First, my thanks to site editors Stacey and David for this opportunity... I have to confess that in the past I've been wary of "blog" as a verb (I blog, you blog, everyone blogs... It sounds suspiciously like "blablabla" or "blah" or "blech"), but after years now of watching people figure out what a blog is or can be, I think ultimately, like any medium, it all depends on who's speaking through it. I've been a reader of this blog (among others) and enjoyed the range of voices and bright bits of art, ephemera, poems it collects... So now: I blog, I will blog, I will have blogged... We shall see.
I'd like to start with a little investigation I conducted into a Borges verse and its translation or mistranslation. Traduttore or tradittore? You be the judge...
Here is the poem. This is a translation by renowned translator, poet and former New Yorker writer Alastair Reid, which appears in the Selected Poems edited by Alexander Coleman. It's the definitive source for Borges' poetry in English, and probably the only volume you're likely to find in your local bookstore, chain or other...
A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a café in the South, a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a color and a form.
The typographer who set this page well, though it may not please him.
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of Stevenson.
He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.
What does this poem do?
I think most would agree that the last line unlocks it. That's why I was shocked (yes, shocked!) by the word "unaware". I believe the last line in Spanish is quite different, in effect making this translation a different poem altogether. Let's take a look...
Un hombre que cultiva su jardin, como quería Voltaire.
El que agradece que en la tierra haya música.
El que descubre con placer una etimología.
Dos empleados que en un café del Sur juegan un silencioso ajedrez.
El ceramista que premedita un color y una forma.
El tipógrafo que compone bien esta página, que tal vez no le agrada.
Una mujer y un hombre que leen los tercetos finales de cierto canto.
El que acaricia a un animal dormido.
El que justifica o quiere justificar un mal que le han hecho.
El que agradece que en la tierra haya Stevenson.
El que prefiere que los otros tengan razón.
Esas personas, que se ignoran, están salvando el mundo.
There are some losses in the English, as with any translation, but it generally doesn't stray too far. For example, "He who is grateful for the existence of music" could more literally (but less naturally?) be translated as "He who is grateful that there is music on earth". But the "unaware" in the last line ("que se ignoran" in Spanish) struck me as just wrong.
I took this verse to mean (a clunky literal rendering): These people, who are ignored, are saving the world.
The poem builds to this moment. All of the people in it are doing simple things, humble acts. The reference to Candide in the beginning implies that they are no doubt aware of misfortune, horror, but are still choosing to make something beautiful, let an argument go, show kindness to an animal, do a job well. The sum of these small acts is saving the world, more than any single act of heroism. To say that the world ignores them (what I took the last line to mean) underscores this interpretation. I think the "unaware" of the translation is already implied: the nature of the acts themselves shows that the people are unaware of their effect. If they knew that they were saving the world, their actions would be coming out of a completely different intention, n'est-ce pas? For grammatical reasons I won't go into, the verb construction did not seem to support "unaware", either...
But before I advanced any further on my high horse, I decided to consult with other Spanish speakers. I'm on pretty intimate terms with the language, but perhaps there was some grammatical loophole or other clue I was missing. I asked two friends, Mexican, brothers and both lovers of Borges, for their take on the last line. I also had the great fortune to work on the same floor as some of the Spanish translators at the UN (I translate into English), who presumably know a thing or two. I conducted an informal survey among three of them (one Colombian, one Uruguayan, one Spanish) on the question. Everybody agreed that the translation changed the meaning of the original, and was actually not a possible interpretation based on the sentence construction.
My survey also turned up another interpretation of the poem, which I hadn't seen. A couple of the native speakers took the last line to mean (again, clunky and literal): "These people, who do not know each other (ignore each others' existence) are saving the world". This interpretation emphasizes the randomness of these little acts, and how somehow, the sum of them saves the world. I love that this meaning is also possible (in addition to "who are ignored") in such a little phrase, no doubt why Borges chose to build the verse the way he did...
So what's up with the translation? The brilliant Soledad (the Uruguayan translator) suggested that perhaps Reid chose "unaware" to fit the form, made the sacrifice in meaning to avoid awkwardness and make a better sentence in English. A good point, and so I tried to test this hypothesis and see if there really was nothing closer possible in English. I came up with "unacknowledged" and "unrecognized" and a quick consultation with ye olde thesaurus yielded "unsung," "undistinguished" and "unnamed". Are any better than "unaware"? I think if I had to choose, I would choose "unrecognized" (though the "who don't know each other" sense is still lost).
Soledad also suggested that perhaps Reid had consulted with Borges on his word choice. Reid knew Borges personally; Borges also grew up speaking English and Spanish and was a great lover of British and Anglo-Saxon literature. Hmmm... well, if Borges gave his blessing, then I surrender. But as there was no indication of such a blessing, fragrant with labyrinths and tigers, I pressed on.
So why such a fuss about one word? And who am I to critique the great Alastair Reid, who is responsible for bringing so much of Neruda and Borges into our great mongrel tongue?
I believe that as a translator, you are never off the hook, not even for a single word. You are responsible not only to the poet, but to the integrity of the poem, its own presence in the world, and you are also responsible to your readers, most of whom do not have access to the layers you do. This is what makes me uneasy when the work of a translator is passed on to a poet with only a basic knowledge of the foreign language (some of Robert Bly's translations, for example). The assumption is that with the magical poet's touch, the translation is bound to be good. Perhaps you will get a good poem in English, but at what cost? This is obviously not quantifiable, but it makes a difference in the way that the small acts of the Borges poem do.
I still don't have a satisfactory answer to the seeming error in Reid's translation. The best explanation I can come up with is that the verb "ignorar" in Spanish is used more commonly than in English to mean "unaware of". As in, ""Why are most people ignorant of the existence of extraterrestrial life?" (the example is from a Google search of "ignorant of ")... If there are any other theories out there, they would be appreciated!
Just a couple of parting words on the poem, in case you liked it. The title, "Los justos" does mean "The Just", but the word in Spanish also has the meaning of "right" or "exact", as in "la palabra justa" (or "le mot juste" in French). And in deference to Alastair Reid, here is an excerpt from a talk he gave on Borges.
For people who are truly bilingual, an immediate separation sets in between language and the unsayable beyond, what we call "reality." In other words, this is not a desk; “desk” is merely one word we use to describe it. A gulf sets in between what we perceive and the words we use.
Wow. The talk also contains an excerpt from my favorite Borges story The Aleph, which has one of the greatest lists ever written, and is a kind of prose poem itself... Check it out.