In Buenos Aires in 1967 Borges began an unusual working relationship with a young Italian-American translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, whom he had met at Harvard. Di Giovanni had recently translated a collection of verse by Spanish poets, and asked Borges for a contribution. He got more than he bargained for: the privilege of translating several books of poetry and prose and an intercontinental job relocation scheme. The collaboration was all the stranger given the pair’s differing political ideas: di Giovanni was once an anarchist; Borges would go on to support Generals Videla and Pinochet.
Nonetheless, what they produced during this period were not simple translations. Some of their time was given to the collaborative composition of original versions of Borges’s stories in English. Borges’s grandmother was from the Midlands, and he was consequently fluent in English, albeit in a reportedly antiquated turn-of-the-century style. So di Giovanni earned equal writing credit for versions of stories including Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, The Library of Babel and The Lottery in Babylon.
One of my favorite parts of this job (aside from seeing our own books in print and on bookstore shelves) is opening the mail and seeing all the new books coming out. Especially when I receive things like the first two volumes of the new Borges series that Penguin Classics is bringing out next April.
These first two volumes—Poems of the Night and The Sonnets, pictured above and below—are coming out just in time for National Poetry Month, and by themselves are pretty amazing collections. Quoting from the jacket copy, Poems of the Night is “a moving collection of the great literary visionary’s poetic meditations on nighttime, darkness, and the crepuscular world of visions and dreams, themes that speak implicitly to the blindness that overtook him late in life.”
And The Sonnets contains, well, all of Borges’s sonnets, many of which are appearing in English for the first time.
Beyond the contents though, check this list of translators included in these volumes: Willis Barnstone, Robert Fitzgerald, Edith Grossman, Kenneth Krabbenhoft, Anthony Kerrigan, Stephen Kessler, John King, Suzanne Jill Levine (who is also the series editor, more below), Eric McHenry, Christopher Maurer, W. S. Merwin, Alastair Reid, Hoyt Rogers, Mark Strand, Charles Tomlinson, Alan S. Trueblood, and John Updike.
Now, about the series: I’d heard about this from John Siciliano and Jill Levine back some time ago, and thanks to the wonderful people at Penguin, I just got some additional info about all five volumes. These are based on the Collected Fiction, Selected Poetry, and Selected Nonfiction volumes that came out a few years ago, but each new volume includes new material as well. Kristen Scharold sent me this info about the next three volumes, which will come out in June of next year:
On Writing constitutes a guide to writing by one of the twentieth century’s most revered writers and literary thinkers. On Argentina constitutes a guide to Borges’s beloved Argentina and Buenos Aires—perfect for the literary traveler. On Mysticism, which is edited and introduced by Borges’s widow, Maria Kodama, is a collection of Borges’ essays, fiction, and poetry that explores the role of the mysterious and spiritual in Borges’ life and writing.
It’s always a good time to read Borges, and I have a feeling I’ll end up reading all five of these volumes over the next year . . . And speaking of Suzanne Jill Levine, here’s an interesting interview with her that recently appeared in Words Without Borders.
That I didn’t realize New Directions has a blog. Not terribly active, but still, today’s post about Borges’s history with ND is pretty interesting. To provide some context for this quote: earlier in the summer ND held a contest to see if anyone could identify the first publication of Borges by ND. Answer: Two stories (“Investigations on the Death of Herbert Quian” and “The Circular Ruins”) appeared in New Directions in Prose and Poetry 11. And here’s a bit more info from translator Donald Yates:
“This early appearance of Borges’s fiction was the result of James Laughlin’s recognition of Borges’s importance, and no doubt influenced his decision to offer a contract when the manuscript of Labyrinths came across his desk — after it had been rejected by other publishers, including Barney Rosset at Grove Press, who immediately rushed ahead with a translation — by Anthony Kerrigan, et al., — of Borges’s Ficciones — immediately after Borges shared with Samuel Beckett the First International Editors in 1961.
“In a sense, I think it helped in Borges’ critical reception here. A lot of reviewers sat up and paid attention when two Borges collections came across their desk and often (New York Times, e.g.) both were reviewed together. If I had it all to do over again, since we had access to all of Borges’s prose published through 1960, I would have also included `El sur,’ `El aleph.’ and as you point out, `Herbert Quain.’”
“I was properly scolded by my friend Anthony Boucher, who reviewed mystery fiction for the NYTBR, for leaving out that story that touched on a subject close to both our hearts — detective literature. He, by the way, did the first translation ever of a Borges tale in English: `The Garden of Forking Paths,’ which appeared in the August, 1948, issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In early 1963, Time magazine selected Labyrinths as one of the top ten fiction titles published in 1962. And in 2008 The Authors Society of London named Labyrinths as one of 50 outstanding English-language translations of the previous 50 years.” –Donald Yates
Hopefully ND keeps this up. That place must be a treasure trove of interesting literary anecdotes.
