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.

21 thoughts on “Hurley’s Inelegant Borges: An Exegesis (Part I of II)

  1. Are you aware of this link [] to the Spanish original and three other English translations?

    It is only after coming across your blog that I have started to read Borges (in English, since I have no Spanish unfortunately). I must thank you for that because what I have read so far is marvellous.

    The translation exercises are fascinating. Please keep them up.

  2. Very nice link! I note that they don’t have Hurley’s translation listed there, which is just as well, because I would consider it the worst. Of those listed, I would argue James Irby’s is the best. Have you got yourself a preference? (and you don’t need to say my own)

    And if you’re wondering why I’m going after Hurley, it’s because he was commissioned to translate all the works anew, and these translations are in the Collected Fictions, which, as the title suggests, collects all of Borges’s fictions.

    Unfortunately, I don’t consider any of the translations that Hurley did any good, but now they are in what seems to be the definitive collection of translations.

    Being a newbie to Borges, you might not have heard of one of his great lines:

    The original is not faithful to the translation.

    Regrettably, Borges could not say that of the translations of his own works.

  3. Thank you very much for such a detailed analysis of Borges and I. Unfortunately , I have blown my money on Mr. Hurley´s less than convincing translations.

    Could you please send me ´´ the autobiographical essay ´´ ? I think it appears in an out of print edition of The Aleph. I so dearly want to read it but it just isn´t available.

    Keep writing about the great man. I am deeply interested in your view of the translations of his poetry.

    Once again thanks for such a great site !


  4. Hey Shakir,

    Not sure I have ever read this autobiographical essay. It doesn’t spring to mind and I don’t have a copy of The Aleph, let alone an out-of-print copy of The Aleph.

    Regrettably, though, I’ve not read much of Borges’ poetry. I have a hard time understanding poetry, so I generally prefer prose. I’m told Borges’ poetry is fantastic, but what I’ve read has not affected me as his prose has.

    Thanks for commenting,


  5. I personally like the way you translate. I have lived in South America for 20 years and can appreciate the difference. It is quite essential.

    So, there is work to do…

  6. I have to respectfully disagree with your translation. While Dr. Hurley’s translation is not perfect, in my opinion it flows very well. You are nitpicking at things that are not necessarily all that important to the flow of the story and your translations ultimately sound too literal because you are sticking to the original almost word-for-word. It was a good attempt, but not quite there.

  7. I freely admit that I am biased in thinking my own translations of Borges’ works are better than Hurley’s, Bea, so I’ll cop any criticisms of my own translations on the chin.

    What I just can’t see as justifiable, though, is how Hurley’s translations could be considered adequate. On that point, we will have to remain respectfully in disagreement.

  8. He took some liberties with the original text, I won’t deny that. (Some of the ones you point out are valid, such as the use of “utterly and inevitably” for “perderme definitivamente.” Others, such as the use of the contraction and his first sentence (which I think was fine the way Hurley translated it, while your version sounds a bit more convoluted and wordy), are nitpicking at minor details. Jorge Luis Borges himself was a translator and has written about it. He was an advocate for allowing translators to take liberties and improve on the original. He didn’t believe literary translations needed to stick so closely to the original text.

    The world of literary translation is very tough. I’m a technical translation and I specialize in the legal field, which is obviously very different than something of the caliber of Borges’ work. There’s a lot of debate on the process of literary translation, so I will indeed to remain in respectful disagreement. :-)

  9. Sorry about the parentheses errors I made in my comment above. I was typing quickly and forgot to double-check. Whoops!

    I’ll give you an example of how you’re sticking too closely to the text:
    “Little by little, I continue ceding to him everything, even though I am aware of his perverse tendency to falsify and magnify.”

    The verb “to cede” in English is much higher register than “ceder” in Spanish. I assume the reason why he chose “to turn over” is because it sounds much more natural to say that in English than to say “I ceded…” It’s like when you say “obligar” in Spanish. Yes, “obligate” in English means the same thing. But the average English speaker would not say “my parents obligated me to stay home.” We would say “my parents forced me…” It’s a matter of connotation rather than denotation.

