Tag Archives: J.L Borges

Borges and the infinite dance of entropy

24 Apr


As discussed in a previous post, time is not real. There is no flow: past, present and future cannot be sensibly defined and there is nothing yet to counter the position held by the second law of thermodynamics, namely that entropy – the general disorder of the universe – is always on the increase. Otherwise, I feel much as Augustine of Hippo did when he wrote of his understanding of time as a kind of hunch: ‘If no one ask of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.’

But ever-increasing disorder, that I can understand, both in the dictionary sense of: Entropy: lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder – but also in a more general, or literary way.

Last night I read two late stories by Borges that seemed to be tugging at the same idea: that we live in a world governed by forces of increasing entropy. The stories were ‘The Book of Sand’ and ‘Blue Tigers’. While I do not wish to limit either of these to a single explanatory reading, it is interesting to consider the way they approach the same conceptual material through slightly different means. In ‘The Book of Sand’ (published in the collection of that name in 1975, when Borges was seventy-six) the narrator, a reclusive Borges figure who lives ‘alone, in a fifth-floor apartment on Calle Belgrano’ and who used to work – as Borges did – in the National Library on Calle México, is visited by a stranger who bears a strange book: an ‘infinite book’, in which, as the visitor explains: ‘No page is the first page; no page is the last. I don’t know why they’re numbered in this arbitrary way, but perhaps it’s to give one to understand that the terms of an infinite series can be numbered any way whatever.’ He goes on: ‘If space is infinite, we are anywhere at any point in space. If time is infinite, we are at any point in time.’

The narrator is sold. The book, as he can see, is unique. If you find a page – as he does, with  a small illustration of an anchor drawn in pen and ink – and then you attempt to find it again, you will not. That page will have gone, and will never return. Nor is it possible to find the book’s beginning, or its end. It is, the narrator decides, ‘a nightmare thing, an obscene thing  . . . that defiled and corrupted reality.’ But that realisation comes later. First, he must acquire it, and to do so he exchanges his pension (from the library) and his very valuable black-letter Wyclif Bible. The monstrous book obsesses him. He spends the day leafing through it, never finding the same page twice – infinite entropy – and the nights, during ‘the rare intervals spared [him] by insomnia’ dreaming of it.

In the end, he returns to the library in which he spent his working life, and which contains ‘nine hundred thousand books’ and he hides it there, ‘on one of the library’s damp shelves’.

This exploration of infinite chance, or – which may be the same thing –  infinite chaos, neatly reflects, or expands upon, the principle of the second law of thermodynamics; that entropy can only increase over time. And as if that were not enough, Borges re-visits the idea a few years later with his story ‘Blue Tigers’, published in his final collection, Shakespeare’s Memory (1983). Incidentally, both this volume and its predecessor, The Book of Sand, open with a variation on the same theme: a meeting between Borges and his doppelgänger. ‘The Other’, the opening story of the 1975 collection, tells of a meeting on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between a seventy-year-old Borges and his twenty-year-old, Geneva-dwelling self, while ‘August 25, 1983’ tells a parallel story between an eighty-four year old Borges and his sixty-one-year-old double. Curious – or, considering this is Borges, not so curious –  that the themes of time and chance should be so consistently, or insistently linked in each collection.

But to move on: ‘Blue Tigers’ tells the story of a somewhat tetchy individual, a Scottish professor of ‘Eastern and Western Logic’ [?!] at the University of Lahore. The year is 1904. He is obsessed (as was Borges) with tigers, especially, curiously, blue tigers, of which he dreams: ‘tigers of a blue I had never seen before, and for which I could find no word.’ One day he hears rumours of a blue tiger roaming near ‘a certain village miles from the Ganges.’ He has to go there: ‘Once again I dreamed of the blue tiger, throwing its long shadow as it made its way over the sandy ground. I took advantage of the end of term to make a journey to that village, whose name (for reasons that will soon be clear) I do not wish to recall.’

