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diacritics 34.3 (2006) 31-52

Translation, Transference, and the Attraction to Otherness—Borges, Menard, Whitman
Rosemary Arrojo

Like space abhorring a vacuum, Borges abhors a condition of stasis. For this reason he moves from enstasis (being in himself) to extasis (being elsewhere). As a poet of ecstasy, he is fated to follow the voyage of the seeker, not the finder, to wander, following the original Greek usage of the word ekstasis, "outside himself."

—Willis Barnstone, "Borges, Poet of Ecstasy"

Jorge Luis Borges inaugurated his writing career at the tender age of nine with the publication of a translation of Oscar Wilde's "The Happy Prince" in El País, a Buenos Aires newspaper ["Autobiographical Essay" 26]. This early, precocious interest in translating and in English texts, which, as we know, flourished into a life-long attraction to the foreign and to the conundrums of translation, would be an important element in the construction of his literary career, and in the development of some of the major themes that inspired his writing. A prolific translator of texts by such figures as Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner, Poe, Whitman, Hart Crane, Chesterton, Apollinaire, Browne, Papini, Novalis, and Hawthorne, among others, Borges has left us some of the most original and insightful ideas on the implications of translation for literature and on the relationships that are generally established between translators and authors. In "The Homeric Versions" ("Las versions homéricas")1 and "The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights" ("Los traductores de las 1001 noches"), both published in the 1930s, and, more pointedly, in "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," written in 1939, Borges anticipates some of the main tenets of translation studies as the latter have been redefined in the last decade or so under the widespread influence of postmodern textual theories [Arrojo, Oficina 11–22].

Understood as an intrinsically performative textual activity, translation is generally viewed, in Borges's terms, as a form of rewriting which is not in any sense neutral or secondary to the original. If, in such terms, both the so-called original and the translated text seem to enjoy a similar status, what kind of exchange might there be between the two? And, at the same time, if translators cannot, in any sense, be "invisible" in their translations, and, like authors, at least on some level, do mean what they [End Page 31] say, what might it represent, for a translator, at a certain point, to choose a certain text to translate? In order to reflect on such questions posed by Borges's texts on the role of translation as a form of writing, I will be concentrating on the paradigmatic relationship that may be established between Borges's interest in Walt Whitman, the publication of his first poem, "Himno del mar," in 1919, and his versions of Leaves of Grass (Hojas de hierba), which were published about fifty years later. In order to learn about the strongly emotional investment that seems to have underscored Borges's early attachment to Whitman and his poetry as well as the role played by translation in such a relationship, I will be turning to a Borgesian masterpiece, the story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," which certainly deserves George Steiner's often quoted statement: "the most acute, most concentrated commentary anyone has offered on the business of translation" [After Babel 70]. Thus, the exemplary relationship that Pierre Menard establishes with Cervantes and his text, which one might understand as a form of "influence," "transference," or simply "love," will serve as a mirroring map for the complex, productive encounter that took place between Borges and Whitman at the very outset of the first's literary career, and which would have an impact during most of his life.

Pierre Menard's "Subterranean" Desire to be Someone Else: A Lesson on Translation and Transference

Among all the solitary, somewhat maniacal characters that inhabit Borges's fictions and nonfictions, Pierre Menard is the one that best synthesizes the pathos of the typically Borgesian character and his self...


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