Borges’ Gospel according to Mark according to Me!

This translating business is becoming less and less a healthy habit and more and more an oddball obsession. Not content with just complaining about Hurley’s translations of Borges’ works, I’ve already gone ahead and translated The House of Asterion (or La Casa de Asterión) as well as Borges and I (or Borges y Yo) myself.

And now, below, we have the original text and another of my own translations of a Borges work, this time The Gospel according to Mark, or El Evangelio según Marcos.

The Gospel according to Mark (translated from the Spanish) by Jorge Luis Borges

These events took place on the Los Álamos cattle ranch, towards the south of the township of Junín, during the final days of March, 1928. The protagonist was a medical student, Baltasar Espinosa. We may describe him for now as no different to any of the many young men of Buenos Aires, with no particular traits worthy of note other than an almost unlimited kindness and an oratorical faculty that had earned him several prizes from the English school in Ramos Mejía. He did not like to argue; he preferred it when his interlocutor was right and not he himself. Although the vagaries of chance in any game fascinated him, he played them poorly because it did not please him to win. His wide intelligence was undirected; at thirty-three years of age, the completion of one last subject stood in the way of his graduation, despite its being his favourite. His father, who was, like all gentlemen of his day, a freethinker, had instructed him in the doctrines of Herbert Spencer, but his mother, before setting out on a trip to Montevideo, requested of him that every night he say the Lord’s Prayer and make the sign of the cross. Over the years, not once had he broken this promise.

He did not lack in courage; one morning he had traded, more out of indifference rather than wrath, two or three blows with a group of fellow students who were trying to force him into taking part in a university demonstration. He abounded in questionable opinions, or habits of mind, from a spirit of acquiescence: his country mattered less to him than the risk that in other parts they might believe that we continue to wear feathers like the Indians; he venerated France but despised the French; he had little respect for Americans, but he approved of there being skyscrapers in Buenos Aires; he thought that the gauchos of the plains were better horsemen than those of the hills or mountain ranges. When his cousin Daniel invited him to summer in Los Álamos, he accepted immediately, not so much because he liked the country, but more out of his natural geniality and his not having found a valid reason for saying no.

The ranch’s main house was large and somewhat run-down; the foreman, who was known as Gutre, had his quarters close by. The Gutres were three: the father, the son (who was particularly uncouth) and a girl of uncertain paternity. They were tall, strong and bony, with Indian features about the face and hair that tinged red. They hardly spoke. The foreman’s wife had died years ago.

In the country, Espinosa was learning things that he had not known, nor suspected. For example, one need not gallop when approaching a house, and no one goes out riding a horse unless there is a job to be done. In time, he would come to distinguish the birds by their calls.

Early on, Daniel had to absent himself and leave for the capital in order to close a deal involving some livestock. In all, the business would take him about a week. Espinosa, who was already a little tired of hearing about his cousin’s good fortune with women and his tireless interest in the variations of men’s fashion, preferred to remain on the ranch with his textbooks. The heat was suffocating and not even the night brought relief. One morning at daybreak, thunder woke him. The wind was rocking the casuarinas. Espinosa heard the first drops of rain and gave thanks to God. All of a sudden, the cold air rolled in. That afternoon, the Salado overflowed.

The next day, as he was looking over the flooded fields from his porch, Baltasar Espinosa thought that the standard metaphor which compared the pampas with the sea was not, at least that morning, completely false, even though Hudson had noted that the sea appears to us much wider because we see it from a ship’s deck and not from horseback or eye level. The rain did not let up; the Gutres, helped or hindered by the city dweller, saved a good part of the livestock, though many animals drowned. The paths that led to the station were four: all were covered in water. On the third day, a leaking roof threatened the foreman’s house and Espinosa gave them a room out back by the toolshed. The move had brought them closer; they ate together in the large dining room. Conversation was difficult; the Gutres, who knew so much about the country, did not know how to explain any of it. One night, Espinosa asked them if people still retained some memory of the Indian raids from when the frontier’s military command was in Junín. They told him that they did, but they would have answered in a similar fashion had the question been about Charles the First’s beheading. Espinosa recalled his father’s saying that almost all the cases of longevity cited from the country are a result of poor memory or a vague notion of dates. The gauchos tended to forget in equal measure the year of their birth and the name of who fathered them.

