Don Quixote as Napoleon: propaganda in Spain’s war of independence, II: the print

Part II of our reposting from the BL European Studies blog on Don Quixote as Napoleon. Find the original here: 

The Mexico edition of Francisco Meseguer, El Don Quixote de ahora con el Sancho Panza de antaño, was published in 1809, after the Córdoba edition of the same year. It includes a the coloured fold-out cartoon apparently not present in the Spanish editions, which focuses on the situation in Spain in 1808 sometime after the ‘Dos de Mayo’ uprising in Madrid against the French.


Fold-out caricature from Francisco Meseguer, El Don Quixote de ahora con el Sancho Panza de antaño (Mexico, 1809) British Library 9180.e.6.(30)

The main caption reads: ‘El Quijote de n[ues]tros t[iem]pos (Napoleon) caballero sobre su rocin (Godoy) y puestos los ojos en la encantada Dulcinea (America) Consuela á su buen escudero Sancho (Murat) de la perdida del Gobierno de la Insula Barataria (España)’ (‘The Quixote of our times (Napoleon) astride his nag (Godoy) and with his gaze fixed on the enchanted Dulcinea (America) consoles his good squire Sancho (Murat) for the loss of the Isle of Barataria (Spain)’.

During the confused period in Franco-Spanish relations, 1807-08, Spanish Prime Minister Godoy had in effect collaborated with Napoleon who, according to the historian Raymond Carr, despised him. Godoy, cast as Rocinante, the figure to the right on all fours, admits ‘Esto y mucho mas merezco‘ (‘All this and more I deserve’). In March 1808 Godoy’s ever increasing unpopularity in Spain prompted his dismissal by Carlos IV, who himself abdicated in favour of his son Fernando.


Manuel Godoy, portrait by Goya (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The ambitions of General Murat (as Sancho, in centre), Napoleon’s lieutenant in Spain, were frustrated after the brutal suppression of the Madrid uprising: ‘Todo se lo llevó el Diablo. Ya no soy gov[ernad]or’ (‘The Devil has taken everything. I am no longer governor’), he laments. ‘Insula Barataria’, depicted as a castle to the left of Murat, refers to the make-believe island of which Sancho Panza was made governor in one of the practical jokes devised by the Duke and Duchess in Part II of Don Quixote.


General Murat, ca. 1808, portrait by François Gérard (Image from Wikimedia Commons).

The consolation offered to Murat by Napoleon/Quixote is a possible role in the Spanish colonies: ‘q[u]e si logro desencantar a Dulcinea te hare Arzob[is]po u Adelantado’ (‘if I succeed in disenchanting Dulcinea, I shall make you Archbishop or Governor’). This is a further allusion to Part II of Cervantes’ novel in which Sancho Panza convinces his master that Dulcinea’s appearance as a peasant girl is the work of enchanters.

Don Quixote Napoleon detail 2

America is represented as Dulcinea (top, centre; detail above) but in the guise of a woman wearing a native American headdress. The text reads ‘La América será una Dulcinea encantada q[u]e jamas has de pose[e]r’ (‘America shall be an enchanted Dulcinea that you will never possess’). The focus on the colonies in the cartoon is consonant with the reprinting of the work in Mexico. Following the French invasion of Spain and the imposition of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne, Mexicans either affirmed their allegiance to Fernando VII or sought independence.
Don Quixote Napoleon detail 1

Bonaparte, represented as the ‘Quixote of our times’ (above), is depicted much as Don Quixote had been in the many editions of the novel hitherto. He wears ancient body armour and on his head the so-called helmet of Mambrino, in reality a barber’s basin. The basin-helmet is labelled the crown of Spain, with the caption ‘No tiene encaje este yelmo, no le biene á tu cabeza’ (‘This helmet does not fit; it is not right on your head’). His shield however has the emblem of the Gallic rooster and the motto ‘El caballero de los gallos’ (‘The Knight of the Roosters’). Napoleon is somewhat thin, but not short of stature, as the Emperor was usually depicted and is indeed described in Meseguer’s text.

The windmill (far left) references the most famous episode of Don Quixote (Part 1, ch. 8). The caption reads ‘Con un molino basta para asorarte’ (‘A single windmill is sufficient to put the wind up you’). Don Quixote was brave – and rash – enough to charge one of the group of windmills. The fearsome sight of just one would have been too much for Napoleon, ‘The Quixote of our times’? The ambiguity, bravery-rashness, takes us back to the ambivalence of Meseguer’s text.

Geoff West, former Head of Hispanic Collections, British Library

References/further reading

Raymond Carr, Spain 1808-1975. 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1982) 82/22993

Charles J. Esdaile. Spain in the Liberal Age. From Constitution to Civil War, 1808-1939. (Oxford, 2000) YC.2000.a.11398.


