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Maybe Exemplary? James Mabbe's Translation of the 'Exemplarie Novells' (1640)

Cervantes’s influence on seventeenth-century European prose fiction was unique and exemplary. His writing was a catalyst, perhaps even paradigmatic, in the formation of the republic of letters itself. After publication, his stories were taken up, both within and beyond Spain, with unprecedented rapidity for works of vernacular prose fiction. In his homeland, at least twenty adaptations of his works appeared before 1680, including adaptations of two of the stories from the Novelas ejemplares (1613) by his rival Lope de Vega, as plots for his plays La ilustre fregona (Parte XXIV, 1641) and El mayor imposible (Parte XXV, 1647, based on El celoso extremeño). A French translation of the Novelas ejemplares came out within a year of its publication in Spain,[1] and there were a further eight editions of this translation before 1700. The popularity of Cervantine material in France can be gauged equally from there being no fewer than twenty-three stage adaptations of his work during the same period.[2] In England, the case of John Fletcher typifies how rich a vein writers found in Cervantes’s prose: roughly a quarter of Fletcher’s extant output of just over fifty plays was based on Cervantine prose originals, mostly the Novelas ejemplares. Stagings of Cervantes’s work were frequent, as were translations, Don Quixote appearing in English in Thomas Shelton’s translation in 1612, in French in 1614 and Italian in 1622, while a German translation was done in 1621 but not published until 1648. (See tables 1 and 2 below.)

But there is something paradoxical about his influence. While there were numerous adaptations of his stories, often transgeneric ones, carrying prose tales onto the stage, the writerly techniques that make him so important for the history of the rise of the novel and, from a modern perspective, so important an innovator seem not to have sparked off a wave of imitators in prose. Dale Randall and Jackson Boswell’s magisterial compilation Cervantes in Seventeenth-Century England: The Tapestry Turned, with over a thousand intertextual echoes of his work noted in seventeenth-century England, underlines this enigma.[3] While Cervantes’s work, especially Don Quixote, became instantly recognizable, few dared to undertake direct imitations. Instead, the body of his work was ransacked for plots and stories for adaptation. In this essay I will explore this endless adaptability in relation to the first English translation of the Novelas ejemplares, carried out by Jacobean England’s foremost translator of Spanish literary texts, James Mabbe, whose edition of six of the novellas was published in 1640.[4]

Mabbe had traveled to Spain in April 1611 as secretary to the embassy of Sir John Digby, Earl of Bristol; Digby was a Magdalen College classmate of Mabbe’s and had been dispatched to negotiate a match between Prince Henry and Philip III’s daughter Anna.[5] Mabbe was probably in Spain for the next five years. A letter by him from 1612, with news from Madrid, has survived, and he was absent from his prebend at Wanstrow in the diocese of Bath and Wells when it received a visitation in July 1615.[6] This puts Mabbe in Madrid when the Novelas ejemplares was published (the aprobación is dated July 1613, and the fe de erratas is dated August 7). His interest in literary fashions at this time is apparent from the copy of Lope de Vega’s Rimas (also 1613) that he sent to his university friend Will Baker through Leonard Digges. On the flyleaf the inscription reads: “Will Baker: knowinge that Mr Mab: was to sende you this book of son[n]ets, which with Spaniards here is accounted of their Lope de Vega as in Englande wee sholde of our Will Shakespeare–I cold–not but insiste thus much to you, that if you like him not, you muste nedes neuer [in hier] read–Spanish–Poets[/Pages] Leo: Digges.”[7]

Digges was linked to Mabbe both as a translator from Spanish, publishing a version of Gonzalo de Cespedes y Meneses’s Gerardo the Unfortunate Spaniard in 1622, and as a contributor alongside Ben Jonson and Mabbe of prefatory verses to the First Folio in 1623. Gerardo the Unfortunate Spaniard was published by Mabbe’s publisher Edward Blount in the same year as Mabbe’s version of Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache, which was dedicated to the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, the patrons of the First Folio.[8] Mabbe’s The Rogue (his adaptation of Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache) incorporated verses by both Ben Jonson and Leonard Digges and was dedicated to Mabbe’s patron, Sir John Strangeways, a member of the Dorset gentry patronized by John Digby.[9] Mabbe taught John Digby’s stepson, Lewis Dyve, who married one of Strangeways’s daughters, Howarda Rogers. Martínez Lacalle has suggested that Strangeways perhaps traveled with the returning Digby embassy to Madrid in 1618. The “I. F.” of the final dedicatory poem to The Rogue can almost certainly be identified as referring to John Fletcher, although at one time John Florio was touted.[10] A presentation copy of Fletcher’s last play, Demetrius and Enanthe, made by the scribe Ralph Crane, was presented to Sir Kenelm Digby, Ben Jonson’s literary executor and a distant cousin of the Earl of Bristol.[11]

Mabbe spent his career at Magdalen College, Oxford, serving in various capacities between 1617 and 1630. The college was strongly associated with both translation and Spanish through a series of important scholars from Laurence Humphrey, president from 1561; to Thomas D’Oyly, a fellow whose A Spanish Grammer conformed to our Englishe Accydence with attached Spanish, Latin, and English dictionary was incorporated by Richard Percyvall into his Bibliotheca Hispanica (1591); and to John Sanford, author of Propylaion, or, Entrance to the Spanish Tongue (1611), a language-learning handbook written specifically for the use of the Digby embassy, which he accompanied as chaplain, along with Mabbe. Mabbe had entered the college in 1586 at sixteen and became perpetual fellow in 1595, master of the arts in 1598, and proctor of the university in 1606. He eventually left Oxford in 1633 at the age of sixty-three, retiring to Abbotsbury in Dorset, the household of his lifelong patrons, the Strangeways. The Exemplarie Novells were dedicated to Susanna Strangeways, Sir John’s stepdaughter and then daughter-in-law, as the second wife of his son Giles. Mabbe resigned his prebend at Wanstrow in 1642 and died shortly afterward, never having married.