No reading material was to be found in the entire house other than some issues of the magazine The Farm, a veterinary manual, a deluxe edition of the Uruguayan epic Tabaré, a History of Shorthorn Cattle in Argentina, the odd erotic or detective story and a recent novel, Don Segundo Sombra. In order to liven up in some way the inevitable after-dinner conversation, Espinosa read a couple of the novel’s chapters to the Gutres, who were all illiterate. Unfortunately the foreman, like the book’s hero, had been a cattle drover himself and was not interested in the happenings of another. He said the work was easy, that they took with them a pack mule which carried all that they needed, and that if he had not been a cattle drover, he would never have seen Lake Gómez, nor would he have gotten to the town of Bragado, nor would he have visited the Núñez ranch in Chacabuco. In the kitchen was a guitar; before the events I am narrating happened, the labourers would sit in a circle and someone would tune the instrument without ever getting around to playing it. This they called a guitar jam.

Espinosa, who had let his beard grow, had begun to pause before the mirror to study his changed face, and he smiled at the thought of boring the boys in Buenos Aires with his tale of the Salado’s overflowing. Curiously, he was missing places to which he had never been and would never go: a street corner on Cabrera where a mailbox stood; some cement lions on a porch a few blocks from the Plaza del Once on Jujuy; a barroom with a tiled floor whose exact whereabouts he was not sure of. As for his brothers and his father, through Daniel they would have learnt already that he was isolated — the word, etymologically, was accurate — by the floodwaters.

Looking through the house whilst still hemmed in by the waters, he came across a Bible in English. In its final pages, the Guthries — their original name — had left a record of their family history. They were originally from Inverness, had come to the New World, no doubt as labourers, in the early days of the nineteenth century and had intermarried with Indians. The chronicle broke off sometime during the eighteen-seventies when they no longer knew how to write. Within only a few generations, they had forgotten their English; by the time Espinosa met them, even Spanish was troubling them. They had no faith, but in their blood there endured, like a dim current, the harsh fanaticism of the Calvinists and the superstitions of the pampas. Espinosa told them of his find and they barely acknowledged it.

Leafing through the volume, his fingers opened it at the start of the Gospel according to Mark. As an exercise in translation and perhaps to see if the Gutres would understand any of it, he decided to read to them the text after dinner. Their attentive listening and their mute interest surprised him. Maybe the gold letters on the the cover lent the book more authority. ‘It’s in their blood,’ Espinosa thought. It also occurred to him that man has throughout history told and retold two stories: that of a lost ship that searches the seas of the Mediterranean for a dearly loved island, and that of a god who allows himself to be crucified in Golgotha. Remembering his elocution classes in Ramos Mejía, Espinosa rose to his feet to preach the parables.

In the days that followed, the Gutres wolfed down the barbecued meat and sardines so as to arrive sooner at the Gospel.

A little pet lamb that the girl had adorned with a sky-blue ribbon had injured itself on some barbed wire. To staunch the bleeding, the Gutres were wanting to apply cobwebs; Espinosa treated it with some pills instead. The gratitude that this treatment inspired took him aback. At first, he distrusted the Gutres and had hidden in one of his books the two hundred and forty pesos that he had with him; now, with the owner away, he had taken on Daniel’s role and was giving timid orders that were being followed immediately. The Gutres would trail him through the rooms and along the porch as if they were lost without him. Whilst reading to them, he noticed that they would take away with them the crumbs that he had left on the table. One evening, he caught them unawares as they were, in few words, speaking of him respectfully.

