Book of Accidents; or, How I Came to Translate El Quijote


by Jessica Sequeira

Whether by accident or otherwise, the following prologue did not accompany the recent Chilean publication El Quijote, ‘Versión abreviada y adaptada al español de América’, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, coordinated by Pablo Chiuminatto (Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, 2017).

Perhaps it seems obvious to you, dear reader, that a professor like myself, established in the academic world as a specialist in Spanish literature, would attempt a translation of a great work in the language. Yes of course, and as a Chilean, naturally I would seek to render it in a form intelligible to contemporary readers in the Americas. Right, and clearly I would also publish the book with a respectable academic publisher. Yes, naturally, clearly, of course — yank on those reins! None of this is obvious, absolutely none of it. The purpose of this ‘prologue to a prologue’ is to explain with precision the way that what has occurred is quite unobvious, the product of a series of arbitrary incidents that one might even term accidents, though I would stop short of calling them adventures.

A great theme of El Quijote — overseas scholars will note that by now I am accustomed to referring to the big book with familiarity, as well as to spelling it with the playful ‘j’ as one does in this austral sliver—; a great theme, as I was saying, is usually thought to be ‘idealism at the expense of realism’. While this theme has not been absent from my life, the dichotomy that has governed my existence has, in reality, been quite other. ’Accident at the expense of intention’, I’d call it: that is, the question of whether what happens is random or dictated by internal and external factors, such that things must be exactly the way they are.

Is reality drifting or designed? Are we galley slaves to our inclinations and a God who nudges us like chess pieces, or are we shuttled down this or that fork by chance? For the moment, I lean toward the theory that accident and not fate decides us, but (and this is consistent with my theory as well) at any moment a random event might sway me otherwise. Here I will relate a few of the notable accidents that led to the completion of this translation today, thirty-four minutes ago, during a cold yet sunny winter in Santiago de Chile. These accidents begin in the life of a little boy, and continue into that of a man…

Accident 1 — Cup of gold

Between the house where I lived and the primary school I attended, there was a field of golden poppies. I loved this flower, which I called dedal de oro, and scientists called Eschscholzia californica. I loved it because it looked like a cup of gold or sunlight, and also because the little girl who walked home with me every day also loved it. The girl wore a skirt that reached down to just above her grubby knees, against regulations, and she had a habit of provoking me. I pretended to take offence, but secretly I liked it. ‘Give me a kiss?’ I asked her, at last working up the courage to ask. She giggled and said, ‘When you bring me a perfect poppy.’ Every day I plucked a poppy from the golden field and handed it to the girl, but she always found some small defect in the the stem, leaves, petals or seeds. I did not worry, however, for I believed that all poppies formed part of a single perfect poppy, and that all of the flawed versions were simply variations of this perfection. From the way she skipped and the joy in her eyes, I knew that the girl had discovered this secret too, and that her objections were simply another form of provocation. In good time the girl would give me the desired kiss, but until then, we would go on walking home together, and I would continue to hand her my flawed cups of gold.

Accident 2 — Chalk

Every day in class, chalk was handed out to us students from a bag. Some pieces of chalk were pleasant to use (white and long, permitting the user to copy out phrases with clean strokes) while others were frankly irksome (yellow stubs that squeaked painfully against the board). No matter how clear it was that some of the chalk pieces were better than others — no matter the protests of those who drew the ’short stick’, as it were — the teacher maintained her claim that all chalks were the same. Despite my belief in an ’ideal chalk’, I began to understand the importance of the individual element. How could I pretend that the worn-down nub I had been allotted was in any way equivalent to the ecstasy of the soft limestone? Or that the clean cursive phrases that skated over the page with the fine chalk were in any way equivalent to the pigeon scratchings of the nub? The obvious fact of this filled me with frustration toward those who denied the difference. An ideal may have existed somewhere out there, but in the present the multiple variations of the ideal were what mattered.

