Bifurcating Translations: Borges’s Theories of Ideas and Writing Through Translation Studies

by Meaghan Skahan

Jorge Luis Borges has been embraced by postmodernity, as a result of his interrogation of originality. In an interview with Jacques Chancel, Borges explained:

I do not write, I rewrite. My memory produces my sentences. I have read so much and I have heard so much. I admit it: I repeat myself. I confirm it: I plagiarize. We are all heirs of millions of scribes who have already written down all that is essential a long time before us. We are all copyists, and all the stories we invent have already been told. There are no longer any original ideas. (Invisible Work 135)

This theoretical positioning influences his practice of writing as re-writing, writing as reading, and translating as both a creative and critical process. Throughout his essayistic and short fiction writings, Borges demonstrates his system of beliefs most effectively by putting it into practice in both his fictions and translations. Many critical studies focus on artistic creation theory in Borges, and the majority of such studies specifically focus on a small portion of the fictional texts. My study proposes to look at a group of translational texts, Borges’s translation of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and his stories “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn-Hakam Al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth,” as representative of Borges’s general thoughts on writing—theory that is pervasive throughout his entire body of work.

Borges was visibly fascinated by the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, as evidenced by his discussions of and allusions to the writer, his translations of Poe, and his versions and re-workings of the detective genre. John T. Irwin’s The Mystery to a Solution is dedicated in its entirety to the exploration of the relationship between the two writers. Other Borgesian studies examine, in relation to Poe, Borges’s theory and practice of translation, which is inextricable from the Nietzschean idea of the impossibility of originality. Efraín Kristal’s Invisible Work: Borges and Translation looks at Borges as a translator, and also examines translation as it plays out in Borges’s creative fiction. In what follows, translation theory and the impossibility of originality will be set against one another to further examine a specific translational relationship: that of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” and Borges’s translation of Poe’s story, “La carta robada”; as well as Borges’ original stories “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn-Hakam Al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth.” I will delve into the major stylistic and semantic distances between the Poe story and its Borgesian translations, arguing that Borges’ translation of Poe extends beyond the literal translation to other translational practices that can be seen in “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn-Hakam Al-Bokhari.” After briefly synthesizing Borges’s background as a reader/writer/translator, it will be helpful to review Borges’s interest in Poe as an author and as the creator of a genre that fascinated Borges. This essay will revolve around Borges’s conception of translation, specifically in relation to “The Purloined Letter.” By examining this particular translational “problematic” (which I have yet to define) alongside Borges’s major essays on translation and through my discussion of Irwin’s and Kristal’s work, I hope to clarify some of the major tenets of his critical and translational theories and practices.

When studying the work of Borges, one is never very far from his thoughts on reading, writing, and translation. While translation is the focus of this essay, Borges’s understanding of the three processes is too intimately linked to ignore his relationship to reading and how it shapes his writing process. It is common knowledge that Borges’s knowledge of literature was extensive. The fact that some scholars have made attempts to draw boundaries at the limits of his erudition seems to further demonstrate the unusual scope of his readings (in that few writers attract such critical attention to what they have and have not read). Not only was Borges widely read; he enjoyed writing about his favorite texts and incorporated many of their characteristics into his own writing. His “An Autobiographical Essay,” written at the behest of Norman Thomas Di Giovanni in 1970, shows that much of his literary and philosophical direction was inherited from his father (206). Because Borges was raised in a bilingual household, many of his favorite books were written in English and amongst his favorite writers were Chesterton, Stevenson, and of course, Poe. Emir Rodríguez Monegal’s two essays, “Borges, a Reader” and “Borges: the Reader as Writer,” best demonstrate the link between Borges’s practices of reading and creating, especially in relation to the English language:

Borges learned to read English before Spanish…From the very beginning the English language was inseparably related to the act of reading…it became a code giving him access to the world of books…Here one can find the origin of his personal myth and his well-known predilection for British—and, by extension, North American—letters. (“Borges, a Reader” 41)

