Edward Rothstein in the New York Times:
Why was “Don Quixote” originally written in Arabic? Or rather, why does Cervantes, who wrote the book in Spanish, claim that it was translated from the Arabic?
Much is being said this year about “Don Quixote,” in celebration of the 400th anniversary of its publication. And indeed, much has always been said about this extraordinary epic, narrating the misadventures of a half-mad hidalgo who seeks to re-establish the traditions of knight errantry. Faulkner reread it annually; Lionel Trilling said all prose fiction was a variation on its themes.
But aside from its literary achievements, “Don Quixote” sheds oblique light on an era when Spain’s Islamic culture forcibly came to an end. Just consider Cervantes’s playful account of the book’s origins. One day in the Toledo marketplace, he writes, a young boy was trying to sell old notebooks and worn scraps of paper covered with Arabic script. Cervantes recounts how he acquired a book and then looked around for a Moor to translate it. “It was not very difficult” to find such a Moor, he writes. In fact, he says, he could have even found a translator of Hebrew.