there’s an adjective all too invitingly describing the wildly optimistic efforts of the American book collector, Hungarian-British explorer, and the two Cashmere pandits who took it upon themselves to translate Don Quixote into Sanskrit for the first time nearly a century ago.
Today, the same word could also be applied to the efforts of the Bulgarian-born Indologist and Tibetologist who saved their text from decades of obscurity.
In 1935, wealthy American businessman and book collector Carl Tilden Keller — whose shelves already contain Japanese, Mongolian and Icelandic translations of Cervantes’ masterpiece — embarked on a quest to get part of the book in an Indian language.
To do this, he enlisted the help of his friend, Sir Marc Aurel Stein, an eminent Orientalist, archaeologist and explorer who knew India well.
“I am honest enough to admit that while I recognize the childishness of this wish of mine, I am still extremely interested in carrying it out,” Keller wrote to Stein in November 1935.
dr. Dragomir Dimitrov, the editor of a new double English and Sanskrit edition to be presented on Wednesday at the Instituto Cervantes in Delhi, puts it a bit more bluntly: “Keller was aware it was kind of crazy, but he was willing to take the strange translation.”
The collector knew that the well-connected scholar Stein would know the right men for the job—and he did.
On behalf of Keller, he commissioned his friend the Kashmiri pandit – or Sanskrit scholar – Nityanand Shastri to undertake the translation. Despite being paralyzed by a stroke, Shastri agreed and recruited another pandit, Jagaddhar Zadoo, to be his co-translator.
Lacking Spanish, the two scholars worked from an 18th-century English translation of the Quixote by Irish painter and translator Charles Jarvis.
Almost exactly two years after Keller first expressed his childish desire, the work of the pandits was completed and Keller had eight chapters of the first part of Don Quixote in what Dimitrov describes as a “sweet and very accurate Sanskrit”.
When Keller died in 1955, the Sanskrit Quixote joined the collector’s many other treasures in a bequest to Harvard University.
It lay forgotten in the university library until 2012, when Dimitrov, spurred on by a 2002 article about the book written by Shastri’s grandson, tracked it down and started thinking about which English version to use for the translation. Then came plans for a bilingual, side-by-side edition of Sanskrit and 18th-century English, accompanied by a Sanskrit audiobook and music.
The new version, which was published by Pune University’s Indological Series, got a bit lost when it came out in 2019, not long before the Covid pandemic hit.
According to Óscar Pujol, the director of the Instituto Cervantes in Delhi and a fellow Sanskritist, the idea of Wednesday’s presentation is to give the achievement of science and love the attention it deserves.
“A manuscript is a very fragile thing, especially if no one knows it exists,” he says.
“What we have here is the world’s first modern novel – one of the most widely read and published books in the world – translated into one of the oldest languages in the world. I cannot explain what it means to have this translation.”
For Dimitrov, assistant professor at the Philipps University of Marburg in Germany, the text is a “fascinating and very high-quality” translation piece and “an intercultural project”.
But the letters between Stein and Keller, also published in the book, speak eloquently of their passion for the project despite — or perhaps because of — the horrors that approached.
“You have the energy and the drive and the good will to do this, but war came and Stein traveled from Oxford through Germany and he saw what was coming; what the Nazis were already preparing,” says Dimitrov.
“He was of Jewish descent and although he himself was not suffering, his family did. He was well aware of the bad times, yet they had the will to explore and put in all this intellectual effort. I thought that was quite remarkable.”
Equally excited is Shastri’s grandson, Surindar Nath Pandita, whose article and family lore prompt Dimitrov to seek out the mad knight’s wanderings in Kashmiri.
“During the late 19th and 20th centuries, there was a lively exchange of scholarship between Western scholars and Kashmiri Sanskrit scholars, when much of Kashmir’s classical literature was handled by the Western hand,” says Pandita.
“The translation of Don Quixote, however, was a special exception in that competition, because here the West wanted to embellish Western literature through the treatment of Kashmiri hands.”
For Pandita, recovering the “long-forgotten and lost manuscript” will also honor the friendships and intellectuals of the men who dreamed it existed.
“This all happened because of an extremely intimate, lifelong, devoted friendship between Sir Marc Aurel Stein, an iconic European scholar, and the Kashmiri Sanskrit savant who was my grandfather,” he says.
“It is a great tribute to the Indo-Spanish cultural ties and at the same time it is a tribute to a European and an Asian scholar who brought forth something that is the legacy of humanity: the widely admired classic novel Don Quixote.”