Accident 3 — Snobbery

Much to my relief, at last I made it to university, where I quickly forgot the lesson of the chalk and sought to defend the purity of the Idea. I won a certain reputation around campus, as much for my sense of fashion (on my head, a derby bowler with a feather stuck in; on my body, a lilac coat and pale green trousers; on my feet, expensive boat shoes) as for my rigorous ideas of the Beautiful and Good. In elegantly written pamphlets I railed against the idea of any sort of abbreviation or translation, claiming that those who promoted such nonsense were ’two-penny apes’ with an ’echo complex’. I argued that all inferior imitations ought to be eliminated as so much debris and dust, and that what mattered were works of genius and a close study of the canon. These tirades brought me personal satisfaction and a thimbleful of local fame. Accused of being a snob, dandy and parvenu, I simply smiled and said: ’At least I am an original.’

Accident 4 — School teaching

After I finished my degree, I did not know quite what to do. As a sort of default, I began to teach literature at a school. The children were not the little monkeys I had expected; rather, they behaved like small adults. That is, they would commit to something with a straight face and perhaps even real conviction, before proceeding to do something quite unrelated. If I assigned them a short text, they would read it quickly, at the most superficial level. If I assigned them a long text, they would simply not read it at all. At night I had bad dreams, in which my students gathered into small circles, conspiring ways to subvert the good intentions of their teacher. As I well knew, however, the sad truth was that my students did not even put this much energy into their act — they simply did not care. I attempted different strategies, most of which failed. At last, after a great many experiments in trial and error, I realized that with few exceptions, most students read for plot rather than language. Any too difficult prose immediately put them off; a compelling story, however, with luck could grab their attention. I began to assign brisk tales by North American writers, and noticed that the interest in my class picked up substantially. Still I yearned to teach my students the greats, Shakespeare and Cervantes, authors who wrote extensive pieces in a prose not immediately clear. How could I transmit their stories? At a staff break a few weeks before, when a fellow teacher had proposed teaching an adapted version of El Quijote, I had balked. Now, sheepishly, I asked my colleague what versions existed. ’The temptations of the devil have grown too strong,’ I said to him, only half-joking.

Accident 5 — Ice

On Saturdays I liked to relax at the park, and one weekend I finally ventured onto the outdoor skating rink. There were puddles of water everywhere, but I decided to chance it anyhow. I slipped on my skates, unclicking the straps to widen out the ankles before snapping them shut again, once my feet were in. Clinging to the edge, I moved halfway round the ice, before at last I plucked up the courage to waddle into the center. No need to use a weighted penguin like the under-10s, but thanks for asking. I avoided the enthusiast amateurs and grim intermediates who showed off their attempts at toe loops and Lutzes, or cut abrupt horizontals through the well-carved grooves. Instead I sought out the small patches of good dry ice. Mostly I kept my head down trying not to fall, though briefly there were moments I slicked over the freeze in pure glissade. From the edges, it looked like someone was cheering me on, but I couldn’t look for too long or I‘d take a tumble. In a few minutes, I knew that my hands would cup the heels of my skates and I would be back in my normal shoes. All around me people were slipping — why hadn’t I taken a fall? Skill only mattered up to a point; nature made some people tumble and gave others a pass. Ah, a puddle! 

Accident 6 — Tightening my belt

After I abandoned school teaching on behalf of freelance work, I found it was necessary to begin to draw my pursestrings, as such. Unfortunately, as I soon found, this would not be something that occurred on its own. My expenditures on fancy jackets and stylishly-cut trousers required reduction; my outlays on artworks and fine cutlery had to be directly slashed. My attitude toward my budget, I told myself, must now be that of an engineer. Everything would be structured with cellular rigor; I would chart my life in manuals and spreadsheets; I would manage my diary so that every lunch and dinner date was plotted. Spontaneity was out; no treasure of mine would end in the chest of another without my approval.

This activity of planning soon became a sort of addiction, which extended to other spheres — I began to monitor my every bodily movement, teaching myself to breathe from the diaphragm, to relax my body limb by limb before sleep, to count the number of blinks per second, to drink a certain number of bottles of water each day. I thought this planning would bring me fortune, and there were indeed improvements in certain areas; yet in others there were declines. My prosperity did not increase in any substantial way, and although at last I did experience a sharp uptick in my resources, it came about quite randomly — a windfall from the rights to a story I had written years before. Luck is an accident too, I told myself, as I clutched my check, happy.

