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Portobello, 380 pp, £20.00, August, ISBN 978 1 84627 537 1
Borges said his essay ‘The Homeric Versions’ represented his first appearance as a Hellenist. ‘I do not think I shall ascend to a second,’ he added. This modest forecast was based partly, as Borges recognised, on his ‘convenient ignorance of Greek’, but his tone allows all kinds of intriguing questions to creep in. What kind of Hellenist could one be without a knowledge of Greek? Could one be one at all? How deep was Borges’s ignorance of the language? Asked once whether he knew any Sanskrit, he said: ‘Only the Sanskrit everybody knows.’
Vol. 35 No. 17 · 12 September 2013
From William Vesterman
Michael Wood uses Borges’s essay on English versions of Homer to illuminate his appreciation of what is gained by transformative translation (LRB, 8 August). He might also have used Borges’s ‘Pierre Menard – Author of the Quixote’ to expand on what he sees as its potential losses. Wood gives the example of a story about the Lebanese civil war of 1975, translated by Joe Dunthorne to London in 2010. The war – a different war – is now seen on television:
In el-Achkar’s narrative the bodies are on the streets outside the door, the mothers are crying for children who have died here and now, and the writer is trying to put these pictures and his mind together. We can’t all be in the middle of the fray, but we can, as I have suggested, name specific losses in translation, and remember the fray when it has gone missing.
Yet while specific losses might be named by an author or by a translator, what will the names mean to a reader? Languages live not only in their simultaneity but also in time. In ‘Pierre Menard’ Borges shows that the same words can never mean the same thing, even in the same language, in any given future. Cervantes’s figure of History as the Mother of Truth, for example, would come over as a rhetorical flourish to his contemporaries, but for a 20th-century author or translator to use it would suggest the basic assertion of William James’s Pragmatism. The vehicle of the metaphor ‘translation’ is a movement in space, so its tenor ignores movement in time. No translation can be ‘faithful’ to its original because the names of the content have not only moved but moved on.
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