Translating Borges: Or, Playing the Bells
WORKING SESSIONS WITH Bob Mezey trying to translate the poems of Jorge Luis Borges were like swimming in some strong cold surf: it was exhilarating, one came away feeling tired but refreshed and glad for the chance to have done it, and yet the next time one felt again that same reluctance to dive in. Bob felt the same way. It meant always a shock to the ego and a buffeting of one’s notions — but sometimes, quite often in fact, there was a sense of being lifted up by some powerful force outside ourselves.
The project began entirely by accident. Borges dined in Santa Barbara with a young poet, Ryan Cooney, who was at that time co-editing PoetryNow out of Cambridge University, and, with a gesture characteristic of Latin American authors, impulsively gave Ryan verbal permission to publish anything of his in translation without any royalty fee. (We have since learned a little about what a tangle Borges’s rights are still in.) So Ryan asked us to do some fresh translations, and we did, and they were published, and that might have been the end of it. We did, however, include some of those translations in readings we gave, and found them to be deeply moving to others. A year or so later Bob came up with the plan of doing a whole book of Borges translations, and asked me to collaborate with him. Having no idea what I was letting myself in for, I gladly said yes.
Bob Mezey’s translations of modern Spanish poetry in Hardie St. Martin’s anthology Roots and Wings seemed to me quite the best — the only ones that were actual poems in English while staying scrupulously close to the meaning of the originals — and I felt honored to work with him. His plan was to do the new translations in close approximations of the original rhyme and meter. As the one-time editor of Naked Poetry, an influential anthology of ’60s poems in “open forms,” he has since taken on the character of a reformed rake, so that now exact rhyme and strict if flexible meter have to him a value in themselves. For myself, I’ve always thought that metrical forms are like the clothing of poems, and that what one says takes on different qualities according to how one is dressed: so it’s not just a stunt but an effort towards accuracy to try and use the forms of the originals.
Naturally that makes it harder to match lexical meanings. I’m thinking of a story about Charlie Parker. One day a jazz critic who played saxophone himself said, “Bird, let me try your axe.” “Sure,” Parker said. But the reed was so hard the critic couldn’t make it sound at all. “How can you play with a tough reed like this?” “Hard work, mothafuck.”
There’s a sense in which translation is impossible anyway. I’m told Wittgenstein declared that no sentence is the equivalent of any other sentence, and you can see how that would be true. I say “I’m happy,” you say “I’m happy,”: obviously both “I” and “happy” will have quite different meanings, and probably “am” will too. However: I’m also told that by calculating the body weight, muscle mass, wing area, etc., it can be proved that a bumblebee can’t fly; but the bumblebee doesn’t know that.
Several things about Borges make him an easier subject for translation than some other writers. For one thing, he belongs to exactly the same European literary tradition as we do, so that the forms are familiar to us and have about the same value: sonnet, couplet, quatrain, fourteener; that makes translating Borges an entirely different proposition from translating the Chinese shih, say, with its patterns of tones, or the Arabic gasida with its quantitative meters and monorhyme. Moreover, his use of that same tradition provides the translator into English with a quarry of words for smoothing meter or even for rhyme. English gets itself said more tersely than Spanish, so one is always looking for more syllables to fill out one’s lines; if the poem takes its place in an imaginary world known to a translator — The Odyssey, Treasure Island, Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, Orlando Furioso, or whatever — there is a text behind Borges’s text that can be quarried for these extra syllables. And last, while the nuance is always important in Borges, as in any good poet, it isn’t everything; there is always a clear if subtle statement of meaning to inform the feeling of all his poems except for a few written in his youth.
Beyond all that there is something about Borges’s own personality that we discovered, both in his writing and in our experience of working on our translations. He liked to play with the philosophical notion that if two people do the same thing they become the same person: so Argentines playing truco, for instance, since the same hands and the same plays and the same rhymes and the same bamboozles must necessarily be repeated from time to time, in some small way become their own ancestors. Borges said he thought maybe he was being dreamt by someone else, or that Cervantes was dreamt by Alonso Quijano (who was so named when sane and Don Quixote when mad). I don’t think Bob Mezey or I ever believed such a thing seriously, though we entertained it playfully, all in our line of work. And in our work we subjected each other’s versions to such merciless scrutiny that we were always giving up something in which we had ego investments, just to go on. Borges often did the same sort of thing, not in translations, I think, but in original works: he and Adolfo Bioy Casares even took on a third name from time to time, Bustos Domeq for instance, for the works they created together; and he testified to a sensation that we often had, that there was a third party working along with the two who were there in the verifiable flesh. As on the road to Emmaus, or sometimes when jazz musicians hear an extra voice: the slang term for that is “playing the bells.” We like to pretend that in our case the third party is Borges himself; it was, at least, our sensation.
We recently had an unexpected confirmation of this absurd notion. On a research trip to Buenos Aires we had met Estela Canto, one of the many women with whom Borges fell hopelessly in love; she was most interested in their literary intimacy, which was for a while intense. (Her book about him, Borges a Contra Luz — perhaps Borges Against the Light — caused a stir when it came out in Buenos Aires and will soon be published in this country by Chronicle Editions, San Francisco.) When we sent her a manuscript of our translations she replied that Borges really thought and talked best in English — that his poems had to be translated into Spanish — and that we had somehow recovered the never-written English originals. We didn’t believe that either, of course, though I’m bound to admit it pleased us; and it was the kind of thought Borges himself liked to entertain. —July 22, 1992