The Lottery in Babylon, La Lotería en Babilonia

Yes, yet another of my translations of a Borges story, this time The Lottery in Babylon, or as it was originally titled, La Lotería en Babilonia.

The original in Spanish can be found at

The Lottery in Babylon (translated from the Spanish) by Jorge Luis Borges

Like all men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all of them, a slave; I have also known omnipotence, opprobrium, incarceration. Look: missing on my right hand is an index finger. Look: visible on my stomach through this rent cape is a ruddy tattoo — it is the second symbol, Beth. On nights when the moon is full, this symbol confers unto me power over the men whose mark is Ghimel while rendering me subject to the men of Aleph, who on moonless nights must obey the men of Ghimel. In a cellar in the half-light of dawn, I have slit the throats of sacred bulls before a black altar. For an entire lunar year, I have been declared invisible: I would cry out and no one would respond, I would steal bread and I was not beheaded. I have known what the Greeks knew not: uncertainty. In a brass chamber, before the strangler’s silencing scarf, hope has remained faithful; in the river of delights, panic stood steadfast. Heraclides Ponticus relates with admiration that Pythagoras recalled having been Pyrrhus, before him Euphorbus, and before him some other mortal; to recall analogous vicissitudes I need not find recourse in death, nor even imposture.

I owe this almost monstrous variety to an institution that other republics have not conceived of or which works imperfectly or secretly in them: the lottery. I have not delved into its history; I know that the sages cannot manage to agree; I know of its powerful aims what a man unversed in astrology can know of the moon. I am of a vertiginous country where the lottery is a principal part of reality: until this very day, I have thought as little of it as I have the conduct of the inscrutable gods or of my own heart. Now, far from Babylon and its beloved customs, I think with some bewilderment of the lottery and of the blasphemous conjectures that the shrouded men murmur at twilight.

My father would recount that in ancient times — a question of centuries, of years? — the lottery in Babylon was a game with a plebeian character. He would relate (truthfully or not I cannot say) that barbers gave out rectangles made of bone or parchment and adorned with symbols in exchange for copper coins. In the full light of day, a drawing of lots would be held: the fortunate few would receive, without further corroboration by chance, money coined in silver. The procedure, as you can see, was simple.

Naturally, these ‘lotteries’ failed. Their moral virtue was nil. They did not appeal to all of man’s faculties, only to his hope. In the face of the public’s indifference, the merchants who founded these venal lotteries began to lose money. Someone tried something new: the interpolation of a few adverse fortunes amongst the many favourable. With this reform, the buyers of numbered rectangles ran the double chance of winning a sum of money or of paying a fine, sometimes considerable. This slight danger (for every thirty favourable numbers there was one adverse) awoke, as is natural, the interest of the public. The Babylonians flocked to the game. He who did not purchase fortunes was considered pusillanimous, a yellow-belly. With time, this justified contempt found a further target: along with he who did not play, he who had lost out and did not pay his fine was also disdained. The Company (as it had begun to be called by then) had to protect the interests of the winners, who could not collect their winnings if there was lacking in the coffers the almost entire sum of the fines. Lawsuits were filed against the losers: the judge sentenced them to pay the original fine, plus court costs, or be put in jail for a time. So as to defraud the Company, they all opted for jail. From the daring of these few was born the source of the Company’s almightiness: its ecclesiastical and metaphysical significance.

A short while later, the lottery reports omitted the listing of fines and limited themselves to publishing the days of prison that each adverse number was worth. This laconicism, almost unnoticed at the time, was of capital importance. It was the first appearance of non-pecuniary elements in the lottery. Success was grand. Urged on by the lottery’s players, the Company was forced to increase the number of adverse fortunes.

It is widely known that the people of Babylon are devout followers of logic, and even of symmetry. To them, it was incoherent that the favourable numbers should result in rounded coins and the unfavourable in days and nights of incarceration. Some moralists reasoned that the possession of money did not always bring about happiness and that other forms of fortune are perhaps more immediate.