The longer and earlier essay, “Borges: the Reader as Writer,” methodically uncovers a number of Borges’s ideas, while affirming that “Borges probably hasn’t added a single new idea, a single lasting intuition, to the vast corpus compiled by the West and the East…But his speculations…are essential to an understanding of the ultimate meaning of his work” (103). Rodríguez Monegal, as Suzanne Jill Levine’s essay “Borges and Emir: The Writer and His Reader” demonstrates, was able to find the biographical “drama/trauma in Borges’s rhetoric of reading” (123). Rodríguez Monegal’s essay dedicates significant time to exploring Borges’s relationship to his father and how his biography (specifically the overcoming of the biological and literary fathers) relates to his written work. More directly connected to my focus are two points Rodríguez Monegal elucidates, first: “[I]t would be impossible to quote all the places in Borges’s work in which he discusses personal identity only to deny it” (106). The distancing or impossibility of the self ties into the idea that the work is more important than the author, which allows Borges to translate and to think of translation in a specific way that is described in his essay “Two Ways to Translate.” Secondly, “[T]he identification of the universe with the Book has permitted Borges to introduce into his essay (somewhat laterally) a different and complementary theme: we ourselves are a kind of writing” (114). This quotation refers specifically to Borges’s “On the Cult of Books” essay, in which Rodríguez Monegal uncovers the metaphor of the book as the universe, which can also be seen in Borges’s story “The Library of Babel.” Essentially, in Borges’s writing, the entire world is a book, and all books are the world, and it is impossible to uncover any hidden meanings underneath the semiotic mess that is language. The re-writing and translating of past stories is simply a way of rearranging ideas, but it is important to keep in mind that, for Borges, the re-readings and re-writings had no more capacity to uncover metaphysical truths than did the so-called originals.

While he is best known for the short fictions written during the 1940’s, Borges wrote extensively as a poet and essayist as well. In a brief essay on Poe published in La Nación in 1949, Borges makes an interesting comment on Poe’s celebrity as a short fiction writer that illustrates one of the many parallels between the two writers: “Poe se creía poeta, sólo poeta, pero las circunstancias lo llevaron a escribir cuentos, y esos cuentos a cuya escritura se resignó y que debió encarar como tareas ocasionales, son su inmortalidad.”[1] While the biographical similarities between Poe and Borges will be addressed again briefly in my discussion of John T. Irwin’s book, I cite this essay here to foreshadow the distorted parallels between the two writers but more importantly to call attention to the wide variety of texts that make up both Poe’s and Borges’s oeuvre. Luckily for readers who focus on Borges’s renowned Ficciones, published in 1944, and El aleph, 1949, all of Borges’s theory is succinctly contained in explicit and implicit form within his short stories. “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” is given its due in important studies of translation, including Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe and George Steiner’s After Babel: “[H]ere Cervantes’s masterpiece becomes a tentative web of propositions that change with each new historical act of reading; each successive reading, rewriting, translating of a text enriches and ensures the original’s survival anew” (Levine 5). Within this story, Borges demonstrates two crucial aspects of his translation theory: the continuous cyclical process of reading and rewriting, and the unimportance of the author in relation to the “work,” which is now a “text.”

In order to fully appreciate Borges’s various readings and writings on Poe, one must understand certain aspects of Borgesian translation. First, his translations and writings on translation generally celebrate the creative aspect of the act of translating, what Ana Gargatagli and Juan Gabriel López Guix label as “infidelidad creadora” or creative infidelity (5). However, the second essential facet of the theory further complicates our path: with Borges, it is dangerous to assume that one theory is universal or that he follows one straight path in any sense of the phrase. Levine affirms in “Borges and Translation” that “Borges is also a pragmatist in that he does not trust general theories, but rather evaluates ‘particular’ translations and originals alike, case by case: hence the work itself matters more than its author” (3). Thus, while it is helpful to have a general overview of how Borges seems to address translation and writing in general, there are exceptions to every statement that could be made. His rewritings of “The Purloined Letter” in fact adhere to certain ideas that Borges embraced but do not seem to fit perfectly into sync with everything he wrote on translation.

The role of the author for Borges is crucial to understanding how Borges felt about creativity, originality, and how translations/reproductions function in relation to their original sources. In The Subversive Scribe, Suzanne Jill Levine proposes some of the questions that surface in Borges’s writings:

Borges prefigured here Michel Foucault’s challenge to the concept of authorship: What is an author? How can we determine intentionality? The only real difference between original and translation—Borges playfully specified—is that the translator’s referent is a visible text against which the translation can be judged. (5)