Upon finishing the Gospel according to Mark, he wanted to read one of the three remaining gospels; the father, though, asked him to repeat the one he had already read to them so that they could understand it better. Espinosa felt that they were like children, who prefer repetition over variety or novelty. That night he dreamt, not altogether surprisingly, of the Flood and was awoken by the hammering that went into the Ark’s construction, which he supposed he had confused with the thunder. In fact, the rain, after having abated, was getting heavier. The cold was bitter. The Gutres had told him that the storm had damaged the toolshed’s roof and that, once they had repaired the beams, they would show him where. No longer a stranger, they treated him with special attention, almost spoiling him. Not one of them liked coffee, but they always had a little cup for him that they heaped with sugar.

The storm hit on a Tuesday. Thursday night he was awoken by a light knock on the door, which, because of his misgivings, he always kept locked. He got up and opened it: it was the girl. In the darkness he could not make her out, but he could tell from her footsteps that she was barefoot, and later in bed, that she had come naked from the back of the house. She did not embrace him, nor did she speak a single word; she lay beside him and shivered. It was the first time she had lain with a man. When she left, she did not kiss him; Espinosa realised he did not even know her name. For some sentimental reason that he did not attempt to understand, he swore never to tell anyone in Buenos Aires about the incident.

The next day began like the others before, except for the father’s speaking to Espinosa and asking him if Christ had allowed Himself to be killed in order to save all mankind. Espinosa, who was a freethinker but felt obliged to justify what he had read to them, replied, “Yes. To save us all from hell.”

Gutre then asked, “What’s hell?”

“A place underground where souls burn and burn.”

“And those that drove in the nails were also saved?”

“Yes,” replied Espinosa, whose theology was a little shaky.

He had feared that the foreman would demand an account of what had happened the night before with his daughter. After lunch, they asked him to read the last chapters again.

Espinosa took a long siesta, though his light sleep was interrupted by persistent hammering and vague premonitions. Toward evening he got up and went out to the porch. He said, as if thinking out loud, “The waters are low. It won’t be long now.”

“It won’t be long now,” repeated Gutre like an echo.

The three Gutres had been following him. Kneeling on the floor, they asked for his blessing. Then they cursed him, spat on him and shoved him to the back of the house. The girl was crying. Espinosa knew what to expect on the other side of the door. When they opened it, he saw the heavens. A bird shrieked. ‘A goldfinch,’ he thought. The shed was without a roof; they had torn out the beams to build the cross.

El Evangelio según Marcos por Jorge Luis Borges

El hecho sucedió en la estancia Los Álamos, en el partido de Junín, hacia el sur, en los últimos días del mes de marzo de 1928. Su protagonista fue un estudiante de medicina, Baltasar Espinosa. Podemos definirlo por ahora como uno de tantos muchachos porteños, sin otros rasgos dignos de nota que esa facultad oratoria que le había hecho merecer más de un premio en el colegio inglés de Ramos Mejía y que una casi ilimitada bondad. No le gustaba discutir; prefería que el interlocutor tuviera razón y no él. Aunque los azares del juego le interesaban, era un mal jugador, porque le desagradaba ganar. Su abierta inteligencia era perezosa; a los treinta y tres años le faltaba rendir una materia para graduarse, la que más lo atraía. Su padre, que era librepensador, como todos los señores de su época, lo había instruido en la doctrina de Herbert Spencer, pero su madre, antes de un viaje a Montevideo, le pidió que todas las noches rezara el Padrenuestro e hiciera la señal de la cruz. A lo largo de los años no había quebrado nunca esa promesa. No carecía de coraje; una mañana había cambiado, con más indiferencia que ira, dos o tres puñetazos con un grupo de compañeros que querían forzarlo a participar en una huelga universitaria. Abundaba, por espíritu de aquiescencia, en opiniones o hábitos discutibles: el país le importaba menos que el riesgo de que en otras partes creyeran que usamos plumas; veneraba a Francia pero menospreciaba a los franceses; tenía en poco a los americanos, pero aprobaba el hecho de que hubiera rascacielos en Buenos Aires; creía que los gauchos de la llanura son mejores jinetes que los de las cuchillas o los cerros. Cuando Daniel, su primo, le propuso veranear en Los Álamos, dijo inmediatamente que sí, no porque le gustara el campo sino por natural complacencia y porque no buscó razones válidas para decir que no.