Here’s part of Orlando Archibeque’s review of the documentary:
This documentary’s major strength (others would say its major weakness) is that it is a bit of everything — part biography, part literary criticism, part hero-worship, part book reading, and part psychology. The subtitle “Mirror Man” is a reference to the frequent occurrence of mirrors in his works. One of the most interesting subjects in this video is a discussion of Borges’s fascination with and fear of mirrors during his formative years, and how these fears are manifested in his writings.
Archival footage gives a flavor of the significant historic events in 20th century Argentina and their influences on Borges from childhood until his death in 1986. Still photographs from a variety of repositories and personal collections bring to life the young Borges, who began writing seriously at the very early age of 9. The filmmaker, Philippe Molins, also makes use of dramatic reenactments showing Borges as a child and young adult. Additionally, archival interviews with Borges and with significant others, including his second wife, María Kodama Borges (an Argentinian of Japanese descent), his mother, Leonor Acevedo de Borges, and friend and author-collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares, provide important insights into the life and literature of Borges in his middle- and later-years. The interviews with his second wife and mother are the most captivating sequences in the video. Finally, at appropriate times in the video, there are brief readings from both well known and lesser-known works.
In their third number, Habitus magazine is featuring an interview with Jorge Luis Borges that was conducted in 1984 by Professor of Philosophy Tomás Abraham at the University of Buenos Aires. The interview has never before been translated into English. It’s short, but well worth the read:
Sometime ago I said that philosophy is a fantastic branch of study. But I didn’t mean anything against philosophy, on the contrary; it could be said, for example, that it was exactly the same [as poetry] maintaining that the syntax is from two distinct places, [and] that philosophy deserves a place in the order of aesthetics. If you look at theology or philosophy as fantastic literature, you’ll see that they are much more ambitious than the poets. For example, what works of poetry are comparable with something as astonishing as Spinoza’s god: an infinite substance endowed with infinite attributes?
Every philosophy creates a world with its own special laws, and these models may or may not be fantastic, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve entered into poetry, and also fables, that is, I’m not a novelist. I’ve read very few novels in my life; for me the foremost novelist is Joseph Conrad. I’ve never attempted a novel, but I’ve tried to write fables. I’ve dedicated my life to reading more than anything, and I’ve found that reading philosophical texts is no less pleasant than reading literary texts, and perhaps there is no essential difference between them.
The New York Times had a really fantastic article about Knopf’s archives at the University of Texas. It details some of the authors and books they’ve rejected:
For almost a century, Knopf has been the gold standard in the book trade, publishing the works of 17 Nobel Prize-winning authors as well as 47 Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes of fiction, nonfiction, biography and history. Recently, however, scholars trolling through the Knopf archive have been struck by the number of reader’s reports that badly missed the mark, especially where new talent was concerned. The rejection files, which run from the 1940s through the 1970s, include dismissive verdicts on the likes of Jorge Luis Borges (“utterly untranslatable”), Isaac Bashevis Singer (“It’s Poland and the rich Jews again”), Anaïs Nin (“There is no commercial advantage in acquiring her, and, in my opinion, no artistic”), Sylvia Plath (“There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice”) and Jack Kerouac (“His frenetic and scrambling prose perfectly express the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so”). In a two-year stretch beginning in 1955, Knopf turned down manuscripts by Jean-Paul Sartre, Mordecai Richler, and the historians A. J. P. Taylor and Barbara Tuchman, not to mention Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (too racy) and James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (“hopelessly bad”).
This rejection note is definitely the highlight though, and writing something like this is the dream of everyone who has ever had to wade through the slush pile:
“This time there’s no point in trying to be kind,” it said. “Your manuscript is utterly hopeless as a candidate for our list. I never thought the subject worth a damn to begin with and I don’t think it’s worth a damn now. Lay off, MacDuff.”
Ben Lytal—who is blessed with constantly getting only the best books to review—has a piece in the New York Sun about two Latin American authors from New Directions: Jorge Luis Borges and Enrique Vila-Matas.
The article is mostly about the recent reissue of Labyrinths complete with new preface by William Gibson, which is a fantastic thing for the world. There’s no one like Borges, and as Lytal points out, his influence spans generations and genres.
“The Garden of the Forking Paths,” “The Library of Babel,” “The Aleph,” some of the best stories of the twentieth century . . .
It’s surprising to see Lytal say that Vila-Matas is his least favorite ND Latin American author, but I think he means this as praise for ND as a whole. Bolano, Aira, Borges, are pretty good company to keep, and tough to compete with.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .