It is very easy to associate authors’ lives with their writing, and assume there is some personal feeling and commentary involved. Yet poets take on different personas when crafting their work to keep themselves hidden, inviting us to connect more deeply with their words. Jorge Luis Borges is well known for not necessarily showing his personality in his writing. He encourages his readers to reflect. Here, I will attempt to do some reflection.
Like Borges, I am from Buenos Aires. Borges’ work has been translated multiple times, making his interpretations of the world accessible for speakers of many languages. I feel privileged to read Borges’ in Spanish, bu there are many translators who bring his craft to the English-speaking world; Kenneth Krabbenoft, Andrew Hurley and James E. Irby are three very popular ones. Like me, all of them found his famous prose poem “Borges y yo” so captivating that each attempted a very personal translation. In this text, Borges describes the “symbiotic” yet problematic relationship he has with another version of himself: “Borges” the celebrity writer, whom he refers to as “the other one,” distant from his true self. Perhaps all the translators chose to translate and share this particular prose poem because it invites them to reflect on feelings that most of us, regardless of background, experience often. Borges plays with a first and a third person voice to distinguish the two “versions” of himself, which, while they indeed conflict and resent each other, still have sympathy for one another.
On a first read, “Borges y yo” seems intimate. It seems to be only about the narrator’s internal struggle with his identity. . The translations of Krabbenoft, Hurley and Irby succeed in carrying across Borges’ detailed internal paradoxical strife, but their translations lack literal accuracy. They turn “Borges y yo” into a poem only about Borges’ life. The narrator’s tone and themes get lost when translated. Their translations do not capture the experience I get with the original. The precise and concise vocabulary in the original text conveys a remarkable narrator who speaks in a distant tone. The speaker changes in the three English translations, changing the overall takeaways of the piece. I chose to think about this because the speaker makes me reflect on the duality I find in everyone, in everything, in myself. To put it simply, it is this duality which I think makes life exciting. Indeed, the duality in this poem is what sparked my interest in translating the text myself, and in my translation I attest to the value of Borges’ message: I created a different version of the same poem.
In the Spanish text, the speaker directly states his philosophical “complaint” about life in general: “Lo bueno ya no es de nadie,” Yet when comparing the original line to the three English translations, I notice that they do not quite represent the depth of feeling that the line carries. The translators’ word choice narrows the statement down to one about Borges’ life only. Although the narrator of the original describes how his alter ego’s literature is valuable and even a kind of “salvation” for himself, his words soon transition into tackling a much bigger picture when reflecting that “Lo bueno ya no es de nadie,” which I interpret and translate into “what is good is no longer anyone’s’”. Borges is shifting his complaint to everything that “is good” and that no longer remains that way, hinting at a change. In Spanish, this line is not necessarily making reference to the category of literature mentioned previously; the masculine article “lo” is indeed indicating to the word “todo” ‘everything’ that once was good and has suffered a change. However, the focus in this statement is not to make us think about what “good” thing has been lost, but to emphasize that it is no longer good. Something worth noting is that because Borges addresses this commented belonging to “nadie” — ‘anybody’ –– it becomes an active subject so I wanted it to remain such effect. Borges’ narrator passively complains that once he shares his literature with the world, it no longer belongs to him. Nevertheless, he seems to have accepted how life works and has resigned to try and do something about it. Although spiteful, he understands that his work must abandon him. Both Krabbenoft and Hurley, however, make this line a complaint simply about the literature of the “other Borges.” Krabbenoft translates: “Good writing belongs to no one,” unnecessarily making “Lo” refer to the “writing” only. Hurley also makes it specific to Borges’ worthwhile pages by writing: “The good in them no longer belongs to any individual,” also making a simplistic reference to the literature with “in them.” None of these translations convey the great critique of literary society that Borges’ own words do. Irby, however, gives a closer translation: “what is good belongs to no one.” This line successfully refers to everything in general, but still is missing the key word “anymore” — ya — that Borges uses, pointing that life has not always worked that way. indicating a comparison to the past and an attention to what no longer happens. The translators fail to retell what the original speaker hints at. The English versions do not invite me to analyze beyond Borges’ own experience. They do not compel me to feel engaged and identified.
