The impetus for Jorge Luis Borges attaining widespread international recognition came when, in May 1961, at 61 years of age, he was awarded the first Prix International alongside Samuel Beckett. The Prix International was an international award for literary merit, established by six publishing houses – Seix Barral of Barcelona, Gallimard of Paris, Einaudi of Turin, Grove Press of New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson of London, and Rowohlt of Germany – and convening in 1961 at the Hotel Formentor in Majorca. With members from six committees gathered to reach a decision, a tie transpired between Borges and Beckett, as the French, Spanish and Italian members pushed for Borges, and the American, British and German members insisted instead on Beckett. Henry Miller was briefly offered as a compromise candidate, and a seventh, Scandinavian committee was proposed as a means of settling the dispute; but in the end all parties resolved to split the award equally between the two men they had initially considered.
Receiving this international publisher’s prize jointly with with Beckett brought Borges to the attention of the Anglophone world. He embarked on a series of lectures in the United States and then on into Europe. Then in 1962 two English translations of his works appeared. A handful of his poems had been translated into English as early as 1942; and several of his stories had already emerged in various journals, beginning with ‘The Circular Ruins’, translated by Paul Bowles for the January 1946 issue of View, and ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, translated by Anthony Boucher for the August 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Yet the translations of 1962 were the first collections of Borges’ fiction to be published in English.
So Labyrinths was published in 1962 by New Directions, edited and with translations by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. It brought together a number of Borges’ stories – drawn mostly from his Ficciones (1944) and El Aleph (1949) – along with several of his essays and parables. In the same year, Ficciones – a fuller translation of Borges’ collection – was published by Grove Press. Edited and introduced by Anthony Kerrigan, it contained translations by Kerrigan alongside Anthony Bonner, Alastair Reed, Helen Temple, and Ruthven Todd. It would be published in the United Kingdom in the same year, and under the same title, by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
It may be wondered why Borges did not himself translate his works into English. He grew up bilingual in Spanish and English, learning to read via his English grandmother, and developing in his father’s library – a library he would later call the ‘chief event’ of his life – a lifelong passion for English literature. More, some of his earliest literary endeavours were in the realm of translation. He translated Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ into Spanish when he was aged just nine. Moving from Buenos Aires, between 1914 and 1921 Borges’ family lived first in Zurich, then in Spain, and Borges became fluent in both French and German. Towards the end of his time in Europe, he completed translations of German expressionist poetry. Then in January 1925, back in Buenos Aires, Borges published a translation of the last page of Ulysses – the first translation of James Joyce into Spanish. At the same time, Borges developed a notion of translation as a creative undertaking, which could involve rethinking, reworking, and even improving texts rather than simply reformulating them into a different language.
Borges continued translating works into Spanish on into the 1960s. At the end of that decade, he did in fact turn his attention towards the English translations of his own texts. In November 1968, Norman Thomas di Giovanni flew to Buenos Aires to meet with Borges. Di Giovanni had recently signed two deals with publishers in the United States to translate new selections of Borges’ work. With the publisher Seymour Lawrence, under the Delacorte Press imprint, he would publish an anthology of Borges’ poetry. And with E. P. Dutton, he would publish translations of all of Borges’ fiction for which the publisher could secure the rights. In practise, this meant starting with El libro de los seres imaginarios, published in Spanish the previous year.
As Borges and Di Giovanni became close, the two began collaborating on the translations. Selected Poems was completed first, in February 1969: the translated poems would appear across issues of the New Yorker before being published in book form in 1972. The translation of El libro de los seres imaginarios was completed in May, and published by E. P. Dutton, as The Book of Imaginary Beings, towards the end of the year. It was followed in 1970 by the collection The Aleph and Other Stories, which was itself quickly followed by Brodie’s Report. By early 1972, however, Borges had grown tired of translating and weary of the pressures of working to tight deadlines, and he curtailed his relationship with Di Giovanni. Di Giovanni would continue to work on translations of Borges for E. P. Dutton throughout the 1970s. He translated a further eight volumes in all, including A Universal History of Infamy in 1972 and The Book of Sand in 1975. Yet he would never obtain the rights to translate and publish any of the stories from Ficciones.
Penguin had acquired the rights to publish Labyrinths in the United Kingdom in 1970. It continues to publish that book today, as part of the Penguin Classics imprint; while New Directions continues to publish Labyrinths in the United States. In 1986, Penguin bought E. P. Dutton. After Borges’ death in June 1986, Borges’ widow, María Kodama, began to renegotiate his literary rights; and a new series of translations, to be undertaken by Andrew Hurley, were ultimately commissioned by Penguin to replace the Di Giovanni editions. Collected Fictions – first published in hardback under the Allen Lane imprint in January – was published as a paperback by Penguin in September 1999. Fictions and The Aleph came a year later. And they were followed a year after that by Brodie’s Report, The Book of Sand and Shakespeare’s Memory, and A Universal History of Iniquity – this last, which modifies Di Giovanni’s 1972 title, actually a translation of Borges’ earliest collection of fiction, which he wrote and published in 1935, and was reluctant to see translated.
