All Our Yesterdays by Jorges Luis Borges

Borges loved the sonnet, and I love his All Our Yesterdays (not Todos Nuestros Ayeres — the poem’s title was originally published in English*). And so I thought I’d translate the poem into English much like I did Borges’ Spinoza.

Robert Mezey has already translated All Our Yesterdays, but it doesn’t rhyme. I thought I’d translate the poem and preserve the rhyme, albeit structured differently. The original is rhymed ABBA CDDC EFFE GG. I’ve rhymed the translation in the classic Shakespearean form of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.

All Our Yesterdays
I want to know: which who of all the whos
I’ve been is due my past? The boy who traced
out Latin lines hexameter that hues
lustrous of passing years have now effaced?
Perhaps that lad who sought those savage selves —
tigers and panthers — or the curves precise
of maps and charts in father’s library shelves
is he to whom belongs my past concise?
Or he who pushed a door ajar where lay
a dying man in everlasting sleep,
yes he the boy who kissed in the bright of day
the face departing, dead, forsaken deep?
I am all those who are no more. In vain
I am this night those lost to life’s terrain.

All Our Yesterdays*
Quiero saber de quién es mi pasado.
¿De cuál de los que fui? ¿Del ginebrino
que trazó algún hexámetro latino
que los lustrales años han borrado?
¿Es de aquel niño que buscó en la entera
biblioteca del padre las puntuales
curvaturas del mapa y las ferales
formas que son el tigre y la pantera?
¿O de aquel otro que empujó una puerta
detrás de la que un hombre se moría
para siempre, y besó en el blanco día
la cara que se va y la cara muerta?
Soy los que ya no son. Inútilmente
soy en la tarde esa perdida gente.

* the original poem, written in Spanish, was published with the title All Our Yesterdays in English. The title references Macbeth, who said famously:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Bioy Casares and Borges

Bioy Casares kept a record of the very many encounters and meetings he had with firm friend Borges in Buenos Aires. These records were edited and published in a 1600-page behemoth simply titled Borges, a title which does not definitively alert the unsuspecting Amazon shopper that its contents are in Spanish.

Although I read Spanish well enough, and although I feel the need to complain about previous translations of both Borges’ and Bioy Casares’ works, I would have much preferred the book in English translation for a non-Argentinean audience, where footnotes on literary and political figures I’d never heard of would have been abundant and the strain of reading such a long work in Spanish could be avoided. Unfortunately, no such English translation appears to be available.

Nevertheless, I do occasionally dip into Borges, and for the most part I end up agreeing with David Gallagher’s sentiments regarding the book — too long, too desultory, not really all that revealing. Nevertheless, there are still a number of amusing moments, and so I thought I’d share a few I’ve discovered recently:

Sunday, 28th of September, 1969

Hablo por teléfono con Borges. Me dice: Mi sobrino Luis se casa pasado mañana. Está en cama, muy resfriado. ¿Será una estratagema para no casarse? Sin embargo, no está obligado… Qué raro, elegir la inmovilidad como una forma de fuga.

I speak with Borges on the phone. He tells me: My cousin Luis is getting married the day after tomorrow. He’s in bed with a severe cold. Could it be a way to avoid getting married? Still, no one’s forcing him… How odd to choose immobility as a form of running away.

Monday, 14th of August, 1961

BORGES: <<Me faltan veinte días para irme a Texas. ¿Cómo detener el tiempo? Madre está muy divertida con el viaje. Ojalá que me dejen hablar de otros temas, además de literatura argentina. Esa idea de que todo hombre es un commis voyageur de su país es una porquería, es la negación de la cultura, de la literatura, de todo.

BORGES: I leave for Texas in twenty days. How does one stop time? Mother is very amused about the trip. Hopefully they let me speak on topics other than Argentinian literature. This idea that everybody is a commis voyageur of one’s own country is crap; it’s the negation of culture, of literature, of everything.

Sunday, 18th of March, 1962

Le hablo de mi cuento <<El calamar opta por su tinta>>. BORGES: <<Está bien. El verbo optar supone una inteligencia que los calamares probablamente no tienen>>. Comentado los primeros resultados de las elecciones y el posible triunfo peronista: <<Recuerdo un dicho parecido: ¨El perro vuelve a su vómito¨. Aunque más adecuado sería, por estos días; ¨El argentino vuelve a su Perón¨>>.

