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Book Reviews

Ktr.u'ii Krisral. hivisiblc Work: B(iri;t\< and I'rjnsljtion, Vanderhilr


Press: Nashvilk', 2 0 0 2 . Pp. 2 1 3 .

Waisman. Bori^c.^ and Translation: The Irrevvroiic of the Venjii'cry.


l] Sruelics in Latin American Lircrainre a n d I hcor\- Scries; i.c\%isliuru:
il llmvcrsiry Press. 2 0 0 5 . i'p. 2 6 " .

ahnut rransiarion rcprcsenrcJ a lifc-Uing prcocciiparson for [orj^c


l.uis liorges. I iis hrsr fora\ into the pracncf ot rraiislation, as rccoiintcd h\ his
moiiuT, was a version ot- Oscar Wilde's "The I lappy Prince''' published in rlu'
Biu'tios Aires newspaper 1.1 pais when Bor,^es was nine years oki. I lo\vc\cr, it
was not unril very recenilv rhar scholars began to acknowledge the importance
ot translation tor a broatler crirical nnderstancling oi lioih Borges's career as a
writer and ol his contMlniiions lo literary moLiernitv. [•'fras'n Kristal's luvisthle
Work: Hnr^icb jiiJ 'lraii>L}tio)! iVanderhHt laiixersiry Press. 2 0 0 2 ; .\\M\ Sergio
W'aisnian's Horiics. and !rji!s.uit!ofi: I'he irreverence nj the I'criphvrx sEucknell
University Press, 2005} are the Hrst b<K)k-iength srudies of Horges and transia
tion. and as sucli chc}" represent much-neetletl contributions to Ilorges criti-
cism. W'aisnian's book is part ot the "Bucknell Stuthes m l.ann Anierieaii
i iter.iture and Iheor) " series, edited hy Am'bal Cion/;iic/,, which has made ^i
number of imporrant conrribnrions to retlunking rhe relation between I.adn
American liieramre aiul hterar\' theor\ m recent years.
Kristal and Vaisnian share rhe premise that rranslation represeiits more
than jiist oiie literary activ iry among many, ami both view lx)rges as dispelling
the eoniiiion \ iew of translation as an interior form of protlnction. In X o v a h s \
praise tor Aiigust Schlegel'^ translation of Stiakespeare. Kristal locites what
conki ser\e as a shared epigraph \av these iwo stiikhes: " l o traiislate is to
prodijce literature, just as t!ie writing of One's own work is—-atul it is more dif
ficult, more rare, in the end all literature is translation" (as qiioied in Kristai.
p. M]. This staternem presents a counterpoint to rhe ott-repeaied warnnig
'^trathitlore traditorc" aiid a counterpouit to the idea that transiaiion shonki
be iiidged according lo ihe fidelirv^ it niainrains (or fails to mainrain) to the
original. If borges helps us to see that, when everything is said and done, all
literature is in fact traiiskttion, then it woiikl seesii that Borges also obliges us
li} ivexajiiine what we understand by "literature" and "translation" as such.
Despite this cofiimon point of cieparture, tlie appr<iaches taken by Krisral
and \X'aisn)aii Sifter in severai iiiiportant w a \ s . For one, Kristal proposes to
discuss Borges as a writer who engages freely with a broad range ot classical
and modern texts, uiieiicumberetl by the "peripheral" status often attributed
t(5 those writiiig in Latin America. Irauslatiois prtnides the truth ot "original"'
298 BOOK REVIEWS

