Cavafy and The City Following the Original’s Rhyme

I love Cavafy, and especially The City, or ‘Η Πόλις’.

At Words Without Borders, there’s a whole article about how difficult it is to translate the works of Cavafy, using The City as an example. Included in the article are a number of different translations of the poem and some comparative analysis.

But what the article doesn’t make mention of is what’s glaringly missing from each of the translations: none of them rhyme. The Greek original is wonderfully rhymed and none of the translations presented even pretend to follow Cavafy’s rhyming scheme.

I decided to make Cavafy’s The City rhyme in English. Like the original Greek, it’s end-rhymed according to ABBCCDDA. Here’s how it goes.

The City (translated from the Greek)

Constantine Cavafy

You said “I’ll leave for another land, I’ll leave for another sea
Another city I will find, another better
Yet every bid will fail, doomed, to the letter
My heart — like the dead — in dirt’s terrain
My mind, until when, in rot to remain?
Wherever here I turn, wherever my eye is taken
The blackened ruins of my life I see forsaken,
And all the years I spent and wasted — spoiled — a detainee”

New lands you will not find, you won’t find any other seas
The city will follow you. Through the same beats
You’ll traipse, you’ll age within the selfsame streets;
In the same houses you’ll turn gray and mope.
You’re in this city always. Something more — abandon hope —
There is no boat for you, there is no road.
Just as you wasted here the life you sowed
In this crevice, so the same all over, spoiled, diseased.

Η Πόλις

Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Είπες· «Θα πάγω σ’ άλλη γη, θα πάγω σ’ άλλη θάλασσα.
Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη απ’ αυτή.
Κάθε προσπάθεια μου μια καταδίκη είναι γραφτή·
κ’ είν’ η καρδιά μου -σαν νεκρός- θαμένη.
Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμόν αυτόν θα μένει.
Οπου το μάτι μου γυρίσω, όπου κι αν δω
ερείπια μαύρα της ζωής μου βλέπω εδώ,
που τόσα χρόνια πέρασα και ρήμαξα και χάλασα.»

Καινούργιους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς·
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού -μη ελπίζεις-
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Ετσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες.

All Our Yesterdays by Jorges Luis Borges

Borges loved the sonnet, and I love his All Our Yesterdays (not Todos Nuestros Ayeres — the poem’s title was originally published in English*). And so I thought I’d translate the poem into English much like I did Borges’ Spinoza.

Robert Mezey has already translated All Our Yesterdays, but it doesn’t rhyme. I thought I’d translate the poem and preserve the rhyme, albeit structured differently. The original is rhymed ABBA CDDC EFFE GG. I’ve rhymed the translation in the classic Shakespearean form of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

All Our Yesterdays
I want to know: which who of all the whos
I’ve been is due my past? The boy who traced
out Latin lines hexameter that hues
lustrous of passing years have now effaced?
Perhaps that lad who sought those savage selves —
tigers and panthers — or the curves precise
of maps and charts in father’s library shelves
is he to whom belongs my past concise?
Or he who pushed a door ajar where lay
a dying man in everlasting sleep,
yes he the boy who kissed in the bright of day
the face departing, dead, forsaken deep?
I am all those who are no more. In vain
I am this night those lost to life’s terrain.

All Our Yesterdays*
Quiero saber de quién es mi pasado.
¿De cuál de los que fui? ¿Del ginebrino
que trazó algún hexámetro latino
que los lustrales años han borrado?
¿Es de aquel niño que buscó en la entera
biblioteca del padre las puntuales
curvaturas del mapa y las ferales
formas que son el tigre y la pantera?
¿O de aquel otro que empujó una puerta
detrás de la que un hombre se moría
para siempre, y besó en el blanco día
la cara que se va y la cara muerta?
Soy los que ya no son. Inútilmente
soy en la tarde esa perdida gente.

* the original poem, written in Spanish, was published with the title All Our Yesterdays in English. The title references Macbeth, who said famously:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

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.