Accident 7 — Highway

A call, a frantic voice, a few shirts stuffed in a bag, then I was on the road. It seemed impossible that death could have come that way to her of all people, from the complications of a bite. A dog that my grandmother loved, her own Eloy. Impossible after all the love she had shown for animals, those white flags she had waved in the plazas to protest cruelty, those initiatives she had led to change the laws regarding the national rodeo and treatment of street canines. Nature has no sense of irony, I thought, as I sped past araucaria trees weighed down by snow, high voltage towers, tangles of branches that when silhouetted against the pale sky looked Japanese.

Nobody was out there. Every now and then when some person did appear, a hitchhiker or station attendant, they seemed extraneous and almost freakish. Our presence on this earth is accidental; the cool blues and pinks and greens of nature do not require us. We had not been in the closest touch, but we had not been strangers either. I did not even want to start thinking about the exact series of events, the enthusiastic greeting of that beast somehow infected during his roamings of the outdoors, the one-way process that had begun in her body just afterward. A process that was inevitable. The preparation of her body for the ground would also follow specific steps. But everything prior to this seemed arbitrary in the purest sense — meaningless, meaningless, meaningless.

Accident 8 — Fleck

Some months later, in a state of calm irritation, I looked around at the audience during an event. A specific element repeated systematically on the backs of coats. It couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? This mark, this fleck, was both random and pervasive. I have never been particularly drawn to fashion — what at university others considered style was in reality just a lack of interest in copying the style of others, which led me to throw on whatever I liked, whether suspenders or striped socks. But now I realized just how out of the loop I was.

‘How can everyone possibly be wearing the same thing?’ I asked. I knew fashion was just as arbitrary as anything else, that the popularity of one design over another was moved by factors that had little to do with the planned and plotted. I must have grumbled out loud, since the man beside me looked my way. ‘You want to know how this style got started? One time an Italian designer sat down on a bench with wet paint, which left a mark on his back. He didn’t realize it, and went on to an event. Some journalists noticed the white splotch, the trend was publicized, and the copycats rushed in. You see, fashion is the greatest accident of all. No, what I mean is that fashion is the art of making money from accident.’ The man turned to speak to someone on his other side, and on his back I saw a diagonal slash.

Accident 9 — Mischief

At some point I wanted to be closer to the crackle of things, so I moved to an apartment in a more central neighborhood. When I did, the porter told me a story. Until recently, he said, a litter of white cats had lived in a box next to the garbage bin. The kittens all looked very like one another, as well as their mother, but genetics had produced some subtle differences: some had tawny marks on their backs or paws, some were more curious about their surroundings and eager to play, and so forth.

One day — and here I’m speculating a little, said the porter, hope you don’t mind ­— the most mischievous kitten went to go frolic in a lump of soot, which her mother had expressly forbidden. She liked batting about the glittering black dust, padding a few steps back then leaping forward to take it by surprise. But quickly she got all covered in black. She knew her mother would be angry, so she didn’t want to return right away. Instead she hid for a while, trying to lick off the soot without success. Then she heard a gruff human voice. ‘That’s enough, dirty beasties, you’re coming with me. That’s right, into the river you go.’ Despite the yowling protests, the man hauled all the kittens and their mother into a bag, which he drew tight with string. The catcher began to walk away with the bag, which wriggled and roared as the cats attempted to get free.

Was it an accident — luck — that the mischievous cat was left behind? Or had this been in some way predicted by her personality, her genetics? And was it an accident — luck — that the porter of the apartment building happened to be passing? When he saw what was happening and heard the hullabaloo, he offered to take charge of the ‘beasties’ himself. Left there with the bag, the porter noticed the mischievous cat huddling behind the lump of soot, terrified, and immediately he understood what had happened. He explained to the cat that he was going to take care of her and her mother and brother and sisters, that it was a very fortunate thing she had gotten all covered with black so the catcher hadn’t seen her, and that it was also a very fortunate thing he had come along at just that moment. ‘I don’t feel any special affection for cats, but it all just broke my heart,’ the porter said. ‘Now I’m trying to find them good homes.’ That is how I met my greatest companion, Mischief.

