Tobias Smollett – Author Lost in Translation

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Tobias Smollett was born in 1721 to a Scottish Presbyterian family and went to university, where he planned to become a doctor. Smollett, however, for some reason was not a good medical practitioner at all, and he had the troubles to prove it.

Since he had an interest in other languages and cultures, he joined the navy to become a ship surgeon. Imagine being in such a position. It is glamorous in the movies. The major expedition to Cartagena was, however, a disastrous one. What happened? In one of his future books, Smollett fictionalized this involvement. In this book, the captain of the ship went to the doctor. “I need more bodies! I need more men. We are at war!”

Tobias Smollett - Author Lost in Translation“I have ten patients,” admitted the professional,” and they’re all sick. Gravely ill. All of them.”
“Release one of them,” boomed the Captain, wringing his hands in despair.

This directive was obeyed. One patient was released and died suddenly. The commander then returned to the medical man and repeated the communication. More patients were emancipated and succumbed to illness. Finally, there was one patient remaining, and he was in a straight jacket. “I need more bodies!” roared the desperate man, “I need more bodies!” he raged. “We’re at war!”

The physician regarded the circumstances with a sigh. “There is one last patient under my care,” groaned the man in the white coat.
“Release him immediately!” authorized the expedition leader. “Release him at once. That is a direct order!”
“No!” begged the other.

“You have been ordered by a commanding officer!” threatened the tormented man, “You can be court-martialed by the British Admiralty for refusing a direct order from a commanding officer!”

In no time, they faced the subject of their concern in the doctor’s hold. The subordinate was nonplused by the multitude of outstretched arms that tangled themselves around him, pulling him from his bonds. Without warning, the freed man slipped into a trance-like state, cutting through the mayhem. Figures fell backward and amongst themselves. Some wailed and cursed at the blood that was shed. Many men were wrapped around him before he was thrown into the raging storm. Their cries were silenced by the thunder of rolling waves.

Yes, the mission to Cartagena was a notorious disaster.  Smollett fictionalized this account into one of his books.  When word got round in the British Admiralty what Smollett had accomplished, he was sued, tried for slander, and imprisoned.  True to form, while in the dungeon, Smollett continued to write, again fictionalizing this experience into another tale. He went on to write some more books and was known as an activist too. But what is Tobias Smollett primarily famous for? He is the first person to translate Don Quixote from Spanish to English. In fact, book reviewers in his time labeled him as a clever rip off of such a legendary book.

1 Comment
  1. Jack Eason says

    I seem to recall that one of the characters in Treasure Island was a Dr Smollett Paul. Perhaps it was based on the real one?

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