From the Translator: Kim M. Hastings on Translating “Borges’s Secretary”

By Kim M. Hastings

In this dispatch, Portuguese translator Kim M. Hastings weighs in on her translation of Lúcia Bettencourt's story "Borges's Secretary" from the October 2010 issue of the magazine. You can read the original story here.

Not long after I translated “Borges’s Secretary,” I received a handwritten note thanking me for sharing the work and remarking, “it never seems to read like a translation.” What happier line for a translator to hear, especially as it came from Alberto Manguel, celebrated writer, translator, and one-time assistant to Borges (not his secretary, in the end, but something even more intimate, his reader, Borges’s access to books he could no longer read himself but had to have read to him).

Translation, of course, involves re-creating a work in another language. Often the act implies that there is an “original” preexisting text, against which the later or subsequent version may be measured or judged. Borges translated into Spanish works by Poe, Kafka, Melville, Whitman, Woolf, and Faulkner, among others, and critically analyzed side-by-side translations of Homer into English and the Thousand and One Nights into multiple languages. It was his steadfast belief, however, that translation, as a recombination of elements, is in no way inferior or subordinate to its “precursor.” A translation can—indeed, often should—stand on its own, and may well supplant or surpass what came before just as it enhances the earlier “draft.”

The title character of Lúcia Bettencourt’s story is also a kind of translator, a subversive scribe, as she usurps her employer’s voice and reshapes the words he dictates, making them her own even as they remain recognizably his. As the fictional Borges concedes with a mix of pleasure and horror: “The story was mine but I had never written it . . . The style was so close to mine that even I had difficulty detecting the differences.” As Lúcia noted during one of our joint readings of “Borges’s Secretary” (and I again translate her words, uttered in Portuguese at the time): “Every writer is necessarily blind, in the Tiresian sense of the word, vision turned inward . . .” Her nameless secretary becomes the ideal reader, the one quite literally bringing Borges’s compositions to life: “I recognized my idea, a grain of an idea I had pitched to my secretary, . . . that grain had been transformed into a seed that had sprouted and grown into a lush and leafy tree.” It is she who ensures that his words come out, see the light of day, “go do battle” as published works, and reach the audience for whom they were intended.

Lúcia, as creator of “Borges’s Secretary,” must also be considered a translator, as she too reinvents and rewrites Borges: “I am Borges, the great Borges, loved and renowned, admired.” In imagining herself in this role, she questions the very notions of authorship and authority, of originality, while reiterating the impossibility of writing as setting down or fixing language in some perfect, permanent, invariable form. Collaboration and reconfiguration, both implicit in translation, sustain literary composition and perpetuate intertextual conversation. Together they allow us to shape and articulate our understanding of the world around us.

What then of my task as translator? In rendering Lúcia’s story, crafted in Portuguese, into English, I entered a labyrinth of sorts, translating a translation about a translator. But the text, in this sense, offers infinite possibilities of interpretation, even more readings than there are readers since each time we return to a text, we approach it from a new and different perspective. My translation is one among many. Indeed, so much so that within the same week of its appearance in Words Without Borders, an Egyptian poet came along and rewrote my version. His is in Arabic, the language in which the endless, authorless Thousand and One Nights, which Borges read and reread and translated in his own way, were said to have first been put down on paper.


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