I tell him about my story, The Squid Chooses Its Own Ink. BORGES: “It’s good. The verb choose presupposes an intelligence that squid probably don’t have.” Commenting on the preliminary election results and the possible Peronista triumph: “I remember a similar saying: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit’. Although something more apt would be, for these times: ‘The Argentinian returns to his own Peron'”.

Note: Borges’ apter saying has an added kick in Spanish because perro, the word for dog, is very similar to Perón.

Monday, 19th of March, 1962

A unos metodistas que se oponían a la pena capital, les dijo: <<Cristo la sancionó. Murió en la cruz; no elogió — era Dios y podía hacerlo — la reclusión en la cárcel>>. <<No los convencí>>, agrega. Yo le recuerdo que, para John Donne, Cristo era suicida.

He said to some Methodists opposed to the death penalty: “Christ sanctioned it. He died on the cross; he did not choose — he was God and was able to do so — imprisonment in jail.” “I did not convince them”, he added. I remind him that, according to John Donne, Christ committed suicide.

Borges’ Spinoza Metered and Rhymed

I am by no means qualified to translate poetry, but reading Borges’ sonnet Spinoza translated into English unrhymed and unmetered disappointed me so much that I thought an attempt at a rhymed and metered English version of the Spanish original wouldn’t offend too gravely. And because Borges admired Shakespeare so much, I supposed translating Spinoza into the classic Shakespearean sonnet form would be the most appropriate option.

Anyway, here’s Richard Howard and César Rennert’s version; here’s Willis Barnstone’s version (which is rhymed, although the meter is all over the place); here’s a literal version; and below is my own version along with the Spanish original:

The Jew’s translucent hands robustly work
The lenses in the late penumbral dark.
The dying evening cold where terrors lurk,
One evening, every evening always stark.
His hands, his space of hyacinth and blue
That pale within the Ghetto’s borderlines
Hardly exist for him the silent Jew
Who dreams a labyrinth’s lucid, clear designs.
He undisturbed by fame — what comes reflected
From dreams within another mirror’s dreams.
Free from a maiden’s timid love confected
And metaphor and myth’s distracting streams.
He works resistant glass: the endless One
He maps, whose shining stars no skies outrun.

Las traslúcidas manos del judío
labran en la penumbra los cristales
y la tarde que muere es miedo y frío.
(Las tardes a las tardes son iguales.)
Las manos y el espacio de jacinto
que palidece en el confín del Ghetto
casi no existen para el hombre quieto
que está soñando un claro laberinto.
No lo turba la fama, ese reflejo
de sueños en el sueño de otro espejo,
ni el temeroso amor de las doncellas.
Libre de la metáfora y del mito
labra un arduo cristal: el infinito
mapa de Aquel que es todas Sus estrellas.

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.

A Borges Signature

Borges could bon mot as well as anyone. Here’s a favourite that is typical of his inverting the familiar (the translation as superior to the original, the minotaur as the innocent):

He firmado tantos ejemplares de mis libros que el día que me muera va a tener un gran valor uno que no lleve mi firma.

Or in English:

I’ve signed so many copies of my books that any which don’t carry my signature will gain in value the day I die.

Hurley’s Inelegant Borges: An Exegesis (Part II of II)

And so now I hereby finalise my complaining about Hurley’s translation of Borges’ Borges and I. Here’s my translation of the Borges original in full, here’s part I of my complaining about Hurley’s translation while part II of my complaining is below:

Eighth sentence

Borges: Spinoza entendió que todas las cosas quieren perseverar en su ser; la piedra eternamente quiere ser piedra y el tigre un tigre.

Hurley: Spinoza believed that all things wish to go on being what they are — stone wishes eternally to be stone, and tiger, to be tiger.

This is quite a tricky passage to translate because it semi-quotes Spinoza.  In the original Latin, the quote Borges referred to is:

PROPOSITIO VI. Unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur.

In English, the translation, at least in this Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy article on Spinoza, is:

IIIP6: Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in being.

In Spanish, the translation, at least in this Miguel de Unamuno essay, is:

Cada cosa, en cuanto es en sí, se esfuerza por perseverar en su ser

Given all that, it’s clear that Hurley’s all things wish to go on being what they are is just too flimsy, too much lacking in gravitas and too far removed from what Borges is saying to be in any way decent a translation.

The translation of entendió as believed is also a mystery: clearly Borges agrees with the sentiment, and understood or knew would have been much more appropriate and direct a translation from the Spanish original, as well as providing a subtle indication that the views of the piece’s author are aligned with Spinoza’s.