Mabbe’s translation practice suggests that he may have translated the Exemplary Novels soon after it first came out and published it only years later. His translation of La Celestina as The Spanish Bawd, published in 1631, was completed by around 1602–3, the putative dating of the Alnwick manuscript dedicated to his long-standing patron Strangeways.[12] His close links with numerous literary figures associated with John Fletcher are telling. Of the twelve novellas, six featured in Mabbe’s 1640 translation: Las dos doncellas, La señora Cornelia, El amante liberal, La fuerza de la sangre, La española inglesa, and El celoso extremeño. These stories overlap to a considerable extent with those used by Fletcher and his collaborators between 1615 and 1621.[13] Las dos doncellas became Francis Beaumont and Fletcher’s Love’s Pilgrimmage (1615); La señora Cornelia was recast for Fletcher’s The Chances (c. 1617); La fuerza de la sangre found its way into Fletcher, Nathan Field, and Philip Massinger(?)’s The Queen of Corinth (1616–17); while El amante liberal inspired Fletcher and Massinger’s A Very Woman or the Prince of Tarent (c. 1619–22). The dramas based on the Exemplary Novels that did not appear in Mabbe’s 1640 translation were all staged between 1623 and 1625, in the immediate aftermath of the failure of the Spanish match: Fletcher, John Webster, Massinger, and John Ford’s Rule a Wife Have a Wife (1624), based on El casamiento engañoso; Fletcher’s The Fair Maid of the Inn (1625/26?), a version of La ilustre fregona; as well as Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Spanish Gypsy (1623), which made use of plot elements from La gitanilla and La fuerza de la sangre.[14]

All these stories have Spanish settings and strong satirical elements, deriding the sexual license and abuse of privilege by dissolute aristocrats or invoking the picaresque’s social protest against the strictures of class, subverted by Cervantes’s depiction of young noble protagonists seeking a life of liberty on the road. They reinscribe the picaresque as the obverse of romance. The two dissemblers in the “deceitful marriage,” painting themselves as wealthier than they are, foreshadow the dominant theme of the great eighteenth-century English novel, the marriage market, with its toxic mix of class, money, and deceit. The stories omitted from Mabbe’s collection, then (La gitanilla, Rinconete y Cortadillo, El licenciado vidriera, La ilustre fregona, El casamiento engañoso, and El coloquio de los perros), fit into the grittier, “realist” mold, with strong picaresque echoes, or are overt comic fantasy, such as El licenciado vidriera (The Glass Graduate).

John Yamamoto-Wilson has argued that Mabbe avoided “realistic tales in favour of stories of aristocratic romance,” while Thomas Hart has similarly pointed out that both French and English translations and adaptations underline a preference for “the more aristocratic novellas.”[15] The stories adapted for the Jacobean stage coincided with those picked by French dramatists. El amante liberal was adapted for the theater in 1637 by Guérin de Bouscal and Charles Beys, and then as a tragicomedy by Georges Scudéry the following year. Various versions of stories from Don Quixote were also adapted, such as El curioso impertinente (Jeune le Brosse in 1645) and the Cardenio story (Pichou in 1630 and Philippe Quinault in 1655). Las dos doncellas saw a version by Jean Rotrou staged in 1639; Alexandre Hardy adapted La fuerza de la sangre and also did versions of La señora Cornelia and La gitanilla, with the latter also done by Sallebray in 1642 and Molière in 1663. This rough corpus, made up of El amante liberal, La fuerza de la sangre, La gitanilla, Las dos doncellas, and La señora Cornelia, overlaps with the novellas included in Mabbe’s 1640 Exemplarie Novells, with the exception of La gitanilla, whose retitling in French as La belle égyptienne in two of the versions reflects a contemporary vogue for Egyptiana. Gender conflict dominates in all of the stories that Mabbe chose to translate and publish. They are all “casos de la honra” (honor plots, which, according to the dramatist Lope de Vega, were the most entertaining for the public), with gentle- or noblewomen as protagonists: the cross-dressing Leocadia and Teodosia, pregnant Cornelia, enslaved Leonisa, rape victim Leocadia, abductee Isabela, and unsuitably married Leonora.

The 1640 edition of the Exemplarie Novells exploited Cervantes’s European literary fame by displaying his name prominently on the title page and describing him as “One of the prime Wits of Spaine, for his rare Fancies, and wittie Inventions.” Mabbe hid behind his punning pseudonym Don Diego Puede-Ser (James Maybe), which had originally featured in his published translation of La Celestina. The large-format folio volume and the retired translator’s dedication provide evidence for the intended audience for the tales. The dedication to Susanna Strangeways contrasts the Cervantine stories being presented with “good Books” that cause gentlewomen’s eyes “to waxe dull and weary” and the needlework from which playing the lute functions as respite; the tales are “matters of harmelesse Merriment, and Disports.” Mabbe does not promise “any great profit,” but “they will be pleasing and delightfull, the Sceane is so often varied, the Passages so pretty, the Accidents so strange; and in the end brought to so happy a Conclusion.” He compares the tales to “running banquetting dishes: Take (as you like) here and there a little of each sort: which will whet your Stomack, and set an edge on your Appetite, against you come to feed your Vnderstanding with meats more nourishable and substantiall.”[16] This framing of the novellas echoes their original presentation in the Madrid aprobación as “entretenimiento honesto,” examples of eutropelia, licit recreations typified by Cervantes in his prologue by billiards and gardening. Mabbe’s dedication highlights “delight in Variety” as the hallmark of Cervantine wit but misses his injunction that their “fruto” (benefits) should be sought “así de todas juntas como de cada una de por sí” (as much from them all together as from each one in itself).[17]

The morally neutral framing to Mabbe’s translation contrasts starkly with the way the translation was represented fourteen years later during the Commonwealth period.[18] The reissue of 1654, with a new title page and preliminaries but the same body text, suggests that the 1640 edition had not sold well. Although this volume picks up in its title on two qualities foregrounded by Mabbe, that the stories are “pleasing and delightfull,” his name disappears, while Cervantes is granted the honorific “Don,” conflating him with his most famous literary creation, and Don Quixote is specifically alluded to. Attention is drawn to the key aesthetic principle of verisimilitude, “drawne to the life,” as opposed to variety, surprise, prettiness of style, or happy endings. The cheeky dedication “To the Ladies” from a “Studious servant to your delights” in this repackaged version reads Cervantes in a sharper and more critical frame, despite initially describing the stories as “soft pieces of Pleasure,” “Innocent Delights,” “a Mirrour to represente some of your owne Beautyes, either of Minde or Body, to your selves.” It continues:

