Bioy Casares and Borges

Bioy Casares kept a record of the very many encounters and meetings he had with firm friend Borges in Buenos Aires. These records were edited and published in a 1600-page behemoth simply titled Borges, a title which does not definitively alert the unsuspecting Amazon shopper that its contents are in Spanish.

Although I read Spanish well enough, and although I feel the need to complain about previous translations of both Borges’ and Bioy Casares’ works, I would have much preferred the book in English translation for a non-Argentinean audience, where footnotes on literary and political figures I’d never heard of would have been abundant and the strain of reading such a long work in Spanish could be avoided. Unfortunately, no such English translation appears to be available.

Nevertheless, I do occasionally dip into Borges, and for the most part I end up agreeing with David Gallagher’s sentiments regarding the book — too long, too desultory, not really all that revealing. Nevertheless, there are still a number of amusing moments, and so I thought I’d share a few I’ve discovered recently:

Sunday, 28th of September, 1969

Hablo por teléfono con Borges. Me dice: Mi sobrino Luis se casa pasado mañana. Está en cama, muy resfriado. ¿Será una estratagema para no casarse? Sin embargo, no está obligado… Qué raro, elegir la inmovilidad como una forma de fuga.

I speak with Borges on the phone. He tells me: My cousin Luis is getting married the day after tomorrow. He’s in bed with a severe cold. Could it be a way to avoid getting married? Still, no one’s forcing him… How odd to choose immobility as a form of running away.

Monday, 14th of August, 1961

BORGES: <<Me faltan veinte días para irme a Texas. ¿Cómo detener el tiempo? Madre está muy divertida con el viaje. Ojalá que me dejen hablar de otros temas, además de literatura argentina. Esa idea de que todo hombre es un commis voyageur de su país es una porquería, es la negación de la cultura, de la literatura, de todo.

BORGES: I leave for Texas in twenty days. How does one stop time? Mother is very amused about the trip. Hopefully they let me speak on topics other than Argentinian literature. This idea that everybody is a commis voyageur of one’s own country is crap; it’s the negation of culture, of literature, of everything.

Sunday, 18th of March, 1962

Le hablo de mi cuento <<El calamar opta por su tinta>>. BORGES: <<Está bien. El verbo optar supone una inteligencia que los calamares probablamente no tienen>>. Comentado los primeros resultados de las elecciones y el posible triunfo peronista: <<Recuerdo un dicho parecido: ¨El perro vuelve a su vómito¨. Aunque más adecuado sería, por estos días; ¨El argentino vuelve a su Perón¨>>.

I tell him about my story, The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink. BORGES: “It’s good. The verb choose presupposes an intelligence that squid probably don’t have.” Commenting on the preliminary election results and the possible Peronista triumph: “I remember a similar saying: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit’. Although something more apt would be, for these times: ‘The Argentinian returns to his own Peron'”.

Note: Borges’ apter saying has an added kick in Spanish because perro, the word for dog, is very similar to Perón.

Monday, 19th of March, 1962

A unos metodistas que se oponían a la pena capital, les dijo: <<Cristo la sancionó. Murió en la cruz; no elogió — era Dios y podía hacerlo — la reclusión en la cárcel>>. <<No los convencí>>, agrega. Yo le recuerdo que, para John Donne, Cristo era suicida.

He said to some Methodists opposed to the death penalty: “Christ sanctioned it. He died on the cross; he did not choose — he was God and was able to do so — imprisonment in jail.” “I did not convince them”, he added. I remind him that, according to John Donne, Christ committed suicide.

The Invention of Morel and its Curious Excisions

SG’s a friend of mine. A while ago, he and I went on a wild goose chase in search of a literary conjuring act that Adolfo Bioy Casares, a close friend of Borges’, would certainly have been capable of and which would fit with the literary knavery the Argentine was known to pull off. Although the wild goose chase came to a gooseless end, the chase itself was nonetheless worthwhile: almost inadvertently, we ended up reading the Bioy Casares classic, The Invention of Morel, in a way that would delight any English professor of the old school — paying close attention to words, sentences and imagery, completely innocent of any possible Marxist, feminist or post-structuralist “reading”.

Naturally, such scrutiny extended to the translation — which proved especially apt because, having both read the book originally in English, the goose we were chasing might never have been spotted yonder over the horizon if not for some inapt translation: a footnote was misplaced; encabezamiento was translated as at the beginning of the manuscript rather than preface or preamble; and what the narrator wanted to do with a motto in English was not quite what he wanted to do in Spanish. Consequently, we ended up dreaming up outlines of an elaborate story within a story to explain a peculiarity that was not Bioy Casares’ invention, but rather the translator’s.

I’ve already complained about Andrew Hurley’s translations of Borges’ short stories, and it seems his great friend Bioy Casares has suffered a similarly unfortunate fate in English. Ruth Simms, whose translation of The Invention of Morel we read, writes better English prose than Hurley, so there’s not the same inelegance in the text that burdens Hurley’s Borges. Nevertheless, Simms work suffers from inaccuracies on three fronts: benign translations of curious word selections in the Spanish; unnecessary explanatory interventions into allusive passages; and, criminally, the skipping of certain peculiar sentences or phrases entirely, as if they didn’t exist in the original at all. It’s only speculation, but it seems to me that Simms wanted to avoid accurately rendering the peculiarities of the Spanish original in case the book’s readers would think her translation was peculiar, not the Spanish original. Quite amusing then that if it weren’t for a peculiarity Simms introduced while she was busily redacting the others that actually existed in the original, two Australians would never have closely analysed her translation and come to criticise it.

