The Spanish language, or “The Language of Cervantes”?


Miguel Cervantes is perhaps Spain’s most important literary figure of all time. He is not only known as one of the best and most accomplished writers of the Spanish language, but of the Western world as well. His works are still read and respected by readers of all languages, even now, 400 years later, but it is his mark on Spanish culture and the Spanish language that is most pronounced.

The influence on Spanish language that Cervantes had is often compared to the immense influence that William Shakespeare is known to have had on the English language. Shakespeare not only contributed hundreds of words to the English language, but set the bar for literary style and nuanced use of words, expressions and meanings that stands to this day. Cervantes set a similar standard for the Spanish language, particularly with his most famous work, Don Quixote, which is full of beautiful plays on words, vivid metaphors and pervasive neologisms. In fact, his contribution to the Spanish language is so great, the Spanish language itself is referred to in certain circles as la lengua de Cervantes, or “the language of Cervantes”.

While Cervantes perhaps did not contribute as many words in terms of sheer volume to the Spanish language as Shakespeare did for English, he did contribute several words and expressions that even managed to find their way over to the English language. Cervantes is credited for introducing to us the word “quixotic”, after his most notable character, Don Quixote, meaning idealistic, unrealistic or impractical. He is also credited with introducing the several important expressions to the Spanish culture, such as por la muestra se conoce el paño, which literally translates to “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, or rather “the proof is in the pudding” as we say in English.

Born in September of 1547, Cervantes lived a long and varied life, whose story itself would lend well to an epic tome of its own. Cervantes by all accounts lived a rich life full of many experiences, professions and locations. By all accounts Cervantes was born to a poor family near Madrid, but had been an avid reader since childhood. Not much is known about his early life until he eventually leaves Madrid for Rome, and rumor has it not by choice. It is not known for certain what forced him into exile in Italy, some said he fled to avoid arrest, other say it was because of a duel gone wrong, but what is certain is that he spent several years here before joining the Spanish navy in 1575. His motivations for joining the Spanish navy are unknown, but could have been a move to ingratiate himself again with Spain in order to end his exile.

During his time serving in the Spanish navy, Cervantes fought in many battles, and sailed on many ships, eventually sustaining an injury that left him without the use of his left arm. Despite this injury, Cervantes continued to serve in the Spanish navy until one fateful day his ship was attacked by pirates off the coast of Algiers, and he was captured by Barbary pirates. Cervantes was held captive for five years in North Africa, and lived life as a slave during this time. Finally, after years of searching, Cervantes’ family located him, and the Trinitarian church helped pay his ransom and he was returned to Madrid.

It was only at this time, later in life, that Cervantes began to focus on his true calling – writing. His first novel, published in 1585 was titled La Galatea, but like most authors, both of his time and even now, he was not able to support himself through his writing alone. Because of this, he began working as a tax collector, but was shortly suspected of embezzling money and promptly thrown in jail for several months. It was after this short stint in jail that he began to write the works that would make him a household name for some 400 years.

The world famous Don Quixote, Cervantes’ most prestigious work, was published in two volumes, one in 1605, and the second a decade later in 1615. Don Quixote is widely attributed with being the first modern novel, due in part to the incredibly realistic portrayal and level of detail used in character development, as well as the style of writing. Prior to Don Quixote most novels were written in more poetic styles rather than plain Castilian. Don Quixote has more than stood the test of time, and is not only still a world famous classic, but still considered to be “among the best works of fiction ever written”, and he is still known as el príncipe de los ingenios, or “The Prince of Wits”.

After the publication of Don Quixote, he was catapulted back in the great literary circles of the time, and he settled in Madrid by 1607, where he would remain until his death. It was really the last decade of his life where he took his rightful place as one of the world’s most prestigious writers. Many of his works seemed to draw heavily from his life experiences, with several set in Algiers where he had himself been held captive, and the character Don Quixote also experienced captivity, as well a brief moment in jail. Cervantes passed away in Madrid in 1616 at the age of 68, possibly due to complications from Diabetes. Interestingly enough, his death occurred at almost the exact time as Shakespeare, his English language equivalent, himself passed away. One more collection of his works, los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, “The Works of Persiles and Sigismunda” were published posthumously.

Miguel de Cervantes works are still revered to this day, and his name lives on as the namesake of the prestigious Cervantes literary prize. This prize is awarded every year to celebrate the lifetime achievements of Spanish authors, and honor their contributions to the Spanish language. Not only is this the most esteemed literary prize in the Spanish language, it is among the most revered accomplishments across the literary world as a whole.

Cervantes story does not end here, however. In 2015 remains were found under a Trinitarian convent, and are thought to belong to Cervantes, and his wife. Controversy has ensued, whereby some believe his remains would not be disturbed while others have grand plans to build a museum in his honor that would then house his bones.

It’s because of talented Spanish language translation and copy editing services such as Spanish with Style that non-Spanish speakers of the world are able to not only read great Spanish language classics such as Don Quixote, but to be able to truly appreciate the linguistic skill of the author of this literary work. Professional translators are highly skilled in not just translating the words, but capturing the essence and emotions evoked by timeless, world class writing. The same can be said for any translation needs, translating words is not enough, it is just as important to ensure the proper meaning is being invoked, which is why it is important to leave all translations up to the professionals.

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