Here are no knots of Language, that will give you any paines to unty; the sense wil be as easily undrest as your selves; yet the designes are so finely woven and stuck with such a well-digested variety (the Author like a Cunning hawke, often seeming to fly from the Prey he intends to fly at) as your Expectations will finde it no easie task to take them by the right Ends, before they come at them.[19]

The bawdy analogy between female readers and the sense of the stories, both being easily denuded, figures reading as an erotic uncovering. However, by tempting readers to fall into the gaps and holes in the stories, they are constantly reminded of the dangers of reading unwarily, underlining the need for a self-consciously moral reception. So while Cervantine narrative sleight of hand, the playing on generic expectation, resistance to closure, and digressive complication so typical of his gnomic, riddling, and self-canceling style might appear to be a kind of seduction, ultimately the author’s hermeneutic games with the reader underline their more serious “right Ends.” This literary criticism is considerably more acute than Mabbe’s. Although it is framed by a conceit of dress (the stories are garments, “finely woven,” “stuck with . . . well-digested variety”), the nakedness underneath is both erotic and hermeneutic and thus didactic, producing reflection and self-reflection at the same time. Both dedications imagine the readership of the stories as predominantly female. While in 1640 the stories were figured exclusively as licit recreations, by the 1654 reissue during the English Republic, female moral rectitude had become more central to the way they were understood. The anonymous student of ladies’ delights connected the translation explicitly with the Jacobean stage versions that may have been inspired by an early, original manuscript of Mabbe’s translation; he suggests that “a paire of our Beste Poets,” presumably Beaumont and Fletcher, “did not scorne to dresse two of these Stories for our English Stage,” a reference to Love’s Pilgrimmage (1615) and The Chances (c. 1617). He goes even further and asserts that “the fairest Flowers of their Reputation” came “from our Authors Garden-plot.”[20] By pointing to the way their plots subvert, defeat, and toy constantly with readerly expectation, the commentator foregrounds the question of their exemplarity, equivocating between a feminine context eschewing deep moral seriousness and digressive, disrupted narratives whose discontinuities, by deliberately distracting readers, generate admiratio and make “right” ends unexpected and entertaining and at the same time make consideration of those ends central to the act of reading itself.

Recent scholarship on Mabbe has revolved around two newly discovered letters addressed to William Trumbull, English ambassador to the Netherlands, which appear to offer evidence of the translator’s religious and political commitments. The first one, from Mabbe himself and dated October 23, 1622, expresses skepticism about the Spanish match’s likely success and alludes to his tutoring of Trumble’s son, who according to the publisher Edward Blount a month later had become “a great proficient in the spanishe tongue, by the meanes of mr. James Mabbe.”[21] A year later Blount sent a confidential package on behalf of Mabbe to Trumbull. The second letter is from George Abbot, Trumbull’s principal political ally in England and archbishop of Canterbury, who accused Mabbe of being a crypto-Catholic spy. It asserts that Mabbe had “lived long in Italy and Spaine” and “brought home many vices with him.” After entering Abbot’s service, “plenty made him wanton, idle, and machinating mischeefe, and afterward I founde that hee served Diegos and the Jesuits turnes vpon mee.” These allegations arose from letters discovered by Abbot on his person, “machinations vnder his owne hande,” “in Spanishe, & some part of it in cipher, the rest in Turke words,” but their substance remained strangely intangible, “all to make discord . . . much of it fained,” “his protestations are with equivocation.”[22] According to the archbishop, Mabbe responded to these accusations while in confinement by sending a written personal attack against Abbot to the king. Yet Abbot had made similar charges in 1615 against William Laud and John Howson.[23] The murky world of translators, diplomats, and intelligencers engaged with Spain in this period naturally bred suspicions and accusations of secret Catholicism, especially in the context of the power struggle between the pro-Spanish faction and “an ardently Protestant and nationalist political position,” which included those like Abbot who vociferously opposed a Spanish match.[24] Political positions, cultural interests, and religious beliefs during this period, however, cannot be readily aligned: many members of the pro-Spanish faction were committed Protestants and believed that the match would help to reinstate Frederick and Elizabeth in Bohemia, whereas cultural Hispanophiles like John Fletcher formed part of the pro-war party; others, such as Endymion Porter, moved apparently unproblematically between religious worlds.

Much criticism of Mabbe’s 1631 The Spanish Bawd (a translation of La celestina) has explored the paganization of its Catholic references (oaths, mentions of the saints, and invocations of the Virgin) as part of a conscious strategy to minimize religiously controversial aspects of the text. However, it was preceded in 1629 by the publication of his translation of Cristóbal de Fonseca’s Catholic devotional tract Discurso para todos los Evangelios de la Cuaresma. An analogous argument that references to Catholicism were suppressed in his translation of The Spanish Ladie is equally misleading: this terminology is replaced by the neutral “Christian” and opposed to “the religion of the Countrey,”[25] which is left suitably vague, despite being a clear representation of Protestant Elizabethan England. At times doctrinally Catholic material is untouched, while at others it is subject to strategic minimization, but whether the reasons for this are aesthetic (so as not to distract a devout reader from the story), political (to avoid a repeat of Abbot’s insinuations), or personal, reflecting crypto-Catholicism, cannot be disentangled.[26] These differing translation strategies at different times, sometimes conforming to and sometimes openly contesting Catholic culture, suggest that in his translations Mabbe displayed an ecumenicism and breadth of conscience typified by Nicodemites like Endymion Porter. But it is impossible to infer from this anything about his own faith. Recusancy seems unlikely given the fact that Sir John Strangeways and the family of his first wife, Grace Tenchard, were both staunchly Protestant, although they, like everyone else in early-modern England, undoubtedly had connections with recusant families.

Strangeways’s commonplace book, compiled between 1645 and 1648 during his imprisonment in the Tower for his royalist sympathies, offers a glimpse into the religious thinking of Mabbe’s lifelong patron. It contains transcriptions on church governance, law, a fair few on drunkenness, miraculous occurrences in English history, a verse translation of Job 6, a rendering of The First prysoner: or the Comfort of Restraint by Joseph Hall, bishop of Norwich, who was Strangeways’s cellmate, extracts from religious treatises about death and preparing for it, an aphorism from Luis de Granada, whose popularity in translation throughout this period is an interesting reflection on the paucity of Protestant devotional material. Most poignant is an aphoristic commonplace, perhaps his own composition: “One syde makes Religion a marke of Rebellions And the other side makes rebellion a marke of Religion: And I feare they both hate Loyaltie & Religion.”[27] This irenic critique of religious radicalism resonates with the religious atmosphere of The Spanish Ladie, which deliberately pits religious and national loyalties against each other in the displaced setting of England to contest the apotheosis of faith as identity.

Critics have debated Mabbe’s skill as a translator largely in relation to his versions of La Celestina and Guzmán de Alfarache, which Fitzmaurice-Kelly described as a “triumph,” “a piece of masterly English prose.” Mabbe’s acuity as a reader of Spanish literature was praised by P. E. Russell, while Dorothy Severin, in her edition of The Spanish Bawd, described his style as “somewhat overwrought by comparison to the austerity of the original,” but “the most interesting translation.” The contrast between Cervantine simplicity and Baroque elaboration has led others to criticize Mabbean amplification and decry his “inimitable Jacobean English,” his tendency to use “two words instead of one,” and the frequency of “elaborate periphrases.” This complaint, however, misses the point of his translations, which simultaneously embrace the exotic foreignness of his source texts while being sensitive to political, ideological, and religious dimensions that rendered the very act of carrying over his Spanish material charged. Guadalupe Martínez Lacalle argues in her edition of the Alnwick manuscript that his “knowledge of Spanish was thorough and accurate, and the richness and flexibility of his English style enabled him to adapt the alternating learned and popular language of his Spanish original to the exuberant English prose of his own time.”[28] For Nicholas Round, Mabbe is a good translator, foregrounding “not the meanings but the recognizable pragmatics of the exchanges”; he is as “attentive to the speech act as to the speech,” plumping for a “pragmatic, scene-based rendering, targeted on rightness, not on accuracy.”[29] In short, Mabbe’s rhetorical amplifications targeted cognitive clarification, carrying over important elements of the source text, language, and culture into the translation.

Mabbe’s translation practice needs to be understood in the context of his lifelong role as a teacher of Spanish at Magdalen and the pedagogic practices typical of emergent multilingual vernacular culture, in which translations were often set alongside originals for the purpose of language learning, enriching domestic linguistic variety, and contesting cultural prestige. In his rendering of The Liberall Lover (El amante liberal), for example, the wholesale incorporation of Spanish idiomatic phrases and titles reflects this didactic purpose, while their explanation draws attention to the Mediterranean setting and Spanish cultural engagement with the Muslim, Ottoman East. Mabbe’s translation offers useful lessons, both linguistic and cultural, underlining how the relationship of translation to source could provide a reader with a cultural good, political intelligence, and pedagogic opportunity. In the story, Ricardo recounts to Mahamut how he has come into the hands of the viceroy of Tripoli and then Cyprus and refers to “the Alacade de los muertos, which is an Office of Inquirie concerning the dead, substituted by the great Turke; who as you know, is heire to those who are his naturall Subjects after their deaths” (el Alcayde de los muertos, que alli tiene el Gran Turco [que como sabes es heredero de los que no le dexan en su muerte]).[30] Leaving the title in Spanish, albeit mistranscribed, requires the definition of the term, while the awkwardness of “substituted” suggests an incomplete grasp of the political relations between Turkey and the Ottoman subject states, a lack of understanding compounded by offering “naturall Subjects” for “no le dexan,” which conflates fealty and religious identity. Although attempting to fill in the less familiar spaces of the Middle Sea, the translation reflects an incomplete grasp of “the porosity of the borders demarcated by religion, sexuality and political identity in the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean,” with its world of renegados, fluid religious affiliation, slaving, sexual excess, and patchwork of competing interests and powers.[31]

The attempt, deriving from his academic interest in Spanish, to convey the culturally relevant features of his source leads Mabbe to include idiomatic expressions or aphorisms such as “lo que se sabe sentir se sabe dezir,” translated as “He that knows his grief, knows how to speake it”—a reasonable communicative equivalent that supplies “grief” from the context rather than the more general feeling of the original.[32] Elsewhere, Mabbe offers “verses or Coplas,” using a significant Spanish loanword. On learning from Mahamut of Leonisa’s reaction to his purported death, Ricardo recalls the verses of the “Andaluz” and the “Catalan” (“Catalonia” is how Mabbe renders the place), two poets who, as Harry Sieber notes in the Cátedra edition, presumably are Garcilaso de la Vega and Juan Boscán.[33] However, the mistake must be deliberate and telling, at least on the part of Cervantes. Garcilaso was from Toledo, not Andalusia. The verses Ricardo goes on to cite in the original are also found in Cervantes’s Los baños de Argel, spoken by the gracioso figure, a sacristan, Tristán, glancing fearfully at his captor, Caurali.[34] Cervantes’s passing off material from his own play as Garcilaso’s might be an ironic riposte to his detractors as a versifier; however, they are probably not even by Cervantes, given that they also appear in a manuscript miscellany of the humanist Alvar Gómez de Castro.[35] The poem itself is deliberately inapposite. Mabbe does not even attempt a translation, instead supplying a poem of his own composition, taking its cue from the story and more obviously appropriate to the context: “Whilest I behold thy glittering golden hayres, / Disheveld thus, moving about thy eares, / And see those lockes thus loosed and undone, / For their more pompe to sport them in the Sunne, / Love takes those threads, and weaves them with that Art, / Hee knits a thousand knots about my heart.”[36] Whether Mabbe supplied doggerel of his own in imitation of the Cervantine original because he missed the point completely or whether he sought to improve and supplement the original with a more legible and apt poem or even whether he avoided a self-conscious, metafictional irony, whose humor would inevitably be lost in translation, given its dependence on the reader’s awareness of Cervantes’s authorial self-fashioning, Mabbe’s substitution demonstrates that his attitude was not always wholly reverential toward his source. He might add hermeneutic translations and supply explanatory notes within his translation, but at other times he was equally happy to excise, alter, and recontextualize.

One passage that exemplifies these opposing strategies—the movement between semantic plenitude, didactic exposition, and economic communicative equivalence—is when the Christian captive, Leonisa, is brought for sale before the qadi and pashas by a Jewish merchant:

vna muger vestida en habito berberisco, tan bien adereçada y compuesta, que no lo pudiera estar tan bien la mas rica mora de Fez, ni de Marruecos, que en adereçarse lleuan la ventaja a todas las africanas, aunque entren las de Argel con sus perlas tantas. Venia cubierto el rostro con vn tafetan carmesi. Por las gargantas de los pies, que se descubrian, parecian dos carcajes, que assi se llaman las manillas en arabigo, al parecer de puro oro; y en los braços, que assimismo por vna camisa de cendal delgado se descubrian o trasluzian, traia otros carcajes de oro, sembrados de muchas perlas. En resolución, en quanto el trage, ella venia rica y gallardamente adereçada.

Admirados desta primera vista el cadi y los demas baxaes, antes que otra cosa dixessen, ni preguntassen, mandaron al iudio que hiziesse que se quitasse el antifaz la christiana. Hizolo asi y descubrio vn rostro, que assi deslumbro los ojos y alegró los corazones de los circunstantes, como el sol, que, por entre cerradas nubes, despues de mucha escuridad, se ofrece a los ojos de los que le dessean, tal era la belleza de la cautiua christiana, y tal su brio y gallardia.

a Woman in a Barbarie habite so well made and set forth, that the richest Moore in Fez, or Morocco, was not able to compare therewith; for in her whole dresse throughout, she surpassed all Affrican women; yea, though all those of Argier’s presented themselves there with all their Pearles and rich embroideries. She came in, having her face covered with a scarfe of Crimson taffeta about the smalles of her legges (which discovered themselves) there appeared two golden chaines of pure burnisht gold; and on her armes, which likewise through a smocke Cendall, or thinne Taffeta-Sarcenet, were transparant, shewed themselves to the searching curious eyes of the beholders; she ware two bracelets of gold, wherein were set scatteringly here and there, many fayre Pearles and precious Stones. In conclusion, the fashion of her cloathes and all other habiliments about her were such, that she presented her selfe before them, most richly and gorgeously atyred.

The Cadi, and the other two Bashaw’s upon the very first sight of her, being mightily taken; before any other thing was sayd or questioned by them, they willed the Iew, that hee should take the scarfe from off the Christians face; Hee did so, and withall did discover such a splendour, and such a beautifull countenance, as did dazle the eyes, and glad the hearts of all the standers by: As the Sunne scarfed with clouds, after much darknesse, offers it selfe to the eyes of those who long for its desired presence; such, and no otherwise then such was the beautie of this Captived Christian, in this her braverie and gallantry.[37]

The first line recasts the comparison between African women and women from Fez, Morocco, and Algiers, which is reliant on knowledge of local lore, and focuses exclusively on Leonisa. The explanation of the term “carcaje,” for which the narrator offers “manillas” as a Castilian equivalent, typifies the Cervantine interest in translation and language, particularly connections between “cristiano” and Arabic and its equivalents. Cervantes’s narrators consistently explore the ways in which language can mediate cultural, political, or social relations: his poetics return obsessively to the equivalence or nonequivalence of language and problems of meaning and interpretation. His exploration of slang and germanía in “Rinconete y Cortadillo” is central to his rewriting of the picaresque as a linguistic game, which makes its social critique less didactic but perhaps more acute. Cutting the attempted mediation between Spanish and Arabic in relation to dress, Mabbe’s rendering of the term, presumably meaning anklets, as golden chains appears to be a contextual guess. By contrast, a few lines later, he leaves in the Spanish “Cendall,” while offering in addition as translation “Taffeta-Sarcenet.” The original’s doubling up of the verbs “descubrir” and “traslucir” is reduced to the calque “shewed themselves,” while the scene’s erotic charge is individualized further through the unnecessary addition of “to the searching curious eyes of the beholders.” If the Cervantine story explores how beauty collapses religious, cultural, and geographical differences, Mabbe sexualizes the scene by reversing the quasi-religious emanation of light from Leonisa’s body to focus on the desiring gaze of her voyeurs and potential buyers. The slightly awkward English “scarfe” for the cloth covering her face is picked up on in the following metaphor of the sun appearing from behind clouds, “Sunne scarfed.” There are opposing tendencies in the translation. At one moment it seeks to squeeze every drop of cultural significance from the Spanish original, through cultural borrowing; at others, it recontextualizes, dropping Cervantes’s fascination with the Muslim Mediterranean world, scene of his heroic martial triumphs and traumatic Algerian captivity. Calque, neologism, and cultural borrowing are counterbalanced by omissions, insertions, and recontextualizations that familiarize exotic elements for his English readership.

In The Two Damosels, Mabbe’s handling of dense and culturally complex concepts like “recogimiento” reveals his sophistication as an intercultural agent and the necessary compromises and creative repositionings forced on the translator. The term refers both to physical enclosure and, metonymically, to female chastity and virtue. In Teodosia’s discourse, her phrase “di con todo mi recogimiento en tierra” is rendered “I set all my retirednes at six and seavens, not caring which way the world went.” The idiomatic expression “at six and seavens” is derived from a French dice game, but after 1484 it alluded to a dispute over precedence between the Merchant Taylors and Skinners livery companies whose resolution meant that they alternated between sixth and seventh place in London’s mayoral processions. According to the examples of its earliest use given in the Oxford English Dictionary, “retirednes” was used in English as an antonym for “familiarity” and as a synonym for “reserve” and “melancholy.” Just above, Teodosia had referred to her noble education, the “recogimiento y recato” taught to her, translated as “warinesse and circumspection.”[38] Within the space of a few lines Mabbe translates the same term in completely different ways. The inadequacy of “retirednes” as a translation is signaled by the supplementing phrase “not caring. . . .” Similarly, in Marco Antonio’s speech in which he excuses himself, the translation problem presented by “discurso” is overcome through amplification:

hizelo con poco discurso y con juyzio de mozo, como lo soy, creyendo que todas aquellas cosas eran de poca importancia, y que las podia hazer sin escrupulo alguno.

