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Book of the Month

The history and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote - November 2005

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The history and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote. Translated by Tobias Smollett. London : printed for A. Millar ... , 1755. [Rare Books Collection FOL. PQ6329.A2 Sm3]

By Hugh Cahill, Senior Information Assistant, Foyle Special Collections Library.

Book of the month archive

The knighting of Don Quixote
The knighting of Don Quixote, from: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The history and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote. Translated by Tobias Smollett. London : printed for A. Millar ... , 1755. [Rare Books Collection FOL. PQ6329.A2 Sm3]

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), the first part of which was published in Madrid on 16 January 1605, although it had come off the press almost a month earlier on 20 December 1604 ( the second part of Don Quixote was published in 1615). Don Quixote is a satire on the chivalric romances and tales of knight errantry popular in Spain in Cervantes' time. The hero, Don Quixote, reads too many romances and loses his wits. He sets off on a quest with his squire, Sancho Panza, to revive the age of chivalry and the pair have many comical adventures along the way. Don Quixote is one of the most important works of Spanish literature and is considered to be the first modern novel. The adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have enduring appeal and have been translated many times into many different languages. This year is also the 250th anniversary of one of those translations: Tobias Smollett's controversial English translation of Don Quixote, the merits of which have been a matter of debate and argument from the time of its publication to the present day.

Don Quixote and Mambrino's helmet
Don Quixote and Mambrino's helmet, from: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The history and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote. Translated by Tobias Smollett. London : printed for A. Millar ... , 1755. [Rare Books Collection FOL. PQ6329.A2 Sm3]

Tobias Smollett was born in March 1721 at Dalquhurn near Renton in Dunbartonshire. He was educated at Dumbarton grammar school and in May 1736 he was apprenticed to surgeons John Gordon and William Stirling. He never completed his apprenticeship, however, as he left for London in the summer of 1739 to pursue a literary career. Failing to get his tragedy The Regicide produced in London, he joined the crew of the man-of-war the Chichester and saw action during the attempt to seize Cartagena from the Spanish in 1740. In 1743 or thereabouts he married Anne Lassells (1721-1791), a Jamaican heiress and early in the following he returned to London. However, Anne was not able to join him until 1747. On his return he set up in practice as a surgeon but also continued to pursue his literary interests. His first novel, Roderick Random, published in 1748, contains episodes based on his experiences as a ship's surgeon in wartime and his unsuccessful efforts to get his play produced.

In June 1748 Smollett was commissioned to translate Don Quixote. His was not the first English translation of that novel; several English editions had appeared during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, notably Thomas Shelton's which appeared between 1612 and 1620, Peter Motteaux's of 1700-1703 and Charles Jarvis's 1742 edition (published three years after the translator's death). Jarvis's version has proved of enduring popularity with over 100 editions of it being printed in Britain and the United States since its first appearance. Smollett's edition was also very popular in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with over thirty full editions of his translation appearing between the date of its first publication and 1839. After that its popularity declined, with only one other edition appearing in the nineteenth century (1858). The next edition did not appear until 1986 when it was reissued with an introduction by Carlos Fuentes.

Although it was popular with the public and received some favourable reviews, Smollett's translation attracted much negative criticism at the time of its publication and subsequently. William Windham in his anonymous Remarks on the proposals lately published for a new translation of Don Quixote (1755) criticised Smollett for being ignorant of the customs of the Spainish people and not being sufficiently knowledgeable of the Spanish language, a criticism often repeated by one of Smollett's enemies, John Shebbeare. The criticism continued long after publication and even after Smollett's death. In 1791 Lord Woodhouselee, in his Essay on the principles of translation, accused Smollett of merely improving Jarvis's version. The publication of Woodhouselee's criticisms seems to have marked the beginning of the decline in the popularity of Smollett's edition of Don Quixote. The nineteenth century translator of Don Quixote, John Ormsby, also believed that Smollett had relied too heavily on Jarvis.

Sancho Panza returns home
Sancho Panza returns home, from: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The history and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote. Translated by Tobias Smollett. London : printed for A. Millar ... , 1755. [Rare Books Collection FOL. PQ6329.A2 Sm3]

This kind of criticism continued into the twentieth century, but in his book, Smollett's Hoax, Carmine R. Linsalata went further than Smollett's critics had gone before, suggesting that not only did Smollett know little Spanish and had plagiarised Jarvis's translation but that much of the work on Smollett's version was not done by Smollett himself but was composed by a team of hack writers employed by him. But Linsalata has his own critics. A.A. Parker in his review of Smollett's Hoax, showed that even though Smollett did freely draw upon Jarvis's work (common practice in the eighteenth century), Smollett's translation is in many instances closer to the original Spanish than Jarvis's and that the charge that Smollett knew little Spanish is unfair. Furthermore, although it is true that Smollett used a team of hacks to help produce some of his works, such as his Complete history of England published in 1757-1758, Martin Battestin has shown that all the evidence points to Smollett not gathering such a team around himself until after the publication of his Don Quixote in 1755 and that the bulk of the work on the translation was done in the period 1748-1750, long before Smollett's team of hacks had come together. Battestin puts the delay between the commissioning of the work in 1748 and its publication in 1755 down to Smollett's financial situation. Smollett, although having been paid for his work in 1749 and having already done the bulk of the work on it, set the translation aside to undertake fresh projects because of financial pressures and did not resume work on it in earnest until the summer of 1754.

The question of Smollett's authorship of the translation published in his name seemed settled when, in 1948, Professor Francesco Cordasco of Long Island University, New York announced in Notes & Queries that he had acquired a large amount of correspondence of Ricardo Wall, Spanish Ambassador to London from 1748 to October 1752 and to whom Smollett had dedicated his translation. Several of the letters cast doubt on Smollett's knowledge of the Spanish language and of his authorship of the translation issued under his name. Indeed, in one of the letters from Smollett to Wall dated 16 November 1759 he admits that he was not the translator. He wrote:

The Translation of Quixotte was not undertaken with anticipation of exacting debt; but its inscription was for the illustrious Place you hold in our nation's Affairs. I own that my knowledge of the Language is modest, & that the work was largely that of Isaiah Pettigrew; and so does the art of Translation flourish in the fair Metropolis.

Comedy defeating the dragon of fantastical literature and Truth dispelling the forces of superstition with the light of reason
Comedy defeating the dragon of fantastical literature and Truth dispelling the forces of superstition with the light of reason. Frontispiece of: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The history and adventures of the renowned Don Quixote. Translated by Tobias Smollett. London : printed for A. Millar ... , 1755. [Rare Books Collection FOL. PQ6329.A2 Sm3]

The authenticity of these letters was immediately challenged by the scholars Lewis Knapp and Lillian de la Torre and a committee was set up to assess if they were genuine. Professor Cordasco only submitted one of the letters to the committee and it was judged to be a forgery. Cordasco accepted the verdict of the committee but denied that he was the forger and that he instead was an innocent dupe of the real hoaxer.

Whatever the literary merits of Smollett's edition, even his fiercest critics could not plausibly deny that it was very well produced. It was printed in two volumes on fine paper and had twenty-eight attractive plates designed by Francis Hayman (1707/8-1776) to illustrate the text. Unusually for illustrated editions of Don Quixote Hayman chose not to frame the text with images of Alonso Quijano in his library reading chivalric romances and of Don Quixote on his deathbed renouncing his madness, but instead chose Don Quixote's knighting and Sancho Panza's reunion with his daughter and wife as his first and last images. But Smollet's edition is not only visually attractive; it is also very readable. Its humour is such that even in the twenty-first century it is not hard to see why it appealed to so many readers in the eighteenth. For Martin Battestin, Smollett's translation of Don Quixote not only succeeded in capturing the spirit of the Spanish original for English readers "but gave us as well the most readable version of Cervantes' masterpiece in our language". It is a testament of the enduring significance of Don Quixote to European literature that one translation of that novel has been the topic of such debate and controversy for 250 years.

Further reading

Martin C. Battestin. "The Authorship of Smollett's Don Quixote", Studies in Bibliography, Vol. 50,1997.

Carmine Rocco Linsalata. Smollett's hoax : Don Quixote in English. Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1956.

Rachel Lynn Schmidt. Critical images: the canonization of Don Quixote through illustrated editions of the eighteenth century. Montreal & Kingston, London : McGill-Queen’s University Press, c1999. [Humanities Books PQ6335 SCH]

A. A. Parker. "Smollett's Hoax: Don Quixote in English" (Book Review), Modern Language Review, 54, 1959.

 


Also of interest


Edmund Gayton. Pleasant notes upon Don Quixot. London : printed by William Hunt, 1654. [Rare Books Collection PQ6352. G2 ]

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The life and adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha. London : Printed for Hurst, Robinson, and Co, 1820. [XMISC PQ6329.A2 J3 ]

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The life and exploits of Don Quixote, de la Mancha : with the humorous conceits of his facetious squire, Sancho Panca.
London : Printed for J. Harris, 1806. [Rare Books Collection PQ6329. A3 ]

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Historia del famoso cavallero, Don Quixote de la Mancha. Londres : B. White, 1781. [Rare Books Collection PQ6323. A1 D81]

Alain René Le Sage. The adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane. London. Printed for T. Osborne ..., 1766. [Rare Books PQ1997.G6 E3 Sm7 ]

Tobias Smollett. Plays and poems written by T. Smollett, M.D. With memoirs of the life and writings of the author. London: Printed for T. Evans and R. Baldwin, 1777. [Rare Books Collection PR3694.P2 D77] First collected edition.

Tobias Smollett. The adventures of Roderick Random. London: [printed for A. Millar], 1748. [ Rare books Collection PR3694.R6 M6 ]

 



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