The Thousand and One Nights in Argentina: Translation, Narrative, and Politics in Borges, Puig, and Piglia
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Comparative Literature Studies 40.4 (2003) 351-371

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The Thousand and One Nights in Argentina:
Translation, Narrative, and Politics in Borges, Puig, and Piglia

Sergio Waisman


What is at stake when we consider the legacy of a text like The Thousand and One Nights—one generally accepted as widely influential, not only on individual writers but on entire traditions—on contemporary literatures? The very mention of a legacy forces us to rethink what we mean by influence, originality, authorship, and literary lineages and genealogies. Where do stories originate? 1 What is the best way to approach the inheritance of narrative? A major contribution toward addressing these questions, as I seek to show in this article, can be made through the study of translation. As Jorge Luis Borges has said: "Ningún problema tan consustancial con las letras y con su modesto misterio como el que propone una traducción" ["There is no problem as consubstantial to literature and its modest mysteries as that raised by a translation"]. 2

There are perhaps few texts which bring the issues of influence and of the power of narrative to the forefront as clearly as the collection Alf Layla wa-Layla, The Thousand and One Nights. Or perhaps we should say no text and its translations, for any story of The Thousand and One Nights and its inheritance is ultimately a story about the translation of the Nights. In this article, I explore the legacy of The Thousand and One Nights in three Argentine writers: Jorge Luis Borges, Manuel Puig, and Ricardo Piglia. In the process, I offer a way to rethink the legacy of past literatures and concepts of the Orient in Latin America, specifically in Argentina. 3 My focus is on the dialogical relation of Latin American literature with the past and with the center—by way of another periphery (i.e., the Orient)—through processes of translation. To this end, I analyze how translation from the periphery leads to reconsiderations of source and target texts and cultures, [End Page 351] especially when an East-West dichotomy is used to remap the relationship between North and South. I select Borges, Puig, and Piglia in particular as writers who actively involve translation in the creation of their own work and who thus raise key issues about the role of translation in the formation of Latin American literatures.

Borges refers to The Thousand and One Nights frequently in his writings, claiming it as one of the first books he read as a child in his father's library. 4 The version he found there and the one he always preferred is the one by Richard F. Burton. But Borges was also well familiar with the other major European translations. This can be seen in his essay "Los traductores de Las 1001 Noches" ["The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights"] (1935), one of his two most important essays on the topic of translation. In this text, Borges compares only the translations of the Nights; he makes no attempt to refer back to the original, except through what the translators themselves have to say about it. By deviating from the traditional approach of comparing the original with the translation, Borges avoids the unproductive practice of simply listing what is lost in translation. Borges's approach, in fact, suggests a complete disregard for the concept of a "definitive text." As he says in his other key essay on translation, "Las versiones homéricas" ["The Homeric Versions"] (1932):

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. 5

[To presuppose that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original, is to presuppose that draft 9 is necessarily inferior to draft H, as there can only be drafts. The concept of a definitive text corresponds only to religion or...