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Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha Hardcover – 1950
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New York: The Heritage Press, 1950. Limited edition. 4to. Linen binding with black decoration of Don Quixote in blind, black titles, 682 pp. Illustrated by Edy Legrand. In slipcase. Sandglass ephemera included.
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The four "major" translations that are referenced over and over again are by Smollett, Grossman, Putnam, and Raffel. (There are roughly a dozen "minor" but well known and vigorously defended or reviled others.) But, the first translation, which was published in 1612, within just seven years of the release of "Quixote" itself, was by Thomas Shelton. The most popular translation after that, until the "modern" era, was Ormsby's 1885 version.
Happily, Kindle offers a free copy of Ormsby's version. It also offers a kindleunlimited, (and sometimes free as a promotion), copy of Gerald Davis' reworking of the Shelton version.
Some people favor Raffel, (although faulted for being too oversimplified), or Putnam, (faulted for being too colloquial). Grossman is the most modern, but is frequently criticized for taking great liberties and being almost purposefully prolix and obscure. Of course, each translator brought his or her own sense of style, and own sense of the work, to the project, and all of them felt fairly free to put their own authorial stamp on the book. Ormsby is highly regarded because of his scholarly effort to achieve "accuracy". The Davis book is highly regarded, although sometimes relegated to a niche position, because of the translator's attempt to find a middle ground between the Shelton original and a modern reader's sensibilities.
This Kindle Ormsby is the 1885 version, not the Norton update of 1981. But that's fine, since the update modernized some language but didn't change the text dramatically. As a bare public domain version you don't get notes, footnotes, modern annotations and the like. You do, however, get the full text, include Ormsby's analysis of prior translations. The book is formatted well enough and has a basic table of contents. It is readable, if unadorned.
The Kindleunlimited Davis is also barebones, although there is a nice preface by Davis. Again, the formatting and type editing is fine and unfussy. It is also perfectly readable.
I prefer the Davis version, but that really is a matter of personal taste. It is nice to be able to suggest that not only are these two freebies adequate, they do indeed have an honorable place amongst all of the best translations. As a consequence you do not have to lower your standards, or accept an inferior translation, when selecting one of these freebies as your text of choice.
Surprisingly, each Kindle version can be augmented, for a few dollars, with Audible Narration. The Ormsby narration is a bit more energetic, the Davis narration is more solemn. I only sampled them, but both seemed fairly engaging.
Please note, because there are so many editions of each and all of these books, and because Amazon is not at its best when mixing and matching books, editions, and reviews, it's important to mention which books this review refers to. The kindleunlimited Davis displays a white cover and a pencil or engraved image of Don Quixote framed in yellow. It clearly states that it is "The New Translation By Gerald J. Davis". The free Ormsby sports the generic Amazon public domain cover, in brown and buff. Don't mistakenly buy some expensive "collectible" mass market copy, unless that's what you want.
A better choice, also free, is the translation of John Ormsby (1885), which is available from Project Gutenberg.
The introductions of both were good for their day, but a lot has happened in Cervantine studies and biography since then.
John Ormsby's translation was revised with backgrounds and sources, criticism by Joseph Ramon Jones; Kenneth Douglas and published by W.W. Norton in 1981. It is out of print, and I personally would prefer it to the new Norton translation. Used copies are available on Amazon for 50 cents.
Two modern translations of Don Quixote, those by Raffel (the newer Norton Critical Edition) and Grossman (the perennial bestseller), seem to dominate the market right now. I suspect I am not alone in being annoyed by Raffel's overzealous attempts to modernize the book and Grossman's stubborn refusal to use common words whenever possible. If you are looking for a compromise between the two, this is an excellent candidate.
This is a revision of the 1885 translation by Ormsby, who produced arguably the most accurate English translation of the book. The editors updated some of the language and added copious footnotes. The text reads very well, almost as well as Raffel's version, but also retains some of the features of the novel that have been lost in modern translations. Notably, Don Quixote takes great pleasure in using outdated language (e.g., "thou," "giveth"), even though the ordinary people he encounters don't understand his speeches. More recent translations have largely done away with this, simply conveying Don Quixote as being long-winded and overly descriptive, and always being met with dumbfounded reactions. Here you truly experience Don Quixote speaking like someone from a different generation than the rest of the characters.
Where Raffel translates Don Quixote's nickname as "the Knight of the Sad Face" and Grossman uses "the Knight of the Sorrowful Face," this edition uses the classic "Knight of the Mournful Countenance." Maybe not such a big deal, but it strikes me as disingenuous to use the emoticon-like "sad face" to describe what Sancho meant to refer to Don Quixote's worn-out, gaunt appearance.
Out of the translations I've read, this one contains none of the encumbrances I've found in Raffel (oversimplified), Grossman (pretentious), Smollett (archaic), Rutherford (reliant on British slang), Putnam (tastes like the 1950s), Montgomery (riddled with errors), Motteux (censored) or Lathrop (not as evocative). (I have yet to read Starkie's version.)
This is the edition of my favorite novel that I will always turn to, and I recommend it without hesitation. In my opinion, although Raffel has made the text more accessible, and Grossman has made it more artsy, the crown still belongs to the older Norton Edition for a wonderfully executed balancing act of accuracy and emotion.