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.
I just spent a week in erica kaufman’s workshop at the Institute for Writing and Thinking at Bard, which brings together secondary and college teachers for workshops and conferences focused on how to use writing as central to how we generate and refine our ideas about literature and language (and all subjects; we had biology and music teachers in our section). In one session, we worked with three essays about writing, George Orwell’s “Why I Write,” Jamaica Kincaid’s “In History,” and William Carlos Williams’s “How to Write.” Orwell’s portrait of the writer is essentially as political activist; Kincaid’s is of the courage to rewrite history; Williams’s is of a double mind commanding the double function of the text. Williams appears less political than Orwell or Kincaid, until the end of his essay, where he launches an attack on the teaching of standard English in American schools.
What might be the relationship between this well-known critique Williams held (“Why bother with English when we have a language of our own?”) and how Williams depicts the writing process in this piece? That is, what Williams calls the “deepest mind” and the “fore-brain” of the writer, the latter being the thing that in his words “attacks” a piece of writing once it is set down, editing, criticizing, and making possible what Williams calls “modern verse structures.”