Howard Young probes the bilingual mysteries of Jorge Luis Borges.
As the end of the millennium draws near, reviewers of the Collected Fictions have felt constrained to pose the question: is Borges as great a writer now as he seemed to be 40-odd years ago? It is a situation that would have delighted Borges, convinced as he was that the author is a fragile being bound by time and fate. The consensus, so far, is a cautious yes, but the need to voice the question is probably more significant than any answer it could evoke.
Borges's meteoric rise to fame is a textbook example of the power of translation to establish and fashion a writer's stature. Until Borges was translated from a marginal language (Spanish in the 1940s) to a language of cultural prestige (French) and political clout (English), he was, as he himself cheerfully admitted, non-existent. Most of his peers in Argentina condemned the now-legendary Fictions as obscure, dehumanised, apolitical, non-Argentinian. Blanche Knopf's dismissal of Borges kept his name off the distinguished list of Latin American writers published by Knopf. Borges did enjoy outside of Spanish a limited reputation as a poet, appearing in anthologies in English of Latin American poetry as early as 1942, six years before Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine brought out "The Garden of Forking Paths". With the advent of the second world war, and the fortuitous presence of Roger Caillois in Buenos Aires, the way was paved for the French version of Fictions in 1951.
The ethos of postwar France welcomed the Fictions . Tales like "The Lottery in Babylon" or "The Library of Babel" appeared a few months after Paris was liberated and their atmosphere of diffused authority and unshouldered responsibility seemed a carryover of the national experience. In addition, Borges's scrutiny of the relationship between reading and writing (it is purely accidental that you are the reader and I am the writer, he said), his insistence on the arbitrary nature of reality, his denial of ur-texts : all this dovetailed perfectly with the nouvelle critique (" Il m'a séduit ," said Jacques Derrida). The cafes of Paris buzzed with the question, " Avez-vous lu Borges ?" From there to the Formentor Prize (shared with Samuel Beckett) in 1961 and to the United States and John Updike's meditations in The New Yorker upon the author as librarian, Borges's reputation prospered until he became the confusing and sometimes confused guru of the 1960s whose presence galvanised US campuses.
His influence on world literature remains unquestioned. The éclat is gone but the stories stand up. He cannot be dismissed as he was in 1945 in some circles in the United States as the author of wintry word games. The computer has foisted on the world that reads and writes the virtual text; email has dethroned the author: who would pay any attention to Dr Johnson at .com? Don Quixote written in the 20th century would indeed be an anomaly. Jet travel has called attention to the sameness of things, to the threads that bind, so Borges in a poem called "Texas" writes with sober irony of "that other Thermopylae, the Alamo." Collected Fictions provides a chance to see how quickly he developed the essential elements of his stories. A Universal History of Infamy (1935) contains stories written in the early 1930s. Borges's introduction stresses that they are rereadings of Stevenson and Chesterton, that they respond to the films of Joseph von Sternberg (Borges was briefly a film critic and the pictorial effect of his stories would repay close study), and that the words of Borges the author are intertwined with those of Mark Twain, once again slighting the notion of authority.
While "The Library of Babel", "Tlon, Uqbar, and Orbis Tertius" may seem algebraic to some readers, other stories have not lost their stunning themes or images. Each reader will have an anthology of favourite and mysterious moments: the semblance of stopped time, the unmoving cloud of smoke, the motionless shadow of the bee while Jaromir Hladik finishes the play that no one will read in reality yet everyone will read as a secret miracle; Emma Zunz's elaborate self-immolation to avenge her father's death; Funes cringing in a dark room unwilling to add another second of experience to his memory; the protagonist of "South", Borges's favourite story, stepping out on the plains with a knife he does not know how to use to fight the prototype of the old gaucho: these are some of the moments that enshrine the tales in literature. And the fact that this prose is built on readings of Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, and H. G. Wells gives it a curiously out-of-date charm.
Wallace Stevens says in one of his letters, "Reality is the great fond , and it is because it is that the purely literary amounts to so little." Wit, irony, invention and finally an almost Whitmanesque tendency to catalogue the things of this world save Borges from this purely literary world.