Borges’ Spinoza Metered and Rhymed

I am by no means qualified to translate poetry, but reading Borges’ sonnet Spinoza translated into English unrhymed and unmetered disappointed me so much that I thought an attempt at a rhymed and metered English version of the Spanish original wouldn’t offend too gravely. And because Borges admired Shakespeare so much, I supposed translating Spinoza into the classic Shakespearean sonnet form would be the most appropriate option.

Anyway, here’s Richard Howard and César Rennert’s version; here’s Willis Barnstone’s version (which is rhymed, although the meter is all over the place); here’s a literal version; and below is my own version along with the Spanish original:

Spinoza
The Jew’s translucent hands robustly work
The lenses in the late penumbral dark.
The dying evening cold where terrors lurk,
One evening, every evening always stark.
His hands, his space of hyacinth and blue
That pale within the Ghetto’s borderlines
Hardly exist for him the silent Jew
Who dreams a labyrinth’s lucid, clear designs.
He undisturbed by fame — what comes reflected
From dreams within another mirror’s dreams.
Free from a maiden’s timid love confected
And metaphor and myth’s distracting streams.
He works resistant glass: the endless One
He maps, whose shining stars no skies outrun.

Spinoza
Las traslúcidas manos del judío
labran en la penumbra los cristales
y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío.
(Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.)
Las manos y el espacio de jacinto
que palidece en el confín del Ghetto
casi no existen para el hombre quieto
que está soñando un claro laberinto.
No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo
de sueños en el sueño de otro espejo,
ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas.
Libre de la metáfora y del mito
labra un arduo cristal: el infinito
mapa de Aquel que es todas Sus estrellas.

The Book of Sand (El Libro de Arena) by Jorge Luis Borges, Translated

There’s no English translation of Borges’ El Libro de Arena, or The Book of Sand, available on the web, so I’ve gone and made a translation that I hereby publish forthwith:

The Book of Sand (translated from the Spanish) by Jorge Luis Borges

…thy rope of sands…
George Herbert (1593-1623)1

Lines consist of an infinite number of points; planes an infinite number of lines; volumes an infinite number of planes, hypervolumes an infinite number of volumes… No, this, this more geometrico, is definitely not the best way to begin my tale. Affirming a fantastic tale’s truth is now a story-telling convention; mine, though, is true.

I live alone, in a fourth-floor apartment on Calle Belgrano. One evening a few months ago, I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and in walked someone I had never met before. He was a tall man, of indistinct features. My myopia perhaps made me see him that way. Everything about him spoke of an honest poverty. He was dressed in grey and carried a grey valise. I sensed immediately that he was a foreigner. At first I thought him an old man; later I noticed that what misled me was his sparse hair, an almost-white blond, like a Scandinavian’s. Over the course of our conversation, which would last no longer than an hour, I learnt that he hailed from the Orkneys.

I showed him his seat. The man paused a moment before speaking. He exuded a melancholy air, as do I now.

“I sell Bibles,” he told me.

Not without pedantry I responded:

“In this house there are several English Bibles, including John Wyclif’s, the first of all. I also have Cypriano de Valera’s, Luther’s — which, as a piece of literature, is the worst of the lot — and a copy of the Vulgate in Latin. As you can see, it’s not Bibles I have a need for.”

After a brief silence he responded:

“I don’t sell only Bibles. I can show you a sacred book that might interest you. I aquired it in the outskirts of Bikanir.”

He opened his valise and placed the book on the table. It was a clothbound octavo volume which had undoubtedly passed through many hands. I examined the book; its unexpected heft surprised me. On the spine was printed Holy Writ and below that Bombay.

“From the nineteenth century I’d hazard,” I observed.

“I don’t know. I’ve never known,” was the response.