Don Quixote as Napoleon: propaganda in Spain’s war of independence, I.

This piece is reposted with kind permission from the author from the British Library European Studies blog. The original post can be found here: 

Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote (1605, 1615) has not only inspired later writers, artists and subsequently film-makers, but his characters have also been used for other purposes, notably in propaganda and advertising. The behaviour of Don Quixote himself, whether seen as  fool, madman or noble idealist, has made him a most suitable figure for use in propaganda.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries the novel was regarded primarily as a funny book, but this began to change with the publication of the London editions of 1738 (in Spanish) and 1742 (in English) commissioned by Lord Carteret.  The emphasis shifted from slapstick comedy to literary and social satire. The subsequent publication of the Spanish Real Academia’s edition in 1780 elevated the literary status of the novel within Spain itself.  However, the absence of a single predominant interpretation of the novel entailed different attitudes towards the protagonist himself.  This divergence can be seen in some of the Spanish propaganda following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 and the imposition of his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.


Spanish generals surrender to Napoleon in December 1808, painting by Jean-Antoine Gros, Musée du Château, Versailles (image from Wikimedia Commons)

One work in particular demonstrates this double focus: Francisco Meseguer’s El Don Quixote de ahora con Sancho Panza el de antaño (‘Today’s Don Quixote and the Sancho Panza of Yesteryear’). It was published in Spain in 1809 (in Córdoba, Mallorca, Murcia and Tarragona) and then in Mexico the same year –  which was not uncommon for this type of publication.  The British Library has a copy of this last edition (shelfmark 9180.e.6.(30.)), which also contains a coloured print representing the Emperor as Don Quixote.


Francisco Meseguer, El Don Quixote de ahora con Sancho Panza el de antaño (Mexico, 1809)

Meseguer’s work recounts a dream in which the narrator overhears a conversation between a modern-day Quixote and the original Sancho Panza.  After a brief introduction, it takes the form of a dialogue between the two in the manner of the conversations between Cervantes’ original knight and squire.  The modern-day Quixote is immediately identified with Napoleon, but as the ‘Caballero de la mala figura’ (‘Knight of the Evil Countenance’), a variation on Quixote’s epithet ‘Caballero de la triste figura’ (‘Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance’).  However, Sancho remembers not just the unwise actions but also the aims and ideals of his original master.  Therein lies the ambivalence.

Don Quixote sheep & slaves (Cerv.336)

Don Quixote attacking the flock of sheep (top) and freeing the galley slaves (bottom). From The History of the most renowned Don Quixote of La Mancha… (London, 1687). Cerv.336.

Sancho recalls three adventures from Part I of the novel: the attack on the flock of sheep, the freeing of the galley slaves, and the Princess Micomicona episode, each an example of Quixote’s folly or delusion. At the same time he succeeds in either highlighting one of Don Quixote’s virtues or in turning the argument back against Napoleon.  Don Quixote showed great bravery as, in his delusion, he actually believed the sheep to be a large opposing army.  Sancho draws a parallel between the freeing of the galley slaves (who turned on Don Quixote when he bade them go and pay homage to Dulcinea) and Napoleon’s one-time support for Manuel Godoy, since both actions were futile given the bad character ascribed to both the slaves and the very unpopular Spanish Prime Minister.

According to Meseguer’s Sancho, the Micomicona episode gave his master the opportunity of usurping the throne of the pretend Princess, an opportunity he ignored in contrast to the actions of Napoleon in Spain, who placed his brother, Joseph, on the throne. Moreover, Quixote demonstrated great fidelity to his lady Dulcinea by declining to wed the Princess who is part of the Priest’s plan to get Don Quixote safely back home.  Finally Sancho, recognising reality, recalls how so many of his master’s rash adventures ended in disaster, but, he adds, this will also be the fate of Napoleon’s Spanish expedition.

The nub of Sancho’s case is that the original Don Quixote was a true knight errant who wished to right wrongs and to protect the weak.  Napoleon, on the other hand, is the very opposite: his soldiers ‘have ruined countless maidens, raped married women and widows, leaving in tears those who were living happily, abandoned those who were well protected, and orphaned those who had a father’.  He also opposed loyal Spaniards such as Fernando VII and his supporters, favouring instead the likes of Godoy in furtherance of his personal ambition.

There is also a divergence between the description of the ‘Today’s Don Quixote’ and the one of yesteryear.  Sancho says the latter was ‘tall as a pine tree, lean… and solid as a rock’, while Napoleon/Quixote was ‘short of stature’ and had a ‘face like a monkey’.  This brings us neatly to the cartoon in the Mexico edition, which will be the subject of a second blog post.

