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Readerís reaction to translations of Borgesí The Library of Babel and the translatorís response
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Reader's Response

We reproduce below - with some perplexity - the readerís reaction to the two translations of Borgesí The Library of Babel in Phalanx 9 along with the translatorís response. Also reproduced are comments by one of our editors. An observation made by the reader is that ďreality contaminated by dreamĒ is a key motif in Borgesí fiction. This appears to be borne out by The Circular Ruins which is translated in two ways in this issue. None of the letters have been edited.

Editor
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From: Vivek Iyer, sent on 21/07/2013

Dear Chi. Raghavendra,
Receiving an email notification of the latest issue of Phalanx, I eagerly clicked on the essay on Borges regarding which the following claim was made- Literary and Literal Translation: The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges: Two different translations, one idiomatic and one literal, of the same story by the great Argentinian author shows facets of the story that every critic and translator dealing with Borges appears to have missed. I have read the essay. It is utterly foolish. It says-
“A man will prefer one or other between feasible choices; usually at least;
and one cannot choose what to dream.”
This is not true. No man has a preference between the vast majority of feasible choices because no man has a complete information set. Every man chooses everything he cares to day-dream about. As for what one dreams in the night, an aficionado of Borges will know of several esoteric oneirological practices and theories which suggest that not only can one choose what to dream (a notion confirmed by Scientific research) but that those dreams can shape reality or indeed create it. Indeed, 'the contamination of Reality by the dream' is a central trope for Borges. The author, blissfully unaware of this fact, merrily continues-
“But a persevering man may, nonetheless, continue to prefer what he
 cannot proceed to choose: he may keep wanting what he cannot have.”
People, animals, even plants want things they can't have. It is the condition of life. Nothing to do with being 'persevering'.
“To prefer does not presuppose being able to actually choose then; not strictly considered; and we may rescue  „prefer to dream? from mere solecism thus.”
How stupid is the author? What is his major malfunction? Has anybody ever suggested that every living beings preference to enjoy health rather than disease and death PRESUPPOSES the ability to actually choose not to die and instead enjoy felicity? No even an extreme relationist Occassionalism would qualify its notion of conatus in this way. Why is the author using pompous, learned sounding language to say something so foolish and without foundation in the philosophical or hermeneutic traditions relevant to Borges's essay?
The author concludes by saying-
               “But the effort seems wasted, for the locution remains strange even so:
               to dream that mirrors figure and promise the infinite would not be to
               dream mirrors whose surfaces do so figure and promise. So the
               promiscuously literary version which accompanies the literal
               transcription here renders the sentence thus: I wish always to dream
               their burnished faces: which prefigure and promise infinity.”
Borges's librarian has said something simple- there are mirrors in the library. Mirrors make a place look bigger than it is. That's why some people say 'the library must be smaller than it appears'. If the library is infinite, why put in mirrors?'  I don't subscribe to this view. I like to day-dream that the superficies (a word which has a specific mathematical meaning in this context) of the mirror has a certain sort of relationship to infinity. What sort? Well, the librarian has spoken poetically, suggestively, with lots of dhvani. Depending on one's Mathematical knowledge or specialization, the same set of words can have different 'models' - i.e. instantiate propositions in different axiom systems.
               Borges knew Cantor's work on degrees of Infinity. He had some hazy idea (he wasn't a Math maven) about developments in the 30's- in particular the Constructivist vs Platonist debate. In any case, Borges was au fait with the Husserl vs Heidegger contretemps- and had the sense to despise Heidegger. In interpreting or translating or commenting on Borges why not extend him the benefit of the doubt? He may not have been a Godel or Heytig or Kripke. But students of Godel and Brouwer and Cohen and Kripke find much to chew over in Borges.
               I am an Economist by training and have to get my own writing checked for mistakes by Maths guys. Still, the word 'superficies' with its legal, mathematical, and philosophical meanings is a rich one and worth highlighting. For me, at the level of naive reception, it suggests something like 'the surface of the mirror is a projection of the imaginary number line- i.e. the 'burnished' interface it represents is like the complex number field- which endows something denumerably infinite with a higher Cardinality- i.e. it promises or itself 'figures' -i.e. constructively performs- a sort of Cantor diagonlization.
                Precisely since Borges writes poetically, I can immediately correct my naive Reception to get to some concrete open question in Math- i.e. though Borges isn't a Math guy, he has chosen his words so carefully, or guided by such native Genius, that a line from him gets us to an open problem whereas many Maths guys from fifty years ago, in their prose, seldom hit on open questions instead of arguing the toss on questions we now know to be closed.  As a matter of fact, since I'm interested in the influence of Ibn Arabi's concept of barzakh, mediated by Asin Palacios and his commentators, on Borges, the word 'burnished superficies' suggests still hazy notions like negative complexity which, given its link to apophatic theology, links 'burished' to the notion of 'fierce Grace'.
                The author of this essay appears to have zero knowledge about the Philosophy of Infinity- surely a prerequisite for the task. What great point is he making? If the translator is stupid, ignorant and out of his depth, then there is no difference between a literal and a literary translation because both are shit. The author writes-
               “The literary version will seem wantonly false to the original; and only
               in the sudden if modest assertion of his last and valedictory sentence
               does the plausible commentator there show himself kin, at all, to his
               fictive model. “
Why wantonly false? After which Strange God has the literary version gone whoring? Why this baroque self-regarding politesse in the context of an exhibition of illiteracy?
But just so must I seek excuse: I must hope that the pronounced difference here, between locution literally transcribed and its egregiously literary glossing, will somehow disclose, between them, the strange presence that the speaking voice becomes in the original.
Stupidity is its own excuse and not one far to seek. There is no pronounced difference between the stupid illiterate shite spouted by this author. He can't write decent English. How is he going to write literary English? He doesn't understand the first thing about the subject matter- how is he going to give us a faithful literal translation.