I opened it at random. The characters were unfamiliar. The pages, which appeared to me worn and of poor typographic quality, were printed in two columns like a Bible. The text was cramped and arranged in versicles. In the upper corner of each page were Arabic numerals. It caught my attention that the even-numbered page bore, let’s say, the number 40,514 and the odd-numbered page that followed 999. I turned the page; the overleaf bore an eight-digit number. Also printed was a small illustration, like those in dictionaries: an anchor drawn in pen and ink, as though by a child’s unskilled hand.

It was then that the stranger told me:

“Study the page well. You will never see it again.”

There was a threat in what he said, but not in his voice.

I took note of the page and shut the volume. I reopened it immediately.

In vain I searched for the figure of the anchor, page after page. To hide my discomfort, I said to him:

“This is a version of the Scripture in some Hindustani language, right?”

“No,” he replied.

Then he lowered his voice as if entrusting me with a secret:

“I acquired the book in a small town on the plains for a few rupees and a Bible. Its owner didn’t know how to read. I suspect that he saw the Book of Books as an amulet. He was of the lowest caste; people couldn’t step on his shadow without contamination. He told me that his book is called the Book of Sand because neither the book nor sand possess a beginning or an end.”

He suggested I try finding the first page.

I placed my left hand on the cover and opened the book with my thumb and forefinger almost touching. All my efforts were useless: several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as though the pages sprouted from within the book.

“Now search for the last page.”

Again I failed; I only managed to stammer in a voice not my own:

“This cannot be.”

Always in a low voice, the Bible seller said:

“It cannot be, yet it is. The number of pages in this book is exactly infinite. No page is the first; none the last. I don’t know why they’re numbered in this arbitrary way. Perhaps it’s to demonstrate that the terms of an infinite series include any number.”

Later, as if he were thinking aloud:

“If space is infinite, we are in no particular point in space. If time is infinite, we are in no particular point in time.”

His musings irritated me. I asked him:

“You’re a religious man, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I’m Presbyterian. My conscience is clear. I’m sure I didn’t cheat the native when I gave him the Lord’s Word in exchange for his diabolical book.”

I assured him that he had no reason to reproach himself, and I asked him if he was just passing through these lands. He replied that he was thinking of returning to his homeland in a few days. It was then that I learnt he was Scotch, from the Orkney Isles. I told him that I had a special affection for Scotland because of my love of Stevenson and Hume.

“And of Robbie Burns,” he corrected.

While we spoke, I continued exploring the infinite book. With a false indifference I asked him:

“Do you intend to offer this curious specimen to the British Museum?”

“No. I offer it to you,” he said, and offered a high price.

I replied, in all honesty, that the price was too high for me and I remained in thought. After a few minutes I had come up with a plan.

“I propose a trade,” I said. “You obtained this volume for a few rupees and the Holy Scripture; I offer you my retirement funds, which I’ve just been paid, and the Wyclif Bible in gothic lettering. I inherited it from my parents.”

“A black-letter Wyclif!” he murmured.

I went to my bedroom and I brought back the money and book. He turned the pages and studied the binding with the fervour of a bibliophile.

“It’s a deal,” he said.

I was astonished that he did not haggle. Only afterwards did I realise that he had entered my house with the intention of selling the book. He didn’t count the bills; he put them away.

We chatted about India, the Orkneys and the Norwegian jarls who had governed them. Night had fallen by the time he had left. I never saw him again, nor do I know his name.

I thought of keeping the Book of Sand in the space left behind by the Wyclif Bible’s absence. In the end I opted to hide it behind several misshapen volumes of Thousand and One Nights.

I went to bed and could not sleep. At around three or four in the morning I turned on the light. I searched for the impossible book and turned its pages. In one of them I saw printed a mask. In the corner the page bore a number — I don’t remember which anymore — that was raised to the ninth power.

I showed my treasure to no one. Against the joy of possessing the book grew the fear that it would be stolen, and later the suspicion that it was not truly infinite. Both these worries aggravated my already long-standing misanthropy.

