Retranslations Are Writing
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.
Borges published “Las Versiones Homéricas” in 1932. He speaks there of the richness of the texts that for him are Homer, rich because he receives Homer in a plentitude of versions. Whereas he receives the famed opening words of Don Quixote in one unchanging Spanish version. Borges asserts: “Presuponer que toda recombinación de elementos es obligatoriamente inferior a su original, es presuponer que el borrador 9 es obligatoriamente inferior al borrador H—ya que no puede haber sino borradores. El concepto de texto definitivo no corresponde sino a la religión o al cansancio.”
In my English: “To presuppose that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original is like deciding draft 9 is necessarily inferior to draft H—when drafts are all there ever are. The idea of the definitive text belongs only to religion or exhaustion.”
Perhaps any writing process that relies on the “purity” of an “original” bears the scent of tired religion. When the site of reading moves, when its time and place shift, writing also shifts, as do translations. New versions emerge through the body of a translator who, in a sited moment, responds to existing text, and responds by writing. When Barrett Watten, in “Presentism and Periodization in Language Writing, Conceptual Art and Conceptual Writing,” asks “If all representations of the present depend on periodizing logics, how can there be any such thing as ‘present time’ in a form of representation?” I answer: “in translation.” The plenitude of versions is the present tense, moving, historical, sited. Then time moves on.
Waisman translates Borges differently: “The concept of the definitive text corresponds only to religion or fatigue.” His translation, more literal, carries over the Spanish use of the verb “correspond” in ways that my English doesn't do. My translation wants to transpose the cadence of Borges’ speech into Canadian English as I hear it around me. For when I pick up Borges to read him today, I read him as my contemporary. As all books are contemporary to us in the moment of reading.