The singular stone and tiger without an article is also non-standard English for what is standard Spanish.

Then there’s the howler with stone wishes eternally to be stone. In the original, the stone is not wishing eternally, rather the stone is wishing to be eternally. The adverb applies to the being, not the wishing!

My attempt: Spinoza understood that all things strive to persevere being; the stone wishes to be eternally a stone and the tiger a tiger.

I introduced a paragraph break here because I felt there was enough of a break in the story to warrant one in English even if this is not the case in Spanish, which generally has fewer paragraphs in any given piece of text.

All things strive to persevere being is what I came up with to do justice to Spinoza, the various translations of Spinoza in Spanish and English, Borges, the philosophy, Borges’ Spanish original and the natural flow of English; but one could start a thousand arguments as to how this one phrase should be translated. Persevere in being is perhaps closer to Spinoza if not natural or particularly clear in English, so in the end I went for the simpler persevere being, which is further from Spinoza but closer to standard English.

Eleventh sentence

Borges: Así mi vida es una fuga y todo lo pierdo y todo es del olvido, o del otro.

Hurley: So my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away — and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man.

This is especially bad. Hurley here decided that he was the author, not Borges. This is a short, simple, effective and rhythmic line that Hurley turns into a dog’s breakfast.

I start off pedantically: I feel I need to point out that así is not so here. Así is more demonstrative, more like an in this way and a clarification of what has been said before rather than a conclusion based on what has been said before, which is what the so implies.

The translation of the word fuga is the primary cause of the translation’s mess. Fuga in Spanish is both a flight, as in a running away, and a fugue. Here, though, it takes the sense of a flight and is most definitely not a fugue. In the previous sentence, it states explicitly that Borges is involved in the process of moving on or running away:

Hace años yo traté de librarme de él y pasé de las mitologías del arrabal a los juegos con el tiempo y con lo infinito, pero esos juegos son de Borges ahora y tendré que idear otras cosas.

Years ago I tried to free myself from him by moving on from the mythologies of the slums to games with time and infinity, but those games are now Borges’ and I will have to conceive of other things.  (my translation)

The mistake is remarkable, although fugue perhaps explains why he thought the relationship between this sentence and the previous one required so as a translation of así rather than thus or in this way. Regrettably, though, Hurley then makes the further mistake of assuming that this fugue business requires further explication, so instead of just translating mi vida es una fuga as my life is a fugue, he inserts my life is a point-counterpoint, a kind of fugue, and a falling away. How did that get past the editors?

Everything winds up being lost to me is again Hurley inserting himself into the translation. The original, todo lo pierdo, is a simple phrase that should have been translated equally simply as something akin to I lose everything.

More unnecessary extrapolation: into the hands of the other man for del otro. Del otro directly translated is the other’s. Anything much longer than that is superfluous. (Not to mention my other bugbear: Hurley’s continual reference to man even though Borges is not referring to another embodied person.)

My attempt: Thus my life is a running away and I lose everything and everything is turned over to oblivion, or to the other.

Twelfth (the last) sentence

Borges: No sé cuál de los dos escribe esta página.

Hurley: I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page.

No sé is just I do not know, not I am not sure.

Which of us it is that’s is a clunky version cuál de los dos, and the contraction is just not Borges. Furthermore, Borges does not use which of us but rather which of the two, which implies there are many versions of Borges beyond the two that are described in the piece. At the very least, which of the two implies a third Borges, a further fracture of the standard singular I, which is completely lost in Hurley’s translation.

And page for página is the correct direct translation, but I consider it unnatural to say I wrote a page.

My attempt: I do not know which of the two is writing this piece.

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.

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


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.

Translated: La Casa de Asterión becomes The House of Asterion

Andrew Hurley’s translations of Borges’s work I don’t consider so highly. I’ve already attempted my own translation of Borges Y Yo, and now in a similarly hubristic manner, I issue forth my translation of La Casa de Asterión.

