Don Quixote has long-lasting influence, impact on Spanish culture

February 11, 2013

Often cited as one of the best literary works ever written, audiences have enjoyed Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” for more than 400 years. Whether for pleasure or academic study, readers all over the world have become familiar with the iconic text and characters.

The tale, a comedic satire of medieval romances, has enchanted audiences and set precedence for writers to come. As such, the text is arguably as prolific in both the original and translated versions. At the University of Alabama, the text is required reading for Spanish majors and often accompanies undergraduate and graduate English studies.

Despite the relevance and importance to students in both departments, the translation of the text and the way in which it is surveyed varies between the two. Because the majority of students studying “Don Quixote” at UA are native English speakers, professors in Spanish and English classes face a challenge in relating the text to students.

“Don Quixote is a product of its time, written for an audience from 1600,” Steven Allon, a Spanish major at UA, said. “It assumes a knowledge that many modern readers lack. This gap hinders understanding, although the professor makes great efforts to bridge our understanding.”

Assistant Professor William Worden in the Spanish department compared the text to Shakespearean language in difficulty and said he is impressed by the ability of students to interpret the novel.

“Spanish has not changed as much as English linguistically, but Cervantes is playing with the lost Spanish language,” Worden said.

That language provides insight into Spanish culture and history, Worden said. His students, primarily seniors in the major, including many who have studied abroad, are mostly prepared before entering the challenging course. Although the students use an edition with English footnotes to guide their reading, the text is difficult to understand at first, he said.

“The archaic vocabulary slows translation, especially in the beginning,” Allon said. “You will find yourself looking up every other word, sometimes without any result.”

Though translating the work poses the most obvious difficulty, understanding the language used by Cervantes provides another obstacle, said Natalie Hopper, an instructor and graduate student in the English department.

“The tricky thing is that “Don Quixote” is very nuanced and culturally specific, kind of like Shakespeare is in the English language,” she said. “That is to say, even Spanish speakers may not fully understand and appreciate the text just like Shakespeare is difficult for English speakers.”

Worden and Hopper agreed that some expressions and elegance will be lost even to the most fluent Spanish students or avid readers.

“For instance, here we say, ‘pay an arm and a leg,’ whereas they would say ‘pay with an eye,’” Worden said.

Despite losing some meaning in translation, students studying the text at UA gain insight into literature at the time of Cervantes, his culture and the history of Spain. Further, students studying Spanish may begin to understand the gravity the novel has had on Spanish culture today. From ballets and plays to art and even a Coldplay song, “Don Quixote” has had a substantial impact, he said.

Hopper explained that the widespread influence of the novel is in part because the novel is simultaneously old-fashioned and progressive.

“The medieval romance aspect of it combined with the self-parody and the meta nature of the text don’t really come together like that in any other text that I can think of,” she said. “It’s a pretty one-of-a-kind text.”

Spanish and English students alike learn that Cervantes further distinguished “Don Quixote” from other literature of the time from breaking from the traditional style and theme.

“It simultaneously looks backward and pokes fun at the literary tradition leading up to it and gestures towards the types of writing that will come later,” Hopper said.

The book, often considered the first modern novel, is revered by writers internationally and set the standard for future novelists, Worden said.

“William Faulkner said, ‘Don Quixote, I read that every year as some do the Bible,’” Worden said.

Whether students have an interest in Spanish or English, chances are they will study Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” at some point in their career.

“Reading this book opens doors to understanding other literature,” Worden said. “I advise [anyone] to read the first ten chapters. You’ll see what the fuss is about.”