    Next, let’s continue using “cede” for argument’s sake. In English, it’s much more natural to place “everything” after “ceding” and not “him.” “I continued ceding everything to him” sounds better than “I continued ceding to him everything.”

    Finally, the words “falsify” and “magnify” in English are transitive verbs. That means they have to have a direct object after them, they can’t be used by themselves with no object, because they sound incomplete. That’s probably why Hurley repeated “everything.” To simply end a sentence with “falsify” and “magnify” would cause the average English reader to go: “falsify what?” Yes, it’s implied, but English needs the repetition. The same way it needs to repeat the subject of a sentence because it’s agrammatical to not to do.

  10. Yep, in Spanish you can “ceder una silla” whereas in English you can never “cede a seat”, but by the same token, “ceder” also means to yield something in the higher register of the English sense as well.

    And what I liked about “cede” in English, and the reason I used that verb, is that it conveys a formal and distant transfer from one to the other, as if an inevitable legal process has taken place that is out of any one person’s explicit control. Hurley’s “turning everything over” makes it sound that Borges is actively giving everything over to the other, which is definitely not the case!

    Throughout the story, Borges is alluding to larger processes that happen in which he’s but a small part. I thought “cede” was a better verb to convey that larger process that Borges is a part of and simultaneously alienated from because he has no control over it.

    And I agree: “I continue ceding everything to him” sounds more natural in English than “I continue ceding to him everything”, but in the second phrase, the “everything” has been emphasised because it’s at the end. When reading the second phrase, it becomes almost “I continue ceding to him everything” and there’s a larger pause between this clause and the one that follows. It sounds more dramatic that way, has more sway, so I went with it because I thought it suited the text better.

    Also, says falsify and magnify can both be intransitive.

    Take a look:

    No object is necessary for either of those verbs.

    And finally, English doesn’t always need the subject of a sentence to be repeated before a verb. Take, for instance, this sentence: “He walked to school, took his bag out and sat down”. Three verbs, only one explicit subject.

  11. But doesn’t Borges and Me sound like it’s written by some kid full of spunk?

    Huck Finn and Me sounds right, but I’m not so sure Borges and Me does.

  12. Thank you for writing this. Hurley’s translations only exist because of Borges’ late wife’s greed. His first English translations were a collaboration between the author and Norman Thomas Di Giovanni. (read about that tragedy here,

    The Labyrinths translation is beautiful for many of Borges’ best works. People read Borges now and take Hurley’s translation as definitive, or the only one. For example, this quarter (4th, 2011) Lapham’s Quarterly used a Hurley translation of The Lottery, hopefully they were unaware of better options but nevertheless it makes you call in to question their research methods. Amazon reviews of Hurley’s translation are universally excellent. Just imagine what people would say if they had the opportunity to read Kerrigan, Labyrinths or Di Giovanni in comparison! Here’s a quote from Di Giovanni about what happened:
    “Behind my back, I was being ushered out of the door (if such a mixed metaphor is permissable) and at the same time was being airbrushed out of history, out of Borges’s existence. All of my volumes of his work – work to which he contributed and gave a unique voice – were deliberately allowed to go out of print. No publisher, no editor, no agent, no executor of any estate ever wrote to me to explain any of this. New translations appeared. Viking-Penguin had bought up E.P. Dutton, and unilaterally, without a single word to me, they nullified my contracts, an act which experts in the law have told me was illegal. So ruthless was Viking that they even commissioned a new edition of Borges’s poems, stealing from my edition, without permission, without payment, a considerable body of my work.”

  13. Di Giovanni certainly has every right to feel aggrieved.

    I haven’t read Di Giovanni’s translations because, as you point out, there hard to get these days.