The House of Asterion (translated from the Spanish) by Jorge Luis Borges

And the queen gave birth to a son named Asterion.
Apollodorus, Library, III, I

I know they accuse me of arrogance, perhaps also of misanthropy, perhaps madness too. Such accusations (which I shall castigate in due course) are laughable. It is true that I do not leave my house, but it is also true that its doors (which are infinite* in number) are open day and night to man and animal alike. Anyone who wishes may enter. One will not find feminine extravagance here, nor gallant courtly ritual, just quiet and solitude. Here one will find a house like no other on the face of the Earth. (They who declare that in Egypt exists another similar are lying). Even my detractors admit that there is not a single piece of furniture in the house. Another ridiculous tale claims that I, Asterion, am a prisoner. Need I repeat that there are no closed doors? Should I add that there are no locks? Besides, I did one evening step out onto the street; if I returned home before nightfall, I did so because of the fear that the faces of the hoi polloi, faces discoloured and plain like an open hand, had induced in me. The sun had already set, but the helpless cry of a babe and the coarse supplications of the common herd signalled that I had been recognised. The people prayed, fled and fell prostrate; some climbed up to the stylobate of the temple of Axes, others gathered stones. Someone, I believe, hid himself under the sea. Not in vain was my mother a queen; I cannot mix with the common people, though my modesty does so desire it.

The fact is that I am unique. What a man can pass unto others does not interest me; like the philosopher, I think nothing is communicated by the art of writing. Annoying and trivial minutiae have no place in my spirit, a spirit which is receptive only to whatsoever is grand. Never have I retained the difference between one letter and another. A certain generous impatience has not consented that I should learn to read. Sometimes I deplore this, for the nights and days are long.

Naturally, I am not without amusement. Like a ram on the charge, I run through the galleries of stone until dizzily I tumble to the ground. I conceal myself in the shadows of a cistern or in the corner of a corridor and pretend that I am being searched for. There are rooftops from which I let myself fall until I bloody myself. At any time I can shut my eyes and pretend that I am asleep, breathing deeply. (Sometimes I really do sleep, sometimes the colour of the day has changed by the time I open my eyes). But of the games I play, the one I prefer is pretending there is another Asterion. I pretend that he has come to visit me and I show him around the house. With great reverence I tell him: Now we return to the previous intersection, or Now we head towards another courtyard, or I knew you would like this drain, or Now you will see a cistern that has filled with sand, or Now you will see how the cellar forks. Sometimes I err and we both laugh heartily.

Not only these games have I imagined; I have also meditated on the house. Each part of the house repeats many times, any particular place is another place. There is not one cistern, courtyard, drinking fountain, manger; there are fourteen (infinite) mangers, drinking fountains, courtyards, cisterns. The house is the size of the world; better said, it is the world. Nevertheless, by dint of exhausting all the dusty galleries of grey stone and the courtyards with their cisterns, I have reached the street and I have seen the temple of Axes and the sea. This I did not understand until a night vision revealed to me that there are also fourteen (infinite) seas and temples. Everything exists many times over, fourteen times, but there are two things in the world that seem to exist only once; above, the intricate Sun; below, Asterion. Perhaps I have created the stars and the Sun and the enormous house, but I do not remember anymore.

Nine men enter the house every nine years so that I may deliver them from all evil. I hear their footsteps or their voices in the depths of the galleries of stone and I run with joy in search of them. The ceremony lasts a few minutes. One after another, they fall to the ground without my having to bloody my hands. Where they fall, they remain, and the cadavers help to distinguish one gallery from another. I know not who they are, but I do know that one of them prophesied, at the moment of his death, that someday my redeemer would come. Since then, the solitude does not pain me because I know that my redeemer lives, and in the end he will rise above the dust. If I could hear all the rumblings of the world, I would detect the sound of his footsteps. Let it be that he take me to a place with fewer galleries and fewer doors.

I wonder: what will my redeemer be like? Will he be a bull or a man? Will he be perhaps a bull with the face of a man? Or will he be like me?


The morning Sun was reflected in the sword of bronze. No trace of blood remained.

“Would you believe it, Ariadne?” said Theseus. “The minotaur hardly put up a fight.”

* The original says fourteen, but there is ample reason to infer that in Asterion’s eyes, this adjectival numeral is no different to infinite.

La Casa de Asterión por Jorge Luis Borges

Y la reina dio a luz un hijo que se llamó Asterión.
Apolodoro, Biblioteca, III, I