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The short story ‘Funes el memorioso’ first appeared in the Argentine daily newspaper La Nación in June 1942. In 1941, Borges had published El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, a short story collection which would, in 1944, become the first part of Ficciones. Thus when Ficciones was published, ‘Funes el memorioso’ was one of the stories comprising its second part. The headings of the two parts have been translated by Andrew Hurley as ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and ‘Artifices’.
‘Funes el memorioso’ is the story of an Ireneo Funes. From Fray Bentos, living in Buenos Aires, and already possessing an acute sensibility, he suffers a horse-riding accident as a youth which leaves him hopelessly paralysed. Unable to walk, confined to his home, he finds his sensibility and his memory have become absolute. In Labyrinths, the story was translated by James E. Irby under the title ‘Funes the Memorious’. My favourite passage from the story, in the Irby translation, reads as follows:
‘He told me that in 1886 he had invented an original system of numbering and that in a very few days he had gone beyond the twenty-four-thousand mark. He had not written it down, since anything he thought of once would never be lost to him. His first stimulus was, I think, his discomfort at the fact that the famous thirty-three gauchos of Uruguayan history should require two signs and two words, in place of a single word and a single sign. He then applied this absurd principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Pérez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In place of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a kind of mark; the last in the series were very complicated…I tried to explain to him that his rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers. I told him that saying 365 meant saying three hundreds, six tens, five ones, an analysis which is not found in the “numbers” The Negro Timoteo or meat blanket. Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me.’
Andrew Hurley’s translation – found in Penguin’s Collected Fictions and Fictions – instead opts for the title ‘Funes, His Memory’. Hurley explains his rationale in a note to the text: ‘memorioso’ is a commonly used, colloquial word in Spanish, which he argues is not encapsulated by the obscure English translation ‘memorious’. Hurley’s translation of the same passage reads:
‘He told me that in 1886 he had invented a numbering system original with himself, and that within a very few days he had passed the twenty-four-thousand mark. He had not written it down, since anything he thought, even once, remained ineradicably with him. His original motivation, I think, was his irritation that the thirty-three Uruguayan patriots should require two figures and three words rather than a single figure, a single word. He then applied this mad principle to the other numers. Instead of seven thousand thirteen (7013), he would say, for instance, “Máximo Pérez”; instead of seven thousand fourteen (7014), “the railroad”; other numbers were “Luis Melián Lafinur,” “Olimar,” “sulfur,” “clubs,” “the whale,” “gas,” ” a stewpot,” “Napoleon,” “Agustín de Vedia.” Instead of five hundred (500), he said “nine.” Every word had a particular figure attached to it, a sort of marker; the later ones were extremely complicated…I tried to explain to Funes that his rhapsody of unconnected words was exactly the opposite of a number system. I told him that when one said “365” one said “three hundreds, six tens, and five ones,” a breakdown impossible with the “numbers” Nigger Timoteo or a ponchoful of meat. Funes either could not or would not understand me.’
The translation of ‘Funes el memorioso’ by James E. Irby is the first that I read, and it remains my favourite. It possesses a rhythm and a humour which, in my opinion, other English translations of the story do not match. The translations by Irby and Hurley of the passage above may be closely compared. Their differing constructions of the second line of the passage suggest differently the mind and the methods of Funes. Divided into four parts via the use of three commas, Hurley’s sentence seems indicative of a more convoluted logic, and displays a momentary narrowing down upon thought before it progresses to memory. Irby’s sentence suggests the accumulation of memories and the distension of time. Irby’s depiction of Funes’ ‘discomfort’ at ‘the famous thirty-three gauchos’ is funnier and better demonstrates Borges’ frequent use of colloquialisms than Hurley’s depiction of Funes’ ‘irritation’ at ‘the thirty-three Uruguayan patriots’.
