New Borges translation better

Sunday, November 8, 1998

Collected Fictions
by Jorge Luis Borges. Translated by Andrew Hurley. Viking. 565 pages. $40.


     Let us begin with a passage from an earlier translation of Borges' "Funes the Memorious": "After a sultry day, an enormous slate-colored storm had hidden the sky. It was urged on by a southern wind." Now, the same section as translated by Andrew Hurley: "After a sultry day, a huge slate-colored storm, fanned by the south wind, had curtained the sky." At first glance, the differences may seem minor: "huge" instead of "enormous," "curtained" for "hidden," and the "south wind" sentence now woven into the first.
     However, the cumulative effect of such differences are not minor; what appears subtle in a single sentence accumulates, over the course of "Collected Fictions," to a significantly better reading experience. The smooth, richer language in Hurley's version brings such pleasure that one momentarily wonders, "So, this must be what it's like to read Borges in the original Spanish."
     Your reviewer's Spanish is not strong enough to verify so bold a speculation; however, returning to the above example, notice the visual effect of the word "curtained," and how, coupled with the phrase "fanned by the south wind," it creates a more vivid mental picture. Consider, too, the way in which the above passage flows: subordinating "fanned by the south wind," instead of exiling it to a separate sentence, creates a gentler transition. "Collected Fictions" is the perfect replacement for your worn-out copy of "Labyrinths," currently the standard collection of Borges' work.
     "Collected Fictions" likely will become the new standard, and not merely because of the successes of its translation. Borges' work can be difficult, clever, obscure; though "Labyrinths" does provide a chronology of the author's life and a bibliography for further reading, it lacks editorial notes (except for Borges' own). In contrast, "Collected Fictions" provides notes which, while not exhaustive, usually sate one's curiosity about both Borges' references and Hurley's choices in translating them. In notes to "The Congress," for example, Hurley explains why he did not translate the words "Ultima Hora," the name of a newspaper in the story: it "can be translated in two ways, 'The Eleventh Hour' or 'The Latest News,' depending on whether one wishes to give it an apocalyptic reading or a quotidian one."
     Of course, the notes do not answer all questions, and if paradoxes, puzzles, and the densely allusive hold little appeal for you, then neither will Borges' work - irrespective of the quality of the translation or the presence (or absence) of endnotes. However, those looking for a challenging but rewarding read will find great satisfaction in "Collected Fictions," and anyone already entranced by Borges will enjoy this edition and the convenience of having all his fiction in a single volume. Whether a fine introduction to a new friend or an overdue reunion with an old one, "Collected Fictions" will be welcomed by readers who enjoy language laced with ideas, metaphysical detective stories, and the mysterious logic of dreams.
(Phil Nel is adjunct professor of English at the College of Charleston.)




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