creative writing regardless of when and where it is produced: Borges's fictions


and essays emphasize repeatedly that artistic novelty derives not from a pure
origin but from repetition and creative transformation of literary history—of
ideas, figures and stories taken from other traditions. Waisman, on the other
hand, develops his argument hy emphasizing the motif of Borges as peripheral
writer. According to this view, Borges emphasizes the "marginal" stigma in
order to turn it into an advantage. The peripheral space of Argentina provides
access as well as critical distance, allowing a writer like Borges to question pre-
suppositions which a cosmopolitan writer might regard as eternal truths—or
not even stop to consider at all. "Irreverence" functions as the master term
in Waisman's study, naming Borges's keen sense of humor in relation to the
sacred truths of the Western tradition as well as his subtle attacks on its sacred
ideas and assumptions. It may be that one could arrive at a provisional point
of agreement between these two critical perspectives by recalling Roberto
Fernandez Retamar's remark that no (or at least very few) European writer(s)
can claim to possess Borges's vast familiarity with the Western tradition. It
could only occur to one who has been branded a "colonial" writer to aspire
to an encyclopedic knowledge of the tradition.
Kristal's book contains three central chapters. The first chapter discusses
Borges's views on translation. It begins with a paraphrase of one of Borges's
more provocative statements: in certain cases it so happens that the original
work proves to be "unfaithful" to its translation. This seemingly absurd
claim sheds light on Borgesian literary aesthetics. For one, it stands on its
head the usual criteria for judging translation, suggesting that translation
should be evaluated not for its likeness to the original but instead for the way
it takes advantage of new aesthetic possibilities that arise in crossing from one
language to another. Borges's assertion also implies that what distinguishes
literature from other uses of language does not reside in (or at least cannot
be reduced to) the ideas or concepts that literature might be presumed to con-
vey: after all, if literary language were reducible to a concern for its meaning,
then the question of fidelity would be unavoidable when it comes to transla-
tion. Above and beyond meaning, literary writing mobilizes another sense
of communication: as the transmission or passing-on of affect (my term, not
Kristal's). It is whether literature moves us or not that determines its success
or failure. In this light, Kristal emphasizes the important point that Borges's
views on translation remain difficult to categorize as being for or against any
particular artistic position. If Borges clearly rejects fidelity as a standard for
evaluating a translation, he does not advocate infidelity for its own sake. Nor
does he view "loose" translations as necessarily superior to "literal" transla-
tions. Borges finds the merit of a given translation in its ability to surprise us
by producing new aesthetic effects that were untapped in the original. Sur-
prise, however, can only happen where calculation overshoots its mark. For
instance, Kristal describes Borges's comment that in certain cases an overly
literal translation (such as when the phrase "D'T'tt'n Tiff" is translated literally
BOOK REVIEWS 299

as "Song of Songs" instead of for its implied meaning as "The Highest Song")
can generate its own strange kind of beauty. In his 1951 essay "La muralla y
los libros," Borges describes the aesthetic act as "a revelation that does not
take place" [una revelacion que no se produce]. Perhaps this idea of an event
that does not take place could also characterize what happens in translation,
in so far as the passage from one language to another introduces an uncanny
excess or gap between two scenes.
Chapter Two discusses a number of the works which Borges himself trans-
lated, either in whole or in part. This diverse list includes poems, short stories
and fragments of novels by Chesterton, Poe, Whitman, Woolf, Angelus Silesius,
several German expressionist poets, Hesse, Kafka, The Arabian Nights, and the
Skaldic poetry of the Prose Edda. Kristal provides examples of various forms
of alteration (condensations, omissions and strategic rewritings) carried out by
Borges in his translations. He also mentions that certain translations, such as
those of German expressionist poetry, played an important role in shaping the
intellectual scene in Argentina during Borges's time. In this respect, Kristal's
study might have been enriched by a more sustained analysis of contextual
questions. It would seem that Borges's work as a translator, together with his
reflections on problems of translation in his own writing, could make a valuable
contribution to the study—initiated by Beatriz Sarlo and others—of how Borges
intervenes in the conflict between tradition and modernity in Argentina.
The third chapter of Invisible Work enumerates the thematic presence
of translation in Borges's fiction, while also demonstrating that a number
of Borges's fictions are in fact re-writings of other stories ("La muerte y la
brujula," for instance, is a re-writing of both Poe's "The Purloined Letter" and
London's "The Minions of Midas"). The examples presented in this chapter
pose intriguing questions about the relation between the fantastic and credu-
lity (how do literary fantasies manage to convince us at some level even when
they make no pretense of following realistic codes of representation?), and
about narrative order and disorder, or the literary effects of non sequitur and
discontinuity. This chapter also raises some questions that could be further
developed. For instance, Kristal notes that "one of the most common openings
of a Borges fiction is a short text by a narrator who introduces a translated
manuscript constituting the body of the story. . . . As in Cervantes, Borges's
narrators are often not in a better position than the reader to understand the
contents of the text they have decided to offer to a reading public" (97). One
wonders if the prototypical gesture of placing translation at the threshold
of the text could shed new light on Borges's thinking about literary history,
or about the constitution of what we call "literature" in accordance with
the historical emergence of certain concepts, both legal (copyright laws) and
philosophical (the subject defined as the origin of its representations, as the
one who signs, etc.). By the same token, a narrator calling attention to the fal-
libility of memory (as Kristal describes in the same passage cited above) is also
a recognizable Borgesian trope. What do these characteristic pronouncements.
300 BOOK REVIEWS