I had few friends still alive; I stopped seeing them. Prisoner of the Book, I almost never left the house. I examined the worn spine and cover with a magnifying glass, and I discounted the possibility of some kind of artifice. I found that the small illustrations were spaced two thousand pages apart from one to the other. I noted them down in a small alphabetised notebook, which did not take long to fill. They never repeated. At night, in the scarce intervals insomnia withdrew its hold over, I dreamed of the book.

Summer was coming to an end and I realised that the book was monstrous. There was no consolation in the thought that no less monstrous was I, who perceived the book with eyes and touched it with ten nailed fingers. I felt the book to be a nightmarish object, something obscene that slanders and compromises reality.

I thought of fire, but I feared that the burning of an infinite book would be just as infinite and suffocate the planet with smoke.

I remember having read that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest. Before retiring I worked in the National Library, which housed nine-hundred thousand books; I know that to the right of the lobby a curved staircase descends to the basement, where the newspapers and maps are stored. I took advantage of the librarians’ inattentiveness for a moment to lose the Book of Sand in one of the humid shelves. I tried not to notice how high or how far from the door.

I feel somewhat relieved now, but I do avoid even passing by Mexico Street.2

Translator’s notes

1 The quote appears in English in the Spanish original.
2 The National Library of Argentina is found on Mexico Street (calle México) in Buenos Aires.

Cavafy’s Rhymed Verse

I’ve been reading Cavafy’s poems and have discovered that most of his rhymed lines are translated unrhymed into English. Rhyming is certainly easier in Greek, but the rhyme in some of the poems has too much force to be left completely unrhymed in an English translation.

Although I’m no expert in the art of poetry, nor even an engaged dilettante, I thought I would have a go translating An Old Man, or Ένας Γέρος, with at least part of the rhyme structure intact. This way, at least something of the original rhyming force is retained.

The Greek original goes AAB CCB DDE FFE etc. I’ve simplified the rhyme structure somewhat in the translation by going AAB CCD EEF GGH etc., and I’ve veered away from pure rhymes to make the structure still simpler to follow.

None of the Greek translations that I’ve read follow any rhyme structure whatever for this particular poem, so compare and contrast how Cavafy’s already been translated with what I’ve come up with below:

An Old Man
In a noisy coffeeshop deep inside
an old man hunched over a table is descried
with a newspaper in front of him, alone.

And in the scorn of old age’s misery
he ponders how little he enjoyed the years so free
when he had strength, reason, looks.

He knows he’s aged much; he feels, he sees.
And yet the time of his youth it seems
like yesterday. So short a time, so short.

And how Prudence played him he ponders sorely,
and how he always trusted her — such high folly! —
the liar who said: “Tomorrow. There’s ample time”.

He remembers the impulses, how he curbed them;
the joy he sacrificed. His senseless wisdom
now mocked by every lost chance.

…Yet from so much thinking and recalling
the old man gets dizzy. He falls sleeping
his head on the coffeeshop table.

Ένας Γέρος
Στου καφενείου του βοερού το μέσα μέρος
σκυμένος στο τραπέζι κάθετ’ ένας γέρος·
με μιαν εφημερίδα εμπρός του, χωρίς συντροφιά.

Και μες στων άθλιων γηρατειών την καταφρόνεια
σκέπτεται πόσο λίγο χάρηκε τα χρόνια
που είχε και δύναμι, και λόγο, κ’ εμορφιά.

Ξέρει που γέρασε πολύ· το νοιώθει, το κυττάζει.
Κ’ εν τούτοις ο καιρός που ήταν νέος μοιάζει
σαν χθες. Τι διάστημα μικρό, τι διάστημα μικρό.

Και συλλογιέται η Φρόνησις πώς τον εγέλα·
και πώς την εμπιστεύονταν πάντα — τι τρέλλα! —
την ψεύτρα που έλεγε· «Αύριο. Εχεις πολύν καιρό».

Θυμάται ορμές που βάσταγε· και πόση
χαρά θυσίαζε. Την άμυαλή του γνώσι
καθ’ ευκαιρία χαμένη τώρα την εμπαίζει.

