Sunday, April 27, 2014

Borges and Me: Lost in Translation

Borges, 1951, from Wikimedia Commons
A Personal Anthology
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alastair Reid)
(Grove Press, 1967)

The Aleph and Other Stories
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated in collaboration with Norman Thomas di Giovanni)
(E.P. Dutton, 1970) 

Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley)
(Viking Press, 1998)

     I have previously written about the difficulties of reading literature as opposed to nonfiction in translation. I think I have also written about the difficulties caused to lovers of literature by the estates of late authors. Now here's an example of what happens when the two collude.

     Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was one of the finest short story and essay writers of all time in the estimation of some. Since he was an Argentinian, he wrote in Spanish and had to be translated for most Americans to appreciate. But which translation?
     I first learned of Borges through the film Performance (1970), directed by Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, which featured Mick Jagger reading from Borges' A Personal Anthology, a sort of best-of collection. I tracked down the book and purchased it. I didn't know it at the time, but Borges had started collaborating on new translations of his work with Norman Thomas di Giovanni, thus assuring the most accurate translations in meaning and literary feeling. I bought a volume of these stories, too, The Aleph and Other Stories, which shared some of the same contents, when the paperback came out in the late 1970s. I compared some of the translations, and there were definitely differences.
     Recently the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez reminded me of Borges (some thought the Nobel Prize for Literature which Marquez received pre-empted the same honor for Borges), and wanted to re-read some of his stories. Alas, I discovered that I no longer had The Aleph and Other Stories, though I had the volume Borges, A Reader, which includes some of the same stories and translations. I must have sold or donated the volume in an effort to reduce the size of my library before a move. No problem, I thought, I'll buy it again.
     Then I discovered that the di Giovanni translation was no longer in print by decree of Borges' widow, who felt that the higher royalties di Giovanni received (it was after all a collaboration) mattered more than her late husband's wishes in the matter. Instead new translations she commissioned from Andrew Hurley (in Collected Fictions and other volumes) would be the only ones allowed.
     What difference does it make? To literary scholars at least it should matter a great deal. The di Giovanni translations represent Borges' last thoughts on the stories. If we prefer the last revised texts American and English authors present for posterity, then we should care about these translations of Borges as well. I haven't read Hurley's versions in detail yet, but note the differences between di Giovanni and the other translations.
     Take the piece "Borges and I" (which I believe di Giovanni and Borges originally translated as "Borges and Me," though it has the former title in Borges, A Reader), a meditation on Borges the man versus Borges the writer.

     In Anthony Kerrigan's translation, the last line is rendered:
          I don't know which one of the two of us is writing this page. 

     As by Borges and di Giovanni, it goes:
          Which of us is writing this page I don't know.

     In Hurley:
          I am not sure which of us it is that's writing this page.

     Maybe you won't agree, but the middle version is to me by far the best. It's shorter, less clunky and flows better. It ends with the revelation that Borges himself doesn't know which of his two selves is writing what we're reading, while the other versions put the emphasis on this page. Kerrigan and Hurley disagree only slightly, and their versions may be more accurate literal translations, but with fiction we don't want merely accurate. (Isaac Asimov once pointed out that in Hamlet's soliloquy, he refers to a sea of troubles when a host of troubles would be more correct, but which is more evocative, stronger, memorable?)
     It may be a small thing, but I wish the Borges/di Giovanni's version was out there to compete in the marketplace.


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