Michael Wood

  • Multiples edited by Adam Thirlwell
    Portobello, 380 pp, £20.00, August 2013, 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.’

The essay itself is full of wonderful throwaway remarks, all relevant to the ingenious book under review. Translation, Borges says, is open to aesthetic discussion, while what he calls ‘direct writing’ is hidden in a shadowy discretion built out of our fear of revealing the banality of much literary creation. He warns us against ‘the superstition of the inferiority of translations’, and even against the idea of an original text, or at least a definitive one: ‘The concept of the definitive text bears no relation to anything except religion or fatigue.’ We fall for this notion, in other (crasser) words, when we hanker for theological certainty in literature or are too tired to think any more about what’s going on.

But the tour de force of the essay is an extended comparison of six English versions of The Odyssey, full of subtle critical detail but resolutely in Spanish, without a single word of English or Greek. How can Borges do this? By referring to the content of the passage he is looking at, a city, ships sailing, the madness of a god; by comparing the grammar of the different versions; by noting that Pope has plural nouns where the others have singular ones; by comparing tones, especially those of the ‘spectacular’ Pope and the ‘ardent’ Chapman with that of the prosaic Butler, who is determined to convert a whole dramatic episode into ‘a series of calm reports’. Of course, Borges is doing all this through his own Spanish versions of the English texts, so in one sense there is only Borges here, no Homer and no English writer. And of course there is a great deal you can’t begin to touch by this method: rhythm, metre, idiom, peculiarities of individual languages. But in persuading us almost to forget the absence of English and Greek from his essay, Borges turns out to be some sort of Hellenist, and he has proved his main, simple point.

‘Which of these many translations is faithful?’ Borges asks, and answers: ‘None or all.’ This is (one of the reasons) why we should not persist in thinking that translation is all about loss – as so many people do, and as Julian Barnes did in these pages in 2010, with his fine phrase suggesting that the best translation can offer us only ‘a new way of necessarily falling short’.[*] No fidelity at all wouldn’t fall short: the old text would just have vanished. And plural fidelities would mean that loss can’t be the main or most interesting story. I suggest that there is often (considerable) loss in translation, but it’s not automatic or universal, and we do grieve over losses that are trivial, or are not losses at all, just differences. Not every turn of phrase or implication is a treasure in itself. The trick would be to name the losses where they occur and to say why they matter.

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[*] Julian Barnes was writing about Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary in the LRB of 18 November 2010.