which often appear at the origin of the narrator's relato, attesting to a lacuna
or gap between the speaking subject and recollection, tell us about Borges's
understanding of subjectivity, language and the narrative act?
Kristal concludes his study by asserting that translation presents a singular
set of considerations that should not be overshadowed by other topoi that
have been popularized in Borges criticism in recent years: "No skepticism,
irony, or even humor can obscure the central role that translation has played
in every one of his literary pursuits, including the project of incorporating
philosophical material into his fictional world. Nor can anything place in
doubt Borges's design, as with other twentieth-century writers such as Kafka
and Beckett, to resist facile interpretation" (145). It would be difficult to
argue with Kristal's advocating serious and rigorous readings of Borges. But
in my view the assertion of translation's "central role" invites the following
question: What would prevent us from examining translation together with
Borgesian skepticism, irony and humor, not as a concession to interpretive
reductionism but precisely as an attempt to resist the reduction of the literary
to formulaic readings and applied concepts?
Sergio Waisman's Borges and Translation consists of five central chapters
and an epilogue. The first chapter discusses the role played by translation in
the Argentine tradition, beginning with foundational texts such as Sarmiento's
Facundo (1845) and then jumping to the 1920s and 30s. This latter period
saw the end ofthe open immigration policies which had shaped social and eco-
nomic development in Argentina since the middle of the nineteenth century.
Translation provides a productive framework for examining the intellectual
scene encountered by Borges in Buenos Aires in the 1920s and 30s, a time
and place defined by linguistic and cultural heterogeneity together with efforts
coming from various points on the political spectrum to establish a sense of
national unity. In addition to its role in fostering the production of national
culture, Waisman argues that translation also provided Argentine intellectuals
with a way to situate themselves in relation to Furope and the United States.
For instance, he states that the translation projects undertaken by Victoria
Ocampo (for many years the editor of the cultural journal Sur) and others
affirmed the possibility of "(re)creating a center in the circumference" (35).
While this may be an accurate description of Ocampo's intentions, the notion
of putting translation to work in the interest of a new centrism would seem to
contradict Borges's insistence—which is underscored by Kristal and elsewhere
by Waisman himself—that a radicalized understanding of translation would
make the idea of unmediated originality or centrality unsustainable.
The second chapter discusses Borges's views on translation in the context of
theoretical debates about the nature of translation as well as the criteria used
to judge it. Key reference points in this chapter include the Newman/Arnold
debate, and texts by Schleiermacher, Benjamin, Jakobson, Derrida and Venuti.
Waisman begins this chapter by asserting that literary criticism has yet to
engage sufficiently with the relation between Borges and translation: on one
BOOK REVIEWS 301