El casco de la estancia era grande y un poco abandonado; las dependencias del capataz, que se llamaba Gutre, estaban muy cerca. Los Gutres eran tres: el padre, el hijo, que era singularmente tosco, y una muchacha de incierta paternidad. Eran altos, fuertes, huesudos, de pelo que tiraba a rojizo y de caras aindiadas. Casi no hablaban. La mujer del capataz había muerto hace años.

Espinosa, en el campo, fue aprendiendo cosas que no sabía y que no sospechaba. Por ejemplo, que no hay que galopar cuando uno se está acercando a las casas y que nadie sale a andar a caballo sino para cumplir con una tarea. Con el tiempo llegaría a distinguir los pájaros por el grito.

A los pocos días, Daniel tuvo que ausentarse a la capital para cerrar una operación de animales. A lo sumo, el negocio le tomaría una semana. Espinosa, que ya estaba un poco harto de las bonnes fortunes de su primo y de su infatigable interés por las variaciones de la sastrería, prefirió quedarse en la estancia, con sus libros de texto. El calor apretaba y ni siquiera la noche traía un alivio. En el alba, los truenos lo despertaron. El viento zamarreaba las casuarinas. Espinosa oyó las primeras gotas y dio gracias a Dios. El aire frío vino de golpe. Esa tarde, el Salado se desbordó.

Al otro día, Baltasar Espinosa, mirando desde la galería los campos anegados, pensó que la metáfora que equipara la pampa con el mar no era, por lo menos esa mañana, del todo falsa, aunque Hudson había dejado escrito que el mar nos parece más grande, porque lo vemos desde la cubierta del barco y no desde el caballo o desde nuestra altura. La lluvia no cejaba; los Gutres, ayudados o incomodados por el pueblero, salvaron buena parte de la hacienda, aunque hubo muchos animales ahogados. Los caminos para llegar a la estancia eran cuatro: a todos los cubrieron las aguas. Al tercer día, una gotera amenazó la casa del capataz; Espinosa les dio una habitación que quedaba en el fondo, al lado del galpón de las herramientas. La mudanza los fue acercando; comían juntos en el gran comedor. El diálogo resultaba difícil; los Gutres, que sabían tantas cosas en materia de campo, no sabían explicarlas. Una noche, Espinosa les preguntó si la gente guardaba algún recuerdo de los malones, cuando la comandancia estaba en Junín. Le dijeron que sí, pero lo mismo hubieran contestado a una pregunta sobre la ejecución de Carlos Primero. Espinosa recordó que su padre solía decir que casi todos los casos de longevidad que se dan en el campo son casos de mala memoria o de un concepto vago de las fechas. Los gauchos suelen ignorar por igual el año en que nacieron y el nombre de quien los engendró.

En toda la casa no había otros libros que una serie de la revista La Chacra, un manual de veterinaria, un ejemplar de lujo del Tabaré, una Historia del Shorthorn en la Argentina, unos cuantos relatos eróticos o policiales y una novela reciente: Don Segundo Sombra. Espinosa, para distraer de algún modo la sobremesa inevitable, leyó un par de capítulos a los Gutres, que eran analfabetos. Desgraciadamente, el capataz había sido tropero y no le podían importar las andanzas de otro. Dijo que ese trabajo era liviano, que llevaban siempre un carguero con todo lo que se precisa y que, de no haber sido tropero, no habría llegado nunca hasta la Laguna de Gómez, hasta el Bragado y hasta los campos de los Núñez, en Chacabuco. En la cocina había una guitarra; los peones, antes de los hechos que narro, se sentaban en rueda; alguien la templaba y no llegaba nunca a tocar. Esto se llamaba una guitarreada.

