Stories of Translators: Jorge Luis Borges

On June 14, 1986, one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, Jorge Luis Borges, died in Geneva. To mark this date, let’s revisit Borges’ translator side.

The path of Jorge Luis Borges as a translator

At just nine years of age, Borges translated The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde from English into Spanish. The fact that his first published work was a translation, and the pride that this stirred in him, are a clear indication of the important place occupied by translation in the work of this great Argentine writer. Although he never worked for a translation agency, Borges consistently translated throughout his life. His long career as a translator includes texts from English, French, German, Old English and even Old Norse into Spanish, including the works of William Faulkner, André Gide, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Henri Michaux, Jack London, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf, to quote just a few.

The doctrine of Borges as translator

For Borges, translation was not about transferring a text from one language to another, but rather to transform one text into another one. He argued that even a literal translation, due to the changes in space-time coordinates, implies a whole host of different meanings, connotations and associations, a principle that is as true for literary translation as it is for business or legal translation.

Can a translation ever be better than the original text?

One of the reasons why Borges was so interested in translation was that according to him, this could enrich a text or even improve it. Reviewing the different versions of a work was one of the most interesting literary experiences that Borges enjoyed. He was well aware that any change in linguistic code could generate losses but he maintained that these losses were sometimes necessary.

The Borges method

Borges as a translator took many liberties with the original text. After analyzing his translations, as did Efrain Kristal, we may conclude that Borges applied a method:

  1. Eliminating elements which he considered to be redundant, unnecessary or inconsistent;
  2. Eliminating what he called textual distractions;
  3. Adding nuances (such as changing the title, for example);
  4. Rewriting a text in the light of another (such as when he translated Angelus Silesius, a seventeenth-century mystic, giving him a certain post-Nietzsche sensitivity);
  5. Sporadically including literal translations from one text in one of his own works.

False translations

Borges also resorted to pseudepigraphy (a book whose title or author’s name is false) in the field of translation. In his youth, the man who would later pen The Aleph and The Book of Sand, used to author a column in the magazine El Hogar, where he regularly published texts of his own. Occasionally he would also publish in the magazine, in the style of Emanuel Swedenborg or the Arabian Nights, translations of texts he claimed to have stumbled upon… texts which were, without a doubt, his own.

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Stories of Translators: Jorge Luis Borges
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