Saturday, January 20, 2007

Short Prose: José Balza

BalzaSome years ago, an acquaintance traveled to Venezuela, and as a gift, he brought back a collection of stories by José Balza (1939-, photo at right,, whom he was told was one of the most important literary figures in that country. I hadn't taught myself enough Spanish to read or understand even a paragraph at the time, but was so excited to receive the gift that as soon as I had it, La mujer de espaldas (Monte Avila Editores, 1986) in hand, I set out not only to try to read but translate a few of the stories, in order to see what I could appreciate beyond mere comprehension. Just getting through several of the stories, none of which were very long, taxed all my powers, but in addition to being deeply impressed by Balza's style, I was able to write out several translations that I later showed to a Spanish speaker who felt they passed muster. Nevertheless, I decided to set Balza's book aside until I knew enough Spanish to read it without pausing after every other word, and since that was a benchmark for the then-distant future, it disappeared from my active bookshelf. So I hadn't thought about Balza, who is still writing and publishing, and is a professor at the Universidad Central de Caracas, or the translations until recently, when I was trying to organize my computer files yet again, and came across one of them, "Enlace" ("Link"). In it, Balza directly cites a writer who was his obvious inspiration throughout the story collection, Jorge Luis Borges, and the text is a Borgesian piece, in theme and tone, but condensed in method. In contrast to the moment when I first translated it, the story feels very close to my current personal experience. I am posting it below. (Click here to read an interview with Balza, in Spanish.)


For Sael Ibánez

In spite of all these years, I still fall prey to that vivid and dense anxiety that arises on contact with my students. I have always conceived of each hour of my classes as a castle of a thousand doors which uniquely permit me, each at the same time, to enter.

Among my students there have tended to predominate the naive, the easy believers, and those incapable of imagination. Sometimes, for certain exams, I recommended various bibliographies (that is to say: different exams, multiple approaches to a theme); and among each group of students (and recommended texts) I slipped, as a tribute to Borges, an imaginary author and a non-existent book.

One day, the least bold of them not only chose precisely this very volume, but even more unreal to me, focused his exam on a synthetic treatment of this book: he centered it on an adaptation of this book, and then, established principles that could only have been extended from this text. Before signing his own name, the student wrote down a textual citation. No one had known about this passage until today. I don’t know if my invention coincided with something real; I did not want to know if the student created a theory and an author so as not to deceive me (himself) or if, astonishingly, he was (is going to be) the mysterious author of this ambiguous bibliography.

Copyright © José Balza, Monte Avila Editores, 1972, 1986, translation by John Keene.


  1. Dude, you are an inspiration on the translation tip. Especially for Spanish to English translations, which oddly enough is a wall I am having trouble scaling. Hell, just getting a good vocabulary and becoming consistent in studying its grammar is more harder than I thought.

    It is probably my sense of patience.

    ciao, ciao

  2. Bill, thanks for the props. You know Portuguese, so just keep in mind that Spanish isn't that distant a country, and you also know French, right? So that should help too.

    I just wish I had more opportunities to speak it with native speakers; I feel the same about Portuguese and French, so I'm always trying to read a little something in all three languages because I feel like all three could slip away without some effort. As for German, well, I have pretty much realized that I'm not getting to Germany anytime soon, and have zero contact with German speakers, so es verschwinden wird, or something like that.