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Home > Archive > Article: El Muerto
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‘Faithful Translation’:
The Dead Man
by Jorge Luis Borges

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El Muerto

The earlier translations of Borges’s stories in Phalanx, especially when compared with the canonical literary translations, demonstrate how the author’s stories in the original Spanish differ vastly from their English language versions which were responsible for his late fame in the US. What is singular, however, is that these departures were approved by Borges, who may have felt that such departures could make the stories more accessible to the American readers who celebrated him. The present story has been translated earlier by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, perhaps Borges’ best-known translator. It has generally been regarded as a kind of adventure story but there are aspects which suggest that its purpose is different. The story relates to one Benjamin Otalora from the slums of Buenos Aires who joins a band of smugglers in Uruguay, tries to usurp the position of the leader of the gang, only to be killed. The present translator has attempted to translate the story faithfully but has not offered his views on its intent.  This is an examination of some of its aspects, which Giovanni’s free translation hides.

Here is a passage from the present ‘faithful’ translation dealing with Otalora’s meeting with the boss Bandeira, who is sick:

“The room has been stripped bare. From the gloom a balcony looks west. On a spreading table belts and buckles lie scattered, guns and knives, in glittering disarray. The moon is a blur in a far mirror. Bandeira lies with his mouth up and open. He dreams and moans. The vast white of the bed seems to diminish and darken him. A final vehemence of the sun flares his face. Otálora stares at the greyed head, the fissured skin, the slack jaw: it revolts him that this decayed old man should be commanding them. One blow would do to finish him he thinks: and sees in the mirror that someone has entered. It is the woman with the red hair. She is in the middle of dressing. Her feet are bare. She looks back at him with cold curiosity. Bandeira sits up and begins to talk of things in the countryside, matters of business, draining cup after cup of maté, his fingers straying in her tresses. At last he gives Otálora leave to go.”      

Here is Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s earlier, freer translation of the same passage, published in 1970:

“The bedroom is bare and dark. There’s a balcony that faces the sunset, there’s a long table with a shining disarray of riding crops, bullwhips, cartridge belts, firearms, and knives. On the far wall there’s a mirror and the glass is faded. Bandeira lies face up, dreaming and muttering in his sleep; the sun’s last rays outline his features. The big white bed seems to make him smaller, darker. Otálora notes his graying hair, his exhaustion, his weakness, the deep wrinkles of his years. It angers him being mastered by this old man. He thinks that a single blow would be enough to finish him. At this moment, he glimpses in the mirror that someone has come in. It’s the woman with the red hair; she is barefoot and only half-dressed, and looks at him with cold curiosity. Bandeira sits up in bed; while he speaks of business affairs of the past two years and drinks maté after maté, his fingers toy with the woman’s braided hair. In the end, he gives Otálora permission to leave.”

Just consider the two translations: both are in the present tense but what Borges does in the first passage is to provide – i.e.: evoke – discrete images of the cinematic kind and the passage works as montage in film might. Here are some phrases which specifically recall poetic cinematic images in a way that Giovanni’s choices (shown alongside in brackets) do not:

‘From the gloom a balcony looks west’ (‘there’s a balcony that faces the sunset’), ‘guns and knives, in glittering disarray’ (‘with a shining disarray of riding crops, bullwhips, cartridge belts, firearms, and knives’), ‘Bandeira lies with his mouth up and open. He dreams and moans’ (Bandeira lies face up, dreaming and muttering in his sleep), ‘a final vehemence of the sun flares his face’ (‘the sun’s last rays outline his features’), ‘his fingers straying in her tresses’ (‘his fingers toy with the woman’s braided hair’). One could say that where the faithful translation is concerned with images/moments, Giovanni’s translation relates happenings/ events, also emphasizing a causal connection between them.  Moreover, where Borges depends almost entirely on sensation and therefore employs point of view Giovanni explains and hence uses the omniscient gaze. Giovanni, for instance, changes Borges’ ‘revolts him’ (concerned with sensation) to ‘angers him’ (which explains) and ‘looks back at him with cold curiosity’ to ‘looks at him with cold curiosity.’   

Borges was apparently fascinated by cinematic montage and he explicitly recalls it in an earlier story:

“History (which, like certain film directors, proceeds by a series of abrupt images) now puts forward the image of a danger-filled saloon, located - as if on the high seas - out in the heart of the all-powerful desert.” From The Disinterested Killer Bill Harrigan, from Jorge Luis Borges: A Universal History of Infamy, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973)

The use of the present tense is consistent with the story being thought of as cinema because unlike real events, those that unfold on the screen do so again and again; film stories are therefore related in the present tense unlike actual happenings. The title of the story ‘the dead man’ also implies an unwavering teleology leading to Otalora’s death – as characters meant to die in a film are ‘destined’. Borges’ fascination with montage may have been on account of montage allowing meaning to be constructed in one’s head without an imposition of meaning through causal connections. History as a ‘series of abrupt images’ also denies it the meaning attributed to it by historians, who would insist on causal significance. 

If Borges is writing the story to resemble cinematic montage, a question that follows pertains to the kind of cinema he is emulating. In an afterword to the collection of stories in which The Dead Man originally appears Borges suggests that Otalora was like an ambitious Roman consul (Flavius Rufinus) mentioned by Gibbon who was virtually ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire after the death of Theodosius in the 4th Century CE. Argentina is not a nation with a rich history and its home-grown mythology comes largely from the figure of the gaucho, its version of the American cowboy. Borges could be elevating the figure of the gaucho through this baroque exercise the way Sergio Leone elevated the western, especially in Once Upon a Time in the West. None of this is supported by Giovanni’s translation.   

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Complete Story: The Dead Man


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