In December of 1921, a 22-year-old Jorge Luis Borges published “Ultraísmo” in the Argentine journal Nosotros. The editors wrote that his short article was the initial entry in a series of studies about the avant-gardes, recognizing perhaps that the moment of the ultraísta movement had already passed (a few months later, the key journal Ultra ceased publication). While the avant-garde principles of ultraísmo would continue to inform the work of many poets both Spanish and Latin American, by 1921 the movement qua movement was drawing still. But for the literary establishment, understanding ultraísmo was just beginning, and thus Borges’s essay was an attempt to assert the new literary ethic through accounting, a manifesto in reverse.
In his 1941 short story "The Library of Babel," Jorges Luis Borges depicts a series of hexagonal rooms, their walls lined with bookshelves. These shelves contain books comprised of every possible combination of letters, spaces, commas, and periods. Some books are filled with nonsense but within the collection lies every literary text ever written, along with multiple permutations of each of these texts. The library's collection comprises all knowledge that is known or will be known.
Translators translate not just from one language to another, but from one space-time continuum into another. It’s a slippery movement, an open jaw, a stammer or wince whose sound is heard (mistakenly) as clear. “Like any act of writing,” writes Sergio Waisman in Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery, “translation is always undertaken from a specific site: the translator’s language, but also the entire cultural and sociohistorical context in which translators perform their task.”
In peering with care into Jorge Luis Borges’ two essays on translation from almost eighty years ago, Waisman reminds us how Borges long ago insisted on the intricate cultural and social weight of words and culture in the transposition of text across languages. To read Borges’ essays is to depart forever from the old saw traduttore, traditore.