Espinosa, que se había dejado crecer la barba, solía demorarse ante el espejo para mirar su cara cambiada y sonreía al pensar que en Buenos Aires aburriría a los muchachos con el relato de la inundación del Salado. Curiosamente, extrañaba lugares a los que no iba nunca y no iría: una esquina de la calle Cabrera en la que hay un buzón, unos leones de mampostería en un portón de la calle Jujuy, a unas cuadras del Once, un almacén con piso de baldosa que no sabía muy bien dónde estaba. En cuanto a sus hermanos y a su padre, ya sabrían por Daniel que estaba aislado -la palabra, etimológicamente, era justa- por la creciente.

Explorando la casa, siempre cercada por las aguas, dio con una Biblia en inglés. En las páginas finales los Guthrie -tal era su nombre genuino- habían dejado escrita su historia. Eran oriundos de Inverness, habían arribado a este continente, sin duda como peones, a principios del siglo diecinueve, y se habían cruzado con indios. La crónica cesaba hacia mil ochocientos setenta y tantos; ya no sabían escribir. Al cabo de unas pocas generaciones habían olvidado el inglés; el castellano, cuando Espinosa los conoció, les daba trabajo. Carecían de fe, pero en su sangre perduraban, como rastros oscuros, el duro fanatismo del calvinista y las supersticiones del pampa. Espinosa les habló de su hallazgo y casi no escucharon.

Hojeó el volumen y sus dedos lo abrieron en el comienzo del Evangelio según Marcos. Para ejercitarse en la traducción y acaso para ver si entendían algo, decidió leerles ese texto después de la comida. Le sorprendió que lo escucharan con atención y luego con callado interés. Acaso la presencia de las letras de oro en la tapa le diera más autoridad. Lo llevan en la sangre, pensó. También se le ocurrió que los hombres, a lo largo del tiempo, han repetido siempre dos historias: la de un bajel perdido que busca por los mares mediterráneos una isla querida, y la de un dios que se hace crucificar en el Gólgota. Recordó las clases de elocución en Ramos Mejía y se ponía de pie para predicar las parábolas.

Los Gutres despachaban la carne asada y las sardinas para no demorar el Evangelio.

Una corderita que la muchacha mimaba y adornaba con una cintita celeste se lastimó con un alambrado de púa. Para parar la sangre, querían ponerle una telaraña; Espinosa la curó con unas pastillas. La gratitud que esa curación despertó no dejó de asombrarlo. Al principio, había desconfiado de los Gutres y había escondido en uno de sus libros los doscientos cuarenta pesos que llevaba consigo; ahora, ausente el patrón, él había tomado su lugar y daba órdenes tímidas, que eran inmediatamente acatadas. Los Gutres lo seguían por las piezas y por el corredor, como si anduvieran perdidos. Mientras leía, notó que le retiraban las migas que él había dejado sobre la mesa. Una tarde los sorprendió hablando de él con respeto y pocas palabras. Concluido el Evangelio según Marcos, quiso leer otro de los tres que faltaban; el padre le pidió que repitiera el que ya había leído, para entenderlo bien. Espinosa sintió que eran como niños, a quienes la repetición les agrada más que la variación o la novedad. Una noche soñó con el Diluvio, lo cual no es de extrañar; los martillazos de la fabricación del arca lo despertaron y pensó que acaso eran truenos. En efecto, la lluvia, que había amainado, volvió a recrudecer. El frío era intenso. Le dijeron que el temporal había roto el techo del galpón de las herramientas y que iban a mostrárselo cuando estuvieran arregladas las vigas. Ya no era un forastero y todos lo trataban con atención y casi lo mimaban. A ninguno le gustaba el café, pero había siempre un tacita para él, que colmaban de azúcar.

