Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Borges' Birthday + Poem/Translation: Borges

Today would be the 112th birthday of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), the poet, fiction writer, essayist, and aesthete, who was without a doubt one of Argentina's and Latin America's greatest gifts to the world of arts and letters.  I tend to think of Borges as a fiction writer, since it was through the genre that I first encountered his work, and it was as an innovator in the short fictional form that his global reputation took hold, but he began his writing career in his native country and, I think it's fair to say, thought of himself primarily as a poet. He was a very good one, sometimes an exceptional one. As he wrote in his poem "Inscripcíon" (Inscription), in the posthumous collection "Los conjurados" (The conjured ones), "Escribir un poema es ensayar una magia menor" (To write a poem is to attempt a minor magic.)  I should note that Borges is one of those writers (like Wallace Stevens, for example) whose politics and personal beliefs I disagree with, but whose work I nevertheless have a great affinity for.  His poetry in particular has grown on me as I have gotten older.  In honor of Borges' birthday, I am posting a few links to articles on him, and one of his late poems that I love, as it captures the simplicity, rhetorical skill, and evocative power that at his best he would often pack into the shorter poems he wrote towards the end of his life.

The links:
Christian Science Monitor: "Jorge Luis Borges: What Made Him So Good?"
Guardian Online: "Jorge Luis Borges' Google doodle celebrates the master of magical realism"
El Clarín (One of Argentina's major newspapers): "Hoy Borges cumpliría 112 y se los festejan"

The poem:
"El cómplice" (The Accomplice), from La cifra (The Limit) (1981) needs little explanation. It is also simple enough for me to translate, and all the faults in the English are mine, but if you can read it aloud in the Spanish, you also will get more of Borges' original music, the repetition of the "c" sounds in the first line, for example, or the sustained grammatical and syntactic repetitions of the first four lines, which he reverses in the fifth, shifting the speaker's agency from response to the head of the sentence, after he has endured a series of trials, including hell/the inferno.


Me crucifican y yo debo ser la cruz y los clavos.
Me tienden la copa y yo debo ser la cicuta.
Me engañan y y debo ser la mentira.
Me inciendan y yo debo ser el infierno.
Debo alabar y agradecer cada instante del tiempo.
Mi alimento es todas las cosas.
El peso preciso del universo, la humillación, el júbilo.
Debo justificar lo que hiere.
No importa mi ventura o mi desventura.
Soy el poeta.


They crucify me and I must be the cross and the nails.
They hand me the cup and I must be the hemlock.
They fool me and I must be the lie.
They set me on fire and I must be the inferno.
I have to praise and thank every instant of time.
Everything nourishes me.
The precise weight of the universe, humiliation, jubilation.
I must justify what wounds me.
My fortune or misfortune is of no importance.
I am the poet.

Copyright © Jorge Luis Borges, from La cifra (1981; Emece Editores, 1993). Translation © John Keene, 2011.

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