What a waste of time.
Why did you publish this? Who wrote it?
Was it you?
If so, I apologize for any hurt feelings this Email may cause you.
Still, do commit suicide to protest something or other. Blame will properly be affixed on Narendra Modi
Mind it kindly.
Aiyayo
Vivek

*

Translator Response

To the esteemed Editor of Phalanx, from the chastened scribe of Babel
Honoured and indeed honourable Sir,

I read with misgiving and fear the anathemas pronounced, by the venerable Inquisitor Iyer,
upon the History of our kind that I had ventured to compose for you: to expiate which impiety
I have in all humility gleaned and gathered below, for His gracious perusal, the Catechism
of the Infinitesimals of Babel, together with sundry Confessions and Proscriptions and
Sacred Formulae.

what is written annuls us
the steps of the stairways are not enumerable
1, 2, buckle my shoe
one does not read the same book twice
there are as many latrines as there are water-closets
d h c m r l c h t d j
no book is a stairway
there are  3.11.10.9.8.7.6.5 - 1  straight ways to hell
no one may read two books at once
3, 4, shut the door
the Libary is a sphere whose centre is everywhere
mira, mamá, los pyramides del tiempo
some miles to the right, ninety levels above
the characters   circumference   are every way infernal
coherent are the meek
no contiguous catenation of corridors is concentric
all the levels are equally levels
there are  4.6.8.10.13.11.9.7.5  winding ways to hell
the catalogue of catalogues is a catalogue
there are 26 orthographic symbols
let him who is without sin cast the first dot
5, 6, pick up sticks
the catalogue of catalogues is the Analogue
the third line of page 71
let no man put asunder the hexagons a corridor has joined
O Thunderer coiffed
a comma for a comma, a blank for a blank
the Librarian of the Analogue is a librarian
suffer the children
hablan, los he oído hablarlo, de la Biblioteca febril
7, 8, don't be late
there were no flowers in the sand
9, 10, do it again
what is written annuls us

*

From Hans Varghese Mathews, sent on 23/01/2014
Dear Raghavendra,
                in re the two versions of Borges' Library of Babel that Phalanx had put up ... the abuse that provoked was entertaining, vastly so, and the Infinitesimals the translator has conjured in reply no less. ... for sending all of which my way many thanks

