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The unjust fate of Borges’s best translator

  • Published at 04:46 pm April 6th, 2017
  • Last updated at 04:48 pm April 25th, 2017
The unjust fate of Borges’s best translator
Towards the latter half of the 1980s, knowing my interest in and craze for Jorge Luis Borges, one of my friends brought a book for me as a gift from abroad. The friend’s name is Tariquel Alam Khan and the book he presented me with was Selected Poems: 1927-1967 by Borges. Norman Thomas di Giovanni is the editor of this extraordinary book of verse. It was through this book that readers for the first time got the complete picture of Borges as a poet. Before Norman, the European translators had paid attention mainly to Borges’s short stories. Of course they had sufficient reasons to do so. The excellence of styles and themes found in Borges’s stories – the surrender of reality to dream and imagination, the mask of fantasy and their creative expedition into the universal human experiences – attracts readers towards his fiction. Norman, too, could not detach himself from such lures. Norman, however, noticed that Borges's poetry had been lying like a sleeping beauty. He was the first person to touch this sleeping beauty with the magical wand of translation. It is relevant, at this point, to recall what Borges said about his own poetry, “If I do survive in the future, then it will be because of my poetry.”
I am sanguine that the translations done by Norman Thomas di Giovanni are better than the originals. Norman is also sanguine about it
Perhaps this is true in the sense that he actually kept his poetic soul flowing in all of his writings. In that sense there is little difference between his poetic and prosaic selves. During their very first meeting, Borges had said to Norman, “What I liked about you, de Giovanni, was that there at Harvard you were the only person who took me seriously as a poet.” The two thus built a life-long relationship based on their infatuation with poetry. Their working relationship that had commenced in 1967 lasted as long as Borges was alive. Norman lived in Buenos Aires with Borges for more than five years and within this time they together translated more than twelve books. Aside from translating, Norman encouraged Borges to compose many poems, short stories and articles. In fact, if Norman had not inspired Borges, the latter would not have been able to write that wonderful autobiography, An Autobiographical Essay, which happens to be his only autobiographical writing. Norman fulfilled his responsibilities not only by translating and writing essays on Borges. Also, he made arrangements for Borges to deliver speeches in various American universities, organised exclusive interviews with Borges on radio and television, and created the drama documentary with producer David Whitely for BBC. Norman, I presume, is one of those few globally reputed translators who did translation in direct collaboration with the author. That explains why Norman was so important to Borges. How much Borges cared about Norman’s taste and preferences -- I will clarify this by citing one or two examples. Years ago I found a book titled Verbal Borges written by Pilar Bravo and Mario Paoletti in a bookshop of Tijuana. Reading the book I found Borges commenting on the English translations of his own works. The comment was made in 1981. By then Borges’s writings were being translated in English by various translators. I’m reproducing here what Borges originally said in Spanish, “Estoy seguro que las traducciones (al ingles) que hizo Norman Thomas di Giovanni son mejores que el original. El esta seguro tambien.” In English translation it should read: “I am sanguine that the translations done by Norman Thomas di Giovanni are better than the originals. Norman is also sanguine about it.” Borges knew that profound knowledge of both Spanish and English was not the only gem in Norman’s treasure; he found some additional qualities in Norman, which distinguish a successful translator from a mediocre one. [caption id="attachment_56732" align="alignleft" width="300"]Razu Alauddin with Norman Thomas de Giovani Razu Alauddin with Norman Thomas de Giovani[/caption] Readers of Borges might recall one of his well-known short stories, “Hombre de la esquina rosada” (Street Cornerman). In this story, localism is present quite extravagantly. Despite Borges’s unique craftsmanship, its provincial tone lacks the lustre found in such dazzling and ostentatiously magical stories as “The Aleph,” “The Garden of Forking Path,” “Secret Miracle” or “Pierre Menard: Author of Don Quixote.” In an interview when Borges was requested by American writer and translator Clark M Zlotchew to comment on this story, Borges said, “No, no, it does not interest me in the least. I am ashamed of it, thoroughly ashamed of it. Di Giovanni told me it seemed like an opera, and he is right.” My own observation about the story echoes Norman. The important thing here is Norman’s courage to speak the truth. Integrity, on top of linguistic skills, is what makes a perfect translator, and I dare say, it was with this quality that Norman had impressed a genius like Borges. But what happened after Borges’s death is perhaps the most unfortunate thing that has ever happened to a translator of Norman’s stature. In an obituary published in The Guardian, Scott Pack writes, “Borges was so pleased with their collaborations that he insisted Norman receive an equal share of the royalties. After Borges’ death in 1986 the author’s estate sold rights for new translations, thereby terminating the arrangement with Norman. His translations, the ones Borges himself rated so highly, were allowed to fall out of print and are now collectors’ items.” His travel writing was widely published, among his other works. Pack goes on to tell us that “together with his partner and fellow translator, Susan Ashe, he continued to translate a range of work that he felt deserved a wider audience.”
(Translated into English by Kamrul Hasan) Razu Alauddin is a poet, essayist and translator. He has translated into Bengali quite a few books by Jorge Luis Borges.