While the referent of a visible text sets the translator apart from the writer of an original work, the quotation at the beginning of this essay demonstrates that even the allegedly original text is drawing from a previous work according to Borges. These three characteristics of Borgesian translation all link back to the more general worldview found in so many of Borges’s texts: it is futile to try to create something completely new or original, because all stories are retellings of older stories. Borges does seem to think that innovation and creation can be generated in the combining of and tension between the new and the old, an idea that can be seen in his understanding of translation and also in how he crafts his stories by reworking texts he had previously read. “Creation in Borges emerged organically, systemically and simultaneously along with his elaborations as a translator, and the notion of what a writer is, indeed, emerged out of Borges’ version of what a translator is, or can do, especially when that translator is Borges” (“Borges and Translation” 5). This understanding of Borgesian theory of artistic creation will serve as the foundation of my discussion of two works by Borges that directly draw from Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” and my attempt to further explain Borgesian translation using these specific translations as a point of departure.

Borges’s interest in Poe is inarguable. Emron Esplin notes in “Reading and Re-Reading: Jorge Luis Borges’ Literary Criticism on Edgar Allan Poe” that Borges references Poe or a text of Poe’s in over one hundred and twenty written works (this number excludes speeches). Esplin consulted Borges’s personal copies of many of Poe’s texts that belong to Borges’s widow, Maria Kodama. An interesting aspect of Esplin’s analysis of Borges’s notations is that the marginalia appears to be from a number of different periods of his life, meaning that Borges continually returned to Poe throughout his career:

Borges offers his most lengthy analyses of Poe’s texts and Poe’s life in a limited number of articles…However, the vast majority of his references to Poe appear in articles on subjects other than Poe…Reviews and prologues might not carry the scholarly weight (or length) of an academic article, interview, or lecture, but their close connection to the texts they review or precede make them at least as influential on the reading public…Borges’ references to Poe in articles not focused on Poe, reviews, and prologues demonstrate that Borges not only re-read Poe either literally or through memory every time he alludes to Poe’s work. (Esplin 249)

Poe’s influence on Borges, as evidenced by the continual notation in his personal texts as well as by his consistent references to the author, was one of the more prominent influences that can be clearly traced within the Borgesian oeuvre. In John T. Irwin’s book The Mystery to a Solution, Irwin makes a convincing case that in part Borges’s interest in Poe was biographical. Irwin’s masterful and appropriately labyrinthine text addresses the biographical parallels in a chapter entitled “Poe and Borges as Southerners; A Military/Literary Heritage; Heroic Grandfathers; Pierre Menard; Faulkner as Mediating Influence; The Journey to the South” (164), and the title offers a completely reasonable (and for our purposes sufficient) condensation of the content. Aside from this listing of bridges that can be built between the biographies of the two writers, it is necessary to note that Poe, like Borges, wrote extensively on a similarly wide variety of topics, and was considered one of the first great American literary critics and theoreticians. Irwin’s book focuses on the mirroring of Poe’s Dupin stories with three Borgesian detective stories that Borges intentionally began to publish one hundred years after the publication of the first Dupin story.

From here, the question shifts from “why Poe?” to “why the three Dupin stories?” Throughout Borges’s oeuvre, one continuously finds references to the narrative relevance of plot, artifice, and the detective story/novel as a genre. In essays dedicated to specific writers of the genre, including Wilkie Collins, Ellery Queen, and Chesterton, Borges demonstrates his breadth of knowledge of detective fiction and, based on his observations of the genre, establishes “a code” that detective short stories should follow in “The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton.” Although his code is extreme and never perfectly followed (neither by Borges nor by his collaborator Bioy Casares), it is significant that he was intrigued enough by the genre to undertake such a task. Moreover, the first paragraph of his 1978 essay “The Detective Story” illustrates his debt to Poe: “[T]o speak of the detective story is to speak of Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the genre” (125). Within this essay, Borges speculates about Poe’s desire in writing the Dupin stories, saying that:

Poe did not want the detective genre to be a realist genre; he wanted it to be an intellectual genre, a fantastic genre, if you wish, but a fantastic genre of the intellect and not only of the imagination; a genre of both things, no doubt, but primarily the intellect. (130)