Irby’s ‘absurd principle’ captures, more than Hurley’s ‘mad principle’, a sense of Funes’ obstinacy; and there is a stronger cadence to Irby’s sequence of names, with their repetition of the definite article. Hurley’s use of punctuation and italicisation appears misguided. It is unclear to me why he gives Funes’ names in quotation marks up until the final two, ‘Nigger Timoteo‘ and ‘ponchoful of meat‘, which he italicises. The quotation marks are clunkier; the late use of italics draws ‘system‘, also italicised, into the sphere of the final two names; and the repeated use of quotation marks in other contexts (‘”365″‘, ‘”three hundreds, six tens, and five ones,”‘) blurs distinctions. More, the brackets containing numerical figures – apparently suggesting or opposing a certain rigour to Funes’ proceedings – seem ultimately superfluous, and obstruct the flow of the text. In the same vein, Hurley adds an asterisk to the text after ‘thirty-three Uruguayan patriots’, indicating a note at the back of both editions which explains who these patriots are. Hurley states that they ‘were a band of determined patriots under the leadership of Juan Antonio Lavalleja who crossed the River Plate from Buenos Aires to Montevideo in order to “liberate”‘ Uruguay from Spain. This is hardly essential knowledge for the reading of Borges’ story, and the presence of the asterisk seems only to disrupt the reader from the heady logic of Funes’ nominalism.
The pattern of Irby’s ‘I tried to explain to him that his rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers’ beautifully brings a stop to Funes’ logic. This sentence marks the turn of the paragraph. Its purpose is diminished by Hurley’s italicisation of ‘system‘, which closes the sentence on an inflection which is less decisive; but regardless, ‘rhapsody of incoherent terms’ is a peerless formulation, rendered poorer by Hurley’s choice of ‘rhapsody of unconnected words’. Finally, while the penultimate sentence is amusing no matter how it is rendered, both the setup and the final selection of words appear stronger in Irby. Hurley’s ‘a ponchoful of meat‘ is laudable, but there is something especially funny in the curt and insensible ‘meat blanket‘.
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Anthony Kerrigan’s translation from the 1962 Grove Press Ficciones is the third readily available translation of Borges’ story into English. In fact, it was Kerrigan who first translated ‘Funes el memorioso’ into English: his translation, with the title ‘Funes, The Memorious’, appeared in the second issue of the short lived Avon Book of Modern Writing in 1954. The issue included new fiction, poetry and essays by writers including Elizabeth Hardwick, Hermann Hesse, Mary McCarthy, Alberto Moravia, and Delmore Schwartz. After Ficciones, Kerrigan went on to translate for Grove Press, in 1967 with Alastair Reed, Borges’ A Personal Anthology. Kerrigan translates the above passage:
‘The voice of Funes, out of the darkness, continued. He told me that toward 1886 he had devised a new system of enumeration and that in a very few days he had gone beyond twenty-four thousand. He had not written it down, for what he once meditated would not be erased. The first stimulus to his work, I believe, had been his discontent with the fact that “thirty-three Uruguayans” required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Máximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustín de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a species of mark; the last were very complicated…I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. I said that to say three hundred and sixty-five was to say three hundreds, six tens, five units: an analysis which does not exist in such numbers as The Negro Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket. Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me.’
Finally, in the original Spanish, Borges’ text reads:
‘Me dijo que hacia 1886 había discurrido un sistema original de numeración y que en muy pocos días había rebasado el veinticuatro mil. No lo había escrito, porque lo pensado una sola vez ya no podía borrársele. Su primer estímulo, creo, fue el desagrado de que los treinta y tres orientales requirieran dos signos y tres palabras, en lugar de una sola palabra y un solo signo. Aplicó luego ese disparatado principio a los otros números. En lugar de siete mil trece, decía (por ejemplo) Máximo Pérez; en lugar de siete mil catorce, El Ferrocarril; otros números eran Luis Melián Lafinur, Olimar, azufre, los bastos, la ballena, gas, la caldera, Napoleón, Agustín vedia. En lugar de quinientos, decía nueve. Cada palabra tenía un signo particular, una especie marca; las últimas muy complicadas…Yo traté explicarle que esa rapsodia de voces inconexas era precisamente lo contrario sistema numeración. Le dije decir 365 tres centenas, seis decenas, cinco unidades; análisis no existe en los “números” El Negro Timoteo o manta de carne. Funes no me entendió o no quiso entenderme.’
The original 1944 edition of Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, published by Editorial Sur
The 1962 edition of Labyrinths, edited and with translations by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby, published by New Directions
The first edition of Borges’ Collected Fictions in English, published by Allen Lane – a Penguin imprint – in January 1999
Penguin’s paperback version of Collected Fictions, published September 1999
The Avon Book of Modern Writing, issue number 2, 1954, which contained the first English translation of Borges’ story ‘Funes el memorioso’
The English translation of Ficciones, edited by Anthony Kerrigan, published by Grove Press in 1962
The UK edition of Ficciones, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson the same year
Borges, J. L. Ficciones ed. Kerrigan, A. (Grove Press, 1994)
Borges, J. L. Fictions trans. Hurley, A. (Penguin, 2000)
Borges, J. L. Labyrinths eds. Yates, D. A. & Irby, J. E. (Penguin, 2000)
Williamson, E. Borges: A Life (Viking, 2004)