Sunday, February 20, 2011

"I judged vast encyclopedias and books of natural history by the splendor of their tigers."

The internet now has what neither the splendid volume of Jorge Louis Borges's Collected Fictions nor its companion Selected Poems has: a complete English translation of Borges's book El Hacedor, first translated into English as Dreamtigers (the title of one of the stories therein, from which the title of this post was borrowed), but also referred to as The Maker, a more literal translation of its title.* (Of course it is online in Spanish too.)

Those fabulous English volumes don't have it because El Hacedor is a mixture of fiction, poetry and a small "museum" (quotes of others, both poetry & prose), and neither work was concerned to keep them together.

But it was a mistake, I think: the book is clearly a single work of art (in addition to, or rather made up of, multiple works of art that can be read separately as well). Borges is fairly explicit about this , in which he contrasts "the essential monotony of this miscellany" with "the geographical and historical diversity of its themes". He then ends with a story (parable? metaphor?) that could not possibly be more quintessentially Borgesian:
A man sets himself the task of portraying the world. Through the years he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.
So now if you want to read it in English in its entirety (without flipping back and forth between two volumes, or buying a third whose contents you already own**), you can now do so thanks to the internet, this astonishing web of words of whom Borges was, as much as any other thinker, the spiritual grandfather.

* The tale of the book's title in translation is an interesting one; Andrew Hurley tells it, tucked away in the notes, in Collected Fictions (p. 544):
The Spanish title of this "heterogeneous" volume of prose and poetry... is El hacedor, and hacedor is a troublesome word for a translator into English. JLB seems to be thinking of the Greek word poeta, which means "maker", since a "true and literal" translation of poeta into Spanish would indeed be hacedor. Yet hacedor is in this translator's view, and in the view of all those native speakers he has consulted, a most uncommon word. It is not used in Spanish for "poet" but instead makes one think of someone who makes things with his hands, a kind of artisan, perhaps, or perhaps even a tinkerer. The English word maker is perhaps strange too, yet it exists; however, it is used in English (in such phrases as "he went to meet his Maker" and the brand name Maker's Mark) in a way that dissuades one from seizing upon it immediately as the "perfect" translation of hacedor. (The Spanish word hacedor would never be used for "God," for instance.) Eliot Weingerger has suggested to me, quite rightly, perhaps, that JLB had in mind the Scots word makir, which means "poet." But there are other cases: Eliot's dedication of The Waste Land to Ezra Pound, taken from Dante -- il miglior fabbro, where fabbro has exactly the same range as hacedor. Sever considerations seem to militate in favor of the translation "artificer": first, the sense of someone's making something with his hands, or perhaps "sculptor," for one of JLB's favorite metaphors for poetry was at one time sculpture; second, the fact that the second "volume" in the volume Fictions [a.k.a. Ficciones] is clearly titled Artifices; third, the overlap between art and craft or artisanry that is implied in the word, as in the first story in this volume. But a translational decision of this kind is never easy and perhaps never "done"; one wishes one could call the volume Il fabbro, or Poeta, or leave it El hacedor. The previous English translation of this volume in fact opted for Dreamtigers. Yet sometimes a translator is spared this anguish (if he or she finds the key to the puzzle in time to forestall it); in this case there is an easy solution. I quote from Emir Rodriguez Monegal's Jorge Louis Borges: A Literary Biography, p. 438: "Borges was sixty when the ninth volume of his complete works came out... For the new book he had thought up the title in English: The Maker, and had translated it into Spanish as El hacedor; but when the book came out in the United Sates the American translator preferred to avoid the theological implications and used instead the title of one of the pieces: Dreamtigers." And so a translation problem becomes a problem created in the first place by a translation!

** Well, you really should. The Collected Fictions at the very least; I'm admittedly less smitten with Borges's poetry -- I suspect it doesn't translate as well.

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