This fall, 20 children at Still Waters in a Storm, ages 7 through 15, have already begun to read and translate Don Quixote from the Spanish original and retell the tale as their own, reimagining the story of an old man in Spain in the late 1500s as a story of Spanish-speaking immigrant children living in poverty in Brooklyn today. For example, early in the book Quixote saves a peasant boy from being whipped by a landowner and next is beaten down by a traveling bully. The kids all have stories of bullies and abuse and injustice and they will substitute these stories for the original scenes. Our adviser in translation is the world-renowned Edith Grossman, author of the authoritative English version of Don Quixote.

Video by Thelma Boyiri

We are also studying the historical context in which the book is situated, including the atrocities of imperial Spain and the Spanish Inquisition–a time and place remarkably similar to our own in its xenophobia and scapegoating and extremes of wealth and poverty. We are assisted in this study by Professor William Egginton of Johns Hopkins University and Professor Diana Conchado of Hunter College.

The final translation will combine Spanish, English and neighborhood Street and will be told in the form of a comic book, as Don Quixote’s favorite stories of knights errant, the stories he believes are true, were the comic books of the 16th century, and the episodic series of adventures lends itself to the comic book format, in which the children are well versed. They will be working with volunteer artists, including creators of Marvel comics.

Alongside this process, the kids are also choosing passages from the book to translate as song, again in Spanish, English and Street. Renowned composer Kim Sherman is teaching the children basic music theory and lyric writing and guiding them in composing a choral work that they will sing in public. This piece will include group songs and individual songs based both in the fiction of Cervantes and the nonfiction of their own lives. The songs will be influenced by musical traditions of 16th-century Spain, present-day Hispanic cultures and Hip-Hop.

“The great novel has never been in better hands.” —Edith Grossman, Translator

The comic book and the songs will tell the stories of the children’s own “Heroes’ Journeys,” attached to the basic structure of the book. Their families left their native soil for the promise of a better life, only to run into the hard reality of life in the Bushwick barrio, just as Don Quixote leaves his village in order to live out his fantasy of heroism and discovers that the world can be hostile to dreams. His persistence in the face of unforgiving obstacles runs parallel to the unquitting determination of these families after they discover that the streets in this country are not, in fact, paved with gold. Quixote maintains a child-like innocence and a genuine desire to help others. The students at Still Waters remain innocent and compassionate even as they are surrounded by many types of violence, including the destabilizing force of gentrification and the daily traumas of living in poverty and deprivation. Our guiding question at the beginning of the project, inspired by Quixote’s self-appointed mission, has been, “Who or what do you want to rescue?” The kids have answered that they want to rescue the planet, their parents and stray cats. One boy said he wants to rescue himself.

Composing drawings, writing dialogue and narration and lyrics and music all require distilling a large idea into a different form, condensed and highly organized. By translating the original masterpiece from Spanish into a combination of Spanish, English and Street the children will reach a thoroughness of understanding that is rare or unheard of in their public school education. By further translating the story as a comic book and choral music the children’s understanding will deepen. By mastering a work of major and enduring importance, commonly thought to be beyond their abilities, and by becoming authors of their own epic story in partnership with Cervantes, they prove to themselves and others that they are capable of achieving the impossible. This project is an important counterweight to a school system that privileges test results, meaningless homework and obedience over the emotional, truly intellectual and imaginative needs of children.

Translation, across languages and borders and cultures and identities, is a fundamental experience of these children and their families. They live in two worlds and must always move between the two, the children often helping their parents, for whom the duality of the immigrant life is especially difficult, by translating between Spanish and English at school, the doctor’s office or in court. The multiple translations of this project, crossing art forms, history, geography, fiction and reality in addition to language, widen the very idea of translation. Music and art, languages themselves, express something beyond words. By telling their own stories, in their native and adopted languages and multiple art forms, the children become self-aware and embrace their multicultural lives. This project responds to the collective shunning of their people by a country increasingly hostile to “outsiders.” Collective storytelling and choral singing are ways of belonging to a community, or making a community. These translations are both emotional expressions and deliberate actions. Here, the children belong.