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88 chapter 3 Translation in the Creative Process In the end all literature is translation. —Novalis T he majority of Borges’s short stories include at least one character who translates, and these characters are often the protagonists. Many of his fictions are presented as implied translations, many translated excerpts or fragments are inserted into the body of his writings, and many real and imagined translations play either hidden or transparent roles in the gestation or contents of his fictions.1 Borges’s translations offer illuminating insights into his creative process, and his general approach to translation is fundamental to our understanding of his art. Recognizing the significance of translation for Borges allows us to trace the creative practice underlying the invention of a brand of fantastic fiction that posits impossible objects and connects them with characters driven by unusual designs or endowed with extraordinary attributes (such as a perfect memory or immortality). Since Borges is best known as a writer of narrative fiction, the bulk of this chapter treats some of his best known tales in order to exemplify the different ways in which he integrated translation into his writings. The last few pages of the chapter will explore how his approach to translation has implications in his creative process with respect to works he did not translate, but treated as texts he did translate: as raw material he could adapt into the fabric of his fictions. Translation in the Creative Process 89 Our starting point is “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” considered by many his most ambitious and far-reaching story. It is a tale that combines his peculiar brand of fantastic literature, his panache for transforming philosophical ideas into literary themes, his interest in minor genres such as detective fiction and science fiction, his explorations of exotic worlds, his ironic humor, and his political and psychological anxieties. The story can be read as the translation of the universe as we know it into another universe which functions according to assumptions drawn from the speculations of philosophers who think the world is composed of perceptions rather than independent objects that our five senses can identify. But linguistic translation (as in the rewriting of a series of words into another) plays an even greater role.2 “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” The protagonist of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” uncovers, with the help of others, an extravagant conspiracy involving innumerable individuals who, over several generations, have been fashioning an alternative universe. The conspirators have produced a collective work, an encyclopedia, in which a universe called Tlön behaves according to a version of philosophical idealism. The story moves from the outlandish to the fantastic when the palpable universe, down to its physical laws, begins to transform itself into Tlön according to the designs of the conspirators. In this brave new world, the five senses are no longer coordinated, and nothing is necessarily identical to itself. One need only imagine an object for it to materialize, but the existence of objects is not continuous. Things disappear and are duplicated according to the vicissitudes of consciousness, memory, and the imagination. To illustrate the peculiarities of Tlön, the narrator discusses the difficulties in translating a sentence from Tlön’s Ursprache, the conjectural language (akin to our Indo-European) from which all other languages in Tlön can be deduced: “there is no word corresponding to the word ‘moon,’ but there is a verb which in English would be ‘to moon’ or ‘to moonate.’ ‘The moon rose above the river’ is hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö, or literally: ‘upward behind the on- 90 Invisible Work streaming mooned.’”3 This phrase is an instance of Borges at his most magical. His comment on translation is both engagingly believable and useless for any serious attempt at reconstruction of Tlön’s Ursprache. But that awkward-seeming translation shows an exquisite linguistic sense. It is intended to represent differentiated grammatical features the reader is in no position to identify. The reader must suspend disbelief to accept the existence of a language that corresponds to a world constituted of independent events rather than of independent objects, because Borges does not offer sufficient information to reconstruct such a world in the first place. Borges cleverly conflates two different strands in his story: (1) a secret society’s plot to imagine a universe that works according to the principles of a philosophical view akin to Bishop Berkeley’s idealism, but without a god who would...


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