There is a 90% chance you won’t understand Don Quixote… yet

Congratulations! Your interest in the Spanish language is increasing, and we are delighted to see it. It has been a journey full of new information and a whole new spectrum of cultures to digest. You feel like you’re now ready to read a Spanish classic, but you weren’t told that Don Quixote wasn’t the easiest to understand. 

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha is an absolute cornerstone of Spanish literature. Published between 1605 and 1615, it’s one of the first written novels and considered by many as the first example of a “modern” one.

It is without a doubt one of the great classics of literature, along with Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, and Chaucer’s humanitarian stories. It’s a true milestone of renaissance narrative, very often referenced in other media pieces and deeply influential to writers everywhere.

What do we mean when we say it’s the first modern novel? 

Don Quixote is the first novel with an approach that is highly concerned with realistic subject matter, such as industrialization being responsible for destroying the harmony between humankind and nature. 

Miguel de Cervantes’ magnum opus and most influential work, Don Quixote is the tale of a man who loses his mind due to his obsession with romantic novels about chivalry, deciding to become an errant knight and accomplish grand deeds in order to gain the attention of the woman he loves.

It’s important to note that unlike other ancient stories that might be labeled “novels” on your bookshelf (The Illiad, The Odyssey, or the Epic of Mio Cid), Don Quixote is a pioneer in presenting a more vulnerable and relatable heroic figure. Quijote is not precisely a half-god or someone blessed with any superhuman might or skill. However, the argument could be made that the gods did bless him with his horse Rocinante and his highly loyal squire Sancho Panza to aid him in his demented search for fame and glory.

Interesting fact: Did you know that Don Quixote was written in jail?​ 

Much of the work was written from prison, where Miguel de Cervantes had been serving a sentence since 1597 for possible mistakes in his work as a tax collector in Seville. In the prologue of the work, he talks about his time in prison and how Don Quixote was born there. It is not determined if what was born there was the idea of the book or the composition.

Read and understand Don Quixote in Spanish

Yes, it is a Spanish book, but wait…

Obviously, it’s been 400 years since the book was published, and the Spanish in which Cervantes wrote is no longer the same. 

Languages, as well as cultures and the people that use them, grow and evolve over the years, flowing to the beat of the change in times. It may at first seem strange to change words, syntax, or pronunciations that were previously considered the norm, but this is the way Spanish has behaved throughout history. Actually, this happens with every human tongue, written or spoken, including English as well.

The reason we are writing this article is that Spanish has changed extensively since the early 1600s, and if you try to read The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha in Cervantes’ original version, it is extremely likely that you will have a very rough time. This is in no small part due to the effort necessary even to attempt to understand idioms and expressions that don’t exist in the present day.

So, let’s take a look at some examples of quotes from Don Quixote’s original version and try to understand them

Shall we? You’ll soon realize that no matter how fluent your Spanish may be, many of these words and phrases will be hard to figure out. Our Spanish-speaking team at Lingvist made sure to create a very helpful list of phrases to analyze, and that will help make this reading easier and more enjoyable. 

As a first example, we have this sentence:

“Hiciéronlo ansí: diéronle de comer, y quedóse otra vez dormido, y ellos, admirados de su locura.”

 As noted, several of these words don’t exist anymore, and if you want to say, “They did so: they fed him, and he fell asleep again, and they, admiring his madness,” which is what that sentence translates to, you should instead say: 

“Lo hicieron así: le dieron de comer y se quedó dormido otra vez, y ellos, admirados de su locura.” 

During the 17th century, Spanish speakers used words such as “Hiciéronlo,” integrating the article as part of the word, but with the passing of time, they started to separate the article from the noun and inverted its order, resulting in the modern way of saying it: Lo hicieron.” 

This kind of word contraction is not exactly outdated, but we’ll get back to that one later.

The other word, “Ansí, is a mixture of the words “así” and “en.” It’s used in only a few rural parts of the Spanish-speaking world, the word “así” meaning “like this,” and “en” being basically in or “on. 

Now check our second example of this evolution: 

“Y asiéndole por el brazo, le forzó a que junto dél se sentase.” 

In this sentence, we see the same integration of noun and article in the word “asiéndole. This is worth noting because “asiéndole” is very different from the word “haciéndole, which is a conjugation of the verb “hacer.

The word “asiéndole” in this context refers to the action of holding someone by their arm, and in the modern day, we could replace it with “tomándole, as in grabbing something or someone. Also, in the second part of the sentence we see:

“… le forzó a que junto dél se sentase.” 

In modern Spanish, we separate “de” and “él” when indicating property or relation. So if you want to translate that sentence into English, it would mean, “And grabbing him by the arm, he forced him to sit by his side,” which in modern Spanish would be: “Y tomándole por el brazo, le forzó a que junto a él se sentase.”

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And for our third and final example: 

“Miróle entonces el oidor más atentamente y conocióle, y, abrazándole, dijo…” 

This is another case of integrating the article within the noun, but we also have an obsolete noun in the mix, the word “oidor.” This word means “listener,” which is “oyente” in modern-day language. 

You could translate it as, “Then the listener looked at him with attention, and recognizing him and hugging him, said…”. However, you should separate the other articles, so, “miróle would be, “le miró, “conocióle would be “le conoció, or “le reconoció, or even “reconociéndole. 

That’s right! Spanish speakers actually still integrate the article with the noun. This particular combination is called “enclíticos” and, although in a less extreme way than in Don Quixote, it is very much still in use in contemporary Spanish. Thus, the modern Spanish version should be: 

“Le miró entonces el oyente más atentamente y reconociéndole, y abrazándole, dijo…”

These are only three snippets of this colossal work of Spanish-language literature. It may be a daunting task at first, but give El Quijote a try. Who knows? Maybe your new favorite book is right there, waiting to be read.

Other options that might interest you

If, after reading this article, you are feeling a little bit hesitant about reading Don Quixote of La Mancha, you can always continue your learning process with classical books in Spanish that are easier to understand and that will give you that cultural knowledge you were looking for as well.

  1. Gabriel García Márquez –Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  2. Isabel Allende –La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits)
  3. Julio Cortázar –Rayuela
  4. Horacio Quiroga –Cuentos de amor, locura y muerte (Tales of Love, Madness and Death)
  5. Pablo Neruda –20 poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair)
  6. Amalia Andrade –Uno siempre cambia al amor de su vida por otro amor o por otra vida (You Always Change the Love of Your Life (for Another Love or Another Life))
  7. Federico García Lorca – Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads)
  8. Ernesto Sabato El Túnel (The Tunnel)
  9. Eduardo Galeano Ventanas (Windows) 
  10. Juan Ramón Jiménez – Platero y yo (Platero and I)

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