Coetzee on translating Borges

From J.M. Coetzee’s Stranger Shores essay on Jorge Luis Borges:

Jorge Luis Borges was born in 1899 into a prosperous middle-class family, in a Buenos Aires where Spanish — to say nothing of Italian — descent was not deemed a social asset. One of his grandmothers was from England; the family chose to stress their English affiliations and to bring up the children speaking English as well as Spanish. Borges remained a lifelong Anglophile. Curiously for a writer with an avant-garde reputation, his own reading seemed to stop around 1920. His taste in English-language fiction was for Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells; he often referred to himself as “un ser victoriano,” a Victorian….

Borges’ prose is controlled, precise, and economical to a degree uncommon in Spanish America. It avoids (as Borges notes with some pride) “Hispanicisms, Argentinisms, archaisms, and neologisms; [it uses] everyday words rather than shocking ones.” In his work up to and including The Aleph, the clear surface of his prose is ruffled now and again by unusual, even disturbing verbal collocations. In his late phase, such moments are rare.

Although any translator will be challenged to match the simultaneous concision and force of Borges’ Spanish, and to find renderings for his sometimes riddling metaphors, his language presents no irresolvable problems, except on those occasions when it is colored — deliberately, one is sure — by English verbal patterns. (Such patterns, as soon as they are reproduced in English translation, of course sink into invisibility.)

There is a set of difficulties of a more practical nature, however, created by the fact that Borges, late in life, acted as his own (co)translator… and in the process of translating availed himself of the opportunity to do some revisiting. These revisions can be quite sweeping in scale: half a page of rather dated satire is cut from “The Aleph,” for instance. Borges also felt free to work into his English texts information that the protocols of the craft would constrain any other translator to relegate to footnotes: a cryptic mention of la revolución de Aparício, for instance, is expanded to “a civil war … between the Colorados, or Reds, who were in power, and Aparício’s Blancos, or Whites.”

But Borges’ revisions have a subsidiary purpose as well: to tone down his own Spanish. Resounding trademark adjectives of the middle phase, like abominable, enigmático, implacable, interminable, notorio, perverso, pérfido, vertiginoso, violento are softened: the “violent [violento] flank of the mountain” becomes its “steep slop,” a woman’s “violent [violento] hair” becomes her “tangled hair”…

The justification offered by Borges and di Giovanni for this toning down, and for the general smoothness of their English versions, is that Spanish and English embody “two quite different ways of looking at the world.” They have tried less to transpose the original Spanish into English, they say, than “to rethink every sentence in English words,” aiming for prose that “[reads] as though … written in English”….

[T]he versions of Borges that we want to read are not necessarily those that sound as if English were their native tongue: if there is indeed a proportion of grandiloquence in the originals, the reader may prefer to hear that grandiloquence and discriminate for himself what is authentically Borgesian in it, what native to the Spanish, rather than have the language uniformly muted on his behalf.

(Stranger Shores, pp. 142, 148-50.)


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