Tag Archives: Norman di Giovanni

Banff journal: on Jaramillo, Borges, and living between languages

16 Jun
Town of Banff, from Sleeping Buffalo. Mountain

Town of Banff, from Sleeping Buffalo Mountain

After a long day that a resourceful weather-forecaster might summarise as wet and irritating, my attention depleted by sleeplessness – mood, to continue the meteorological analogy, middling to crabby –  I am due to give a presentation on the topic that brought me here to Banff: my translations of the Colombian poet Darío Jaramillo. This goes OK, although as it is a pretty informal affair I feel I am underprepared (if it were a formal affair, I would no doubt feel the same, or else the opposite). I talk about Darío’s work, how it is themed around Paradox, The Double, Loss, and Time (safe enough ground: who can contradict any of these things?) and I read a couple of his poems. My sleeplessness roars in the recesses of my brain like a turbulent sea crashing on distant rocks. I stumble and sway between the uncertain home comforts of English and the rusty ambivalence of my Spanish. Someone points out what might be an instance of mistranslation in one of the poems, and of course I forget, while answering her, that I have already addressed and twice changed my mind about this line; someone else asks me a very good question that I can’t think of an answer to straightaway so I tell him that it’s a very good question and that I will think about it. I try to wind up within the allotted time, and then I remember that I forgot a quotation I like, about the occasion when Darío was selected by his High School to be one of the two students to meet Borges, on the latter’s visit to Bogotá in 1962. He was 15 at the time (Darío is on the right in the photo).

Dario with Borges

‘La única vez que hablé con Borges yo tenía unos impertinentes quince o diez y seis años y le pregunté por qué afirmaba tal cosa en una parte y exactamente lo contrario en otra. Borges me contestó que estaba claro que yo había leído sus textos más veces que las que él las había escrito.’

(The only time I spoke with Borges I was an impertinent 15- or 16-year old and I asked him why he had affirmed such-and-such a thing in one part  and exactly the opposite in another. Borges replied that clearly I had read his texts more times that he had written them.)

The quotation neatly illustrates a point I was trying to make in my talk, but I forget which.

Of course, it is unlikely, in reality, that anyone would read the texts of a writer as many times as the writer herself, unless of course, it were the translator. Borges’ answer was a classic instance of authorial evasion, of which he was a master. His standard response to any interlocutor offering an ‘interpretation’ or critique of his work has been set down by one of his English translators, Norman di Giovanni, as follows:

On numerous occasions I heard his stock reply to anyone who laid it on the line and told him what some piece of work of his was really all about. Borges always smiled, humbly, and sweetly, and ‘Ah, thank you!’ would come his ambiguous put-down. ‘You have enriched my work!’

And this notion of doubleness, of being (at least) two different people depending on the occasion, reminds me of something that came up in conversation with Alastair Reid, when I visited him in south-west Scotland and which I recorded, thankfully, as he died only two months later. Reid was a friend as well as an excellent translator of Borges, and accompanied him on tour occasionally. He was aware, more than most, how Borges could be a different person, depending on whether he was speaking English or Spanish, a state of duality in which I often find myself. I will finish with this, as it is a theme which, finding myself amongst so many translators, may be of interest:

‘there was one time when we were at the PEN club in New York, Borges had agreed to give a talk, and as always he said ‘will you come and help me with la charla’ and he always said the same thing [to the audience]: ‘I would prefer if you could write your questions on pieces of paper’, and so we would have a little thing with scraps of paper, which we never bothered about, because I knew the things, the temas that would really get Borges talking fluently so I would make up the questions, [and] he’d say (secretive voice) ‘don’t bother about the questions – look at them and see if they’re interesting’ anyway at one point Borges said, [he] was talking about some poet or other . . . and he said ‘I too have written a poem, at least I refer to it as a poem’, and he said ‘and I will read some lines from my feeble effort’ . . . and I said to Borges: ‘you refer to your own poetry in a phrase that . . . you talk about mis pobres versos – that’s what critics say, you’re not really entitled to refer to your poems as your ‘pobres versos’’, and I said ‘sometimes, Borges, you use modesty like a club’, because that’s what he did, Borges was always apologizing . . . ‘and I have written two or three sketchy lines’ and then he would read . . . and it really was a tic that he had about apologizing . . . he was, as we might say, ‘well brought up’, extremely respectful, and then if he reverted to Spanish, and if Bioy was there, or some people he knew he would be very bawdy and nasty and jocular . . . he was gossipy in Spanish, but never in English . . .’


A dichotomy of deer.

A dichotomy of deer, Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity.

Borges and I

19 Oct

The idea that we contain a double, or a secret other, is a strangely pervasive one, and has fascinated writers from different traditions and in distinct genres. Among those who have famously approached the topic are Robert Louis Stevenson in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Joseph Conrad in his long story The Secret Sharer. In Jorge Luis Borges’ short piece, reproduced below (in the translation Norman di Giovanni made with Borges himself rather than the travesty published by Andrew Hurley in the Collected Fictions) the writer focuses on the schism between the public persona of the famous writer Borges, and the individual, private Borges in whose first person the piece is written. Or is it that straightforward? While this is the apparent message of the text, we, the readers, are nonetheless engaging with it in the knowledge that it is written by Borges, the famous writer, so the dualism is in a sense perpetuated by that knowledge, driven by our relationship to Borges the writer rather than Borges the private individual. In the end, as Borges intended, we are faced with a hall of mirrors, in which Borges’ self-confessed tendency to falsify and magnify things (as do all writers of fiction) reaches into the very representation of the ‘I’ that claims to reject such things. We are all the products of an insidious dualism, the piece tells us, and to attempt to deny it only draws us deeper into the labyrinth.


Borges and I

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork of the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.





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.