I did therein unadvisedly and undescreetly, and (as a young man as I am) without any discourse or judgement. Thinking with my self that all those things of this nature, were but tricks of youth, and of little or no importance, and that I might doe them without any scruple at all.[39]

The original’s “con poco discurso y con juyzio de mozo” becomes “unadvisedly and undescreetly,” as well as “without any discourse or judgement.” The version retains the paired qualities, but “discourse” clearly not making sense in English leads to a doubling up, retaining literal, as well as communicative, equivalents. The “elaborate periphrases” and Baroque Jacobean English supposedly characteristic of Mabbe’s style are in fact academic responses to textual difficulties, combining literal and connotative levels that allow the translation to function as a pedagogic tool and simultaneously move the reader toward Spain’s cultural world.

Another example of this technique is the translation of “Teodoro puso ahincadamnete los ojos en su rostro, y mirandole algo curiosamente” as “fixed his eyes very wishly, and beholding somewhat curiously with a prying look.” It supplies “with a prying look,” although “fixed” works well for “puso.” Nevertheless, “wishly” is an awkward neologism for “ahincadamente,” while “tenia las orejas horadadas” as “had holes boared through the tippes of his eares” more than doubles Cervantes’s economical four words. John Minsheu’s dictionary, which we know Mabbe used for other translations, has both “to boare” for “horadar” (spelled with oa rather than o) and “pearse.” Leocadia, addressing Marco Antonio, asserts that she has done “vuestro gusto en todo lo que quisistes,” or “applied herself to your gust and liking in all whatsoever you desired.”[40] The translation “gust” is particularly odd, as if expecting his anglicizing transliteration to be adopted into English. The same word in the form it was adopted into English, “gusto,” had appeared in his 1629 translation of Cristóbal de Fonseca, the earliest recorded usage. His cultural borrowing, as well as being anglicized by dropping the o in 1640, is also amplified into the dyad “gust and liking.”

All these examples underline the complexity of the relationship between Mabbe’s translations and their originals. The translation strategy aims to enrich English with Spanish loanwords, seeking linguistic equivalence but also cultural clarification, typified by the use of “gust” instead of “gusto” presumably in the hope that it would become a new English coinage. The translations often cleave to the original, showing how English can capture the nuances of the original Spanish, but they also import and appropriate Spanish linguistic riches through borrowings, neologism, and amplification, as well as by simply incorporating aphorisms and titles wholesale from, for example, the Muslim Mediterranean world so familiar to Cervantes. The amplifications and borrowings speak of a reverential attitude to the original and of a didactic impulse counterbalanced by omissions, calques, and transliterations. The translations move between elucidating appropriations of the Spanish and supplementation or omission.

Mabbe’s translations are also a crucial aspect of the evolving reception of Cervantes in England. In La fuerza de la sangre, the words “verguenza” and “pundonor” are never used of Leocadia or Rodolfo by Cervantes, while “deshonra” is used to refer to the rape itself in relation to both protagonists.[41] However, Mabbe’s translation reintroduces “shame” and its cognates into the story, for example, by translating “se redujo a cubrir la cabeza, como dicen, y a vivir recogidamente debajo del amparo de sus padres, con vestido tan honesto como pobre” as “hiding her head (as they say) for shame; she betooke her selfe to a private and retyred course of life, under the shelter and protection of her Parents, being honestly, and decently, though but porely clad.”[42] There are two ways of seeing this reframing of the story. It may miss the complexity of Cervantine irony and emphasize the story’s Spanish context by playing on English stereotypes of Spain as an honor-obsessed country. Dryden, who adapted Las dos doncellas as The Rival Ladies (1664), lamented (somewhat hypocritically perhaps), “I hate your Spanish honour ever since it spoiled our English plays.”[43] Or it may be a deliberate move to foreground moralizing aspects of the story for its English female readership. There is no doubt that the dramatist John Fletcher sexed up Cervantes in his stagings of the stories, in order to bring their ethical problems to the surface.[44] It seems likely that Cervantes’s avoidance of shame in this story was meant to serve as a reflection on the nature of “casos de la honra” and their role in contemporary Spanish culture.

Mabbe’s translation of the Novelas ejemplares situates them, through his selection and dedication, in relation to a particular social class and female readership, a placement extended in the subsequent edition by the lover of ladies’ pleasure. The stories are framed by a particular poetics of prose fiction, as licit entertainment, lacking profound moral seriousness, although the reissue is more appreciative of their ethical complexity. Broader ironies in Cervantine texts are missed because of their dependence on the author within his own text: the self-conscious, metafictionality so characteristic of the “manco of Lepanto,” the pseudo-Garcilasan poem, and the critique of the dynamic driving so many fictions on Golden Age Spain “honra.” The frequency with which Mabbe leaves foreign terms and even aphorisms in the translation suggests that, for him and his readers, fiction necessarily involved a cultural engagement with Spain that extended to its language. Leaving such exotic terms in may well have been a selling point. The traces of possible academic uses sit alongside invocations of cliché, stereotypical views of Spanish culture. Despite the frequency of allusions to Cervantes, his characters, and his stories in seventeenth-century England, attested to in Randall and Boswell, his influence on English prose fiction was not felt until a century later.[45] The immediate, instantaneous influence of his short stories in plots for the stage was not matched by an interest in them as prose fiction, despite Don Quixote’s success.