….Μα απ’ το πολύ να σκέπτεται και να θυμάται
ο γέρος εζαλίσθηκε. Κι αποκοιμάται
στου καφενείου ακουμπισμένος το τραπέζι.

A Borges Signature

Borges could bon mot as well as anyone. Here’s a favourite that is typical of his inverting the familiar (the translation as superior to the original, the minotaur as the innocent):

He firmado tantos ejemplares de mis libros que el día que me muera va a tener un gran valor uno que no lleve mi firma.

Or in English:

I’ve signed so many copies of my books that any which don’t carry my signature will gain in value the day I die.

Hurley’s Inelegant Borges: An Exegesis (Part II of II)

And so now I hereby finalise my complaining about Hurley’s translation of Borges’ Borges and I. Here’s my translation of the Borges original in full, here’s part I of my complaining about Hurley’s translation while part II of my complaining is below:

Eighth sentence

Borges: Spinoza entendió que todas las cosas quieren perseverar en su ser; la piedra eternamente quiere ser piedra y el tigre un tigre.

Hurley: Spinoza believed that all things wish to go on being what they are — stone wishes eternally to be stone, and tiger, to be tiger.

This is quite a tricky passage to translate because it semi-quotes Spinoza.  In the original Latin, the quote Borges referred to is:

PROPOSITIO VI. Unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur.

In English, the translation, at least in this Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Spinoza, is:

IIIP6: Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in being.

In Spanish, the translation, at least in this Miguel de Unamuno essay, is:

Cada cosa, en cuanto es en sí, se esfuerza por perseverar en su ser

Given all that, it’s clear that Hurley’s all things wish to go on being what they are is just too flimsy, too much lacking in gravitas and too far removed from what Borges is saying to be in any way decent a translation.

The translation of entendió as believed is also a mystery: clearly Borges agrees with the sentiment, and understood or knew would have been much more appropriate and direct a translation from the Spanish original, as well as providing a subtle indication that the views of the piece’s author are aligned with Spinoza’s.

The singular stone and tiger without an article is also non-standard English for what is standard Spanish.

Then there’s the howler with stone wishes eternally to be stone. In the original, the stone is not wishing eternally, rather the stone is wishing to be eternally. The adverb applies to the being, not the wishing!

My attempt: Spinoza understood that all things strive to persevere being; the stone wishes to be eternally a stone and the tiger a tiger.

I introduced a paragraph break here because I felt there was enough of a break in the story to warrant one in English even if this is not the case in Spanish, which generally has fewer paragraphs in any given piece of text.

All things strive to persevere being is what I came up with to do justice to Spinoza, the various translations of Spinoza in Spanish and English, Borges, the philosophy, Borges’ Spanish original and the natural flow of English; but one could start a thousand arguments as to how this one phrase should be translated. Persevere in being is perhaps closer to Spinoza if not natural or particularly clear in English, so in the end I went for the simpler persevere being, which is further from Spinoza but closer to standard English.

Eleventh sentence

Borges: Así mi vida es una fuga y todo lo pierdo y todo es del olvido, o del otro.

Hurley: So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away — and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.

This is especially bad. Hurley here decided that he was the author, not Borges. This is a short, simple, effective and rhythmic line that Hurley turns into a dog’s breakfast.

I start off pedantically: I feel I need to point out that así is not so here. Así is more demonstrative, more like an in this way and a clarification of what has been said before rather than a conclusion based on what has been said before, which is what the so implies.

The translation of the word fuga is the primary cause of the translation’s mess. Fuga in Spanish is both a flight, as in a running away, and a fugue. Here, though, it takes the sense of a flight and is most definitely not a fugue. In the previous sentence, it states explicitly that Borges is involved in the process of moving on or running away:

Hace años yo traté de librarme de él y pasé de las mitologías del arrabal a los juegos con el tiempo y con lo infinito, pero esos juegos son de Borges ahora y tendré que idear otras cosas.

