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Borges on Language and Translation

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 2, October 1995
pp. 320-329 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0102

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Philosophy and Literature 19.2 (1995) 320-329

Notes and Fragments

Although Jorge Luis Borges had years of philosophical training and expressed a number of philosophical theories in his literary works, he never published a philosophy treatise. The result is that his oeuvre has often been viewed as purely literary and been largely neglected by trained philosophers. However, by ignoring the philosophical aspects of Borges's thought, criticism has neglected a vast dimension of his work and has thus frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted many aspects of it. As I have tried to demonstrate in an earlier article, there are important philosophical themes in the short stories of Borges, which have yet to be considered. In the present essay, I take up one of these heretofore neglected themes.

We can find perhaps no better example of the literary exposition of Borges's philosophical ideas than in his short story or cuento, "Averroes' Search." There Borges reconstructs for us a culture and an age radically different and temporally distant from our own. He recounts the story of Averroes, the Arab philosopher living in Spain in the second half of the twelfth century. The history of philosophy knows Averroes as one of the great medieval commentators on the works of Aristotle. Borges recreates the historical moment and the passion of Averroes in his task of translating and providing a commentary for the texts of the great Greek philosopher who remains forever distant from him. The story takes as its point of departure Renan's observation about a curious misinterpretation of Aristotle found in Averroes: "S'imaginant que la tragédie n'est autre chose que l'art de louer . . ."(p. 180). Borges poses the question of why Averroes, who had dedicated his life to understanding the work of Aristotle, had so badly misunderstood the concept of tragedy treated by the Greek philosopher. To answer this question, Borges brilliantly employs the faculty of historical imagination in order to think himself back into Averroes's particular time period and cultural context. The short story presents us with a thesis about the intimate connection between culture and language and the ultimate futility of translation and crosscultural knowledge and comprehension. In the present essay, I wish to argue that the point of Borges's story about the fate of Averroes is (1) to refute the common view which sees language as an entity neutral with respect to culture and history, and (2) to bring to light the comprehensive nature and scope of particular culturally and historically determined ways of thinking and perceiving the world. These philosophical elements have been neglected by the various literary scholars who have treated the works of Borges. Moreover, Borges anticipates many of the most celebrated epistemological and hermeneutical theories of our day from philosophers such as Gadamer, Davidson and Quine, and presents them in literary form.

I

There is a common view according to which the manifold languages of the various peoples and cultures of the world are more or less interchangeable. According to this linguistics of common sense, language is something secondary and accidental which is only an inessential corollary to our basic understanding and perception of the world. Human perception and cognition are thought of as constants for all humans everywhere. A dog will be perceived as a dog regardless of time period, place or culture, and the words we create to represent "dog" in the medium of language are secondary and even arbitrary. As a result, individual words in one language correspond to individual words in another. Dog in English corresponds straightforwardly to Hund in German or perro in Spanish, and nothing could be more simple. The gifted translator is merely someone with a great capacity to memorize words and to effect rapid replacement changes, and translation is regarded as a more or less mechanical process with little room for creativity. The diversity of languages is neither epistemologically necessary nor important, but rather explained as an historical accident as in the etiological tale of the Tower of Babel. Language has no necessary connection to the time period in which it is spoken or to the culture of the people who speak it. That we who live in the world...


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