Reading Like a Translator I: What Did Don Quixote Eat on Saturdays?

Translator: Don QuixoteDon Quixote’s woes, from the point of view of a translator, begin on the first page:

At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there liv’d not long ago one of those old-fashion’d gentlemen who are never without a Lance upon a Rack, an old Target, a lean Horse, and a Greyhound. His Diet consisted of more Beef than Mutton; and with minc’d Meat on most Nights, Lentils on Fridays, Eggs and Bacon on Saturdays, and a Pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three Quarters of his Revenue.

This is from one of the early translations, by Peter Motteux, published in 1700. The problem is with those eggs and bacon. Cervantes did not say that Don Quixote ate eggs and bacon on Saturdays, he wrote that the knight had duelos y quebrantos. Motteux had no idea what duelos y quebrantos were. Neither did anyone else. Motteux held that the words in English are “gruntings and groanings,” but what on Earth are gruntings and groanings?

“He that can tell what Sort of Edible the Author means by those Words,” Motteux wrote in a lengthy footnote, “Erit mihi magnus Apollo,” will be the great Apollo. In other words, God knows what Don Quixote ate. Motteux goes on to list various solutions arrived at by translators before him. “Caesar Oudin,” he notes, “will have it to be Eggs and Bacon, as above. Our translator and Dictionary-maker, Stevens, has it, Eggs and Collops (I suppose he means Scotch-Collops).” A “collop” was a thin slice of meat, usually mutton, that was fried in a skillet and served with eggs: Collop Monday was the last day one could eat meat before Ash Wednesday. But what do collops, even Scotch collops, have to do with grunting and groaning?

The question sends Peter Motteux into a translational tailspin. “Signor Sobrini’s Spanish Dictionary,” he continues, “says Duelos y Quebrantos is Pease Soup. Mr. Jarvis translates it as Amlet (Aumulette, in French), which Boyer says is a Pancake made of Eggs, tho’ I always understood an Aumulette to be a Bacon-froise (or rather Bacon-fryse, from its being fry’d).”

Motteux is drifting far afield, leaving poor Don Quixote grunting and groaning at the breakfast table.

“Some will have it to mean Brain fry’d with Eggs, which, we are told by Mr Jarvis, the Church allows in poor Countries in Defect of Fish.” What? In poor countries Catholics were allowed to eat brains on Friday instead of fish? But Don Quixote was eating on Saturdays. “Others have guessed it to mean some windy kind of Diet, as Peas, Herbs, etc., which are apt to occasion Cholick, as if one would say, Greens and Gripes on Saturdays.”

A diet that causes wind gets us close to “grunting and groaning,” so why did Motteux go with eggs and bacon?

“To conclude,” writes Motteux in a sweat, “the forecited Author of the new Translation (if a Translator may be call’d an Author) absolutely says Duelos y Quebantos is a Cant-Phrase for some Fasting-Day Dish in use in La Mancha. After all these learned Disquisitions, who know but the Author means a Dish of Nichils!”

“Nichils” is an old Scottish word meaning “nothing, naught.” A dish of nichils is an empty plate. This may have been what Edith Grossman, in her new re-translation of Don Quixote, was thinking when she has the knight eating “eggs and abstinence”:

“An occasional stew, beef more than lamb most nights, eggs and abstinence on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a treat on Sundays – these consumed three-fourths of his income.”

It’s a fair bet that the sixteenth-century Spanish reader knew immediately what duelos y quebantos were, just as a modern Spanish reader, reading that a character was eating moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), would know it was a dish of black beans and rice. All languages have their arcane phrases. There are numerous dishes in English that are impossible to translate directly. One of them is “Bubble and Squeak.” For a while I wondered if “bubble and squeak” might be an adequate translation of duelos y quebrantos.” Bubble and Squeak is an old English dish made from yesterday’s boiled potatoes, cabbage and, originally, salt beef. You put it all together in a frying pan and fry it up: in other words, first it bubbles (when it boils) and then it squeaks (try frying cabbage). Thus both phrases invoke the auditory result of eating or cooking something.

However, Cervantes was writing in the sixteenth century and Bubble and Squeak didn’t come into the English language until 1770, when Thomas Bridges, in “A Burlesque Translation of Homer,” writes:

We therefore cooked him up a dish
Of lean bull-beef, with cabbage fry’d
Bubble, they call this dish, and Squeak.

In the movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (try translating that), one character, Rory Breaker, says to another: “Now, Mr. Bubble and Squeak, enlighten me.” The French version of the film has Breaker say: “Maintenant, M. le Grec, veuillez m’éclairer.”

Mr. Greek? Well, that’s one way to avoid having to translate Bubble and Squeak. As it turns out, “bubble and squeak” is Cockney rhyming slang for “Greek.” If a Cockney has a Greek family living above him, he might say. “Take a butcher’s up the apples, there’s a couple of bubbles there.”

On the other hand, modern Spanish dictionaries raise another conundrum: they don’t give duelos y quebrantos as “gruntings and groanings,” as Motteux had them: duelos means “mourning,” and quebranto is something like “broken health, exhaustion,” or by extension, “sorrow, affliction.”

Mystery unsolved, the translator’s lot. A dish of nichils, indeed.

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