Years ago I tried to free myself from him by moving on from the mythologies of the slums to games with time and infinity, but those games are now Borges’ and I will have to conceive of other things.  (my translation)

The mistake is remarkable, although fugue perhaps explains why he thought the relationship between this sentence and the previous one required so as a translation of así rather than thus or in this way. Regrettably, though, Hurley then makes the further mistake of assuming that this fugue business requires further explication, so instead of just translating mi vida es una fuga as my life is a fugue, he inserts my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away. How did that get past the editors?

Everything winds up being lost to me is again Hurley inserting himself into the translation. The original, todo lo pierdo, is a simple phrase that should have been translated equally simply as something akin to I lose everything.

More unnecessary extrapolation: into the hands of the other man for del otro. Del otro directly translated is the other’s. Anything much longer than that is superfluous. (Not to mention my other bugbear: Hurley’s continual reference to man even though Borges is not referring to another embodied person.)

My attempt: Thus my life is a running away and I lose everything and everything is turned over to oblivion, or to the other.

Twelfth (the last) sentence

Borges: No sé cuál de los dos escribe esta página.

Hurley: I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.

No sé is just I do not know, not I am not sure.

Which of us it is that’s is a clunky version cuál de los dos, and the contraction is just not Borges. Furthermore, Borges does not use which of us but rather which of the two, which implies there are many versions of Borges beyond the two that are described in the piece. At the very least, which of the two implies a third Borges, a further fracture of the standard singular I, which is completely lost in Hurley’s translation.

And page for página is the correct direct translation, but I consider it unnatural to say I wrote a page.

My attempt: I do not know which of the two is writing this piece.

Hurley’s Inelegant Borges: An Exegesis (Part I of II)

I stumbled upon Andrew Hurley’s translation of Borges and I, and, reading it once again, I shuddered: errors abound.

I’ve attempted a translation of the piece, and below I analyse what I consider the worst of Hurley’s errors and my own attempts at providing a better fit to the Spanish original.

Update: and here’s part II of the exegesis.

The First Sentence

Borges: Al otro, a Borges, es a quien le occurren las cosas

Hurley: It’s Borges, the other one, things happen to.

This is an impeccable opening to an impeccable story in the original, and Hurley mangles it. It’s Borges things happen to sounds unnatural — the indirect object, Borges, is too far away from the to. Sure, the original is not exactly free-flowing, but it doesn’t sound awkward.

Then there’s the repeated a in the Spanish which acts as an important device to create distance between Borges and his other. Hurley, though, only uses the almost-equivalent to once — and not exactly felicitously at that — let alone thrice as the original does, to recreate that distance.

My attempt: It’s to that other one, to Borges, that things happen.

The Third Sentence

Borges: Me gustan los relojes de arena, los mapas, la tipografía del siglo XVII, las etimologías, el sabor del café y la prosa de Stevenson; el otro comparte esas preferencias, pero de un modo vanidoso que las convierte en atributos de un actor.

Hurley: My taste runs to hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson; Borges shares those preferences, but in a vain sort of way that turns them into the accoutrements of an actor.

My taste runs to is extremely awkward English. Me gustan is an everyday expression that should be translated as the equally everyday I like.

Borges only cites Stevenson by his surname; Hurley should have done the same. And when one considers that the cited author would be much better known by Anglophones than speakers of Spanish, Hurley’s clarificatory intervention is even more unnecessary.

The original says el otro. There is no reason for Hurley to translate that as Borges when the other matches the original so much better. To add further insult to injury, Borges embodies the other, makes him (it) more lifelike and concrete, as if he were actually another physical person. The other is more ethereal and not necessarily incarnate, which is the point — Borges is definitely not talking about a doppelganger.

Accoutrements is a strange one. Why not attributes, which shares the cognate of the original as well as the same register?

My attempt: I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces, etymologies, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; the other shares these preferences, but in a vain kind of way that turns them into an actor’s attributes.

