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.

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

  1. It served no purpose the thought that no less monstous was I, who perceived the book with eyes and felt it with ten nailed fingers.

    This doesn’t quite parse for me. Is there a clearer way of wording that sentence?

    Also, “monstrous” is misspelled.

  2. You’re quite right, on both counts.

    Not sure if you can read Spanish, but the original says:

    De nada me sirvió considerar que no menos monstruoso era yo, que lo percibía con ojos y lo palpaba con diez dedos con uñas.

    That’s a little unusual syntactically for Spanish, although how I translated it into English originally was too unusual syntactically.

    Here’s my update:

    There was no consolation in the thought that I, who perceived the book with eyes and touched it with ten nailed fingers, was no less monstrous.

    Thanks for the criticism (the translation needed it) and helping out with the editing.

  3. Actually, I’ve made a further change. I think this is better, even if it is a little odd syntactically in English:

    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.

    That way the I gets an added emphasis, resembling a little more the effect of the era yo in the Spanish.

  4. thanks for the translation.

    great story, although i’m somewhat disappointed by the ending. i would have made the protagonist knock on someone else’s door and sell him the book in the end, implying that the book, more than being infinite on its own, also entails an infinite cycle of ruined lives.

    or maybe that would have been too predictable.

  5. You’re right, that would be a pretty good ending.

    Although I like too how the book was lost — within an almost infinite number of books.

  6. @Antonios: There is nothing called ‘almost infinite’.

    The ending is appropriate, just as any other random ending out of the whole infinity of random endings would be appropriate.

  7. There’s a moral difference between losing the book in the stacks and selling it on to another person. Selling the book would mean both profiting from the sale, and inflicting the misery of obsession with the inifinite book on another person. By choosing to lose the book in the basement of the National Library, the narrator shows himself to be morally superior to the tall Scot who sold him the book.

  8. @Steve:There’s a moral difference between losing the book in the stacks and selling it on to another person. Selling the book would mean both profiting from the sale, and inflicting the misery of obsession with the infinite book on another person. By choosing to lose the book in the basement of the National Library, the narrator shows himself to be morally superior to the tall Scot who sold him the book.

    I hadn’t thought about it like that before. That does make him morally superior. Perhaps Borges has a slight disdain for Protestants?

  9. thanks for sharing great masterpieces with us.

    i like borges, and i like your translations. good job.

    hopefully, i’ll come back one day to look over updates.

  10. Thank you for translating Borges’ work. It’s a blessing for people like me who cannot read / understand Spanish. Any plans for more translations?

  11. thanks for taking the time to translate this interesting story. a friend has just suggested that i read some Borges and this was a good start. also, i enjoyed your little discussion regarding the translation that you ended up rendering as “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 took note of that sentence while reading the story and quite liked it even before reading of your efforts to create it.

    so i’d like to make a comment that might also help the translation or spark perhaps a bit of discussion. your rendering is “,,,, an infinite series includes any number ….”. but that makes no mathematical sense. for instance, the even numbers are an infinite series, yet it includes no odd numbers. so i wonder if your translation somehow misses Borges intent? or if Borges is lacking in his grasp of, at least, this aspect of math and the infinite? or perhaps he purposefully has his character make this mistake? or i’m picking at hairs? or what?

  12. You make a good point there, Ron. Mathematically you’re quite right.

    Now, the Spanish says the following:

    Acaso para dar a entender que los términos de una serie infinita aceptan cualquier número.

    A more literal translation would be something like:

    Perhaps to give to understanding that the terms of an infinite series accept any number.

    And I translated it as:

    Perhaps it’s to demonstrate that an infinite series includes any number.

    One could argue that the Spanish is saying that the terms of an infinite series accept any of the base 10 numbers, i.e. 0,1,2 … 9. But given the meaning of the paragraph in which the sentence is situated, I think Borges meant any number regardless of its representation.

    So I would say that Borges wasn’t strictly correct, but that Borges wrote a story expressed in a natural language and that what he’s written should be interpreted as an imprecise expression of a natural language.

  13. Oh, and I’ve updated the translation to be closer to the Spanish original.

    I’ve changed it to:

    Perhaps it’s to demonstrate that the terms of an infinite series include any number.

  14. Thank you for this translation, and for all your Borges work. Not only do you strive to uphold a high standard of faithfulness in your translations (an emblem of respect toward Borges), but through your site I have become more aware of the controversy involving Borges’ widow, the poor translations of Andrew Hurley, and Borges’ much-maligned collaboration with Norman Thomas di Giovanni.

    As for this story: while I understand your rationale for the abovementioned change, I think the following version (your second choice, before you switched to your third) flows most smoothly of all:

    “There was no consolation in the thought that I, who perceived the book with eyes and touched it with ten nailed fingers, was no less monstrous.”

  15. Grad you enjoy the translations.

    I appreciate your comment too, but I’m going to stick with the third option, which might not flow as smoothly, but I think is closer to what Borges wrote.

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  17. I am delighted by your translation, but in which edition did you find “I’d hazard” in “—Ser\’a del siglo diecinueve —observ\’e.” I know that Borges was known to fiddle with the text in different editions.
    On a separate note, did you notice that in the “History of Eternity,” Hurley has the gauchos butchering in the kitchen, rather than making tea? (Or is this an equivocation in Borges?)