The complexity of the stories and the deceptively dense nature of Cervantine prose are successfully and accurately rendered in Mabbe’s clear, readable versions, even if their elaborate amplifications have given the impression of an overwrought style. More interesting than questions about his fidelity or accuracy as a translator, though, is what his translations can tell us about England’s engagement with Spanish culture more broadly. That the particular publishing strategy adopted in publishing a lavish folio volume dedicated to a young woman whose family linked her to the world of marine insurance was unsuccessful is apparent from the reissue. The borrowings, calques, transplantation, and the pedagogical strain apparent everywhere in the translation indicate its admiring, deferential attitude to Spain and its most famous writer. In an England where a demonized, sexually rapacious, tyrannical, and cruel Spaniard dominated the popular imagination, these stories supported elements of that critique, featuring the moribund, unenterprising, status-obsessed, and intellectually repressive space of the “Black Legend.” Precisely those targets who stood in the way of progress are those found in these Exemplary Novels: unproductive, leisured aristocrats who commit offences with impunity, the criminal underclass who reflect and reproduce the values of those above them through the dystopian inversion of the (neo)picaresque, the world of the honor code and double standard. Mabbe’s translation of the novellas is about traveling to Spain and its world; it moves toward the cultural space of England’s greatest rival from the period, yet that world is remapped in terms of a cultural geography legible to an English readership and resituated socially and politically in relation to a courtly world in retreat. The differences between the two editions bring out even more clearly the way that Cervantes’s stories were imported to be sold to gentlewomen and the middling sort: instead of targeting idle aristocrats for some sort of political transformation, they aim at the gentle cultivation of virtue at a level below politics and court, whose dangers Mabbe was all too familiar with. Cervantes was an international publishing sensation, whose humor, irony, and playful attitude to genre were all destined initially for the stage, until his apotheosis in the bourgeois eighteenth-century novel, in the context of which the ethical seriousness underlying their apparent lightheartedness would become apparent.[46]





[1Les nouvelles, trans. François de Rosset and Vital d’Audiguier (Paris: Jean Richer, 1615), with an additional story by Sieur de Bellan. Vital d’Audiguier was also the translator of El peregrino en su patria into French.

[2] Esther Crooks, The Influence of Cervantes in France in the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1931); George Hainsworth, Les “Novelas ejemplares” de Cervantes en France au XVIIe siècle (Paris: Champion, 1933); José Manuel Losada Goya, Bibliographie critique de la littérature espagnole en France au XVIIe siècle: Présence et influence (Geneva: Droz, 1999); and Guiomar Hautcoeur Pérez-Espejo, Parentés franco-espagnoles au XVIIe siécle: Poétique de la nouvelle de Cervantes á Challe (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2005).

[3] Dale B. J. Randall and Jackson Boswell, Cervantes in Seventeenth-Century England: The Tapestry Turned (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[4] Exemplarie Novells; in Sixe Books. The two Damosels. The Ladie Cornelia. The liberall Lover. The force of bloud. The Spanish Ladie. The jealous Husband. Fvll of Variovs Accidents Both Delightfull and Profitable. By Migvel de Cervantes Saavedra; One of the prime Wits of Spaine, for his rare Fancies, and wittie Inventions. Turned into English by Don-Diego Pvede-Ser. [Printer’s block] London, Printed by John Dawson, for R. M. and are to be sold by Laurence Blaicklocke: at his Shop at the Sugar-loafe next Temple Barre in Fleestreet. 1640.

[5] See Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry. Mabbe must already have spoken Spanish. The Alnwick manuscript translation of La celestina, published in 1631, has been dated to c. 1602–3; see below.

[6] National Archives SP94/19, fols. 210–11.

[7] Rimas de Lope de Vega Carpio. Aora de Nuevo añadidas. Con el Nuevo Arte de hazer Comedias deste tiempo. Año 1613. Con Privilegio. En Madrid, Por Alonso Martin. A costa de Miguel de Siles Librero, Balliol College Oxford 700.a.14.

[8] Guadalupe Martínez Lacalle, “Nuevas aportaciones a la biografía de Mabbe,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 49 (1972): 143, 146–47.

[9] James Fitzmaurice-Kelly described the Rogue as a “triumph,” “a piece of masterly English prose,” in his The Rogue; or, The Life of Guzman de Alfarache, Tudor Translations, ser. 2, vols. 2–5 (London: Constable, 1924), xxiii. 

[10] Mabbe contributed an anagram to Florio’s Queen Anna’s New World of Words of 1611, published by Edward Blount, the printer responsible for three other translations by Mabbe, as well as Thomas Shelton’s Quixote, part 1, and the first complete edition in 1620. 

[11] T. S. Graves, “Ralph Crane and the King’s Players,” Studies in Philology 21 (1924): 365.

[12] Alnwick Castle MS 510. On its dating, see José María Pérez Fernández, ed., James Mabbe, “The Spanish Bawd,” Modern Humanities Research Association Tudor and Stuart Translations 10 (London: MHRA, 2013), 14.

[13] Another possible transmission pathway is the French translation Les nouvelles by Rosset and d’Audiguier.

[14] Trudi Darby and Barry Ife, “Remorse, Retribution and Redemption in La fuerza de la sangre: Spanish and English Perspectives,” in A Companion to Cervantes’s “Novelas ejemplares,” ed. Stephen Boyd (London: Tamesis, 2005), 172–90.

[15] John Yamamoto-Wilson, “Mabbe’s Maybes: A Stuart Hispanist in Context,” Translation and Literature 21 (2012): 334; and Thomas Hart, Cervantes’ Exemplary Fictions: A Study of the “Novelas ejemplares” (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994), 41.

[16] Exemplarie Novells, sig. A3r–v. 

[17] Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Novelas ejemplares (Madrid: Juan de la Cuesta, 1613), sig. ¶¶4v.

[18] Delight in severall shapes, drawne to the life in six pleasant histories by the elegant pen of that famous Spaniard, Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the same that wrote Don Quixot. Now rendred into English (London: William Sheares, 1654).

[19] Exemplarie Novells, sig. A2r.

[20] Ibid., sig. A2v. The Beaumont and Fletcher First Folio had come out in 1647.

[21] José María Pérez Fernández, “Translation, Diplomacy and Espionage: New Insights into James Mabbe’s Career,” accessed June 24, 2014, A shorter version of this article is in Translation and Literature 23 (2014): 1–22.

[22] The letters are transcribed and discussed in Gary Taylor, “The Cultural Politics of Maybe,” in Theatre and Religion: Lancastrian Shakespeare, ed. Richard Dutton, Alison Finlay, and Richard Wilson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 242–58 (quotations from 246).

[23] Yamamoto-Wilson, “Mabbe’s Maybes,” 330.

[24] Taylor, “The Cultural Politics of Maybe,” 248.

[25] Exemplarie Novells, sig. Ee1v.