Geoff West, former Head of Hispanic Collections, British Library

References/further reading

Caro López. ‘Don Quijote en la guerra del Francés’, Anales cervantinos, 41 (2009), 39-61.  Available on-line at:

A copy of the Córdoba edition can be consulted at:


Myths and stereotypes undone through literature : Brazilian Bilingual Book Club promotes invaluable cultural exchange

The ACLAIIR blog is delighted to welcome Nadia Kerecuk as our guest writer for this piece about the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club, convened by Nadia herself and hosted by the Embassy of Brazil in London. Discussing José Pereira da Graça Aranha’s work ‘Canaã’, (English Title: Canaan), the group found many topical points on issues of migration – particularly pertinent given current events in Europe. For an introduction to the book, including a biography of the author and details of available editions and translations, take a look at Nadia’s excellent article here

Our summer meeting, the eighth in this year of our book club, proved to be a very engaging session. We were also delighted to welcome another three new members to our book club.

The members offered a fabulous selection of their favourite quotes from the novel, which kick-started a fine discussion on the quality of the novel and its relevance. The very topical subject of migration in the novel opened up an opportunity to look back at part of the history of the migrations into Brazil from the first decades of the 19th century.

The discussions also brought to light the fact that there had already been various government initiatives to colonize the vast territory of Brazil by bringing European immigrants (from western to eastern Europe) by mid-19th century and also forward planning aimed at replacing the African slave labour force eventually when the abolition of slavery would be finalized. Inevitably, the emergence of unregulated agents accelerated the number of immigrants that were brought to work on the coffee plantations, railway building, logging of the Araucaria forests in the south and various other activities could be described as a consequence of those earlier policies. More often than not, people that wanted to emigrate from Europe and elsewhere were seduced by the promise of an El Dorado in Brazil and came to be entrapped by such agents, often having to cope with multiple challenges with very little official support.  After WWII, Brazil was one of the four countries in the world that accepted displaced people from the forced labour camps in Nazi Germany. 

Canaan, albeit fictional, will certainly remain a valid source for the history of settlements (‘colonies’) of immigrants in various places in Brazil. Various book club members had not realized that Germans had gone far northward in Brazil, including the state of Espírito Santo.

Our book club members also commented on the exhuberant nature of that part of Brazil along with the realization that it is located in the Atlantic Forest and the Serra do Mar (vast mountain ranges that extend along the coast of Brazil from the state of Rio Grande do Norte to Rio Grande do Sul). The obfuscating glare of the sun, the beauty of sunrise and twilight and in the evenings the glorious lights of glow-worms are some of the lasting images stayed with the readers.

Another common aspect of the life within communities of immigrant settlers is a degree of ghettoization – akin to any other such communities universally. The fact that families bring their own traditions, languages, cultures and manners of approaching life along with memories from their own birthplaces to their new country, triggers off a concomitant process of preserving them for future generations and safe-guarding them from external local influences and the local law.  G. Aranha demonstrated a significant degree of understanding of this phenomenon obviously benefitting from his own experience of being a ‘domestic migrant’ as he was born in the state of Maranhão, studied in Recife, Pernambuco and travelled to work as a judge to Espírito Santo and elsewhere. Inevitably, the legacy of immigrant traditions would get diluted and blended in massive melting pots of the Americas, the new world yet to be built. The author also provided an insightful critique of such communities and of the way that the governments failed to deal with some of their challenges and concerns.


Image credit: Embassy of Brazil

Our meeting has benefitted from the insights and experience one of our members, a descendant of such immigrants in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in referring to German immigrations into Brazil and the various communities that they set up there.

A relevant aspect was also discussed regarding some Brazilians that had become either enthusiasts or shared some of the values of the 19th century German culture. At that time, those German ideas were perceived as a means of curbing the excessive influence of French ideas in Brazil. For instance, this was the case of Tobias Barreto (de Meneses – 1839- 89), that influenced G. Aranha as his teacher. Tobias Barreto was a philosopher, legal scholar, poet and literary critic that taught law at university.  In his memoirs, G. Aranha extols T. Barreto’s virtues and offers an account of his intellectual contribution to various key Brazilian institutions.

The matter of views on races, which prevailed in the last quarter of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries was also discussed – Lentz and Milkau illustrate them but there is a broader network of internal dialogue within the narrative. Some of the views expressed by the characters were as repugnant and unethical as they can be and quite common at the time. Discussions on race and ethnicity continue to be most contentious and controversial causing much misunderstanding. Equally, one is also reminded that there is a return to discussions on race and ethnicity in academic circles currently re-enlivened by recent scientific advances in the study and analysis of the human genome.

