The OF Blog: Borges Month, Historia de la eternidad (1936)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Borges Month, Historia de la eternidad (1936)

Jorge Luis Borges' sixth non-fiction collection, Historia de la eternidad (1936), is in many regards an extension of Discusión.  Borges has by now settled down into what he wants to accomplish with his essays, with the material being more varied, and the topics he wishes to address being covered and at more length than in his earlier non-fiction collections.  The eponymous first essay focuses on the various ways in which eternity has been expressed in writing, religion, and philosophy.  The issue of eternity as opposed to time is an interesting one to Borges, who observed:

El tiempo es un problema para nosotros, un tembloroso y exigente problema, acaso el más vital de la metafísica; la eternidad, un juego o una fatigada esperanza. (p. 13)

Time is a problem for us, a tremulous and exacting problem, perhaps the most vital of metaphysics; eternity, a game or a wearisome hope.
Borges then goes on within this essay to explore concepts of eternity that stretch from Plato to The Aeneid to more modern philosophical schools and literatures.  He presents what each believes eternity to be in relation to time and then he carefully weights the evidence for each.  This essay was fascinating to read, not just because  his arguing that eternity is a game, wearisome hope or not that runs counter to the tremulous problem of time could be seen as something he explored in his latter fictions, but rather that it is a concept that may have influenced how he interpreted certain source texts that he would later critique in other essays.  Very strong opener to this collection.

Following this are very good essays on the Icelandic kenningar, Borges' thoughts on metaphor in relation to how other writers employed it, the doctrine of cycles and how such relates to societies and civilizations, as well as a related article on circular time, a concept to which he would return in future writings, non-fiction and fiction alike.

But the best part of this book was the forty page essay that he wrote on the translations of Arabian Nights/A Thousand and One Nights.  Borges examines at length the translations (English, German and French alike) of Burton, Mardrus, and Littman did of these Persian/Arabic tales.  As someone who has entertained the thought of becoming at least a part-time freelance translator, if not a full-time one, I was keenly interested in how Borges would discuss these three very different translations.  Below are some choice quotes related to the art of translation:

Traducir el espíritu es una intención tan enorme y tan fantasmal que bien puede quedar como inofensiva; traducir la letra, una precisión tan extravagante que no hay riesgo de que la ensayen.  Más grave que esos infinitos propósitos es la conservación o supresión de ciertos pormenores; más grave que esas preferencias y olvidos, es el movimiento sintáctico. (p. 124)

To translate the spirit [of a text] is an intention so enormous and so phantasmal that it could well remain as inoffensive; to translate the letter, a precision so extravagant that there is no risk of which they would attempt.  More grave than those infinite proposals is the conservation or suppression of certain details; more grave than those preferences and oblivions, is the syntactic movement.
This is mentioned in light of the choices of the translators to be as "faithful" (or as much as these traitors can be) to either the spirit or letter of the text; after all, some, like Mardrus, inserted their own material in order to claim faithfulness to the spirit of the stories being translated, while others (besides the three main translations that Borges examined, there were other translations in those three languages that he mentioned in passing) would delete material, not necessarily out of faithfulness to the letter or spirit of the text, but to the expectations of their intended audiences.

Borges then goes on to note the "temporariness" of Burton's translation in relation to Mardrus':

Siempre un inglés es más intemporal que un francés:  el heterogéneo estilo de Burton se ha anticuado menos que el de Mardrus, que es de fecha notoria. (p. 137)

Always an English [translation] is more timeless than a French:  the heterogeneous style of Burton's [translation] has aged less than that of Mardrus, which is of a notorious date.
In part this can be tied back to that earlier essay from Discusión on style and how little it can bear on the quality of a text, but it also can be seen as illustrating that within translations, having a stylistic translation, especially one that may not be an exact analogue to the original text, is not an advantage, especially considering that certain stylistic conventions go in and out of vogue in a matter of a few scant years.

But later on, Borges in discussing Mardrus' translation at length does not that despite its flaws of being wildly creative with the text and with a style that can be seen as archaic, is also the most "legible" of the translations he chose to examine here, in part because of Mardrus' attempts to try and capture as much of the "spirit" of the translation as possible.  This is not a vacillation, however; Borges is but presenting the pros and cons of each approach within the context of translating ideas and texts from language to language, time to time, culture to culture.  As such, his points are very apt ones to consider today.

On the whole, Historia de la eternidad was a nice follow-up to Discusión, as these two essay/literary criticism collections complement each other well.  This book also marks Borges' final non-fiction before his greatest period as a writer began, first with some quaint detective stories he co-wrote with Adolfo Bioy Casares, followed by his two most famous fiction collections.  More on those in the next four days.

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