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.