I have never read "Don Quixote," but your recent review of the new edition of T. G. Smollett's translation was so full of praise for it that I was inspired to check out a copy of it from the Glendale Public Library. The only translation they had on the shelf was Samuel Putnam's of 1949. While reading his introduction, which (in part) compares the merits of various translations, I was surprised to see him dismiss Smollett with one sentence, i.e., "The version published by T. G. Smollett in 1755 merits little consideration as it is merely a working over of Jarvis." Although Putnam says that Jarvis' version has been the most frequently printed English translation and widely approved by the public, the best he can say for it is that its dullness is preferred by many to the "out-of-place clowning" of other translations.
This is all a far cry from your (and Fuentes') unequivocal praise of Smollett, and very confusing to me. My Encyclopedia Americana says that Putnam's is one of the best English translations. Have you read it, or are you at least familiar with it? If so, would you still recommend that I make the effort to get Smollett's translation because it is the best and truest to the original? In other parts of his introduction, Putnam gives many plausible explanations of his methods and reasons for making what he says he wants to be a true and readable translation of this classic. From them, I don't think Putnam's work will be too ponderous to read, but I would still appreciate any further explanation you could give me on this sharp difference of opinions.
Tobias Smollett was criticized in his own day for borrowing from Charles Jarvis' translation of "Don Quixote," and the extent of Smollett's knowledge of Spanish has remained in dispute. One historian of literature writes: "Later opinion grants (Smollett) more knowledge of Spanish and a smaller indebtedness to Jarvis than did his contemporary critics." There is no doubt, however, that Smollett's knowledge of Spanish is not to be compared to that of a professional hispanist like Samuel Putnam.
Putnam's 1949 translation is a good one, if usually rated a notch below J.M. Cohen's 1950 effort. Both are available in inexpensive editions, from Modern Library and Penguin, respectively. It is remarkable that in the past 35 years, there has been only one new translation of "Don Quixote," that by Walter Starkie; this in a period that has seen a good dozen translations of Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy." Since religious epics are no longer being written but novels are, we might have expected the translation record to be the other way around.
But nothing is so difficult to translate as humor, and the humor of the past is twice difficult. If Shakespeare's "Hamlet" had been written first in Spanish, finding modern English for the prince would not be easy. But if Shakespeare's "Henry IV" had been written in Spanish, imagine finding modern English for Falstaff! The challenge to the translator of "Don Quixote" is of that order.
This may well be why translators have hesitated to take up the challenge. And this is undoubtedly why Carlos Fuentes can celebrate Tobias Smollett's "Don Quixote" without troubling to deny the claims of Samuel Putnam. A translation like Putnam's will ever have its honored place. But Smollett lived two centuries nearer to Cervantes in time and stands incalculably nearer to him in his sense of humor. Smollett and his great contemporary Henry Fielding, for whom the novel was supremely a comic form, imitated Cervantes as freely as they did, not because he was an acknowledged master but because they found him so funny. A "Don Quixote" in their English is likely to be funnier, even allowing for lapses from translation accuracy, than any translation written in ours.
In Fuentes' words, Smollett's Cervantes "is not necessarily the most lexicographically accurate, but it is the one where the feeling and the tone both come through.... How strange that the best Russian version of "Hamlet" is by Pasternak. Not dramatist done by translator but poet challenged by poet. Tobias Smollett's translation of Miguel de Cervantes is the homage of a novelist to a novelist."