Why We Can’t Help But Still Channel Don Quixote’s Free Spirit Today

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Photo courtesy of travelandleisure.com

I once went to Miguel de Cervantes’ translator’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to glimpse her bookshelves. I wasn’t spying for spying’s sake, but on a journalistic assignment for BookForum magazine to report on acclaimed translator Edith Grossman’s reading tastes and interview the woman who had taken on her own kind of quixotic calling to translate a new English-language edition of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which was published in 2003 and became a New York Times bestseller. 

An impulsive act or person is defined as being quixotic. Haven’t you used your instinct or a strong gut feeling to guide you toward something you wanted, no matter how crazy it might have seemed to others or even you? Well, you’ve got a little Don Quixote in you, too, then. 

The Philadelphia-born translator who took on what is considered history’s first modern novel and nothing short of a masterpiece on high Spanish chivalric vision wasn’t certain she was suitable for such a quest. When Grossman got the call from the editor, Dan Halpern, at HarperCollins about taking on a new translation for Cervantes’ novel, she, like Don Quixote, was not completely sure she could carry out her mission.  

Although Grossman had served the world of Spanish-language letters as a kind of noble knight errant herself for decades, having translated works by legendary Boom writers like Mario Vargas Llosa and Nobel-prize-writers like Gabriel García Márquez, in humble Quixote-like fashion, she responded with a: “Dan, you sure you want me? I do contemporary Latin American writers.”

Her editor said yes. So she picked up her imaginary shield and sword and embarked on a two-year-quest translating, with some trepidation, the novel that was voted in 2002 by one hundred major writers from fifty-four countries, to be the “best work of fiction in the world.”   

On this April 23rd, the day that Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare supposedly both died—declared by UNESCO as World Book Day—let’s try applying Cervantes’ unlikely hero traits (humility, humor, bravery…) to our own chaotic modern lives and shoot for the sky. His is an icon that’s permeated world culture since this novel, which follows the would-be knight Don Quixote and his loyal servant Sancho Panza on a journey to fight injustice through chivalry, was first published in 1604. And it still contains inspirational messages and lessons to live by. 

From kitschy souvenirs to Picasso’s rendering of the skinny man of La Mancha, Quixote is omnipresent, inspiring countless works of self-reflective fiction, a never-ending list of underdog movie heroes, and the very idea of the road trip as the true litmus test to finding oneself. 

Don Quixote continues to stand out among the greatest characters of universal literature.  Quixotism is a philosophy practiced by millions based on a pursuit of ideals, especially ones manifested by lofty and romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous actions. In other words, it’s everything you do in your life that’s not practical and drives your family and friends crazy with concern.

In the novel, Don Quixote is eloquent and cultured with a hell of a lot of imagination.  But he actually thinks he’s a real knight errant from one of the many Picaresque novels he likes to read. What the world’s readers fell in love with was his kindness towards others and his ability to experience empathetic feelings, even towards strangers. He’s self-conscious yet courteous with those he encounters, and it’s through his actions that are often self-sacrificing, where we see his knight-like nobility. 

But like all humans, sometimes this gentleman loses his temper, becoming angry and even aggressive, especially when it comes to defending a just cause. “My laws are to undo wrongs, to do good, and to avoid evil,” he says.  He even uses curse words at times (gasp!), unacceptable in society and for a gentleman like him, but this doesn’t stop him, nor does it make the reader love him less.

If we are to take anything from El Quixote, it’s his traits of patience, courage, and his desire for the truth. And although by the end of the novel, he does not get the girl or his precious ideal, he recognizes that the most important thing is not to obtain the prize sought, but the effort and dedication with which he fought to obtain those ideals. 

Quixote is our ultimate idealist in a world that’s far from ideal. Perhaps you, too, are like him in his manner of appreciating what he has, even if it’s little. He is the ultimate defender of an ideal, the soul who wants to live the ordinary life that has been given to him as nothing less than a work of art. 

“Tilting at windmills” and trying to ignore those imaginary enemies

So what was on Edith Grossman‘s shelves, you may still be wondering? Dictionaries, loads of fiction, Latin American literature, and several editions of Don Quixote, the very pillar of the entire Western literary tradition, but of course. 

This English idiom “tilting at windmills” is yet another gift that Cervantes left us. It has come to mean an act of fearing or attacking imaginary enemies.  In the book, the eponymous hero imagines himself to be fighting giants when in reality, he is tilting, or jousting, at nothing but windmills.

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.

“Those you see over there,” replied his master, “with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.!

“Take care, sir,” cried Sancho. “Those over there are not giants, but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.”

We all need a reality checker like Sancho Panza in our lives. And in the end, Grossman delivered what has been described as “beautiful and fresh,” and though in her Translator’s Note for the book, she writes about how she feared some pedantic literary critic might pounce on an infelicitous phrase in her 900 + page translation, those windmills she feared were minor and her own accomplishment was all the grander. Those were just the windmills in her mind. 

Edith Grossman once said in a Words Without Borders interview: “When I first started reading the Quixote I thought it was the most tragic book in the world, and I would read it and weep […] As I grew older […] my skin grew thicker […] and so when I was working on the translation I was actually sitting at my computer and laughing out loud. This is done […] as Cervantes did it […] by never letting the reader rest. You are never certain that you truly got it. Because as soon as you think you understand something, Cervantes introduces something that contradicts your premise.” 

Ultimately, Don Quixote represents that thrill of heroic madness we get that’s often mixed with a touch of anxiety about dying.  Ignore them, dear knight! Don’t let those windmills stand in your way, give your conviction, your own self-aggrandizement free reign so you can experience the goodness and richness of an ordinary life that’s actually worth living as if no one was watching.