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This article presents a new approach to reading the famous tapestry metaphor that has circulated in discourses on translation for centuries. Popularized by Miguel de Cervantes in the second part of Don Quixote (1615), the image of the tapestry’s two sides—the smooth front side and the messy reverse side—has long been assumed to illustrate the uneven relationship between an original and its translation. Following the lead of seventeenth-century English translator Leonard Digges, who urges readers to remember “the knots within” that make the tapestry possible, the article advocates for a method of reading backwards toward a history of translation that pays careful attention to the material and textual circumstances from which this metaphor emerged. Reconsidering the inner workings of both texts and textiles in this way allows us to understand that the relationships between translations and originals were messy, knotty, and not at all binary.


University of Iowa


Iowa City, IA

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Philological Quarterly