Borges then spends a large portion of the essay examining the plots of Poe’s stories, including “The Purloined Letter” and “ The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” Nowhere in this essay is the quality of Poe’s writing discussed, only the brilliance and efficacy of his plots. It is significant that the list of “excellent writers” near the end of the essay does not include Poe’s name. In the concluding paragraph of the essay, Borges characterizes most modern writing as tending “toward free verse…It tends to eliminate character, plot; everything is very vague” (134). This assessment mirrors what Borges says about “los rusos” in his prologue to Bioy Casares’s La invención de Morel, especially because in both essays he directly contrasts the vague and disorganized writing with another type of writing that “has humbly maintained the classic virtues” (134): the detective story or the similar adventure novel (the subject of the prologue). Efraín Kristal notes in Invisible Work that:

Borges venerated Poe’s imagination but disparaged his writing skills. He often said that Poe is a writer that one enjoys when remembering his tales, not while reading them in English…he energetically enacted stylistic alterations in his translations of “The Purloined Letter.” (61)

In the following analysis of the translation of “The Purloined Letter,” it will be necessary to remember “The Detective Story” essay, in which Borges demonstrates that his interest in Poe is entirely based on the plots and structure of his detective stories. The three Dupin stories all feature a detective who is described by Borges as “a very intelligent man named Dupin, who will later be named Sherlock Holmes, who will later be named Father Brown…” (128). Both Irwin and Kristal delve into Borges’s reading and rewriting of the three Dupin stories.

It is clear that Borges had a strong interest in Poe’s mastery of plot and the consequent invention of the detective genre. There is more tenuous evidence that Borges was inspired by Poe the author, and little to no evidence that Poe’s style of writing was held in high regard by Borges. By looking specifically at what Borges did with and to “The Purloined Letter,” I hope to illuminate certain aspects of Borges’s understanding of translation, while also exposing some of the problems with the word “translation” when used in this type of study.

As evidenced by my extensive reference to John T. Irwin and Efraín Kristal, it should be no surprise that their respective analyses of Borges’s interaction with “The Purloined Letter” provide the basis for my interpretation of the translations. In their divergent analyses of Borges and Poe, an interesting problematic arises. Irwin’s entire book focuses on the link between Borges and Poe, and he speaks at length about Borges’s project to reinterpret Poe’s three stories in three stories of his own. According to Irwin, “The Purloined Letter” is Borges’s point of departure for “Death and the Compass,” which Irwin convincingly argues in a number of ways that will be enumerated below. Nowhere does Irwin refer to this work directly as a translation. My combination of the two approaches utilized by the aforementioned scholars in a way mirrors Borges’s own bricolage in his writing practices. While Irwin and Kristal undoubtedly approach Poe and Borges from different angles, and while their definitions of translation may not be entirely compatible, the tension between the two analyses when combined is what I want to emphasize. In this tension, I see a productive and creative way to examine Borges’s expansive and inclusive definition of translation.

Kristal’s project hopes to “demonstrate that translation, not as a loose metaphor for influence or intertextuality, but as a process whereby a writer remodels one sequence of words into another, is central to Borges’s reflections on writing” (xiii). Because of his specific definition of translation, Kristal avoids examining Borges’s rewritings of the Dupin stories into his own ficciones, and focuses specifically on his “La carta robada,” which Borges translated with Bioy Casares for inclusion in their anthology Los mejores cuentos policiales, published in 1943.

Irwin links “The Purloined Letter” to “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth.” Irwin’s analysis of the numerical/geometrical structures of “The Purloined Letter” and Borges’s stories is extensive. Irwin sees this geometry as the most important structural element Borges derives from Poe. Irwin also demonstrates that Borges intended to publish his own three stories (“La muerte y la brújula,” “Abenjacán el Bojarí, muerto en su laberinto,” and “El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”) around the hundred-year anniversary of the publication of Poe’s trilogy (37). The embedded elements of Poe within the two Borgesian detectivesque stories become obvious (though Irwin’s analysis exposes them most clearly): the oscillation between the numbers three and four is a major element of “Death and the Compass,” and within this story, the theme of revenge and the intellectual dual is reconfigured through Lönnrot and Scharlach. Irwin points out that Borges explicitly makes the connection between Lönnrot and Dupin within the first paragraph of the story (30), but also notes that for all of the appropriation that is evident within Borges’s story, there is a critical and parodic difference:

Where Poe’s detective solves the mystery and outwits the culprit, Borges’s detectives, at least in the first two stories, are outwitted by the people they pursue, trapped in a labyrinth fashioned from the pursuer’s ability to follow a trail until he arrives at the chosen spot at the expected moment. We should note, however, that Borges consistently undercuts the notion that the culprit’s triumph, his being one up on his opponent, ultimately makes the real difference. “And one to me are shame and fame” might almost be the motto of these encounters. (37)

This difference is significant in that it hearkens back to the idea of Borges as a translator of “creative infidelity,” to translate and borrow Gargatagli’s and Guix’s terminology. As with many other terms, plot structures, and ideas, Borges borrows the aspects of “The Purloined Letter” that work for him, and then rewrites from a critical distance. The distance between the “original” and its translations is the space of creativity, and the shift between the outcome in Poe and the outcome in Borges exemplifies how Borges furthered the genre while constantly referring back to his predecessor.

“Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth,” is technically, according to Irwin, the story Borges means to parallel with “The Purloined Letter.” Both are the third in the series, and “Ibn Hakam al-Bokhari” contains equally explicit references to “The Purloined Letter,” including the geometric structure that Irwin traces throughout his exploration of the two sets of stories. Also explicit are the links between the two Borgesian protagonists of “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari” and Poe’s Dupin. Although Irwin does not make this connection in his discussion, both Dunraven and Dunwin are somewhat linguistically close to Dupin, and the fact that both names start with the letter “d” reminds the reader of the intellectual battle between Dupin and Monsieur D—. The letters of substitution, the “nw” in Dunwin and “nrave” in Dunraven could potentially foreshadow the changes to the plot that Borges incorporates. Obviously, “raven” is another clue to the reader that Poe is lurking in the shadows of the story. Irwin correctly demonstrates how Dunwin and Dunraven are also the personification of the two sides of the detective, the criminal, and the structure of the detective story: poetry and mathematics. In Poe, both sides are always present, and within “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin’s monologues go to great lengths to demonstrate the importance of creativity in conjunction with the more structured knowledge of mathematics. By doubling or splitting this combination into multiple characters, Borges furthers the intellectual dialogue between the two sides that is already present in Poe.

Although Efraín Kristal’s book does address the Borgesian Poe in an entirely different manner, parts of his book support the case made by Irwin. Kristal points out that Borges was preparing his anthology of detective fiction with Bioy Casares while simultaneously writing “Death and the Compass,” which he also included within the anthology. In showcasing the two stories together, Borges intended for the alert audience to detect the parallels between his appropriation of Poe in “La muerte y la brújula” and his direct translation of Poe in “La carta robada.” Kristal does not deny that Borges used Poe when writing “Death and the Compass,” going as far as to outline the metamorphosis of Dupin and Monsieur D— into Lönnrot and Scharlach (105). However, he also demonstrates the other influences of stories by London and Hawthorne, showing Borges’s story to be an amalgamation of many sources. Kristal is not, then, writing directly in opposition to Irwin, but he does note that

Certainly, we have seen in this study instances in which the line between a Borges translation and a Borges original can become somewhat blurred, but in general the differences are clear-cut. It would be a mistake, therefore, to think of translation in Borges merely as a loose metaphor for intertextuality. (138)

Kristal’s argument here makes sense in terms of his goals for his book and his definition of translation. However, it seems to limit Borges’s own conflation of the processes of reading, writing, and translating. After closely examining Kristal’s thoughts on the translation “La carta robada,” perhaps it is possible to combine his work with Irwin’s in a way that more successfully demonstrates Borges’s ideology.

Both Kristal and Emron Esplin make similar statements in regards to what Poe’s limitations are according to Borges: “Chesterton’s and Queen’s detective fiction, at least according to Borges’ interpretations, does not reject Poe but “out-Poes” Poe by successfully developing the effects of the supernatural tale and the detective story in one piece without letting either effect destroy the other—something that Poe never attempted” (Esplin 251). In examining both “Death and the Compass” and “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari,” one can see that Borges also fuses the fantastic and the analytic. One question is, does his “creatively unfaithful” translation “La carta robada” do so as well?

Kristal’s reading of Borges’s translation is succinct and generally describes the numerous omissions, deletions, and changes within the story. While he does not address the minutiae of the linguistic shifts, Kristal places emphasis on the shift in meaning, which is subtle but essential:

The implications of Borges’s modifications are hardly trivial. They reorient the focus of the story from the circumstances of the victim to the relationship between the detective and the thief. What matters in Borges’s story is the interplay between two minds trying to outwit each other in their attempts to anticipate the other’s thought process, while aware that the other is doing the same. (66)

In Poe’s story, the gender of the recipient of the stolen letter is definitive. While her name is omitted, all readings of the story point to the character as being the Queen of France. However, “Borges deliberately obfuscates the character’s gender” (63) by using words that are grammatically feminine (“persona,” “víctima”) but do not necessarily refer to the gender of the character described (65). By displacing the royal intrigue to an ambiguous and more mysterious status, the emphasis of the story rests directly on the intellectual struggle between the two minds.

