In a world where reality television and social media hold sway over the masses, it’s hard to imagine that more than 250 people would line-up in New York City on a Monday night to attend a ninety minute lecture by four different translators on Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. At the Americas Society, that’s exactly what happened last night, leading this writer to believe that people still care about literature, that neither the novel nor poetry are dead, but very much alive in our fair Gotham’s literary community.
At the invitation of the America’s Society, team Literary Man was fortunate enough to attend last night’s lecture, in which Suzanne Jill Levine moderated a panel discussion with eminent Borges scholars including Efraín Kristal (professor and chair of UCLA’s Department of Comparative Literature), Alfred Mac Adam (professor of Spanish-American literature at Barnard College/Columbia University), Alastair Reid (renowned translator of Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, among other iconic Latin American writers). The theme: Jorge Luis Borges, the writer and translator. Professor Levine gave opening remarks and then invited each of the panel members to deliver a brief lecture on their experience reading, translating, and in some cases personally interacting with the late Argentine genius.
Borges is a very funny writer, impossibly erudite and improbably concise. Each panel member rightly honored his wit and intellect. Professors Kristal and Mac Adam spoke mostly about Borges the translator and writer. The panel observed and discussed that Borges’s body of translation — he was among the first translators of Kafka, Woolf, and Faulkner into Spanish — far exceeded his body of creative writing. Imagine: translating a greater volume of work than creating. I’m not a translator, nor have I ever attempted it, but it seems daunting to rewrite the great masterworks of one’s forebears, far more daunting than setting down the pen to the page, knowing that you can always just throw it away if it isn’t any good.
Chair of Columbia’s Translation Program, Susan Bernofsky, in the Q&A portion of the evening, asked if any of Borges’ translations were considered canonical in their own right. The panel agreed that many were, but without specifying which were indisputably canonical, except, perhaps, Borges’ translation of Woolf’s Orlando. Other members of the audience asked about specific translations — Borges has been translated by dozens of authors — and the highlight of the night must surely have been Alastair Reid’s personal recollections of working with Borges. Stories of Borges’ English grandmother, his father’s failed literary aspirations, his profound respect for the English tradition of poetry, all contributed to an outstanding night of literary celebration. I was left with the feeling that, though he is among my favorite writers, it had been far too long since I’d flipped through Ficciones. And there, in the very first volume of Tlön, Uqbar, Obis Tertius (what a title!) translated by last night’s panel member Alastair Reid. It’s never too late to start your relationship with Borges.