However, in the fictional universe of the utopia in Graça Aranha’s Canaan, a solution of sorts to this moot point seems to be put forward, which could only be found in the new world, the new ‘promised’ land in the Americas. Apropos, it is worth mentioning that when The New York Times reviewed the novel in 1920 in a long article, immediately after the publication of its translation, the reviewer stated that Canaan ‘views humanity through the telescope of cosmic philosophy, as a baby taking its first uncertain steps toward Utopia.’ [An Epic of Today in Brazil, 11 Apr 1920]. 

Canaan brings various references to thinkers and events in the world at the time it is set. We discussed several references. A young nation seems to require a heroic history based on the local ancient tales and legends. This theme is adroitly introduced with an analogy in the covert reference that the narrator makes to the Ring Cycle (The Ring of the Nibelung) by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) that includes ancient Norse sagas.

This novel gained another accolade from one of the leading French authors at the time, Anatole France (1844-1924), that hailed Canaan as ‘The Great American Novel’. Yet, despite all of the positive reviews, claims that it was a first Brazilian international best-seller, with rather excessive hype, the novel fell into oblivion so much so that it was only recently that it was reprinted.

Our book club members agreed that it is a fine novel. In fact, it is a significant classic considering what other authors in various cultural and intellectual centres were writing at the time. It is a very ‘modern’ novel in the way that it approaches its main themes. Therefore, no surprise that this author and diplomat would subsequently become a leading cultural activist in the 1922 Week of Modern Art in São Paulo.


Nadia Kerecuk, Convenor, Brazilian Bilingual Book Club

The book club has featured in a recent article in The Linguist: Pages 12-13 and further details including upcoming books for discussion can be found on the Embassy’s website

The book club meets once a month. If this article has whet your appetite and you are interested in joining, please e-mail Nadia:




Basque and Georgian – are they related?

Basque, the only non-Indo European language in Western Europe, is an isolate, a language unrelated to any other living or dead. Nonetheless attempts have been made to demonstrate a relationship with a variety of languages including ancient Iberian, Pictish, Etruscan, and Berber. The most consistently proposed kinship has been with the Kartvelian family of Caucasian languages, in particular with Georgian.

The origin of Basque has been bound up with theories about the origin of the Basque people themselves. Greek and Roman historians referred to the region corresponding to modern Georgia as eastern Iberia, as distinct from western Iberia, i.e. Spain and Portugal. The Greek geographer Strabo referred both to the Iberians of the Caucasus and to the ‘western Iberians’ (Geographica, bk. XI, ch. II, 19). Appian of Alexandria later wrote ‘some people think that the Iberians of Asia were the ancestors of the Iberians of Europe; others think that the former emigrated from the latter’ (Historia Romana, bk. XII, ch. XV, 101). However, he continued ‘still others think that they merely have the same name, as their customs and languages are not similar’. The Georgian language was also known, confusingly, as Iberian.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Basque historians adopted the prevalent Spanish legend according to which after the Flood, Tubal, a son of Japheth, was the first settler in the Peninsula, but they added that he settled first in Cantabria, i.e. the Basque region. Esteban de Garibay (born 1525) found evidence for this claim in similarities between place names in northern Spain and in Armenia, e.g. Mount Ararat (in modern Turkey) = Aralar, the mountain range in Gipuzkoa and Navarra. He also links the Basque Mount Gorbeia  to an Armenian peak ‘Gordeya’. He considered Basque the first language of the whole Peninsula and, presumably, the language of Tubal. Other writers followed Garibay, notably Andrés de Poza and Baltasar de Echave. Garibay’s identification of similarities between toponyms, however fantastical, can be seen as a forerunner of the Basque-Caucasian hypothesis.

Esteban de Garibay, Los XL libros del Compendio historial… de todos los reynos de España (Antwerp, 1571) British Library C.75.e.4.

Esteban de Garibay, Los XL libros del Compendio historial… de todos los reynos de España (Antwerp, 1571) British Library C.75.e.4.

In the early 20th century philologists developed more scientific arguments for a link between Basque and Caucasian languages. Typological similarities certainly exist between Basque and Georgian. For example both are ergative languages. Put at its simplest, this means that the subject of a transitive verb appears in the ergative case (or ‘agentive’), while the object is in the absolutive case and is unmarked. Thus, in Basque we have ‘gure aitak etxe berria erosi du’ (‘our father has bought a new house’) contrasted with ‘gure aita Donostian bizi da’ (‘our father lives in Donostia’).  In Georgian, ‘father’ in the first sentence would be rendered by ‘mamam’ and by ‘mama’ in the second. However, the ergative construction would not be employed in subject-direct object-verb constructions in all tenses and aspects. In Basque the ergative is more regularly employed.

