Satirist, novelist, writer of travel stories, and, of course, polyglot and scholar, Syed Mujtaba Ali, had in his inimitable style written in one of his essays that translating other people's work is a very dull and tiring job and that it is as good as a sedative. Translation is undoubtedly an extremely hard job and the translators of novels and poems from one language into another know that at a price. While the reader unknowingly enjoys the works of a playwright in a foreign language and smacks his lips for more, he unwittingly gives some credit to the translator of the work. Otherwise he would have never known the inner beauties of the work done originally in a language that is beyond his reach.
Could we ever be able taste the great works of the ancient Greeks if someone had not taken the arduous and at the same time thankless task of rendering those into languages we understand? Or would Rabindranath Tagore get the Nobel Prize had Geetanjali not been translated into English? In that case, it might have remained an unknown work by a language that many in the West were not even aware of. Could the modern West, for example, ever enter the world of Greek learning if the Arabs had not gone to great pains to translate the works of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Anaxagoras and the like into Arabic? And if the crusaders had not gone to the Middle East in the Middle Ages and were then exposed to Arab scholarship in the great centres of learning such as Baghdad, Damascus, Alexandria, Shiraz, Cordova, Granada, you name it, would the darkness engulfing Europe for a millennium after the fall of Rome be ever removed?
Ironically, the readers hardly ever care to look at the pages carrying the translators' note to know who is the person that had gone through the ordeal of discovering the wonderful gems of an unknown culture and tongue and dish those up on a platter for the uninitiated (in that language, of course) to relish those. This is true not only of literature. The students of all branches of knowledge, the researchers, the dilettante and the casual reader, all owe it to the translator for their access through the door of the treasure house of knowledge.
The job of translation being such a thankless one, is it not surprising that so many scholars still take a fancy to such calling? Then again it is not just a personal ordeal to a be translator. There are some great works in history that witnessed generations of translators slogging through them to reach a level of perfection so that readers of all times may always savour those.
'Don Quixote' by Miguel de Cervantes of sixteenth century was such a literary work on which translators of different generations worked hard, though with partial success by each, to make Cervantes' timeless character, Don Quixote, live throughout the ages. John Ormsby, one of the best translators of Don Quixote in English language, gives the following account of the attempts at translating the book in different points of time since the time of Cervantes himself. The history of Don Quixote's rendering through centuries show vividly what a messy job it is to convert what is natural in its native tongue into another that is foreign.
"It was with considerable reluctance that I abandoned in favour of the present undertaking what had long been a favourite project: that of a new edition of Shelton's "Don Quixote," which has now become a somewhat scarce book. There are some-and I confess myself to be one- for whom Shelton's racy old version, with all its defects, has a charm that no modern translation, however skilful or correct, could possess. Shelton had the inestimable advantage of belonging to the same generation as Cervantes; "Don Quixote" had to him a vitality that only a contemporary could feel; it cost him no dramatic effort to see things as Cervantes saw them; there is no anachronism in his language; he put the Spanish of Cervantes into the English of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself most likely knew the book; he may have carried it home with him in his saddle-bags to Stratford on one of his last journeys, and under the mulberry tree at New Place joined hands with a kindred genius in its pages. But it was soon made plain to me that to hope for even a moderate popularity for Shelton was vain. His fine old crusted English would, no doubt, be relished by a minority, but it would be only by a minority. His warmest admirers must admit that he is not a satisfactory representative of Cervantes. His translation of the First Part was very hastily made and was never revised by him. It has all the freshness and vigour, but also a full measure of the faults, of a hasty production. It is often very literal- barbarously literal frequently- but just as often very loose. He had evidently a good colloquial knowledge of Spanish, but apparently not much more. It never seems to occur to him that the same translation of a word will not suit in every case. It is often said that we have no satisfactory translation of "Don Quixote." To those who are familiar with the original, it savours of truism or platitude to say so, for in truth there can be no thoroughly satisfactory translation of "Don Quixote" into English or any other language. It is not that the Spanish idioms are so utterly unmanageable, or that the untranslatable words, numerous enough no doubt, are so superabundant, but rather that the sententious terseness to which the humour of the book owes its flavour is peculiar to Spanish, and can at best be only distantly imitated in any other tongue. The history of our English translations of "Don Quixote" is instructive. Shelton's, the first in any language, was made, apparently, about 1608, but not published till 1612. This of course was only the First Part. It has been asserted that the Second, published in 1620, is not the work of Shelton, but there is nothing to support the assertion save the fact that it has less spirit, less of what we generally understand by "go," about it than the first, which would be only natural if the first were the work of a young man writing currente calamo, and the second that of a middle-aged man writing for a bookseller. On the other hand, it is closer and more literal, the style is the same, the very same translations, or mistranslations, occur in it, and it is extremely unlikely that a new translator would, by suppressing his name, have allowed Shelton to carry off the credit. In 1687 John Phillips, Milton's nephew, produced a "Don Quixote" "made English," he says, "according to the humour of our modern language." His "Quixote" is not so much a translation as a travesty, and a travesty that for coarseness, vulgarity, and buffoonery is almost unexampled even in the literature of that day. Ned Ward's "Life and Notable Adventures of Don Quixote, merrily translated into Hudibrastic Verse" (1700), can scarcely be reckoned a translation, but it serves to show the light in which "Don Quixote" was regarded at the time. A further illustration may be found in the version published in 1712 by Peter Motteux, who had then recently combined tea-dealing with literature. It is described as "translated from the original by several hands," but if so all Spanish flavour has entirely evaporated under the manipulation of the several hands. The flavour that it has, on the other hand, is distinctly Franco-cockney. Anyone who compares it carefully with the original will have little doubt that it is a concoction from Shelton and the French of Filleau de Saint Martin, eked out by borrowings from Phillips, whose mode of treatment it adopts. It is, to be sure, more decent and decorous, but it treats "Don Quixote" in the same fashion as a comic book that cannot be made too comic. To attempt to improve the humour of "Don Quixote" by an infusion of cockney flippancy and facetiousness, as Motteux's operators did, is not merely an impertinence like larding a sirloin of prize beef, but an absolute falsification of the spirit of the book, and it is a proof of the uncritical way in which "Don Quixote" is generally read that this worse than worthless translation -worthless as failing to represent, worse than worthless as misrepresenting- should have been favoured as it has been. It had the effect, however, of bringing out a translation undertaken and executed in a very different spirit, that of Charles Jervas, the portrait painter, and friend of Pope, Swift, Arbuthnot, and Gay. Jervas has been allowed little credit for his work, indeed it may be said none, for it is known to the world in general as Jarvis's. It was not published until after his death, and the printers gave the name according to the current pronunciation of the day. It has been the most freely used and the most freely abused of all the translations. It has seen far more editions than any other, it is admitted on all hands to be by far the most faithful, and yet nobody seems to have a good word to say for it or for its author. Jervas no doubt prejudiced readers against himself in his preface, where among many true words about Shelton, Stevens, and Motteux, he rashly and unjustly charges Shelton with having translated not from the Spanish, but from the Italian version of Franciosini, which did not appear until ten years after Shelton's first volume.
I had not even seen it when the present undertaking was proposed to me, and since then I may say vidi tantum, having for obvious reasons resisted the temptation which Mr. Duffield's reputation and comely volumes hold out to every lover of Cervantes".
Translation itself can be part of history and Don Quixote is itself a living example before us.