Fifth Sentence

Borges: Nada me cuesta confesar que ha logrado ciertas páginas válidas, pero esas páginas no me pueden salvar, quizá porque lo bueno ya no es de nadie, ni siquiera del otro, sino del lenguaje o la tradición.

Hurley: I willingly admit that he has written a number of sound pages, but those pages will not save me, perhaps because the good in them no longer belongs to any individual, nor to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition.

Willingly is an awful translation of Nada me cuesta: what one willingly does is very different to what one does without discomfort.

A number of sound pages has a number of faults. Firstly: the original has ciertas, or certain (in the sense of a limited number), which is far humbler (and more Borgesian) than a number of; secondly: to acknowledge the literary quality of a page in Spanish is fine, but in English I would say one acknowledges the literary quality of passages, rarely pages.

But those pages will not save me?  Why the italicised me? And why will not save me when the original clearly says no me pueden salvar, or cannot save me?

Lo bueno ya no es de nadie refers to the good in general, not to the good in them which Hurley writes about. Here, Borges is making a larger point that is not related to his own works in particular. (I also read the ya as an emphasising gesture and not an expression of something already having been done, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise.)

Annoyingly, Hurley again refers to a man instead of just the other when he translates ni siquiera del otro as nor to that other man. The other is not an embodied man!

The itself in no longer belongs to any individual, but rather to language itself, or to tradition is an odd addition. No one says the car belongs to George himself, for instance.

My attempt: It poses no great difficulty for me to admit that he has put together some decent passages, yet these passages cannot save me, perhaps because whatsoever is good does not belong to anyone, not even to the other, but to language or tradition.

I’m not sure put together is the best translation of ha logrado, but there’s a humility in the original that I wanted to replicate, even if it is at the expense of the right register.

Sixth Sentence

Borges: Por lo demás, yo estoy destinado a perderme, definitivamente, y sólo algún instante de mí podrá sobrevivir en el otro.

Hurley: Beyond that, I am doomed — utterly and inevitably — to oblivion, and fleeting moments will be all of me that survives in that other man.

I am doomed — utterly and inevitably — to oblivion is no translation of yo estoy destinado a perderme, definitivamente. The English is far too depressing for the much more matter-of-fact, resigned and fatalistic original.

The fleeting moments is an inspired choice for algún instante de mí, but the translated phrase as a whole, fleeting moments will be all of me that survives in that other man, is just ham-fisted English.

And then, of course, there’s that unnecessary reference to a man again instead of just the other.

My attempt: In any case, I am destined to lose all that I am, definitively, and only fleeting moments of myself will be able to live on in the other.

I copied Hurley’s fleeting moments because it’s perfect, but it had to be followed by a myself, unlike Hurley’s me, which to my ear sounds wrong even though it might be correct grammatically (the I/me/myself issues in English are beyond me and most ordinary people to navigate their way through; when all else fails, rely on the ear). That meant I couldn’t use I am destined to lose myself as a translation of yo estoy destinado a perderme because myself would have been ungraciously repeated in the one sentence. So to keep the fleeting moments, I made the call of going with I am destined to lose all that I am, which I tried to make match the sentiment of the definitively that follows.

Seventh Sentence

Borges: Poco a poco voy cediéndole todo, aunque me consta su perversa costumbre de falsear y magnificar.

Hurley: Little by little, I have been turning everything over to him, though I know the perverse way he has of distorting and magnifying everything.

I’m not entirely sure what the grammatical equivalent to voy cediéndole is, but have been turning over seems wrong (I went with I continue ceding.)

Me consta su perversa costumbre is definitely not I know the perverse way. Knowing is very different to being aware of, which is what the original describes. Hurley could have said I know of the perverse way and it would have been fine, but without the of it’s a clear mistake.

And the repetition of everything in the one sentence is strange.

My attempt: Little by little, I continue ceding to him everything, even though I am aware of his perverse tendency to falsify and magnify.