Another notable similarlity is that the verb morphology of both languages is pluripersonal, i.e. the form of the verb may encode not just the subject of the sentence, but any direct or indirect objects present. In Basque this is illustrated in the examples:

Nere semeak kotxe berri bat erosi du = My son has bought a new car
Nere semeak bi kotxe erosi ditu = My son has bought two cars.

The infix it in the auxiliary verb in the second example agrees with the plural object bi kotxe. However, the verb morphology of Georgian is extremely complex and functions very differently from Basque.

Typological parallels are all very well, but ergativity and pluripersonal agglutinative verbal morphology are not exclusive to Basque and Georgian, and doubt concerning possible kinship between them arises when lexical coincidences are cited. According to Basque philologists today, the majority of those seeking similarities have cast their nets very wide, claiming cognate fish when most should have been thrown back. Cognates with Basque have been sought among several Caucasian languages, although a genetic relationship between the Northern and Kartvelian groups remains unproven. Furthermore, in many cases proto-Basque forms have not been matched with proto-Georgian forms; many coincidences are thus anachronistic. The philologist R.L. Trask also stressed that the Basque, in its hypothetical early form, had a vastly impoverished consonantal system in contrast to the wealth of consonants of the Northern Caucasian groups in particular. Today, Georgian has 28 consonants, Basque 21.

The 36 letters of the Georgian alphabet according to Alphabetum ibericum, sive georgianum… (Rome, 1629); 621.c.33.(1.)

The 36 letters of the Georgian alphabet according to Alphabetum ibericum, sive georgianum… (Rome, 1629); 621.c.33.(1.)

The case for a relationship between Basque and other languages intensified in the early 20th century with the philologists Hugo Schuchardt, C.C. Uhlenbeck and Alfredo Trombetti. Much of the debate was conducted in scientific periodicals, particularly the Revue Internationale des Etudes Basques (P.P.4331.aeb.). We might add here the Georgian linguist Nikolai Marr who developed the so-called Japhetic theory linking Kartvelian with Semitic languages and subsequently the theory that all languages had a common origin. He also found parallels between Kartvelian languages and Basque.

Marr (third from right) with a group of Basques, reproduced in Nikolai Marr, Basksko-kavkazskie leksicheskie paralleli (Tbilisi , 1987) YA.1991.a.23022

Marr (third from right) with a group of Basques, reproduced in Nikolai Marr, Basksko-kavkazskie leksicheskie paralleli (Tbilisi , 1987) YA.1991.a.23022

The case for possible Basque-Caucasian cognates continued to be advanced in the second half of the last century by linguists such as René Lafon and Antonio Tovar. However, later scholars, notably Luis (Koldo) Michelena and Trask, firmly rejected the Caucasian link.  This has not stemmed the tide of speculation, which in fact has widened to include Basque in a macro-language family (Dené-Caucasian) and even beyond in the hypothetical single language of the so-called proto-world. This notion seems to bring us back to Nikolai Marr. These last speculations find approval also among those still hoping to prove a common ethnic origin for the Basques and the Iberians of the Caucasus. Given that the Basque language remains alone in a class of one, it is wisest to conclude that the case for a link remains unproven.

Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic studies and Anna Chelidze, SEE Cataloguer Russian/Georgian


Itzia Laka, A Brief Grammar of Euskara ([Vitoria-Gasteiz], 1996); available at

Juan Madariaga Orbea, Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language (Reno, 2006). YC.2007.a.857.

R.L. Trask, The History of Basque (London, 1997). YC.1997.b.547

José Ramón Zubiaur Bilbao, Las ideas lingüísticas vascas en el s. XVI. Zaldibia, Garibay, Poza (Donostia, 1989). YA. 1993.a.5626.

La Prensa Iberica interview with Davit Turashvili:

This piece was originally posted on the British Library European Studies blog. See the original post here. 

Father Oriol Maria Diví : Catalan master in bookplate design

This piece was originally posted under the title ‘A Benedictine bookplate designer’ on the Cambridge University Library European Languages blog. The original post can be seen here. Many thanks to the librarians at CUL for kindly allowing us to repost this on the ACLAIIR blog.


The origins of the European exlibris or bookplate lie in the woodblock prints of fifteenth-century Germany, while the first known British bookplate records the gift of books by Sir Nicholas Bacon to Cambridge University Library in 1574. The Library’s collections contain many thousands of diverse examples, intended as a record of ownership but ideally also a sign of the personality and tastes of the user and the artistic abilities of the designer and printer. Sadly a very small proportion of the Library’s holdings are recorded on Newton and a few thousand only on a card index kept in the Rare Books Room.


