So far as I’m concerned, reading any novel in translation is a gamble. You’re basically committing to not necessarily reading the book that the author wrote, but the book that the translator read, which isn’t always the same thing. Maybe this is just my own personal artistic hang-up or maybe other people feel this way, I don’t really know. Regardless, reading a translation of someone known for their unique style is always at least a little disconcerting for me. Since I don’t speak French or Russian or Japanese though, authors like Proust and Dostoevsky and Murakami will always be relegated to translation and require me to put some faith in someone else’s reading.
But I do speak Spanish (sort of). So a few months ago I bought Spanish editions of Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones and Gabriel García Márquez’s Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) to experiment with reading in another language. I chose to get both as e-books rather than physical editions, mostly to try and streamline the inevitable Spanish-English dictionary searches. Since Ficciones is a short story collection and Soledad is a pretty sizable novel, I decided to forego my literary hubris and start with Borges.
An Argentine writer, Borges was born just before the turn of the century in 1899 and died of liver cancer in 1986, while living in Geneva, Switzerland. Ficciones is a supremely strange experience to have in a language that isn’t my own. Constantly having to evaluate meaning and syntax makes for a very slow read (I still haven’t finished the collection actually, I’m only about halfway through) which is jarring given that I have tendency to burn through books pretty fast. To further complicate the whole process, Borges is a damned good writer. A master of metafiction and forerunner of writers like Mark Danielewski and David Mitchell, Borges crafted an intricately interconnected series of self-referential stories meditating on the nature of reality and playfully considering the possible infinite number of worlds suggested by the field of quantum physics that was still in its infancy when he was writing in the 1940s.
Trying to pick apart differing levels of reality is tough enough in my own language. Throw in the need for near constant use of an online Spanish-English dictionary, and more than being slow, reading is just damn confusing sometimes. That being said, Borges has been worth the work, and I’m glad I decided to read him in Spanish (we’ll see how Marquez goes with Soledad).
Ficciones is beautifully written and utterly brilliant. Ranging from dreams within dreams that put Inception to shame to an encyclopedia of a nonexistent world to an infinite library with books combining every possible combination of letters, Borges’ stories bend the mind towards questions of consciousness and reality and inevitably towards agency and meaning. How do we conceive of ourselves or construct meaning in our lives in the context of the infinite worlds posited by quantum mechanics? How does God or the divine fit into this new worldview?
Through deft sleight of hand and sheer genius, Borges continually multiplies worlds within his stories, turning each into a mirror, containing itself along with the possibility of another world, and of course, within them all, our world. Reading him in Spanish lends the experience a refreshingly novel poetry and rhythm, a disarmingly beautiful rediscovery of language alongside an equally disarming and beautiful conception of the world.
Like I said Borges is a damned good writer.