In every reading I do, I begin some sort of relationship with the speaker of “Borges y yo”. In the Spanish, the narrator openly shares such inner struggles that portray him as someone I can trust in and rely on. The narrator confesses his feelings about life in general and allows such complicity with his readers when stating that: “Por lo demás, yo estoy destinado a perderme, definitivamente” that one can literally translate as: ‘as for the rest, I am destined to get lost, definitely.’ This is the line that I feel I translated most accurately, as even the sentence structure and word order can remain the same. In this line, the speaker clearly assumes that he is fated to get lost, but does not seem to feel so conflicted about it, probably because he knows there is no point in fighting against it. For example, when using the transitional addition phrase “por lo demás” — ‘as for the rest’ — he mentions it as if it were some insignificant detail of his life that he is at ease with already, and implies a rather friendly tone. Furthermore, the clarifying the adverb “definitivamente” — “definitely” — affirms that it is a fact that he is going to get lost, and adds it as if it were no big deal. His neutrality towards the matter makes possible my reliance on someone like him, who can be at ease and relaxed during critical situations.
I do not find this tone when reading either of the three chosen English translations. For example, Krabbenoft translated it as “as for the rest, I am fated to disappear completely.” Although his transitional phrase is literally accurate, when he moves on into the sentences, he chose the verb “disappear.” Not only does it not completely replace “getting lost,” but it also makes it exclusively about his physical presence. Instead, the original narration transmits that he, or his “true” personality, will be the one getting lost figuratively, while the other side or version to himself will be the one to remain. Krabbenoft selects the adverb “completely” to describe this disappearance, taking away the chance of him being found again. Hurley, translates: “Beyond that, I am doomed – utterly and inevitably – to oblivion.” His choice of words exaggerates Borges’ language tremendously, as he adds a feeling of pity for himself, when in fact the Spanish words do not lament. Irby’s translation also imposes a different feeling from the original, as he writes that “Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively.” First, he chooses to transition with the word “besides,” which adds something as a relevant counterargument, differing from Borges’ more irreverent tone which just mentions his loss, without giving it that much of importance. Irby too distorts Borges’ words and states that he will “perish definitively,” making his loss terminal, when Borges’ do not. All of the translators capture the idea that something will happen to him, but take it to a negative extreme, while Borges’ words in fact transmit a passive, irreverent feeling about it. It is crucial to preserve this tone, but has not been fully accomplished.
Borges is known for alluding to metaphysical or abstract themes, such as explaining how the world works in general, by using personal examples. This invites me or anyone who can access the text in Spanish to reflect on our own actions and ways. He uses very precise language, showing the complexity of his distant yet intimate insights. He claims that “todas las cosas quieren perseverar en su ser” and this statement I interpret in English as he affirming that: “each thing wants to persevere in its being.” In this phrase, I did not exactly give every single word a literal translation. For example “todas las cosas” literally translates to “every thing,” but his message goes beyond pointing at every single thing. Instead, he wants to make emphasis on every thing in particular. Therefore I believe “each thing” is more accurate. I kept a literal translation, however, for the specific verbs “want” and “persevere” as they both have a specific purpose. In this statement, he shifts from his own example. And yet, while Borges is a complete stranger to me, his precision and calm makes it feel as if I can count on him as kind of teacher.
But once again, the translations fail, repeatedly opposing Borges’ lack of attachment and intention to give advice to the matter. Krabbenoft translates it as “All things desire to endure in their being,” Hurley as “All things wish to go on being what they are,” and Irby as “All things long to persist in their being.” Borges simply uses “want,” which is not the as strong and active of a verb as “desire,” “wish,” or “long” are. These add an overtly personal and passionate sense of wanting and attachment to whatever their “being” is, far from Borges’ words, changing the focus of his claim and sentiment towards it. Additionally, Krabbenoft chooses the word “endure,” which is associated with necessarily undergoing suffering while lasting or remaining, with a very different meaning than to persevere, that is instead something done by choice, not obligation. Hurley and Irby make a different claim in their translation, using very neutral and vague verbs like to “go on being” and “persist,” respectively. Both these verbs are quite inactive, merely to be or just to remain, and do not address the great themes ideas beyond his own internal battle. Although this text is brought to the English-speaking readers, the sense of comforting and companionship for his audience that Borges expresses in the words he chooses seem to fade when translated.