A recent addition to the Library is a volume depicting bookplates made by the Benedictine monk Father Oriol Maria Diví, who is regarded as a Catalan master in the art of woodblock printing. Only 200 copies of this volume were produced. (F201.a.8.1)

When I was a child, Esplugues, my home town, was agricultural. The seasons of the year displayed themselves in all magnificence. The fields, vineyards, olive trees, wheat, poppies … The robins and swallows … The trees stripped bare and then dressed themselves again. Everything made my heart pounce … my bookplate prints remind me of all this.

Father Oriol entered the Benedictine community as a novice on July 3rd 1956, and given his great aptitude for drawing, he was enrolled at the Conservatorio de las Artes del Libro, where he learnt the art of engraving under Antoni Ollé Pinell. He travelled extensively in Europe in 1969 and 1970, and during this period established many contacts with artists and collectors of bookplates.


This volume gathers together and reproduces chronologically some 572 bookplates made by Father Oriol between 1960 and 2011, 499 of them being woodcuts from boxwood. 25 bookplates printed from the original wooden blocks are also inserted. In addition there are three short introductory essays – one on Father Oriol, another on the art of the bookplate and a third on xylography – in Catalan with translations in Spanish, English, German and Italian.

Brian Jenkins and David Lowe

Making Our America Visible. J.M. Cohen (1903-1989): El Transculturador

A bibliography by Vladimir Alexander Smith-Mesa dedicated to Professor Isabel de Madariaga. (Based on the Cohen Collection, Old Library, Queens’ College, Cambridge University.)

Allen Ginsberg, José Lezama Lima, J. M. Cohen, Nicanor Parra & Jaime Sabines/ the Jury of the Casa de las Américas Poetry Prize of 1965. El Premio Literario Casa de las Américas is a literary award given by the Cuban cultural institution Casa de las Américas (Havana). Established in 1959, it is one of Latin America’s oldest and most prestigious literary prizes.

Allen Ginsberg, José Lezama Lima, J. M. Cohen, Nicanor Parra & Jaime Sabines/ the Jury of the Casa de las Américas Poetry Prize of 1965. El Premio Literario Casa de las Américas is a literary award given by the Cuban cultural institution Casa de las Américas (Havana). Established in 1959, it is one of Latin America’s oldest and most prestigious literary prizes.

Who was J. M. Cohen?

M. (John Michael) Cohen (5 February 1903 – 19 July 1989) was a prolific translator of European and Latin American literatures. His obituary in The Guardian stated that Cohen did: “more than anyone else in his generation to introduce British readers to the classics of world literature by making them available in good modern English translations (20 July 1989)”. [1] Born in London, J. M. Cohen was a graduate of Cambridge University. In addition to teaching young people, he spent the war years teaching himself Spanish and Russian. He launched his translation career with the first English translation of poems by Boris Pasternak (1946), which garnered praise from American poet John Ashbery in his book Other Traditions (2000). Cohen’s translation of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1950) has been highly praised. Cohen wrote a number of works of literary criticism and biography. He also edited and introduced programmes for the BBC. In addition to his translations of major works of European literature for Penguin, Cohen edited several important anthologies: A History of Western Literature (1956), Poetry of this Age (1959) and The Baroque Lyric (1963). Alongside E. V. Rieu, he edited many of the Penguin Classics.

Cohen’s interest in Latin American literature began on a visit to Argentina in 1953 when he first met Jorge Luis Borges. From this time, he was in contact with writers (and books) from these countries. For Nuestra America, the 1960s were the age of literary discovery, a period when the major works of the Latin American Literary Boom were published. Certainly, it launched our literature on to the world stage. J. M. Cohen played a key role in the dissemination of the writers of the Boom by translating many of them: Julio Cortázar, Octavio Paz, José Donoso, and Carlos Fuentes, among many others and by bringing the works of Gabriel García Márquez to the attention of his future English publisher.

In Havana, J. M. Cohen was also a member of the Jury of the Casa de las Américas Poetry Prize of 1965 and of the Jury of the Julián del Casal Poetry Prize of 1968, which was won by the Cuban poet and dissident, “the Cuban Pasternak”, Heberto Padilla with his book Fuera del juego. Consequently, Cohen translated pre-Boom writers such as César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Alejo Carpentier, João Guimarães Rosa, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, José Lezama Lima, among many others. Today, all these names sound familiar to everyone, but how did this literature became available? Who translated their works into English? These questions remain a major blind-spot in the bibliography of Latin American and Translation Studies.


