Sancho Panza's priceless coinages

Money is of no account to Alonso Quijano the Good. At the age of fifty, this Spanish gentleman is able to convert himself into Don Quijote de la Mancha, hire a squire and go out three times in search of adventures, each of which end up with him having to pay for the damage he's caused. He always pays with gold coins. And yet, upon his return home and his retirement, he is still in possession of a small but unexhausted fortune, and can make out his last will and testament.

Item, I direct that certain moneys, given to Sancho Panza while, in my madness, he served as my squire, shall be retained by him; inasmuch as he and I have had certain dealings, credits and debits alike, I wish him to make no acounting whatever, and should there be anything left over, once my just debts have been paid, that remainder shall be his, little though it may be, and may it serve him well, for if when I was mad I had a share in procuring him the governorship of an island, I now wish, being sane again that I could give him an entire kingdom [...]

Item, I direct that everything I possess, whether expressly or implicitly, shall pass to my niece, Antonia Quijana, here present, having first subtracted from whatever funds lie closest to hand the moneys necessary to fulfill my other requests -- and I wish the first payment she makes to be to my faithful housekeeper, for the wages owed her, plus an additional twenty gold pieces to buy herself a dress.

Money matters so little to the protagonist of Don Quijote that one of the book's recent translator's -- Burton Raffel ("A Norton Critical Edition," 1999) -- feels that money need not matter too much to him either. In his "Translator's Note," he writes:

Linguistic history also reveals that the German word thaler entered Spanish before it entered English, being used both in Spain and its colonies for the Spanish "piece of eight" coin, called (after the German) a dolar and worth eight reales. It was then borrowed -- strictly, re-borrowed -- as a monetary term, both in Britain and, later, in its North American colonies [...] With this largely forgotten history in mind, therefore, the many archaic monetary terms employed by Cervantes have been reduced to one, "dollar," well understood at that time as an English word of Spanish origin. If this is in some sense a linguistic compromise, on the facts it is clearly historically legitimated.

And so, to keep both himself and his readers from having to make costly conversions between "many archaic monetary terms" and today's currency, Raffel has reduced it all to "dollars."

But this action is far more than a simple "linguistic compromise" and it can not be "legitimated" by references to history and entymology. Don Quijote is full of conversions. Let's do a tally:

Item, in addition to the conversion of Alonso Quijano to Don Quijote and back again, there are many stories within the novel that concern the religious conversions of Moors into "New Christians" (cf. especially "The Captive's Tale"). At precisely the time that Cervantes was writing and publishing his epic tale, Spain decreed that the Moors residing in the country had to convert to Christianity or face expulsion.

Item, one of these conversos was Sidi Hamid Benegeli, a fictitious author to whom Cervantes attributed the original history of the adventures of Don Quijote.

Item, Cervantes claims throughout the novel, but especially in his "Prologue" to Part One, that he is reading and rewriting what Benengeli originally wrote in Arabic and had to be converted (translated) into Spanish by a third person, an anonymous translator whom Cervantes does not pretend to be.

Item, in the same way that Burton Raffel says that thaler is a twice-borrowed word (once from German, and then from Spanish), the tale of Don Quijote is also twice-borrowed (once from Sidi Hamid, and then from his anonymous translator).

Item, the German word thaler is also the root or source of such highly relevant English words as teller, telling, tale and tally, all of which have two meanings in this context: linguistic and monetary.

Item, last, but not least -- before the novel can end, without leaving any excess, remainder or residue behind -- Dulcinea del Toboso must be converted back into the most beautiful woman in the world. To make this magical conversion work, Sancho Panza must whip himself.

Towards the end of the novel, when Sancho complains that he won't receive any money for this service to his master, Don Quijote responds:

I think you're absolutely right, Sancho my friend [...] I can tell you, for myself, that if you'd wanted to be paid for those lashes which will disenchant Dulcinea, I'd have long since, and very gladly, have given you the money [...] Just consider, Sancho, what you might want, and then do the whipping and pay yourself, because you are guardian of my money [...] Add up what money you have of mine, and then put a price on each lash."

And so, in between the conversion of the peasant girl Dulcinea back into the most beautiful woman in the world, and the conversion of Sancho Panza's backside into a whipping post, there must be inserted yet another conversion: one between lashes and "dollars." Sancho does the calculations:

We have a total of three thousand and three hundred [lashes], and, at a quarter of a dollar per lash (and I wouldn't take less, even if the whole world told me to), that adds up to three thousand and three hundred quarters of a dollar, so let's first take three thousand quarters, which make a thousand and five hundred half-dollars, which would make seven hundred and fifty whole dollars, and then we take the three hundred quarters, which makes a hundred and fifty half-dollars, which makes seventy-five whole dollars, and if we add the seven hundred and fifty to that, we get a total [of] eight hundred and twenty-five dollars. So I'll separate this much from your grace's money, which I have in my possession, and I'll go back to my house rich and happy, though well-whipped.

Contortions such as these were precisely what Burton Raffel wanted to spare himself and his readers by reducing "many archaic monetary terms" to dollars. But such comic complexities are precisely the things that make Sancho Panza so much fun to listen to and watch. (Why didn't he simply divide 3,300 by four?) And so we must ask: What was the real cost of reducing everything to dollars? How much did we lose in exchange for not having to do complex conversions?

An answer to these telling questions can be provided by one of those rare moments in which 1) Sancho makes a remark about money, and 2) the translator sees fit to provide the reader with the original, pun-filled Spanish. When told, "Your master, Sancho my friend, has got to be a lunatic," Sancho replies,

Why must he? He doesn't owe anything to anybody, and he pays for everything, and he pays even more when madness is the coin of the realm.

Unable to read or write, Sancho has made a dreadful (dreadfully funny) mistake: he has confused the "debe" in debe de ser un loco (must be a lunatic) for the "debe" in no debe nada a nadie (he doesn't owe anything to anybody). Despite his comic ignorance, Sancho has said several profound things: those who go into debt are crazy to do so; sane people don't spend more than they have; lunatics are "out of their minds" because they owe them (their minds) to other people; once lunatics pay off their debts, their minds will return to them.

As for "mad" Don Quijote, he pays more -- he has more to pay (he is richer) -- "when madness is the coin of the realm." But what realm is that? It certainly isn't 16th century Spain, where everything and everyone is drearily sane. The only place this realm can be is (in) Sancho Panza's priceless coinages, which are the unexhaustable source of Don Quijote's real wealth.

-- Bill Not Bored, January 2005
on the occasion of the novel's 400th anniversary