    I’m not completely sure how good the translations in Labyrinths are, though. I haven’t gone through them closely, but I do distinctly remember the reference to the story of the race between the tortoise and Achilles in Lottery in Babylon, which is used to illustrate the peculiarities of infinity, was translated as the race between the tortoise and the hare!

  14. By the way, the date error in Hurley’s translation has not been mentioned here. “La tipografía del siglo XVII, ” was rendered by Hurley as “eighteenth-century typefaces.” Translations are only versions, reperformances of an original performance. Di Giovanni’s version, for me, is actually a bit stiff and even inept in places, and also misses the projection of existential “otherness” that is very present in the original. There are also a few mistranslations: “rasgueo de una guitarra” becomes “tuning of a guitar,” “mi vida es una fuga” becomes “my life is a running away.” The very unfortunate thing in losing Di Giovanni’s translation is that it also represents a collaboration with other renowned authors of the time whose versions of Borges’ poetry are in fact quite magnificent. Hurley will never be able to compare with the likes of M.S. Merwin , Alastair Reid or John Updike.

  15. I own both Labyrinths and the Hurley translated Collected Fictions, and there is a noticeable difference in quality, and I don’t believe it’s because I read the former first. In J.M. Coetzee’s review, he says “If there is one weakness to them, it is that Hurley’s feel for the level of formality of English words is not always reliable.” I think that is very true. Thus “Funes Memorius” becomes “Funes, His Memory,” the mythical “Hombre del Libro” who is mentioned in “The Library of Babel” becomes “the Book-Man” rather than “Man of the Book,” etc.

    As someone who doesn’t have an excellent command of Spanish, I will say Hurley’s translations are useful in checking myself when I try reading the original. I’m not sure if this is due to the translator or to Borges’ own clear and usually simple syntax.

  16. Borges doesn’t often use slang, and it’s almost a playfully formal style that he writes in.

    The formality, I think, makes it easier to follow for a foreigner, whereas someone like his compatriot Julio Cortázar I find much more difficult to follow in the original.

  17. I like what you have to say Antonios. An old thread, but interesting. I was trying to decide which version of Borges to buy, and now I will definitely not buy Hurley.

    I disagree with Bea’s critiques of your translation. Reading something comfortably idiomatic in English is not a priority for me in the least, and can be actually quite off-putting. It’s like watching a poorly dubbed movie, where Bruce Lee sounds like John Wayne. The only reason I’m not reading Borges in the original language, is because my Spanish is not quite strong enough. My French is a lot stronger though, and I get the structure and feel of romance languages enough to appreciate many of the subtleties embedded there. But even if this were not the case (if it was a Russian language piece, for example), I would still want the closest translation possible, because that would give me more access to the linguistic world of the author (however perplexing at times).

    Take Shakespeare. Linguistically his work is quite foreign to the modern English speaker, but would we really want to translate it into modern, street slang in the vain attempt to reproduce the experience of the common theater-goer in Elizabethan England? Absurd! Shakespeare will always be strange to us, as will foreign language texts. Embracing strangeness is inherently a bit frustrating, but the payoff can be rich.

    I don’t actually know how well Borges spoke English, but assuming it wasn’t perfect, I would much rather have heard a story told straight from his mouth, accent, broken English and all, than through a professional translator. And not just because he was famous.

  18. As a great admirer of Borges and Borges’ work but mostly as an native Spanish speaking person I was quite disappointed with Hurley’s translation of what I consider to be the work of the greatest writer in Spanish language. Hurley’s writing and style are impecable but it’s not Borges who talks in those translations. Hurley, in my opinion, turns Borges’ fantastic and literary narrative style into a dull and impecable academic paper. It is certainly true that it is not possible to translate entirely the essence of a text from one language to another but I think it’s on the vocabulary, the point of view from which things are narrated that a translation can be either fantastic or just useful. French translation of Borges’ work are virtuous in the sens they are able to recreate the passionate, simple and genius narrative voice of the author.
    One good reason to learn Spanish is to be able to read Borges and get to know not only the most imaginative but the most passionate and perfect narrator of the XXth century.

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