The proposed bibliography will make a significant contribution to Latin American, Post-colonial, Comparative and Translation Studies. The requirement for the bibliography can be explained by the lack of reliable information and online data regarding J. M. Cohen the man, the anthologist, the literary critic and the translator of classics. The research is based in the first instance on the Cohen Collection, Old Library, Queens’ College, and Cambridge University. This is the type of bibliographical research that goes beyond European subjects, reaching the so-called Third World, bringing its classics, Nobel Prizes in Literature into the UK bibliographical tradition. As a reference source for a unique period of time in the history of translation and Latin American studies, the proposed bibliography is expected to be of benefit to women and men of letters in the future. It should be completed within a period of no longer than 12 months.

Books certainly define a person’s identity. The present study focuses on the meaning that books and reading have in a life. As we know, Cohen built his collection out of gifts from the authors or purchases he made during visits to Spain and Argentina in the 1950s and to Mexico and Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s. It includes signed copies of works by writers of the first Cuban revolutionary generation and by Latin American women, most of which were previously unrecorded in the West. As a Cuban researcher, established in Britain and currently working as a cataloguer of the Russian collection for UCL- School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) Library, the Cohen collection has a special appeal. It includes not only an extensive gathering of the pre-Columbian & contemporary Latin American literatures but also of Russian literature; and studies on literary criticism and poetry in general. These highly significant publications are rarely found in British libraries.

The present research intends to be the most comprehensive body of research material relating to the author, anthologist and translator J. M. Cohen anywhere. It will bring together Cohen’s materials – already in the possession of the twentieth-century special collection in the Old Library, Queens’ College – with other materials, currently located in private, national institutions in the UK and abroad. It will include resources such as foreign editions of his books, audio-visual materials, tape recordings from the BBC, and Cohen’s correspondence with foreign writers and publishers.

Description of the proposed bibliography

Manuscripts: may include literary notebooks, diaries, radio scripts (copies lent by the BBC for example) and manuscript and typescript materials.

Personal Papers: materials such as his birth certificate, passport, driving licence and family letters, identity card.

Correspondence: The Cohen collection holds original letters by Cohen. It will include letters in the possession of Cohen’s correspondents held in other collections in UK and abroad. The correspondents include a great number of European, Latin American intellectuals and writers, many of them Nobel laureates in Literature such as Gabriela Mistral (1945), Pablo Neruda (1971), Vicente Aleixandre (1977), Gabriel García Márquez (1982), Octavio Paz (1990), among many others.

Original background material: This section may contain material from other sources, which shed light on some aspect of Cohen’s life. It may include papers relating to the various organisations with which Cohen was linked, letters about Cohen (both contemporary and posthumous) and a collection of personal reminiscences and interviews with people who knew Cohen.

Articles and Reviews by/on Cohen: A collection of Cohen’s known published articles and all major articles on Cohen and his writings; the creation of a numbered list and author index for this, classified according to the specific work by Cohen or aspect of his life.

Printed Books: There is a classified catalogue for this section, which includes those volumes in the Cohen collection – Old Library, Queens’ College, Cambridge – which are traceable on the library’s on-line catalogue system. New additions will be foreign publications and translations of Cohen’s works and critical and background books.

Audiovisual materials: Radio recordings, video tapes of film and television productions, if it is possible accompanied by scripts. The creation of a classified card index for this section. Photographs by Lotte Meitner-Graf and those held in other institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Casa de las Américas in Havana, for example).

[1] See also “J. M. Cohen, Gifted translator of foreign prose classics” (Obituary), The Times (London), 22 July 1989.

“Obituary of JM Cohen: An opener of closed books” (Obituary), by M.C. and W.L.W., The Guardian (London), 20 July 1989.

The Spaniards in Peru : a discovery at Senate House Library

This post is republished with the kind permission of Senate House Library. View the original post here.

Historia General del Peru
Garcilaso de la Vega
Cordova: Widow of Andrés Barrera, 1616
Ct [Vega] fol. SR

First impressions can deceive. A Spanish book recently came to light in the BOLSA (Bank of London and South America) collection which initally looked dusty and ordinary, but soon turned out to be intriguing. Its author was born in Cusco (Peru) in 1539, and was one of the earliest Hispanic American intellectuals recognised on both sides of the Atlantic. His real name was Gómez Suárez de Figueroa, son of the Spanish conquistador Sebastian Garcilaso de la Vega and an Inca princess, Isabel Suarez Chimpu Ocllo, who was the granddaughter of Inca Túpac Yupanqui, and niece of Inca Huayna Capac. Because his father had a privileged position, he later inherited his father’s name to become known as Inca Garcilaso de la Vega – despite the fact that the law stipulated that noble Spaniards should only marry Spanish women. Sebastian did in fact marry a Spanish woman – but he made a provision in his will for his illegitimate son to be educated in Spain. During his childhood, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s education took in both his Spanish and Inca heritage, a mix which is reflected in his writing.