Sé que me acusan de soberbia, y tal vez de misantropía, y tal vez de locura. Tales acusaciones (que yo castigaré a su debido tiempo) son irrisorias. Es verdad que no salgo de mi casa, pero también es verdad que sus puertas (cuyo número es infinito*) están abiertas día y noche a los hombres y también a los animales. Que entre el que quiera. No hallará pompas mujeriles aquí ni el bizarro aparato de los palacios, pero sí la quietud y la soledad. Asimismo hallará una casa como no hay otra en la faz de la tierra. (Mienten los que declaran que en Egipto hay una parecida.) Hasta mis detractores admiten que no hay un solo mueble en la casa. Otra especie ridícula es que yo, Asterión, soy un prisionero. ¿Repetiré que no hay una puerta cerrada, añadiré que ho hay una cerradura? Por lo demás, algún atardecer he pisado la calle; si antes de la noche volví, lo hice por el temor que me infundieron las caras de la plebe, caras descoloridas y aplanadas, como la mano abierta. Ya se había puesto el sol, pero el desvalido llanto de un niño y las toscas plegarias de la grey dijeron que me habían reconocido. La gente oraba, huía, se prosternaba; unos se encaramaban al estilóbato del templo de las Hachas, otros juntaban piedras. Alguno, creo, se ocultó bajo el mar. No en vano fue una reina mi madra; no puedo confundirme con el vulgo, aunque mi modestia lo quiera.

El hecho es que soy único. No me interesa lo que un hombre pueda trasmitir a otros hombres; como el filósofo, pienso que nada es comunicable por el arte de la escritura. Las enojosas y triviales minucias no tienen cabida en mi espíritu, que está capacitado para lo grande; jamás he retenido la diferencia entre una letra y otra. Cierta impaciencia generosa no ha consentido que yo aprendiera a leer. A veces lo deploro, porque las noches y los días son largos.

Claro que no me faltan distracciones. Semejante al carnero que va a embestir, corro por las galerías de piedra hasta rodar al suelo, mareado. Me agazapo a la sombra de un aljibe o a la vuelta de un corredor y juego a que me buscan. Hay azoteas desde las que me dejo caer, hasta ensangrentarme. A cualquier hora puedo jugar a estar dormido, con los ojos cerrados y la respiración poderosa. (A veces me duermo realmente, a veces ha cambiado el color del día cuando he abierto los ojos.) Pero de tantos juegos el que prefiero es el de otro Asterión. Finjo que viene a visitarme y que yo le muestro la casa. Con grandes reverencias le digo: Ahora volvemos a la encrucijada anterior o Ahora desembocamos en otro patio o Bien decía yo que te gustaría la canaleta o Ahora verás una cisterna que se llenó de arena o Ya verás cómo el sótano se bifurca. A veces me equivoco y nos reímos buenamente los dos.

No sólo he imaginado eso juegos, también he meditado sobre la casa. Todas las partes de la casa están muchas veces, cualquier lugar es otro lugar. No hay un aljibe, un patio, un abrevadero, un pesebre; son catorce [son infinitos] los pesebres, abrevaderos, patios, aljibes. La casa es del tamaño del mundo; mejor dicho, es el mundo. Sin embargo, a fuerza de fatigar patios con un aljibe y polvorientas galerías de piedra gris, he alcanzado la calle y he visto el templo de las Hachas y el mar. Eso no lo entendí hasta que una visión de la noche me reveló que también son catorce [son infinitos] los mares y los templos. Todo está muchas veces, catorce veces, pero dos cosas hay en el mundo que parecen estar una sola vez: arriba, el intrincado sol; abajo, Asterión. Quizá yo he creado las estrellas y el sol y la enorme casa, pero ya no me acuerdo.

Cada nueve años entran en la casa nueve hombres para que yo los libere de todo mal. Oigo sus pasos o su voz en el fondo de las galerías de piedra y corro alegremente a buscarlos. La ceremonia dura pocos minutos. Uno tras otro caen sin que yo me ensangriente las manos. Donde cayeron, quedan, y los cadáveres ayudan a distinguir una galería de las otras. Ignoro quiénes son, pero sé que uno de ellos profetizó, en la hora de su muerte, que alguna vez llegaría mi redentor. Desde entonces no me duele la soledad, porque sé que vive mi redeentor y al fin se levantará sobre el polvo. Si mi oído alcanzara los rumores del mundo, yo percibiría sus pasos. Ojalá me lleve a un lugar con menos galerías y menos puertas. ¿Cómo será mi redentor?, me pregunto. ¿Será un toro o un hombre? ¿Será tal vez un toro con cara de hombre? ¿O será como yo?


El sol de la mañana reverberó en la espada de bronce. Ya no quedaba ni un vestigio de sangre.

– ¿Lo creerás, Ariadna? – dijo Teseo. – El minotauro apenas se defendió.

* El original dice catorce, pero sobran motives para inferir que en boca de Asterión, ese adjetivo numeral vale por infinitos.