamil translation: Siva.Murugesan; Sandhya Publications, New No 77, 53rd street, 9th Avenue, Ashok Nagar, Chennai- 600 083. Rs. 380

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