Borges Young Vocabulary

If Borges had had his way-and he generally did-all polysyllables would have been replaced [in English translation] by monosyllables. . . People concerned about the legitimacy of the literal might well be scandalized by his mania for dehispanization. “Simplify me. Modify me. Make me stark. My language often embarrasses me. It’s too youthful, too Latinate. . . I want the power of Cynewulf, Beowulf, Bede. Make me macho and gaucho and skinny.”

– Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters)

Transported Southwards

Reading Borges after a long break elicits a reaction similar to sinking into a bath set to your just-perfect temperature. What better than A Perfect Anthology where Borges “has put together those pieces on which he would like his reputation to rest.”

Old favourite The South is here, an exquisite miniature where Borges squeezes more depth into eight pages than many novels. The fate of Juan Dahlmann is as refreshing as every time I read this story. Within paragraphs I am transported to Buenos Aires; can smell the eucalyptus and cloves; feel the dry heat; sense the menace of the remote general store.

It is reading Borges (and Nabokov) where time is most easily suspended. An hour spent slowly savouring The South, sentence by sentence, passes in moments. To steal a couple of lines from Borges’s poem A Page  to Commemorate Colonel Suárez, Victor at Junín:

What matters the flow of time, if he knew
that fullness, that ecstasy, that afternoon?


In Michael Alexander’s introduction to passages from Beowulf he writes:

The blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, when he came to St. Andrews asked to be taken to the edge of the North Sea so that he could recite Beowulf at it from memory.

Beowulf is sufficiently intimidating without imagining Borge’s memorising the poem, undoubtedly in original Old English form. How I wish Borges recital was preserved on film.

Searching for references to this event I found Borge’s poem:

Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf”
by Borges (trans. by Alastair Reid)

At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf is bewitching. Heaney brings to life this epoch of savagery and heroism. After Beowulf’s battle against Grendel, the Dane king’s joy is dashed after the beast’s mother takes revenge. Bolstering the Dane’s wavering courage Beowulf proclaims his ‘heroic code’:

Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke:
‘Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone
that will be his best and only bulwark.
So arise, my lord, and let us immediately
set forth on the trail of this troll-dam.
I guarantee you: she will not get away,
not to dens under ground nor upland groves
nor the ocean floor. She’ll have nowhere to flee to.
Endure your troubles today. Bear up
and be the man I expect you to be.’

To sample another version of Beowulf  I’ve bought Howell. D. Chickering, Jr.’s respected translation and commentary; that is for another time. A quotation from Heaney’s explanation about the urge to translate Beowulf:

Braidwood could not help informing us, for example, that the word ‘whiskey’ is the same word as the Irish and Scots Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, and that the River Usk in Britain is therefore to some extent the River Uisce (or Whiskey); and so in my mind the stream was suddenly turned into a kind of linguistic river of rivers issuing from a pristine Celto-British Land of Cockaigne, a riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some prepolitical, prelapsarian, ur-philological Big Rock Candy Mountain – and all this had a wonderfully sweetening effect upon me.


Manguel on Borges:

It isn’t impossible that in some way, in order to be with a woman, any woman of the many he desired, to be privy to her mystery, to be more than just a wordsmith, to be or to try to be a lover and be loved for his own sake and not for that of his inventions, Borges created the Aleph, again and again, throughout his work.

But I’d go further. I suspect that Dante constructed literature’s best book in order to insert a few meetings with the unrecapturable Beatrice …