- Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery
Sergio Waisman's Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery is a worthy addition to the excellent series in Latin American Literature and Theory produced by Bucknell University Press. Like a number of the other books in this groundbreaking series, it demonstrates a creative and thoughtful attempt to pull together some of the critical and theoretical concerns of the past several decades through a sustained and closely textual investigative project. Although much has been written on Borges, there has been surprisingly little criticism published in recent years that engages the epistemological complexity of the Argentine writer's work. In the wave of enthusiasm generated for his writing during the 1970s and 1980s, much about the historical specificity of his work was "lost in translation," to quote Sylvia Molloy's apt expression. In a backlash to this phenomenon, however, critics increasingly focused on thematic issues that would tie Borges to his historical context and, in so doing, they tended to ignore the subtler aspects of what Borges was doing with language and ideas within his texts. Waisman's book marks a welcome shift from such a tendency, carefully addressing both the historical specificity of Borges's artistic production and some of the more complex aspects of the writer's thought. The figure of translation is an ideal focus for such a project, and Waisman, himself an experienced translator, presents a thorough and thought-provoking tour of the theory and practice of translation as it appears in Borges's work. Incidentally, Waisman's book appears on the tail of another book on Borges and translation, Efraín Kristal's Invisible Work: Borges and Translation, Vanderbilt, 2002. Although Kristal's book also represents an admirable contribution to Borges criticism, Waisman's book is more ambitious in its attempts to tackle the theoretical implications of the question of translation in Borges's work.
Waisman reads the figure of translation in Borges's work as central to the Argentine writer's understanding of writing and aesthetics in general. He begins his book with an analysis of the essay "Las versiones homéricas," where Borges states explicitly that "la traducción parece [. . .] destinada a ilustrar la discusión estética" (49). As opposed to "las escrituras directas," translation and other forms of "indirect writing" demonstrate that writing is incapable of completely representing its object or recreating its original: there is always a remainder, something that is not fully transferred (trans-latio), in every translation. Furthermore, Borges suggests, not only is the transference from the original to the translation necessarily a faulty one, but the very idea of an original is based on perceptions that are in their way already translations: "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 no puede haber sino borradores. El concepto de texto [End Page 87] definitivo no corresponde sino a la religión o al cansancio" (qtd. in Waisman 50). In other words, the original is not a ground against which all subsequent texts (translations, commentary, imitations, responses) can be judged, but is itself a kind of translation, which we can only know through its translations.
Waisman extrapolates on this theory of translation and reads in it a commentary on the relationship between Latin America and Europe, center and periphery. He suggests that Borges reconfigures his peripheral location vis-à-vis Europe through a theory of translation that deposes the normative figure of the center, thereby creating a new space for interpretation and innovation. How are we to understand the status of the new "version" after it has successfully decentered the figure of the original? On the one hand, Waisman suggests that the series of versions is an ongoing search with no determinate end—a search for meaning and communication after the fall of Babel. On the other hand, he describes Borges's theory of translation as an "irreverent" means of displacing and recontextualizing the original: one that shifts, but does not fundamentally change, its...