  18. About the sentence “Acaso para dar a entender que los términos de una serie infinita aceptan cualquier número.” It appears to be a rather obscure reference—of the kind that Borges was so fond of tossing out—and none of the translations (or the original) make much sense to me. But it might be a reference to “Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox,” which in some versions says that a series, whatever rule it might appear to follow in any initial sub-sequence, can be continued in any other arbitrary, rule-breaking way. (Shades of Hume, but Kripke found it more profound.) Borges liked to mangle quotes slightly. A challenge to the able translator: find something similar in Wittgenstein. (Now that I think of it, there might be something on this in Guillermo Martinez’s Los crimenes imperceptibles, but I don’t have a copy handy.)

  19. Glad you enjoyed it, Curtis.

    My From the nineteenth century I’d hazard is a translation of Será del siglo diecinueve. By my understanding, the use of the future tense, i.e. será instead of es, can be used to indicate uncertainty or probability, which is why I added the I’d hazard.

    On the sentence starting Acaso para dar a entender que los términos…, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a reference to something else. What I would be surprised about, however, is that it was a reference to Wittgenstein. I’ve never read anything to indicate that Borges read Wittgenstein — or any other 20th-century philosopher for that matter. I remember reading that he couldn’t be bothered with Heidegger because his prose is so abstruse and inelegant, and that’s the only example I remember of Borges referring to a 20th-century philosopher. I’d love to know if that’s not the case, though.

    As for Guillermo Martinez and the Hurley’s translation of the History of Eternity, I’ll have to get back to you on that: I’ve not heard of Guillermo Martinez and the History of Eternity is not something that immediately springs to mind.

    Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hurley had mistranslated Borges. I’m no fan of Hurley’s, and here’s where I explain why in more detail:

  20. Now I can comment further:

    – you’re right: I looked it up and Hurley made a howler by translating matear as butchering rather than something like passing the bombilla around drinking mate (it’s specifically mate they’re drinking in the social way that it’s done over there rather than the tea-drinking style of others around the world). Hurley must have missed the e in matear and read it as matar.

    One of the worst howlers, though, was committed by Anthony Kerrigan, I think it was. The translation of the The Lottery of Babylon made reference to the race between the tortoise and the hare when it should have been a reference Zeno’s paradox and the race between the tortoise and Achilles!

    – Guillermo Martinez’s books look like exactly the kind I’d love. Will definitely have to read some of his works. He does make reference to Wittgenstein’s rule-following paradox it seems, at least according to this review:

    – I’m more familiar with the rule-following paradox in relation to Quine’s work, i.e. for a set of data, there are countless explanations or theories that can account for the data. The only way we decide between the theories is via judgement, which, fortunately or unfortunately, is not deteministic.

    And I love Wittgenstein’s quip when asked about how natural it seems that the sun revolves around the earth given what we see: “And how would it look if the earth revolved around the sun”?

  21. This ending is even more fitting than you might think! Do you remember the Library of Babel? I don’t think anyone could know of Borges without knowing of it. In it Borges describes a library containing every possible book, by virtue of containing every possible combination of letters. Many men search in vain for books of secrets in that library, or for their futures, never finding anything.

    The last thought in that story was this, the fourth and final footnote:

    Letizia Álvarez de Toledo has observed that this vast Library is useless: rigorously speaking, a single volume would be sufficient, a volume of ordinary format, printed in nine or ten point type, containing an infinite number if infinitely thin leaves. (In the early seventeenth century, Cavalieri said that all solid bodies are the superimposition of an infinite number of planes.) The handling of this silky vade mecum would not be convenient: each apparent page would unfold into other analogous ones; the inconceivable middle page would have no reverse.

    It was possibly this early thought that led Borges to (many years) later write the Book of Sand, and so by now it counts as a foreshadowing, though the author didn’t know it at the time.

    So how fitting it is, then, that the Book of Sand ends by being lost in a vast library, harking back to the Library of Babel and its mysterious volumes, which in turn foreshadows the Book of Sand, in an endless loop befitting Borges!

  22. Alice, a big thank you for the sterling comment. I hadn’t realised there was such a link, and it certainly enriches the two stories.

    I have an even greater appreciation of Borges now.

  23. Thank you for this wondrous translation and edits! I think this work is a masterpiece and so appreciate your effort to do it justice. It’s a Book of the Infinite, as many as grains of sand, and those are countable by One Being alone.

  24. “The Book of Sand” reminds me of the Internet. I have lost count of the number of times I sat down at my computer to look up some item of information, only to find myself still sitting there hours later, reading about things completely unrelated to what I initially wanted to find. Come to think of it, that is how I found myself at this site, reading this short story.

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  29. One thing that I noticed was that your version ends with this:

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

    Interestingly, the English translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni (The Book of Sand, 1977, E. P. Dutton), does not include this sentence at all; it ends with “One day I went there and, slipping past a member of the staff and trying not to notice at what height or distance from the door, I lost the Book of Sand on one of the basement’s musty shelves.”

    Multiple versions of a text are not that unusual, of course. It’s just interesting.

    Thanks for your translation!

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