Lost in Translation
By: Santiago Eastman Herrera
Photo Credits: Pexels
“Borges affirmed, in earnest, that an original can be unfaithful to a translation… [He] would often protest, with various degrees of irony, against the assumption—ingrained in the Italian adage traduttore traditore—that a translator is a traitor to an original” (Borges on Translation). While reading Poems of the Night, a posthumous collection of poetry by Jorge Luis Borges, I couldn’t help but think about what it meant to translate something into a different language for the first time. If Borges, one of the most important literary figures in the entire Spanish-speaking world, claimed that a translation can differ from the original, then what is the difference between a translator and an author?
Many theories claim it’s impossible to create a complete, one-to-one translation of a text as there will always be something that’s lost from the origin culture to the target culture. Many theorists like Hans Vermeer and his Skopos theory or Anthony Pym’s notions of equivalences deal with this missing piece, either focusing on the “purpose” of that translation, the target audience’s culture, or (especially in contemporary times) simply by saying that the reader should put in some of the work in understanding the text.
In America in particular, because of a trend in nationalism and inwards-focused literary movements, translators in the 20th century focused a lot on “domesticating” literature. Most of the work they did with texts changed things so that the target audience wouldn’t know the piece was foreign. The reader’s comfort was paramount for these translators. Anything unknown to the culture would either be removed or replaced with something the reader could be trusted to be familiar with.
In theory, this can seem perfectly innocent. At least for me, it can be frustrating to read a text and not understand important ideas or information relevant to the scene because of a language barrier. But theorists like Lawrence Venuti argue that this domestication process is inherently political behavior. In his book, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, Venuti argues that these modifications to the original text are largely political. What does it mean if a book that’s deeply rooted in a specific culture gets altered or has certain elements changed for the sake of an unknown reader? How can anyone learn about other cultures if they’re only ever exposed to their own?
They can’t. All this does is breed ignorance. Not to mention, this silent elimination occurring between the lines could (and often does) lead to racist sentiments. If a book talks about the struggles of an immigrant in America and the sole thing that brings them comfort is Colombian empanadas, but the translator changes the protagonist’s traditional food for burgers, then that has fundamentally transformed the meaning beyond the author’s experiences. This is an extreme example of course, but a significant one nonetheless.
The celebrated Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges translated a lot of works as well, including some by Oscar Wilde, Virginia Wolfe, and Rudyard Kipling. In the introduction to Poems of the Night, editor Efraín Kristal writes that the poet would forever edit his original work while continuing through the publication and translation process. Poems of the Night explores many works by Borges throughout his life, both before and after a degenerative disease permanently blinded the author. The collection takes many of his themes of darkness and light and juxtaposes his colorful youth with his much more somber adulthood. This poetry collection is unique in that it holds his original poems in Spanish on the left, then the English translation (by one of six translators) on the right, many poems appearing in English for the first time.
Each translator goes about the work differently, but while I was reading, it was fascinating to see how different the original and translated versions were. Some differences were purely utilitarian: English as a language is more difficult to rhyme in than Spanish, as Spanish offers many more words that end in similar vowels or suffixes that can be played with than English. (Not to mention, poetry that rhymes isn’t very “in” right now in English—it sounds too much like a nursery rhyme. I blame the Modernists.) Other differences include longer verses (what can be said in five words might need 10 in English) or even adding information to provide more context.
A great example is “Limits,” translated in this collection by Alastair Reid:
De estas calles que ahondan el poniente,
Una habrá (no sé cuál) que he recorrido
Ya por última vez, indiferente
Y sin adivinarlo, sometido
A Quién prefija omnipotentes normas
Y una secreta y rígida medida
A las sombras, los sueños y las formas
Que destejen y tejen esta vida.
Si para todo hay término y hay tasa
Y última vez y nunca más y olvido
¿Quién nos dirá de quién, en esta casa,
Sin saberlo, nos hemos despedido?
Of all the streets that blur into the sunset,
there must be one (which, I am not sure)
that I by now have walked for the last time
without guessing it, the pawn of that Someone
who fixes in advance omnipotent laws,
sets up a secret and unwavering scale
for all the shadows, dreams, and forms
woven into the texture of this life.
If there is a limit to all things and a measure
and a last time and nothing more and forgetfulness,
who will tell us to whom in this house
we without knowing it have said farewell?
In the original, Borges uses an ABAB CDCD rhyme scheme, with iambs throughout even if the meter stretches from 11-13 syllables. Alastair in his translation chose neither to rhyme nor to stick to a consistent meter. The poem is too long to fit into a closed form, so Alastair takes advantage of the free verse nature and plays with the translation. In line 4, Alastair adds “the pawn of that Someone” (referring to a supernatural being looking from above) that isn’t specifically present in the original. Borges implies it between lines 4 and 5, but Alastair draws it out for his anglophone audience.
Borges’s views on translation often skewed toward the transformative, meaning he took creative approaches to the original work in order to play on it. But how different does the work have to be before it becomes something new, something unique? How much agency do translators have and how responsible are they when it comes time to credit sources? What would have happened if I came to the collection not understanding Spanish and only had Alastair’s translations to get me through the poem?
There’s no easy answer. Venuti argues against domestication. Borges argues for transformation. And here I sit, stuck in the middle. I enjoyed the Spanish and English versions, but for different reasons. As I went through the collection, I realized that both can be valid. There wasn’t something “lost” when I switched to English—it was a different experience altogether. If anything, it made me appreciate being able to read both versions as I could sit there and look at the choices made for each. I’ve developed a new appreciation for translations—who knows, maybe in the future, I’ll learn more languages and get to experience several new cultures.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Poems of the Night: A Dual-Language Edition with Parallel Text. Edited by Efraín Kristal and Suzanne Jill Levine, Penguin Books, 2010.
KRISTAL, EFRAÍN. “Borges on Translation.” Invisible Work: Borges and Translation, Vanderbilt University Press, 2002, pp. 1–35. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv17vf69z.5.
Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. Routledge, 2018.