it's only tiring to read the two translations together, really, and that itself will keep the literal version from being read in the telling way you'd hoped for: so I'm tempted to say along with the vociferous Vivek Iyer that the exercise was "utterly foolish" ... even if your man seems to have got his mathematics from the Wikipedia ... and his English from an economics textbook, seeming as he does to confound a daily use of 'prefer' with the 'preferences' of the economist: a Pavlovian response to the stimulus of the word 'feasible' maybe.
                anyway, it is to make a "perfectly rational" choice between his "preferences" that Homo Oeconomicus needs a "complete information set". How much that has to do with daily choosing I don't know: and when he retorts that he can "day-dream" as he pleases, your fuming Iyer unwittingly concedes the translator's contention that 'prefer to dream' is a strange locution. But it isn't entirely surprising, I suppose, that an Indian trained into a social science should mistake its technical language for a natural idiom: and as little surprising that Homo Hierachicus should suppose himself the proprietor, then, of a lexicon whose authoritative employment is his particular office ...
                “Thou shalt not sit with Statisticians/Nor commit a Social Science:” so Auden declared to aspiring American poets once. But the Great Instaurator might have approved, who knows, of poetic Economists ... though Bacon's imperial successors would have thought it unlikely, entirely, that New Atlanis would rise on Indian soil your translator has risked too much, however, by writing to readers of Empson: I don't know anyone who reads him: though 7 Types of Ambiguity is still a thrill to read (however haltingly I read it) and its brilliant improvisations show how poor a variant of English our "lingua franca" Standard American has become: through the erasing of what linguists term implicature I'd say: and the standardized pseudo-English of America (so Paul Virilio calls it somewhere) is what anglophone social science is now conducted in

coming back to the "Philosophy of Infinity" demanded by your scientific critic: whose mystic professors are able to "endow a denumnerably infinite set with infinite cardinality" ...  The "infinitude" of the Library seems to consist, at the end of the story, in its being both "unlimited and periodic". But the Library is also "a sphere whose precise centre is each hexagon and whose circumference is inaccessible": and these characterizations must in some way inflect each other: perhaps your Iyer will tell us how when he is cooler? ... as for his "day-dreaming" on the mirrors of the Library: that would have some interpretive point if the librarians themselves distinguish waking reverie from dreaming sleep: of which there is no hint: and the "methodical writing" which occupies them  --- and "distracts" our narrator from "the present condition of men" ---   would leave no time for "day-dreaming" one thinks.
                it seems important, actually, that day is not divided from night in Babel: that the only light there comes from "spherical fruits that bear the name of lamps" ... whose "incessant" and "insufficient" light we will particularly recall when we are told, at the end of the story, that humankind is "to die out" but "the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, armed with precious books, useless, incorruptible, secret" ... and an attentive reader will recall these "fruits" in some telling way then: given the explicit mention of and repeated allusion to defecation, especially, with no talk of refection at all: and given the singular use of the word "insinuate" at the very end. But dwelling on such things will hardly serve the therapeutic uses, only, that your man seems to have for Borges 

the other day I found a book whose title promised much: The Unimaginable Mathematics of Babel ... but it seems a slight thing: which contrives a curiosity about planar graphs after supposing that each constituent hexagon of the Library has two open faces ... even though the narrrating librarian has said that "one of the free faces gives on a narrow corridor, leading to another gallery, which is identical to the first, and to all the others."  Now if they are only connected like that then the hexagons are joined in pairs, each with just one other, by the corridor going between them: and the Library would seem to have the structure of an endless ladder then, or a vast circular one perhaps, with the pairing corridors for rungs, strung along  "the spiral stirway which plunges and climbs into the remoteness."  But then there could not be any hexagon that is "some miles to the right" and "ninety more floors above" any other: so the text itself may be thought to warrant two exits from each of the hexagons ... which the literary version provides them with actually: and I notice that 'some miles to the right, ninety levels above' appears in the "expiation" your "chastened scribe" has tendered toward his intemperate critic ...
                I am attaching the pdf of the book: do pass it on to that engagingly vituperative personage. The title is disingenuous: the word 'unimaginable' means 'not picturable' only. But a literal-minded man will not mind: so that should not draw your Iyer's ire. The book is published by Cambridge University Press: which may be evidence of willing readers: all belonging to some cult of technicians, one thinks now, who have made of Borges' writing a fetish ... a dismaying end for an author so diabolically literate: but a deserved fate, perhaps, for the creator of an im-mortal who could propose that "all our actions are just, but they are also indifferent. There are no moral or intellectual merits"

regards,
hans varghese mathews

p.s. your man will bristle at my taking his speech for a sort of pidgin: and it may be that he is actually very, very literate: so much so that he takes "baroque, self-regarding politesse" for a kind of illiteracy

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