At the unnamed village, things do not go well for the Scotsman. Although the villagers speak vaguely of the tiger, and recite rumours of its deeds, he never catches sight of it. The villagers are wary of him, evasive. Moreover, he hates the jungle: ‘It crept virtually into the huts. The days were oppressive, and the nights brought no relief.’ Next to the village is a hill, which the villagers never ascend. They claim it has sacred properties and appear afraid of it. The Scotsman has the notion that the tiger lives up the hill so one night he climbs to the summit, which is not very high, and there he finds lots of tiny blue stones, in the shape of disks. They are the same blue as the tiger of his dream. He collects a few of the stones and puts them in his pocket. He returns to the village and sleeps. In the morning the stones have multiplied: ‘’When I opened my hand, I saw that it held thirty or forty disks: I’d have sworn I’d picked up no more than ten.” And so it continues. The stones, or disks are what the villagers call blue tigers, hence their evasiveness. The Scotsman’s relationship with his hosts becomes problematic. He is obsessed with the stones. They too are an embodiment of ever-increasing entropy: they increase in number without cease and the same stones never appear more than once. He returns to Lahore with a handful of stones in his pockets. They multiply. He experiments with them, cutting crosses in them, drilling notches through their centres. Mostly, the marked stones disappear ‘forever’. One stone, cut with a cross  reappears ‘from its journey into the void’, but it is an exception. ‘What mysterious sort of space was this, which in obedience to inscrutable laws or some inhuman will absorbed the stones and then in time threw an occasional one back again?’

Like the infinite book presented to the ex-librarian in ‘The Book of Sand’, these ‘insensate stones that propagate themselves’ are an abomination: they too defile and corrupt reality. The Scotsman seeks redemption at the mosque of Wazil Khan, plunging his hands into the water of the fountain of ablutions. There he is approached by a beggar, who asks for alms.

‘In the soft light I could make out his turban, his sightless eyes, his sallow skin, his grey beard. He was not very tall.

He put out a hand to me, and said, still softly:

“Alms, oh Protector of the Poor . . .”

I put my hands in my pocket.

“I have not a single coin,” I replied.

“You have many,” was the beggar’s answer.

The stones were in my right pocket. I took one out and dropped it into his cupped palm. There was not the slightest sound.

“You must give me all of them,” he said. “He who gives not all has given nothing.”

I understood, and I said:

“I want you to know that my alms may be a curse.”

“Perhaps that gift is the only gift I am permitted to receive. I have sinned.”

I dropped all the stones into the concave hand. They fell as though into the bottom of the sea, without the slightest whisper . . . ‘


Throughout Borges’ career, he was preoccupied, as he himself once said, with ‘games of time and infinity’, and he returned again and again to the theme of time, of the inexorable journey from a past we cannot revisit to a future we cannot know. But he was also, it would seem – especially in his later years – obsessed with the indecipherable nature of a reality in which matter – things – repeat themselves in the infinite dance of entropy.

Fictions and Foreigners: Borges and Alastair Reid

19 Aug

borges in library

The first story I read by Borges, at the age of eighteen, was Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis. Although the name would have meant nothing to me at the time, the translation was by Alastair Reid. Forty years later, I get to meet the man, now 88 years of age, a little frayed around the edges, but alert and bright eyed as a moorland bird. He lives in New York but spends part of every summer in the Dumfries and Galloway region where he was born and raised. I have been advised that Alastair would prove an invaluable repository of experiences and anecdotes for my researches into Latin American literature, concerning, among others, Borges, Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom he knew well – Borges, best of all. And so it was that one bright July morning I set out with my friend Tom Pow across the Dumfries countryside towards our rendezvous.

I have yet to transcribe the recording, but two things stood out in our conversation. Neither of them will be surprising to those who are familiar with the work of Borges, but they are fascinating to me nonetheless.

Alastair Reid

Alastair Reid, July 2014.

Translating Borges was, according to Alastair Reid, at times like re-translating something that had originally been written in English, and subsequently translated into Spanish. This, apparently, was due to Borges’ own familiarity and long use of the English language (he had an English grandmother, was brought up bilingual, and learned to read in English at an early age). The task of the translator, then, felt like rendering the story back into its original language, which Alastair described as a somewhat unsettling or daunting experience, and quite unlike translating other Spanish language writers.

The other thing that stood out for me in our talk was Alastair’s insistence that for Borges everything was a ficción, a fiction. As he puts it in his essay ‘Fictions’ (in the wonderful collection Outside In): ‘Borges referred to all his writings – essays, stories, poems, reviews – as fictions. He never propounded any particular theory of fictions, yet it is the key to his particular lucid, keen, and ironic view of existence.’ I was dimly aware of this, but not to the extent that this infiltrated his approach to literature and the world. In his essay, Alastair Reid elaborates:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

Reality, that which is beyond language, functions by mainly indecipherable laws, which we do not understand, and over which we have limited control. To give some form to reality, we bring into being a variety of fictions.