hand, the question of translation has until now been understudied in Borges
criticism, while at the same time Borges's own contributions to thinking about
translation have by and large been ignored by translation theorists. It is some-
what surprising, in this context, that Waisman omits from his own bibliogra-
phy an essay on Borges, Joyce and translation by one of the most important
English-language translators of Latin American writers (Suzanne Jill Levine's
1997 article "Notes to Borges's Notes on Joyce: Infinite Affinities").
One of the important distinctions established in Chapter Two concerns the
difference between "Classical" and "Romantic" notions of authorship, a dis-
tinction Borges elaborates in his early essay "Las dos maneras de traducir"
(1926). Whereas Borges describes Classicism as seeking artistic perfection at the
expense of the idiosyncrasies of the individual artist. Romanticism is defined
by a "reverence of the 'I'" or the view that all artistic creation presupposes a
creative subject. This distinction gives rise to competing views about transla-
tion: the Classical attitude tends to favor loose translations with ample use of
periphrasis, while the Romantic attitude produces literal translations which seek
to remain faithful to the original subject's intentions. Assuming that one accepts
the premise that all translations can be identified with one or the other atti-
tude (and I suspect that some of Borges's later comments on translation would
cast doubt on this premise), it would be interesting to consider in which camp
Waisman's notion of artistic "irreverence" falls. Waisman certainly intends for
the term to characterize the spirit of Borges's attacks on a certain Romantic
tradition that is still held as sacred by many today. But the Romantic notion of
the subject merely postulates that amidst all appearance, transformation and
flux there must be an "I" that is the center of activity—an act of symbolization
which retroactively unifies what is otherwise chaotic. But since Waisman uses
the term "irreverent" somewhat indiscriminately to describe virtually all of
Borges's engagements with the tradition, there would seem to be no real limits
to irreverence in Waisman's reading. In the absence of any limit, it is difficult
to see how a concept of authorial "irreverence" (itself a form of activity) could
avoid reproducing a version of the Romantic "I" despite its best intentions.
The third and fourth chapters look at Borges's essays and prose, beginning
with the Historia universal de la infamia (1935). The central argument in
these two chapters is much the same as the starting point taken by Kristal: for
Borges, writing from its very beginnings implicates processes of reading and
translation that we ordinarily think of as coming afterwards. In Waisman's
view, the impossibility of separating literature from translation has an impor-
tant bearing on Borges's confrontation with the question of what it means to
write in Argentina. The radicalization of translation, or the notion that trans-
lation is co-originary with writing, provides Borges with the means to engage
"irreverently" with Western literary history. That is to say, radical translation
gives Borges a powerful weapon against the Eurocentric tendency to reduce
Argentine literary production to a secondary status vis-a-vis the tradition, as
the imitation or emulation of "true" artistic creativity. Borges's radicalization
302 BOOK REVIEWS

of translation is thus inseparable from the economic, cultural, geographical


and political realities that define Argentina as belonging to the periphery and
not the center. The violence Borges inflicts on the tradition through his re-
thinking of translation is a literary response to the various forms of violence
(economic, cultural, epistemological, political, etc.) that inform the geopoliti-
cal location of Argentina in the periphery of the West.
The fifth chapter examines the ambivalence of Borges's relation to James
Joyce, starting with Borges's 1925 translation of the last page of Ulysses. In
a later essay ("El escritor argentino y la tradicion," 1951), Borges establishes
an analogy between Irish and Argentine writers: both suffer the stigma—and
enjoy the advantages—of belonging to the periphery. Waisman uses this anal-
ogy to reposition Joyce as a Borgesian "precursor": that is, Joyce as a writer
with whom Borges shared a number of literary concerns, but also "Joyce" as
an oeuvre whose reception has been influenced by Borges himself.
In the epilogue, Waisman discusses his experiences as translator of the work
of the contemporary Argentine writer Ricard Piglia. He argues that Piglia bor-
rows (or re-translates) Borges's innovative views on translation as part of a
strategy of "resistance" against both political repression in the 1970s and new
forms of economic domination in the 1980s and 90s. "These narratives, these
simulacra without a fixable origin, serve to challenge official discourses—
whether they be of the state in the 1970s and 1980s, or of the neoliberal mar-
ket in the 1980s and 1990s" (16-17). The thought of Piglia reading Borges as
Borges has read other writers (appropriating his views on translation, this time
in order to oppose a highly repressive political regime—the military dictator-
ship of 1976-83—with which Borges himself at times expressed sympathy) is
certainly intriguing. But the underlying implication—that Borges's literary dis-
mantling of the sacred edifices of the tradition could provide us with sufficient
means for resisting domination or redeeming injustice—is itself problematic.
At times such as this, Waisman appears to ask too much of literary aesthetics.
Furthermore, one might have doubts about the political effectiveness of liter-
ary "simulacra" in a time when the image of the simulacrum—a copy that has
annihilated the very possibility of an original—has become synonymous with
both the ubiquity of mass media technology and the unmediated proliferation
of the market. This is not to say that the notion of the simulacrum could not
in principle be used to counter the seemingly self-evident rationales of the
market and mass media. It is only to say that the difference between them
is by no means self-evident and would require a more careful and rigorous
demonstration. (PATRICK DOVE, Indiana University)

Edwin Wiliamson. Borges. A Life. New York: Viking, 2004, Pp. 574.

As he states in the Preface, Edwin Williamson planned to dedicate some four


and a half years to the preparation of his biography of Jorge Luis Borges, but