In the comparison of “The Purloined Letter” and “La carta robada,” it is inarguable that the most significant shift in meaning is the one described above by Kristal. However, this change does not introduce the supernatural into the story, which one might anticipate as the intent of the translator who clearly makes this his goal in his personal re-writings of the stories of Poe. In fact, while the translation makes significant cuts and modifications that address Poe’s florid and indirect prose, Borges does not seem to attempt a radical translation here. Of course, this opinion depends on what is meant by radical translation, and the definition of translation is what irrevocably separates Kristal’s work from Irwin’s in terms of “The Purloined Letter” and what separates my interpretation from them both. It is worth briefly examining a group of Borges’s essays on translation to help us in what has become an analysis of the extensive chain of other analyses of “The Purloined Letter.”

In “Two Ways to Translate” (1926), Borges begins to theorize on a practice he had begun to learn long before his literary career. It is well known that his first publication was a translation at age nine of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince.” In his 1926 essay, we have Borges’s first articulated thoughts on the difference between literal and paraphrastic translations. By equating the former with romanticism and the latter with classicism, Borges briefly discusses each, which he later will also link to the famous Arnold-Newman debate. In his explanation of classical translation, he explains: “[t]he classical way of thinking is interested only in the work of art, never the artist. The classics believe in absolute perfection and seek it out. They despise localisms, oddities, contingencies” (55). The interest in the work of art over the artist is pervasive in Borges’s writings, but a specific aspect of this quotation that relates to “La carta robada” is Borges’s elimination of the concept of “meerschaum,” from Poe’s story. The word refers to a specific type of pipe carved of a mineral found in the Black Sea known as meerschaum. Perhaps it is because this reference would have been outside of the bounds of knowledge of his contemporary reader and upset the fluidity of the reading that Borges decided to omit this aspect of the text. Borges contrasts the “perfection” of the classical translation with the romantic translation, which he equates with: “reverence for the I, for the irreplaceable human difference that is any I, justifies literal translations” (56). The final paragraph of the essay helps us to close in on a general understanding of Borgesian translation, as it opens up the definition to include same language translations, rewritings, and versions: “[T]his play could also occur within the same literature—why pass from one language to another?” (56).

While translation is prevalent throughout Borges’s writings, “Two Ways of Translating” is the only essay that focuses on general translation. His two other seminal essays on translation (keeping in mind that his story “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” can be read within this category as well) deal with two groups of translations that are quite dissimilar to his translations of Poe. “The Homeric Versions” (1932) and “The Translators of 1001 Nights” (1936) both deal with works that Borges did not read in the original. By discussing various translations in terms of their value but not necessarily in direct correlation with the “original,” Borges further defies the hierarchy of “translation” and “original works.” In “The Homeric Versions,” Borges says that “[T]ranslations are a partial and precious documentation of the changes the text suffers” (57), and that “[T]he concept of the “definitive text” corresponds only to religion or exhaustion” (57). Additionally, Borges is thankful for his ignorance of Greek, in that it makes Homer’s Odyssey “an international bookstore of works in prose and verse” (58) after which he enumerates some of the many translations that make Homer’s epic their own. In noting the huge variety within the Homeric translations, Borges claims the multiplicity is created by “the difficult category of knowing what pertains to the poet and what pertains to the language. To that fortunate difficulty we owe the possibility of so many versions, all of them sincere, genuine, and divergent” (58).

While this statement directly influences Borges’s discussion of both Homer and the translations of 1001 Nights, it cannot be applied to Borges’s translations of Poe. Writing only one hundred years later and with a strong grasp of the English language, Borges has a textual relationship with Poe that is more constrained and literal in terms of translation. While both of the later essays thoroughly examine what works and what does not work in the numerous translations with which Borges was familiar, the creativity of those translations praised by Borges could not be employed while translating “La carta robada.”