His best-known work was Comentarios Reales de los Incas, where he describes the history, culture and traditions related by his Inca relatives during his childhood. The first part was initially published in Lisbon in 1609. Considered seditious and dangerous, it was banned in the American colonies as of 1781, following the rebellion led by Túpac Amaru II against the Spanish in Peru in 1780. However, it continued to be published in Spain.



The second part of the Comentarios Reales covers the history of Peru from the arrival of the Spaniards in 1531 to the execution of Túpac Amaru I in 1572, and sets out to justify the Spanish conquest. The work was finished in about 1613. The printing process took longer than expected and three years later, on 22 April 1616, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega passed away. The work was posthumously published in 1617 under another title, Historia General del Peru. According to some versions the change in title came from the authorities in Madrid, according to others, from the publisher, who did not think the original title very inspiring.

In itself, even the 1617 imprint is not common; Copac lists six copies in Great Britain from that year. The Senate House Library copy is one of very few with an earlier date of 1616 in the imprint. Of the six copies dated 1616 that we have so far located around the world, only one, at the Complutense University of Madrid, has the same title page as ours – a rare and valuable book indeed.


En la colección Bolsa (Bank of London and South America), salió a la luz un libro en castellano. La primera impresión era que no pasaba de ser otro libro más, probablemente con cierto nivel de información a la vez que polvoriento y sin representar un interés particular.

Sin embargo primeras impresiones pueden dar lugar a equívocos. Apenas apareció la portada con su título quedó demostrado que se trataba de una publicación antigua, con el agregado de que el autor que allí figura fue uno de los primeros mestizos de Hispanoamérica que fue reconocido por sus atributos intelectuales y literarios en ambas orillas del Atlántico. Su nombre de bautizo fue Gómez Suárez de Figueroa y la historia lo recuerda como el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, hijo de un conquistador español, Sebastián Garcilaso de la Vega, y de una princesa incaica – Isabel Suárez Chimpu Ocllo – quien era nieta del Inca Tupac Yupanqui y sobrina del Inca Huayna Capac.

Gracias a la privilegiada posición de su padre, más tarde pudo llevar su apellido, a pesar del hecho de que la ley estipulaba que los nobles españoles debian casarse con mujeres españolas (y de hecho, él se casó con una peninsular). Sin embargo, al morir, dejo previsto que su hijo fuese educado en España. Durante su niñez, el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, tuvo una educación donde se mezcló lo hispánico con lo indígena y esa particular cosmovisión fue reflejada en su vida y en sus trabajos.

Su obra cumbre fue Comentarios Reales de los Incas, donde describe la historia, cultura y tradiciones que sus parientes indígenas le transmitieron durante su infancia a través de relatos e historias familiares. La primera edición de lo que se convertiría en la primer parte de este título fue publicada en Lisboa en 1609. Cabe mencionar que después de la rebelión encabezada por Tupac Amaru, el libro fue prohibido de publicarse en las colonias americanas, porque se consideró que podía usarse para incitar sediciones y por lo tanto, muy peligroso. Sin embargo la prohibición no fue aplicada a la península Ibérica.

La segunda parte la finalizó, aproximadamente, en 1613. Pero su publicación se demoró mucho más de lo esperado y 3 años más tarde, el 22 de abril de 1616 el Inca Garcilaso moría en Córdoba, España. El libro terminó siendo publicado en 1617 con otro título “Historia General del Perú …” Algunas versiones afirman que el cambio fue decidido por las autoridades de Madrid, otras que lo decidieron en la casa editora porque se entendió que el original no era atractivo.

Hasta aqui, la copia que es actualmente preservada en Special Collections podría ser considerada como una pieza valiosa de la primera edición. Sin embargo, esta copia en particular tiene un agregado que la hace aún más peculiar, la fecha es de 1616.

Ya la edición de 1617 no es muy común. Haciendo una búsqueda en los catálogos online de algunas de las mayores bibliotecas de Europa, Sudamérica y Estados Unidos, en muy pocas de ellas apareció este título con el año mencionado. En COPAC solo se ha podido encontrar 6 ejemplares con esa fecha en toda Gran Bretaña.

Del año 1616 otros 6 más, pero a nivel mundial. De los cuales solo uno tiene la portada similar, en la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. A pesar de que es un tema no concluído, se puede afirmar, que este ejemplar es una valiosa y extraordinaria adición al patrimonio de la biblioteca.

Julio Cazzasa, Senate House Library