A fiction, it is understood, can never be true, since the nature of language is utterly different from the nature of reality.

And so on.

Alastair Reid’s essays contain so many observations and aperçus about the writers he has worked with (the 1976 essay ‘Basilisk’s Eggs’ is another gem) it would do them little justice to summarize. And that is only half the story: some of Reid’s most impressive writing concerns his own reflections on travel and identity: on the one side his Scottish beginnings, or ‘roots’ (a word he treats with caution), on the other the years of wandering. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Notes on being a Foreigner’ in which the author makes astute and (to my mind) accurate observations on that state or condition – one that a person is probably born to – as opposed to, say, a tourist or an expatriate.

‘Tourists are to foreigners as occasional tipplers are to alcoholics – they take strangeness and alienation in small, exciting doses, and besides, they are well fortified against loneliness . . .

. . . An expatriate shifts uncomfortably, because he still retains, at the back of his mind, the awareness that he has a true country, more real to him than any other he happens to have selected. Thus he is only at ease with other expatriates . . .

. . . The foreigner’s involvement is with where he is. He has no other home. There is no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him. He is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, form outside in.’

As for being ‘properly lost’ – this is a theme to be continued ( if I make it back to Wales).

More thoughts on translation

6 Sep

Mixed Peasant? Greek with Cheese?

I began translating, in a very amateur sort of way, when I first discovered the poetry of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos at the beginning of the 1980s. Not only was my Greek inadequate to the task and I lacked any kind of self-discipline, but I was up against the superb existing translations of Edmund Keeley. I became easily disheartened by my feeble efforts and never stuck with it. It was much more fun to decode the English on restaurant menus, as many a traveller to Greece has discovered. Among the culinary delights I have encountered, both seen and unseen, are:

Giant Beams

The Baked Thing

Greek with cheese

Bowel stuffed with spleen

Bait smooth hound

Mixed Peasant


Custard of the Aunt.

All of these items of food have suffered the indignity of an over-literal translation by a scribe with faulty understanding of the target language (English), and while their entertainment value might be high, you are never sure what it is you are likely to be eating, unless of course you can read the Greek.

Some years later, I started a translation of Jean Giono’s novel Les Grands Chemins (which as far as I know has still not appeared in English) but was put off both by my frail grasp of French grammar and by the quantities of argot and slang. As with most of my endeavours at that period of my life, I had an unrealistic grasp of my own abilities.

However, I am nothing if not persistent, and having tried Greek and French and been found wanting, like a serial re-offender I thought I should try my hand at Spanish. When I had acquired enough of the language to read poetry without constant referral to the dictionary, I set about translating (or should I say despoiling) Antonio Machado – a bad choice, not only because he had been a challenge to far better translators than myself, but because his Spanish is, well, utterly embedded in the thought and landscape of Spanish – and I did not really appreciate or understand this at the time and thought that I was just not very good at translating poetry. However Machado really is more untranslatable than most, and perhaps this is the reason Don Paterson opted to go for much looser versions or interpretation in his collection The Eyes.

But with another Spanish poet, Jaime Gil de Biedma, I felt my translations begin to ‘work’ and moreover I could

Jaime Gil de Biedma (1929-90)

sense an affinity with this writer that extended beyond the act of translation. There were English translations of his poems available but they seemed weak to me, and I wanted to make something better, do justice to his work in a way that his American translator had not: such is the arrogance of the beginner. So I worked on a few, sent them to a magazine, and they were accepted.

Later I was asked by the editor of the same magazine to work on skeleton or ‘crib’ versions of poems from Lithuanian and Slovakian, and make English poems of them. I agreed to do it, but it seemed a very risky affair, and nothing much to do with translation, more like playing darts with the lights off. I didn’t much enjoy the experience, but I have since taken part in workshops, working with poets who write in a language I do not speak, and if their English is good enough, it is possible to hammer out a good poem using an intermediary version – this is what the organization Literature across Frontiers manages to such good effect: in addition practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who speak distinct languages but share a third language in common (English, German, Spanish) can combine forces with a native speaker of the bridge language to make new versions of their work. It sounds complicated but it can be a very rewarding (as well as a tiring) process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they happen to gel as a team.