The second to last sentence in the poem summarizes all of the previously mentioned ideas: “Así, mi vida es una fuga y todo lo pierdo.” I translate: ‘this way, my life is a leak and everything I lose.” This particular line in Spanish indeed represents what I believe seems to be Borges’ literary mission with this text. He describes his life as a “fuga,” I interpret in two ways: it can translate literally as “leak” which means a crack that can be the source of trouble and leads to catastrophes, like a leak of gas. It can also translate figuratively as a plan of action to get out of trouble or non-ideal situations, like breaking out of prison. Both meanings allows us to assume that either his life is building up into a problem, like a leak, or that his life is the solution to a problem, like an escape. This ties into Borges’ paradoxical relationship with his other self, which he seems uncomfortable with, but not so concerned about. He does not make me feel sorry about his situation. His words imply that he somehow clearly understands his place and role in the world, however mysterious that place is. The original structure of the sentence, moreover, I felt the need to keep intact, especially because he writes “todo lo pierdo” ‘everything I lose,’ instead of saying “pierdo todo” ‘I lose everything.” By putting “todo” first, he gives focus to what he is constantly losing, beyond the simple fact that he is losing it.
The translators are again misguided. Krabbenoft, for instance, writes: “Thus, my life is an escape. I will lose everything.” He chooses “escape,” thus suggesting that Borges longs for something better or freedom. And also, takes the liberty to translate the sentence into two separate ones, isolating these ideas that were meant to show cause and effect, to seem distant. Hurley also lengthens the sentence and adds many words to it, writing: “So my life is a point – counter point, a kind of fugue, and a falling away – and everything winds up being lost to me.” Using so many unnecessary words here, he opposes the economy of Borges’ precise writing style. Irby’s version goes: “Thus, my life is a flight and I lose everything.” Although his interpretation seems to come closer to a most accurate translation, I still feel that it does not replace Borges’ Spanish effect. The word “flight” specifically associates with fast and quick moves to escape, acting on reflex or running away from something when being prosecuted. On the contrary, Borges’ “fuga,” if indeed an escape, would likely be a slow-paced and planned. Given the opposing word choices and sentence structure, it is evident that takeaways from this paradoxical and illusory text cannot simply be the same when translated.
As I was analyzing the translations, I felt the need to try and write my own interpretation of this poem. During the process, however, I witnessed how hard it is to try and carry his meanings over into another language. My translated “Borges and I” of course will read very differently from the original, but it is still something worth taking the time to study, given its theme: the question of the self.
1. The following is my own translation of “Borges y yo”:
To the other one, to Borges, is whom things happen to. I walk through Buenos Aires and get delayed, even automatically, to look at porches and front doors; of Borges I get news over the mail and I see his name within a list of selected professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, typography from the eighteenth century, etymologies, the taste of coffee and Stevenson’s prose; the other one shares these preferences with me, but in a vain mode that converts them into an actor’s attributes. It would be exaggerated to say that our relationship is hostile; I live, I allow myself to be lived, so that Borges can contrive his literature, and that literature then justifies me. Nothing costs me to acknowledge that he has achieved certain valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, maybe because what is good is no longer anyone’s, not even his, but instead belongs to language and tradition. As for the rest, I am destined to get lost, definitively, and only some instant of myself would be able to survive within the other one. Little by little, I am giving everything to him, although I am aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying. Spinoza understood how each of all things want to persevere in their being; the stone eternally wants to be stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in me (if it is that I am someone), but I recognize myself even less in his books than in many others, or in a laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago, I tried to free myself from him and went from the porteño mythologies to the games with time and infinity, but those games are Borges’ now and I will have to think up other things. Like this, my life is a leak and everything I lose belongs to oblivion, or to the other one.
I don’t know which of the two writes this page.
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Borges and I.” Translated by Andrew Hurley. Collected Fictions 1998, pp. 339.
—. “Borges and I.” Translated by James E. Irby. Labyrinths: Selected Stores and Other Writings, edited by Donald A. Yates, New Directions, 2007, pp 246-247.
—. “Borges and I.” Translated by Kenneth Krabbenoft. The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry: a Bilingual Anthology, edited by Vicuña Cecilia and Ernesto Livon-Grosman, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 203–204.