What’s the best translation of Don Quixote?

For a long time all I knew was what everyone knows by cultural osmosis: we are ridiculous when we tilt at windmills.

Published in 1620, Don Quixote is a foundational book in the history of Western literature. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it has been translated more than a dozen times. Different translators had differing amounts of financial and literary success; some translations have aged well and others have been forgotten—or misremembered: the “Jarvis” translation was actually done by a man named Jervas whose name was printed incorrectly.

The translation by Smollett has a particularly interesting history: it did well in its time, but later Smollet was accused of plagiarism (of the Jervas/Jarvis translation), and/or using a team to do the work because he didn’t know Spanish. Someone wrote a book called Smollet’s Hoax, with data supporting the idea that his translation was not his own. A recent scholarly reprint exonerates him and upholds the unique and positive qualities of the work.

Apart from Jervas/Jarvis and Smollett, there have been translations by Thomas Shelton, John Phillips, Pierre Antoine Motteux, Alexander James Duffield, John Ormsby, Henry Edward Watts, Robinson Smith, Samuel Putnam, JM Cohen, Walter Starkie, Burton Raffel, John Rutherford, Edith Grossman, Tom Lathrop, and James H. Montgomery.

The Grossman translation is the trendy one; if you don’t want one that sounds modern, you’d be in good company picking the public domain Ormsby text.

For a heck of a lot more detail on all the translations—cover images, extracts for comparison, ISBNs, pagecounts, and links to relevant articles—visit We Love Translations: World Literature in English:

» What’s the best translation of Don Quixote?