Accident 10 — Stockinged legs

Along Vicuña Mackenna, on the route my bus always took, a big sign featured legs arranged in a circle. They were impressive enough during the day, but it was at night that they really shone. All at once there they were in neon, appearing to rotate, under the words VOILA FUROR. The sign was an advertisement for the panty, the Chilean word for tights or stockings, and in it those disembodied legs seemed to possess some weird power: the ability to conjure up anarchy, chaos and enthusiasm with just a few spinning limbs. Accidents have a cumulative effect, and multiple moments work together to create something larger than themselves, I thought, as I passed those whirling calves, knees and thighs.

Accident 11 — University

Be not concerned, valorous knight, nor look upon this accident as a piece of sinister fortune; for it may chance, among these turnings and windings, that your crooked lot may be set to rights; for Heaven, by strange, unheard-of, and by men unimagined, ways, raises those that are fallen, and enriches those that are poor.

These lines, which appear in Chapter LX of the English edition translated by Charles Jarvis, were stuck in the desk drawer of my classroom, the one I took over when I assumed a teaching post at the university. The room had been previously assigned to a professor of English, probably interested in the classics in other languages, yet the presence of this quote still seemed peculiar — not only because this was not the preferred English translation, which would be that of Smollett, Grossman, Putnam or Raffel (note the antiquated Biblical rhythm, the awkward spliced ‘ways’), but also because the quote seemed to reach me precisely at the necessary moment, providing me with a project and organizing the numerous odd moments of misfortune and luck that comprised my life — my accidents. Ensconced in this comfortable post, settled into middle age, I had been looking for a suitable new undertaking. Now I knew what it would be: an abbreviated, adapted Quijote.

After four years of careful work, my team has at last completed the task: a simplified Chilean edition for secondary students and casual readers. Excising chapters and modifying language would have horrified my former snobbish self. Some experience dabbling in languages has convinced me, however, that not only are such changes unavoidable and inherent to the art of translation, but that they are to be reveled in. Detractors may claim that I snipped or slashed in the wrong places, that I ironed out the prose to the point of rendering this Chilean Quijote near unrecognizable. I rebut that like Shakespeare, Cervantes has become a pseudonym for every author, a phenomenon that surpasses himself. The existence of this edited Chilean edition adds itself to the thousands of other written Quijotes in existence, not to mention the commentaries of Nabokov, the visual representations of Goya, etc, and this is a marvelous thing. Working in a team has also brought its own complications, of course, such that the work has slipped even further from the grasp of a single author.

Think of the paradox: A work supposedly against the picaresque libros de caballería has immortalized those very books, to the point that hundreds of years later a few contemporary Chileans believe they can produce a similar work, annotated with references to independence heroes and Mapuches, and prefaced with notes on a similar local tradition such as the chronicle Relación de la inundación, written by the nun Sor Tadea García de San Joaquín in 1783. These are efforts to clothe a Spanish text of over 400 years old in Chilean garb, a lost cause or utopian vision that yet has its place in the universe. Often I think of the theological concept of fullness, the idea that the world should be filled with every possible form, and that every imaginable literary work should exist. Or perhaps I believe in something different: that all works are variations of the same work, different glints off the essential beauty.

Working on this Quixote has helped me to think about my own life, with its presence of accident. There are two ways of defining ‘accident’: as an unexpected event that is unfortunate (synonym: mishap, misfortune, misadventure, mischance) and simply as an unexpected event (synonym: chance, coincidence, twist of fate). An accident is in some sense a flaw; even if ‘Ideal’ forms do exist somewhere in the universe, what reigns in this reality of ours is the defect. Perfection is wholly ordered and without surprises, while accidents refuse this design. Yet all accidents, all versions of the work, form part of the history of the work, and become the work itself.

I keep a copy of the Jarvis quote in my wallet, but I dropped this line from the Chilean edition of the work. Call it an accident of omission if you like, but I prefer the silence. It’s the silence of the fields that surround me now, a silence that may not be entirely bucolic — these are football pitches during a university holiday — but that brings me great peace. A peace that at any minute might be broken by the sound of Rocinante’s gallop.