Thomas Shelton (translator)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Thomas Shelton (fl. 1612-1626), English translator of Don Quixote. Shelton's was the first translation of the novel into any language.

In the dedication of The delightfull history of the wittie knight, Don Quiskote (1612) he explains to his patron, Lord Howard de Walden, afterwards 2nd Earl of Suffolk, that he had translated Don Quixote from Spanish into English some five or six years previously in the period of forty days for a "very dear friend" who was unable to understand the original.

Shelton did not use the original edition of Cervantes, but a version published in the original Spanish in Brussels in 1607. (This was a translation of the First Part of the novel, 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, he 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. 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.

Light was thrown on Thomas Shelton's personal history by the researches of Mr 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. It seems safe to identify him 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 employed in a matter of doubtful loyalty, the intrigues of the Roman Catholics in England. He is also apparently the Thomas Shelton who developed an early system of shorthand, published in 1626 with the title Short Writing, later reissued as Tachygraphy; this system was used by Samuel Pepys to write his diary.

He was acquainted with the "cries of the wild Irish," and seems to have been honestly 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 First Part of Shelton's "Don Quixote" is available in Mr Fitzmaurice Kelly's reprint for the Tudor Translations (1892), and it 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 Mr AW Pollard, who incorporates the suggestions made by Mr AT Wright in his Thomas Shelton, Translator.





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