Thomas Shelton (translator)

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Not to be confused with Thomas Shelton (stenographer).

Thomas Shelton (fl. 1612–1620) was the English translator of Don Quixote. Shelton's was the first translation of the novel into any language.


Light was thrown on Thomas Shelton's personal history by the researches of Alexander T. Wright in a paper published in October 1898. Among the kinsfolk of the Earl of Suffolk were three persons bearing the name Thomas Shelton, and though all died before 1600 he was probably a member of the same family. He has been identified with the Thomas Shelton who wrote a sonnet prefixed to the Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (1605) of Richard Verstegan, who was most likely the friend referred to in Shelton's preface, for there is reason to believe that both of them were then involved in the intrigues of the Roman Catholics in England.

He seems to have been employed in carrying letters to persons in England from Lord Deputy Fitzwilliam at Dublin Castle. But in 1599 he apparently acted as agent for Florence McCarthy to offer his service to the king of Spain, a commission for which his knowledge of Spanish especially fitted him. Soon afterwards an official précis of the facts was drawn up, in which Shelton was implicated by name. A second version of this document in 1617 is actually signed by him, but all reference to his share in the matter is omitted. Lady Suffolk, the wife of his patron, received yearly £1000 in secret service money from the Spanish king, and Shelton may have been her accomplice. If the "many affairs of his preface were official he would not wish to call attention to his antecedents by owning friendship with Verstegan".

The Quixote translation[edit]

In the dedication of The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant Don-Quixote of the Mancha (1612) he explains to his patron, Lord Howard de Walden, afterwards 2nd Earl of Suffolk",[1]:xxxiii–xxxiv that he "Translated some five or six yeares agoe, The Historie of Don-Quixote, out of the Spanish tongue, into the English ... in the space of forty daies: being therunto more than half enforced, through the importunitie of a very deere friend, that was desirous to understand the subject."[1]:3

As source, Shelton did not use either of the authorized 1605 editions of the First Part of Cervantes' masterpiece, but an edition published in Brussels, in the Spanish Netherlands, in 1607.[1]:xxx–xxxiii Shelton's translation of the First Part of the novel was published while Cervantes was still alive. On the appearance of the Brussels imprint of the Second Part of Don Quixote in 1616, the year of Cervantes's death, Shelton translated that also into English, completing his task in 1620, and printing at the same time a revised edition of the First Part.

His performance has become a classic among English translations for its racy, spirited rendering of the original, but has been faulted by translators such as John Ormsby (who had a fondness for it), for being so literal that certain words and phrases are completely mistranslated. ("Gustos", for example, means "delights" or "likings", but Shelton renders it as "gusts", and "dedos", which literally means "fingers", is rendered as such by Shelton, although the word can also mean "inches", which is the way Cervantes intends it.) Ormsby states, in his introduction to his own 1885 translation, that Shelton failed to recognize that a Spanish word can have more than one shade of meaning, and accuses Shelton of not having had a good knowledge of Spanish. In his introduction to the Tudor Translations (1896) reprint of Shelton's translations, James Fitzmaurice-Kelly sees the performance otherwise: "Shelton's title to remembrance is based upon the broadest grounds. He had no sympathy for the arid accuracy that juggles with a gerund or toys with the crabbed subjunctive. From the subtleties of syntax, as from the bonds of prosody he sallies free; and the owls of pedantry have bitterly resented his arrogant disdain for them and theirs. And they have sought to avenge themselves, after their manner, by reproaching him with taking a disjunctive for an interjection, and with confounding of predicate and subject. They act after their kind. But Shelton's view of his function was ampler and nobler than the hidebound grammarian's. He appeals to the pure lover of literature; and as a man of letters he survives."[1]:xlii

Both parts of Shelton's Don Quixote are available in Fitzmaurice-Kelly's reprint for the Tudor Translations (1896), which itself was reprinted by AMS Press in 1967,[1] and the First Part was also included in the famous Harvard Classics; the translation of the complete novel is reproduced in Macmillan's "Library of English Classics" with an introduction by A. W. Pollard, who incorporates the suggestions made by A. T. Wright in his Thomas Shelton, Translator.

Shelton's Don Quixote is available online from Project Gutenberg,[2] although most Cervantine scholars would recommend instead the translation of Ormsby, also available there.


  1. ^ a b c d e Fitzmaurice-Kelly, James (1967 reprint). The History of Don Quixote of The Mancha: Translated from the Spanish of Miguel De Cervantes by Thomas Shelton: Annis 1612, 1620: With Introductions by James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, Volume 1. New York: AMS Press.
  2. ^ Part I:; Part II:; both retrieved 2014-08-14

Public Domain This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.