But there’s no need to just take my word for the shortcomings of Simms’ translation: below I present some bits and pieces of Bioy Casares’ text that Simms chose not to translate at all, which you can inspect at your leisure (references to page numbers are from this edition):

On page 26, the translation reads:

The sun was still above the horizon, hovering as a kind of mirage. I hurried down to the rocks.

That’s meant to be the translation of:

Todavia el sol estaba arriba del horizonte (no el sol; la apariencia del sol; era ese momento en que ya se ha puesto, o va a ponerse, y uno lo ve donde no esta). Yo había escalado con urgencia las piedras.

What’s missing is that entire bracketed section — which is quite important to the plot — so that the two sentences should actually read:

The sun was still above the horizon, hovering as a kind of mirage (not the sun, but what appeared to be the sun; it was one of those situations where the sun had set, or was about to set, and the sun is seen to be where it isn’t). I hurried down to the rocks.

On page 31, the translation says:

Almost all morning I exposed myself to the danger of being seen by anyone brave enough to get up before ten o’clock. But while I was…

The original:

He pasado casi toda la mañana exponiéndome a ser descubierto por cualquier persona que hubiera tenido el coraje de levantarse antes de las diez. Me parece que tan modesto requisito de la calamidad no se cumplió. Durante mi trabajo…

A whole sentence: excised — and for no reason. The whole passage should read:

Almost all morning I exposed myself to the danger of being seen by anyone brave enough to get up before ten o’clock. It seems that such a modest prerequisite for calamity was unfulfilled. But while I was…

On page 34, the translation says:

Now I derive consolation from thinking about her disapproval. And I wonder whether it is justified. What is there to hope for after this stupid mistake I have made? But since I can still recognize my own limitations, perhaps she will excuse me. Of course, I was at fault for having created the garden in the first place.

That’s meant to be a translation of this:

Ahora me consuelo reflexionando sobre mi condena. ¿Es justa o no? ¿Qué debo esperar después de haberle dedicado este jardincito de mal gusto? Creo, sin rebelión, que la obra no debiera perderme, si puedo criticarla. Para un ser omnisapiente, yo no soy el hombre que ese jardín hace temer. Sin embargo, lo he creado.

Simms’ translation is basically a butchering: a sentence is excised (again, one pivotal to the plot) and what sentences are translated have been sanitised. My own rendition:

Now I console myself by reflecting on her disapprobation. Is it justified? What should I expect after having dedicated this garden of such poor taste to her? I believe, without rancour, that it should not be my undoing if I can recognise its flaws. I am not the man an omniscient being will fear because of this garden. Nonetheless, I have created it.

And should you feel so inclined, you can also inspect my own translation of the first subsection of The Invention of Morel.

A Portion of The Invention of Morel

I have bemoaned Ruth Simms’ translation of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ classic La Invención de Morel, and because I like the exercise, I’ve gone and translated the book’s first subsection so others can bemoan my own mistakes.

Compare them if you wish: here, as a PDF, is the original Spanish; there, as a large PDF (12.5MB), is Ruth Simms’ translation, and below is my own attempt at turning Bioy Casares’ prose into English:

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Today, on this island, a miracle happened. Summer arrived early. I moved my bed by the swimming pool and bathed in the water for a long while. It was impossible to sleep. Two or three minutes out of the pool and the water that should have protected me from the frightful heat would turn into sweat. A phonograph woke me at daybreak. I couldn’t return to the museum to get my things. I fled for the ravine. I am among aquatic plants in the lowlands to the south, tormented by mosquitoes, waist-deep in dirty streams of sea water, realising that my flight was absurdly premature. I don’t think those people came here looking for me; perhaps they haven’t even seen me. But I continue my course; I find myself unprepared, confined as I am to the leanest, least hospitable place on the island: the marshes that the sea floods once a week.

I am writing this to leave behind an account of the adverse miracle. If in a few days I do not die drowning, or fighting for my liberty, I hope to write Apologia before Survivors and Tribute to Malthus. In these books I will attack those who lay waste to the forests and the deserts; I will show that the world — its judicial errors made irreparable with ever more effective police forces, documents, journalism, radio broadcasts, border security — is a unanimous hell for fugitives. So far I have only written this single page, which yesterday I did not foresee. There are so many things to do on this desolate island! The trees are impossibly hard! Open space is so much vaster than the span of a bird’s flight!

An Italian rugseller in Calcutta gave me the idea of coming here. He said (in his language): “There’s only one place in the world for a fugitive such as you, but it’s uninhabitable. It’s an island. Around 1924, some white people built a museum, a chapel and a swimming pool there. The work was finished, then abandoned.”

I interrupted him; I wanted his help to get there; the rugseller continued: “Neither Chinese pirates nor the Rockefeller Institute’s white-painted ship sail near. A disease is at work on the island, a mysterious one, that progresses fatally from the outside in. Nails drop off, hair falls out; skin and eye corneas degrade away; the body remains alive a week or two. The crew of a steamer that had dropped anchor there were skinless, bald, without nails — all dead — when they were found by the Japanese cruiser Namura. The steamer was sunk by cannon fire.”

But my life was so horrible that I decided to go… The Italian tried to dissuade me; I managed to have him help me.

Last night, for the hundredth time, I slept on this deserted island… As I looked upon the buildings, I thought of how hard it must have been to transport those rocks, and how easy it would have been to build a brick oven. I fell asleep late and the music and the shouting woke me at daybreak. The life of the fugitive has me sleeping with one eye open: I’m sure no boat, no plane, no mode of transport whatever has come here. Yet suddenly, on this oppressive summer night, the hill’s grasslands have become covered with people who dance, who stroll and who swim in the pool, as if they were holidaymakers well-settled into their stay at the resorts in Los Teques or Marienbad.