[26] Both Taylor (“The Cultural Politics of Maybe”) and Yamamoto-Wilson (“Mabbe’s Maybes”) cite a line from Mabbe’s translation of The Rogue, “Spaine, my beloved Countrey, Faith’s true keeper,” and offer opposing interpretations. Is its inclusion significant or was Mabbe just translating? There were a number of high-profile conversions to Catholicism by English nobles in the 1620s and 1630s, particularly among figures associated with the Spanish embassy.

[27] “A Collection of some notes for my owne private use, gathered out of severall authors as they haue bin read by me. Strangways: wherof most in the Tower–1645 during the Tyme of my sad imprysonment ther” (Osborn MS b304, Beinecke Library, Yale University, p. 71).

[28] All quoted in Nicholas Round, “What Makes Mabbe so Good?,” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 78 (2001): 146–48.

[29] Ibid., 160.

[30] Exemplarie Novells, sig. S1r / Novelas ejemplares, sig. F6r.

[31] For a recent consideration of the cultural context of the story, see Elizabeth Howe, “Cervantes and the Mediterranean Frontier: The Case of ‘El amante liberal,’” Forum for Modern Language Studies 50 (2013): 113–23 (quotation on 118).

[32] Exemplarie Novells, sig. S1v–2r.

[33] Miguel de Cervantes, Novelas ejemplares, ed. Harry Sieber (Madrid: Cátedra, 1992), 164n56.

[34] “Como cuando el sol asoma / por una montaña baja / y de súpito nos toma, / y con su vista nos doma / nuestra vista y la relaja; / como la piedra balaja, / que no consiente carcoma: / tal es el tu rostro, Aja / dura lanza de Mahoma, / que las mis entrañas raja” (Los baños de Argel, >3.123–33). See the discussion of these verses and the passage cited below in Barbara Fuchs, Passing for Spain: Cervantes and the Fictions of Identity (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 69–71, which focuses on the way that the erotic blurs the Islamic/Christian divide and the reversals of perspective and displacement of narrative perspective implicit in the blonde Moor figure.

[35] Pedro Córdoba, “Cita y autocita en Cervantes,” in La recepción del texto literario, ed. Jean-Pierre Etienvre and Leonardo Romero (Zaragoza: Universidad de Zaragoza, 1988), 49.

[36] Exemplarie Novells, sig. V1r.

[37] Novelas ejemplares, sig. F8r / Exemplarie Novells, sig. S3r–v.

[38] Novelas ejemplares, sig. Bb1r–v / Exemplarie Novells, sig. C1r–v.

[39] Novelas ejemplares, sig. Cc6v / Exemplarie Novells, sig. G1v.

[40] Novelas ejemplares, sig. Cc5v / Exemplarie Novells, sig. F4v.

[41] I would like to thank my colleague Elena Carrera for pointing this out to me.

[42] Novelas ejemplares, sig. R2v / Exemplarie Novells, sig. F4v.

[43] John Loftis, “La comedia española en la Inglaterra del siglo XVII,” in La comedia española y el teatro europeo del siglo XVII, ed. Henry Sullivan, Raúl A. Galoppe, and Mahlon Stoutz (London: Tamesis, 1999), 111.

[44] Diana de Armas Wilson, “Of Piracy and Plackets: Cervantes’ La señora Cornelia and Fletcher’s The Chances,” in Cervantes for the 21st Century, ed. Francisco La Rubia Prado (Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 2000), 49–60.

[45] Randall and Boswell, Cervantes in Seventeenth-Century England.

[46] The belated influence of Cervantes may reflect Spain’s and England’s contrasting and competing literary histories. The connection of Don Quixote with the decadence and decline of Spain, in contrast to locating Shakespeare at the origin of England’s cultural ascent, reflects the shifting balance of power between the two countries by the eighteenth century. See Barbara Fuchs, “Golden Ages and Golden Hinds; or, Periodizing Spain and England,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 127 (2012): 321–27. 

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Shakespeare and Cervantes Then and Now

An early modern transatlantic world in which information moved slowly could hardly have noticed the date, but 407 years later it registers for us: on April 23, 1616 in the Julian and the Gregorian calendars, about eleven natural days apart, something ended. And perhaps something else began.


Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, ages 68 and 52 respectively, died on this date. One of them covered the peninsular and Mediterranean world of his time as a chamberlain and soldier, while the other moved between his native town and the capital, only a hundred miles apart. One tried most of the avenues open to a young man of precarious social status (and perhaps converso lineage), while the other settled into a routine and increasingly prosperous existence in a new industry.  

While Cervantes was older, they belonged to a single generation of thinkers and writers born in the years around 1550: this was a group (including Félix Lope de Vega in Spain and Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney in England) for whom the religious divisions of the early Renaissance were a settled fact, who accepted the power of their vernacular languages, and who saw literary genres without classical precedents arise to represent their world. By the mid-century moment in which Cervantes and Shakespeare were born, the Renaissance is a conscious period with several phases in its past, generational differences, and at least one major episode yet to be written in the seventeenth century, to which both writers will contribute in the late phase of their careers.

What ended on April 23, 1616, and what began? This Colloquy gathers current work, formal and informal, on both figures, together and apart. Recent books by Jeffrey Masten and Zachary Lesser, excerpted here, represent the turn in Shakespeare studies toward a discursive philology grounded in textual particulars. A post by our longstanding blogger William Egginton, drawn from his book of 2016 titled The Man Who Invented Fiction, addresses the durable topic of how Cervantes built characters. Alexander Samson's article on James Mabbe's translation of the Exemplary Novels, which first appeared in Republics of Letters in 2015, revisits the question of what seventeenth-century English adaptations took from Cervantes and redirects our attention to Mabbe's work as an "intercultural agent." Several of Arcade's contributing bloggers of past years—Timothy Hampton, Ruth Kaplan, and Ricardo Padrón—are represented by their observations out of reading and teaching. And my lecture to the audience of Humanities West, a San Francisco institution that promotes the public humanities, is intended to introduce the relation between Shakespeare and Cervantes in a somewhat provocative spirit. Consider this Colloquy an invitation to think at once about these two figures, and perhaps to contribute your own work or comment.  

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