Translators of literature rarely escape censure. A kind of international police force lies in wait to pounce on every lapse. While the field of translation studies analyses the linguistic aspects of transferring content from one language to another, or explains how cultural phenomena (in Borges's case Buenos Aires and the River Plate) can remain hidden to translators or resist meaning, the appraisal of a literary translation itself enters into the subjective area of literature.
In a 19 lecture, Borges made clear his dislike of the rhetoric inherent in Spanish literature. Its sonority, he believed, inevitably led to bombast and the baroque. Being part English on his father's side and an ardent Anglophile, Borges would have liked to have written in English. His efforts to do so met with no success, so he did the next best thing and forged a style in Spanish that owes much to English: concision, control, adjectives few in number deftly placed, parataxis (his use of the semi-colon is decidedly non-Spanish). The overall effect is what caused his compatriots to complain that he was not writing in their language.
Borges's previous translators, notably Anthony Kerrigan, Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, carefully eschew rhetoric in their English versions. In their slightly laconic manner, they manage to recreate some of the unusual effect of the original Spanish. Andrew Hurley, on the other hand, cannot resist expansion and verbosity. One of the most egregious examples occurs in " Borges y yo " when 11 English words are used to render five Spanish words. "My life is a flight" becomes "So my life is a kind of point-counterpoint, a falling away." This is translation as a gloss, and at such moments Andrew Hurley's translated voice sounds like the vain actor, the Other that caused discomfort to the private Borges. Usually, however, Hurley expands only a word or two, and although there are inevitable gaffes, his single voice wears well.
Borges wished to be remembered as a poet. The Selected Poems , with facing Spanish originals, edited by Alexander Coleman and translated by several well-known hands such as Charles Tomlinson, Alastair Reed, W. S. Merwin, Mark Strand, will be of limited worth. All the problems of translation are magnified when it comes to moving sound and sense from one language to another. Seamus Heaney's observation that poets belong to a language not to the world would appear difficult to refute, yet the world longs to appropriate their work.
The translations are inevitably of uneven quality. The editor decided to be as diffident as Borges about his task, and there is no uniform system of capitalisation. One misses the unifying tone of a single voice or at least a little more consistency in rendering rhyme or the sonnet form. This is especially vexing when one notes the absence of translations by Robert Mezey and Dick Barnes. Their versions have appeared in The Hudson Review , Raritan, Poetry and The New York Review of Books and no less a critic than John Hollander has said they read like lost English originals.
The early poetry was written during the brief avant-garde flurry in Spain, but the first book, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), draws sustenance from Verlaine, Antonio Machado and a carefully disguised Unamuno. In his 1969 prologue, Borges says: "I have not rewritten this book", yet he was incapable of remaining just another reader, and the poems have been cleansed of sentimentality and obvious allusions, and metaphors made more sophisticated. The untouched version is better than the usual first book of poetry, but like Juan Ramón Jiménez, Borges could not stand to live with the supposed weaknesses of early poetry, and like him, he constantly rewrote.
Borges brings to Spanish poetry a unique idiom. From his nostalgic passion for the streets of Buenos Aires to the poems that stoically recount existence in blindness, rarely has such a meditative, melancholy voice been found in Spanish literature. Jorge Manrique's 15th-century Coplas on his father's death beautifully accept the Christian explanation of life as a sojourn to a better place, but Spanish romanticism has no Shelley or Tennyson, and Lorca's elegies contain a violence unknown to Borges.
The tone is English. In " La Recoleta ", a cemetery in Buenos Aires and the title of an early poem, the speaker muses that the certainty of dust is not unnoble, the tombs are attractive, marble and flowers come together to form little patios. Life exists in space and time, and its disappearance is no less a miracle than its appearance. The bleakness of Hardy, who introduced the modern elegy, is not here. Instead we must hark back to Thomas Gray's "cool sequestered vale of life" to find an equivalent tone. Art is like a river with no end. Towards the close of his life, Borges moves Gray's churchyard elegy into the universe and with the same elegant note of acceptance views the patterns of repetition that fit inside a symbol:
"Whoever goes down to a river goes down to the Ganges." Within these patterns is the constant miracle of newness: "Everything happens for the first time but in a way that is eternal." Borges's poetry should be food for thought in the next millennium.
Howard Young is professor of romance languages, Pomona College, California, United States.
Author - Jorge Luis Borges
ISBN - 0 7139 9269 7
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 565
Translator - Andrew Hurley