Another source of restlessness abounded in the down-at-heel neighbourhoods. The members of the sacerdotal college multiplied the stakes and rejoiced in the full range of hope and terror’s vicissitudes; the poor, with an understandable or inevitable envy, knew themselves to be excluded from these notoriously delightful ups and downs. Everyone, rich and poor alike, had a justified yearning to participate equally in the lottery, which inspired an indignant agitation whose memory the years have not erased. Certain obstinate souls did not comprehend, or pretended not to comprehend, that they were dealing with a new order, a necessary historical stage… A slave stole a crimson ticket, a ticket that in the next drawing merited his having his tongue burnt to a crisp. The criminal code fixed the same penalty for a ticket’s theft. A number of Babylonians argued that he deserved the red-hot iron for his thieving; others, more magnanimous, that the public executioner should apply the lottery’s penalty as chance had determined…

There were disturbances, there were lamentable effusions of blood; but the Babylonian people finally imposed their will and they achieved their generous ends against the opposition of the rich. Firstly, they forced the Company to assume full public power. (This unification was necessary given the vastness and complexity of the new operations.) Secondly, they made the lottery secret, general and free of charge. The mercenary sale of lots was abolished. Once initiated into the mysteries of Bel, all free men automatically took part in the sacred drawings of lots, all of which were held in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights and determined each man’s destiny until the subsequent drawing. The consequences were incalculable. A happy drawing could instigate one’s elevation to the council of magi or the imprisonment of an enemy (well-known or private) or, in the peaceful dark of one’s room, one’s meeting the woman who has begun to make one fluster or who one was never expecting to see again; an adverse drawing: mutilation, a variety of infamies, death. Sometimes a single event — C’s assassination in a tavern, B’s mysterious apotheosis — was the brilliant result of thirty or forty drawings. Combining bets was difficult; we must remember, though, that the individuals of the Company were (and are) all-powerful and astute. In many cases, the knowledge that certain joys were simple fabrications of chance would have diminished their moral worth; to avoid this inconvenience, agents of the Company made use of suggestion and magic. Their moves, their manipulations, were secret. To get at everybody’s innermost hopes and fears, astrologers and spies were employed. There were certain stone lions, there was a sacred latrine called Qaphqa, there were fissures in a dusty aqueduct, all of which, according to general opinion, led to the Company; persons malign or benevolent deposited exposés in these sites. An alphabetical archive collected these reports of varying veracity.

Incredibly, grumbling abounded. The Company, with its habitual discretion, did not reply directly. It preferred to scribble in the rubble of a mask factory a short line of reasoning which now forms part of the sacred scriptures. This doctrinal piece observed that the lottery is an interpolation of chance into the order of the world and that the acceptance of errors is not the contradiction of chance, but its corroboration. It observed also that those lions and the sacred squatting place, although not disclaimed by the Company (which did not renounce the right to consult them), functioned without official guarantee.

This declaration pacified the public’s unease. It also had other effects, perhaps not foreseen by its author: it profoundly modified the spirit and the operations of the Company. There remains little time — we have been told that the ship is about to set sail — but I will try to explain.

As improbable as it may seem, nobody until then had attempted to produce a general theory of games. The Babylonian is not speculative. He reveres the dictates of chance, surrendering his life, his hopes, his panicked terror to them, but it never occurs to him to delve into their labyrinthine laws, nor the giratory spheres from which they are revealed. Nonetheless, the officious declaration that I have mentioned inspired many discussions of a juridico-mathematical nature. From one of them was born the following conjecture: if the lottery is an intensification of chance, its periodic infusion into the cosmos, would it not be desirable then for chance to intervene in all stages of the drawing and not only in one? Is it not ridiculous that chance should dictate that a person die while the circumstances of that death — its confidentiality, its publicity, its timing an hour or a century into the future — are not subject to chance? These eminently reasonable scruples prompted in the end a considerable reform whose complexities (aggravated by centuries of practice) are understood only by a handful of specialists; I will attempt to summarise them regardless, even though I do so only symbolically.