But the kind of work done by Literature across Frontiers is at a far remove from the sort of translation done by individuals who work directly from a language which they know well into a language in which they are fluent, which is the daily round of the professional translator. I do not claim to be any such animal, but three years ago I became so interested in the act of translation that I put myself through the ordeal of preparing for and sitting the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation, the gold standard qualification for translators in the UK, and one with an astonishingly high failure rate (which I suppose keeps the Institute’s coffers topped up). I passed, so am now legitimately able to call myself a translator, although like nearly all the achievements I have realised over the years, all the hurdles I have overcome, there is always a sheen of scepticism about my own status, and I never quite manage to believe that the person with all the qualifications (and the nice suit and the office), the one called ‘Dr Blanco’, is actually me, but rather, he is an illusion.

What I am trying to say is that, like many people who do not admit it publicly, I think of myself as an impostor, a person impersonator, for many hours of the working day, and for this reason, ‘translator’ seems a very appropriate occupation. And why is this?  Is there an association with the trickster, the coyote figure, or the dissembler? I think – and hope that I am not alone in thinking this – that there is something intrinsically fraudulent in the act of translation. You are trying to pretend that something is what it is not. So the trick is to make it sound as though it were not something that it is not, otherwise you end up writing translator-speak, with which we are all familiar from the study of Greek menus and garden furniture assembly kits.

The idea of translating into English is to make the words sound as though they were composed in English, which of course they were not, in the first instance. So we pretend, and share the pretence. If the translation is any good then we forget we are pretending. Simples.

But more than that, there is the profound satisfaction for the translator – something akin to the breaking of a code or the unravelling of a puzzle – when the correct phrase or expression slots into place, which makes translation, when it is going well, such a rewarding occupation. In Tim Parks’ absorbing essay ‘Prajapati’ (to be found in the collection Adultery and Other Diversions) he describes the pleasures and torments of translating Roberto Calasso’s Ka, on a very hot day. And at one point, as he kicks off his sandals to feel the cool of the tiled floor, he begins to spin off into the kind of meandering meditation that the act of writing often incites:

“I realise I am fascinated by models of the mind. By consciousness and representations of consciousness. Prajpati’s, Mahidasa Aitareya’s, Calasso’s, they are all hugely different minds from each other and from mine. I was never convinced by Leopold Bloom. And I sense that translation has something to do with this, this constant attempt to grasp difference, to overcome it, if only for a few moments, if only in the slippery surface of a text, to appropriate, but also to expand, to be there in Calasso’s study, understanding Calasso understanding Mahidasa Aitareya understanding the Rg Veda understanding Prajpati. Did they all find flies as irritating as I do?”

Norman di Giovanni, in his essay ‘A Translator’s Guide’ quotes Borges as saying “The translator is a very close reader; there is not much difference between translating and reading.” Di Giovanni finds this simple, clear approach to be in stark contrast to much of the talk, and theorizing about translation, which takes place, he says, on a “dizzyingly rarefied plane.”

The most helpful advice I have read on the craft of translation always keeps it simple, like Borges’ thing about being a close reader: understand the source text (decode it) and put it into language as clearly as possible (encode it). Working from these simplest of principles, and with the minimum of self-deception, are the kinds of rules even an inveterate self-doubter should find easy enough to follow.

And yet there is more, there is a twinge of excitement, almost a sense of vertigo, closely related to the type of exhilaration experienced when one’s own writing is going well (it is practically the same thing after all) which makes translation such a worthwhile occupation. Tim Parks finds this grappling with meaning to be like a constant exchange between the inchoate and the specific, between the undefined and the defined:

“Translation too is this, leaving the definition, the apparent definition, of the original, going through a state of indefinition, perhaps more original, in the Prajpati sense, than the original, where ideas are somehow held wordless, or almost, in my mind (I wish I could decide whether those ideas actually do become wordless) thence to reappear, gradually recompose themselves, from fuzz to clarity, or almost, in my own language.”

So much is contained by that ‘or almost’. Returning to Borges and simplicity, returning to the idea of an approximation. Perhaps that is the crux of all translation: it is an expression of the almost.