Having looked at “Death and the Compass,” “Ibn-Hakam Al-Bokhari” and “La carta robada” in terms of Irwin’s and Kristal’s readings of the stories as translations and appropriations of “The Purloined Letter,” the initial quotation cited in this study can be understood in its full richness and condensation of Borges’s ideology. When keeping in mind that both his translation of and stories inspired by “The Purloined Letter” occurred around the same time, we can see both kinds of projects together as an encapsulation of Borges’s inclusive understanding of reading, writing, and translating as different facets of the same process. This conflation of the three acts relates to his belief that all written work is a copy, plagiarism, or reiteration of something that has already been written. With this attitude, Borges willfully and consciously cobbled his work together, using plots and philosophies taken from his vast mental library. Having accepted that his conception of translation can be expanded to include all of his iterations of “The Purloined Letter,” we must now ask whether Borges’s translations and appropriations of Poe are significant within a more global or postcolonial context.

If we examine Borges’s multiple reinterpretations of Poe’s story as complementary facets of the same critical process, we see both stylistic and thematic modifications. Like Borges, I have taken aspects of both Irwin’s and Kristal’s exemplary works and refashioned them together in a way that best serves my own purpose. If my own effort within this essay models the same appropriation that I see within Borges’s translations of “The Purloined Letter,” it certainly does so while remaining within the confines of academic style and requirements. Like Irwin’s attempt to demonstrate certain aspects of Borges through vast references, short sections, and fairly simple language, my work here has also made an attempt to use other critical readings to support my own, in a way attempting to “one up” the readings I discuss. By placing myself within the intellectual back and forth of “The Purloined Letter,” I have hoped to draw attention to how similar contemporary academic writing is to the endless progression of analysis within and outside of Poe’s story. Borges’s own awareness of this cyclical process of reassessment of the same old ideas is pervasive throughout his writings. I believe that Irwin successfully demonstrates that it is Borges’s own awareness of this mise-en-abîme structure that encourages the chain of readings of the story that were discussed above. The inclusion of the reader within the text also highlights the reception theory that plays out in Borges’s work, years before Hans-Robert Jauss’s work became influential.

While it is edifying to examine the many aspects of Borges’s work on Poe as it foreshadows many of the other critical readings to follow, both Sergio Waisman and Walter Carlos Costa place Borges’s translation within a postcolonial context that further illustrates the importance of the Borges-Poe relationship. Borges is considered a universal or global writer in many contexts, primarily because of his extremely diverse allusions and references within his fiction, and also because his most renowned stories do not foreground local concerns of Argentines, not to mention his wide and diverse readership and influence. However, Gene H. Bell-Villada points out in “Borges as Argentine Author, and other Self-Evident (if Often Ignored) Truths,” “[critics] overlook entire blocks of elementary fact, such as Borges’s youthful years as a fervent literary nationalist…and the substantial amount of Argentine material still present in his later work as storyteller and as cosmopolitan” (306). As Bell-Villada notes, Borges is in fact profoundly Argentine, and his national identity may not be overt or explicit in all of his fiction, but what is most important with Borges is rarely easy to see at first glance. Aside from his early poetry and early essays—many of which were published in Inquisiciones (1925)—there are many parts of Borges’s work that can be considered extremely focused on his nation, especially his translations.

Walter Carlos Costa in his essay “Borges, the Original of the Translation” (published in Voice-Overs, 2002) sees Borges as one of a number of great thinkers who also made certain ideas and literatures available in the Spanish language:

In Hispanic letters the great renovators were always tied to foreign literatures: Cervantes, who “translated” the literature of Renaissance Italy, Huidobro, who “translated” the poetry of the French avant-garde, Lezama Lima, who incorporated a vast and heterogeneous foreign library. (182)

Carlos Costa’s use of the term translation here is in line with the way this essay has addressed the works of Borges engendered by “The Purloined Letter” as having reworked or refashioned certain aspects of the generative work while not literally translating word for word. At first glance, this list of “great renovators” seems a bit reductive, in that one imagines that these four (including Borges) writers did far more for literature than to simply “translate” other literatures. However, Carlos Costa finds this incorporation of what he calls “dominant” literature into Argentine literature to be a complex political gesture:

This gesture of exploration of dominant culture, which might have been viewed as a proof of subordination, is instead transformed into an affirmative gesture of autonomy. At the same time that he learns from foreign models he teaches a lesson to those foreign literary systems, giving them a new and original version of their own unexplored riches. (184)