Let us imagine a first drawing, one which condemns a man to death. In order for the sentence to be realised, another drawing is held that proposes, say, nine possible executioners. Of these nine, four might initiate a third drawing that will give the name of the eventual executioner, two might replace the drawing’s adverse result with a fortunate one (say, a treasure’s discovery), another might exacerbate the sentence of death (that is, a sentence made more infamous or embellished with torture), still others might refuse to carry it out…

Such is the lottery’s symbolic scheme. In reality, the number of drawings is infinite. No decision is final, each branch out into others. The ignorant suppose that infinite drawings require an infinite time; in reality, it is enough that time be infinitely divisible, as the famous parable of Achilles and the Tortoise demonstrates. This infinitude harmonises admirably with the sinuous numbers of Chance and the Celestial Archetype of the Lottery adored by Platonists…

A certain deformed echo of our ritual seems to have resounded along the Tiber: Aelius Lampridius, in his Life of Antoninus Heliogabalus, tells of how this emperor would write out on seashells the fortunes fated for his guests so that one would receive ten pounds of gold and another ten flies, ten dormice, ten bears. It is only right to recall that Heliogabalus was educated in Asia Minor, amongst the priests of his eponymous god.

There are also impersonal drawings without definite purposes: one will decree that a sapphire from Taprobana be thrown into the waters of the Euphrates; another, that a bird be released from atop a tower; another, that each century a grain of sand be removed (or added) to the innumerable found on the beach. Sometimes, the consequences are terrifying.

Under the beneficent influence of the Company, our customs are steeped in chance. The buyer of a dozen amphorae of Damascene wine would not be surprised if one were to contain a talisman or a viper; the scribe who draws up a contract very rarely fails to introduce some erroneous point; in this hasty declaration, I myself have embroidered a certain splendour, a certain atrocity; perhaps, too, a certain mysterious monotony…

Our historians, the orb’s most perspicacious, have invented a method for correcting chance. It is well known that the operations of this method are (in general) trustworthy; although, naturally, they are not divulged without a measure of deceit. In any case, there is nothing so contaminated with fiction as the history of the Company…

A paleographic document, exhumed in a temple, could well be the result of a drawing from the previous day or the previous century. No book is published without some variation between copies. Scribes take a secret oath to omit, interpolate, vary. Indirect falsehood is also practiced.

The Company, with divine modesty, eludes all publicity. Its agents, as is only natural, are secret; the orders it continually (perhaps incessantly) issues out are no different to those lavishly spread by impostors. Besides, who would boast of being a mere impostor? The inebriate who improvises an absurd mandate, the dreamer who suddenly awakes and with his own bare hands strangles to death the woman who sleeps by his side — are they not, perhaps, carrying out a secret decision of the Company’s? This silent working, comparable to God’s, inspires all manner of conjecture. One such example abominably insinuates that the Company ceased to exist centuries ago and that the sacred disorder in our lives is purely hereditary, traditional; another considers the Company to be eternal and teaches that it will endure until the last night, when the last god will annihilate the world. Another declares that the Company is omnipotent but that it exerts its influence only in the most trifling of matters: the cry of a bird, the shades of rust and dust, the half-asleep dreaming of the dawn. Another, from the mouths of masked heresiarchs, claims that the Company has never existed and never will. Another, no less vile, reasons that to affirm or deny the reality of the Company is inconsequential, as Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.

The original in Spanish can be found at


4 thoughts on “The Lottery in Babylon, La Lotería en Babilonia

  1. I just wanted to say thank you, and that your translations are dearly appreciated. My father recommended that I read Borges, and I wouldn’t have indulged him if I hadn’t stumbled across this blog. The stories are brilliant and your translations read cleanly and intelligently, and make me want to buy and read much, much more.

    Again, thank you.

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