El temporal ocurrió un martes. El jueves a la noche lo recordó un golpecito suave en la puerta que, por las dudas, él siempre cerraba con llave. Se levantó y abrió: era la muchacha. En la oscuridad no la vio, pero por los pasos notó que estaba descalza y después, en el lecho, que había venido desde el fondo, desnuda. No lo abrazó, no dijo una sola palabra; se tendió junto a él y estaba temblando. Era la primera vez que conocía a un hombre. Cuando se fue, no le dio un beso; Espinosa pensó que ni siquiera sabía cómo se llamaba. Urgido por una íntima razón que no trató de averiguar, juró que en Buenos Aires no le contaría a nadie esa historia.

El día siguiente comenzó como los anteriores, salvo que el padre habló con Espinosa y le preguntó si Cristo se dejó matar para salvar a todos los hombres. Espinosa, que era librepensador pero que se vio obligado a justificar lo que les había leído, le contestó:

-Sí. Para salvar a todos del infierno.

Gutre le dijo entonces:

-¿Qué es el infierno?

-Un lugar bajo tierra donde las ánimas arderán y arderán.

-¿Y también se salvaron los que le clavaron los clavos?

-Sí -replicó Espinosa, cuya teología era incierta.

Había temido que el capataz le exigiera cuentas de lo ocurrido anoche con su hija. Después del almuerzo, le pidieron que releyera los últimos capítulos. Espinosa durmió una siesta larga, un leve sueño interrumpido por persistentes martillos y por vagas premoniciones. Hacia el atardecer se levantó y salió al corredor. Dijo como si pensara en voz alta:

-Las aguas están bajas. Ya falta poco.

-Ya falta poco -repitió Gutrel, como un eco.

Los tres lo habían seguido. Hincados en el piso de piedra le pidieron la bendición. Después lo maldijeron, lo escupieron y lo empujaron hasta el fondo. La muchacha lloraba. Espinosa entendió lo que le esperaba del otro lado de la puerta. Cuando la abrieron, vio el firmamento. Un pájaro gritó; pensó: es un jilguero. El galpón estaba sin techo; habían arrancado las vigas para construir la Cruz.

12 thoughts on “Borges’ Gospel according to Mark according to Me!

  1. Thanks for the translation, it’s well done and very engaging! Much more sphisticated and accurate than the others that I’ve found online. I’m also glad youu decided to post it so recently; it’s definitely helping with my Spanish assignment.

  2. Well, I don’t know how good a translation it actually is considering I just fixed up a couple of things since you made the comment.

    But thanks.

  3. Thanks for this. Just listened to the Theroux reading on the New Yorker website, and found some things missing, I thought. You seem to’ve caught some of them. I appreciate it,

  4. Thanks Alan.

    I’ve heard Theroux read the story as well and quite enjoyed it. I’m quite a fan of Theroux, at least his travel writing. In The Old Patagonian Express, Theroux actually meets Borges and reads to him! I think he reads Kipling, which is one of Borges’ favourite writers.

  5. Thank you soooo much for posting this translation! It is much better done than any computer-translated version I have seen of this story, and helped me immensely in writing my final Spanish paper. I am so glad I found this!

  6. Muchas gracias:) I’m in a Spanish lit class right now and wasn’t understanding very much of this story. Thanks for the help.

  7. I just stumbled upon your translation of one of my favourite stories. Good job. Just one friendly observation. The word “estancia” does exist in English (at least in the Oxford Dictionary included in my Mac). So there is no need to turn it it into “ranch,” which makes me think of Texas or Mexico, and not of the Pampas. : )

  8. Martin, I’ve pondered over it and I think I’m going to keep ranch.

    From what I can gather, a North American cattle ranch isn’t all that far removed from a South American estancia, so I think there’s enough similarity there to use the more familiar term rather than the exotic.

    I would pretty much always translate casa as house or home for the same reason: although a house in the USA is often designed differently from casas in Latin America, again, there’s enough of a similarity to stick with the familiar term rather than the exotic.

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