If explored within the context of Carlos Costa’s argument, Borges’s translation and appropriation of Poe becomes not only self-aware and metaliterary, but also politically subversive and powerful. Because of Borges’s upbringing, his literary affinities often tended toward British and American literature. Like Carlos Costa, Sergio Waisman’s book Borges and Translation also places Borges’s use of dominant literatures within a political and postcolonial discussion. In a discussion of the translations that were published in Victoria Ocampo’s publication Sur, Waisman says that “[B]y displacing texts from the Metropolis to the margins, by appropriating them through translation, by recontextualizing them within a framework of the South—literally and figuratively—Sur demonstrates that a politics of cultural importation can contribute to (re)creating a center in the circumference” (35). Both Carlos Costa and Waisman examine Borgesian translation from a postcolonial stance, and because of this lens, they both suggest political intent where it seems possible that it is present.

While the possibility exists, this postcolonial interpretation seems to overstep its bounds much in the same way that some of the psychoanalytical interpretations do. That being said, Borges’s aversion to psychoanalytic hermeneutics not only relates to his discomfort with psychology and psychoanalysis in general but perhaps also to the jarring truths these interpretations uncover within his writings. I have not found any negative reaction against postcolonial interpretations from Borges, most likely because few (if any) were written before Borges’s death. If we see Borges’s use of Poe as a cultural appropriation of the dominant center or colonizer, his personal modifications of the style and plot transcend his theory of writing and become a cultural commentary as well as an aesthetic commentary. It seems pointless to discount the validity of this reading of Borgesian translation, especially because part of analyzing the analysis that has been the focus of this essay is allowing certain aspects of all of the readings to come together to allow for a more nuanced and profound understanding of the texts at hand. If every reading of “The Purloined Letter” is considered a draft of the same general ideas of analysis, perhaps the most complete reading is the one that welcomes all of the different languages, contexts, and analytic preferences together.


Works Cited

Bell-Villada, Gene H. “Borges as Argentine Author, and Other Self-Evident (if Often Ignored) Truths.” Salmagundi 82.83 (1989): 305-319. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “An Autobiographical Essay.” The Aleph and Other Stories. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970. Print.

            .“Edgar Allan Poe.” La Maquina de Tiempo. La nación, 2 October 1949. Web. 5 November 2011.

             . Ficciones. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2005. Print.

             . Obras completas. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 1974. Print.

             .On Writing. Ed. and Trans. Suzanne Jill Levine. New York: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Chancel, Jacques. Jorge Luis Borges: Radioscopie. Paris: Éditions du Rocher, 1999. Print.

Costa, Walter Carlos. “Borges, the Original of the Translation.” Voice-Overs: Translation and Latin American Literature. Eds. Daniel Balderston and Marcy Schwartz. New York: State University of New York Press, 2002. 182-193. Print.

Esplin, Emron. “Reading and Re-Reading: Jorge Luis Borges’ Literary Criticism on Edgar Allan Poe,” Comparative American Studies 8.4 (2010): 247-266. Print.

Gargatagli, Ana and Juan Gabriel López Guix. “Ficciones y teorías en la traducción: Jorge Luis Borges.” Livivs 1 (2004): 57-67. Print.

Johnson, Barbara. “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida.” Yale French Studies. 55/56 (1977): 457-505. Web.

Kristal, Efraín. Invisible Work: Borges and Translation. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002. Print.

Levine, Suzanne Jill. The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction. St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1991. Print.

             . “Borges and Emir: The Writer and His Reader.” Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts. Ed. Edna Aizenberg. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990. 122- 127. Print.

             . “Borges on Translation.” MS. 2011. Print.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Print.

Monegal, Emir Rodríguez. “Borges, the Reader.” Diacritics. 4.4 (1974): 41-49. Print.

             . “Borges: the reader as writer.” Prose for Borges. Eds. Charles Newman and Mary Kinzie. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1974. Print.

             . “Borges and Derrida: Apothecaries.” Borges and His Successors: The Borgesian Impact on Literature and the Arts. Ed. Edna Aizenberg. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990. 128- 138. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Purloined Letter.” Edgar Allan Poe: Complete and Unabridged. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. Print.

Waisman, Sergio. Borges on Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2005. Print.


[1]“Poe thought of himself as a poet, and only a poet, but circumstances compelled him to write stories, and he resigned himself to writing and facing these stories occasionally, and they are his destiny.” Translation mine.