Blog Post

Quevedo, Borges, and Translation

Borges felt great admiration for Quevedo as a writer, but at a certain point he began to feel suspicion of writers whose genius is purely verbal.  Borges begins to elaborate the idea that the particular way in which something is phrased is somewhat arbitrary, and that the important thing is the archetype, the idea itself.  You can see this development in essays like "De la supersticiosa ética del lector" and "Las versiones homéricas," as well as in his essay about Quevedo, in which he concludes that Quevedo never found his archetype.  In "Las versiones homérica" Borges posits that privileging the translation over the original is like deciding that one draft of a work is definitive--something that we can never do.  The notion of a definitive text belongs only to "religion or exhaustion."  Borges hypothesizes that certain lines of literature seem inevitable to us only because they are repeated so much that we cannot imagine them any other way.  He points out that for the original author, these same lines do not have that same talismanic value.  

 Yet I wonder...  There is a chiseled quality to certain lines of Quevedo or Góngora, or Borges himself for that matter, that generates a sense of inevitability that, however illusory, is real from the point of view of the reader.  To see this inexorable quality as a mere superstition is a radical idea.  It is in translation where we see this quality, because every translation could be imaginably different from what it is.  In other words, if we took Góngora's line "Infame turba de nocturnas aves," we might come up with any number of conceivable translations, some better than others, or simply different, but the very possibility of variants negates that chiseled quality of the original.  I don't want the original Spanish line to be different from what it is.   It wasn't because of repetition that this line came to seem inevitable to me:  it struck me that way the first time I read it.  

Obviously my notion of the original text is much more conservative and conventional than that of the radical translation theorist Jorge Luis Borges.  In some sense I am still trying to catch up to him.  By way of contrast we might remember that Benjamin ends his essay on the "Task of the Translator" by reverting to the sacred model, whereas Borges's theory totally desacralizes the authority of the original.  

Jonathan Mayhew's picture
Jonathan Mayhew received his PhD in Comparative Literature at Stanford University in 1988.  He was recently promoted to the rank of Professor of Spanish at the University of Kansas, where he has taught since 1996.  He is the author of many articles and four books, most recently Apocryphal Lorca:  Translation, Parody, Kitsch (U of Chicago P, 2009).