Traductor, Traidor (Or, a Borgesian Fork Too Far)

[Reader Beware – This post has nothing to do with sociology, economics or politics, and is also a bit silly.]
Dear Translator of The Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges,

I nearly bought your collection, which contains complete translations of Borges’ most important and best written works of fiction. Unfortunately, for you, before making my purchase, I examined your version of The Garden of the Forking Paths and was shocked, shocked!, to see its unfaithful deviations from the Yates translation in Labyrinths.

Let’s compare for a moment the last sentence, which I conveniently memorized in two languages (for just such an occasion):

(Spanish) “No sabe (nadie puede saber) mi innumerable contrición y cansancio.”

(Yates’ translation) “He does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness.”

A word for word translation, made possible by the relatively uncomplicated (albeit somewhat anomalous for Spanish) grammar and heavy use of Latinate words – like much of Borges’ writing.

Now, the Collected Fictions version:
(Hurley’s translation) “He does not know (no one can know) my endless contrition, and my weariness.”

At first glance, little has changed – an extra possessive pronoun was added, and a comma, which alters the pacing of the translation and suggest that the contrition, but not the weariness, was endless. Here we have an interpretation I disagree with, but one that is not baseless.

But wait, endless? Where did endless enter into this? Borges did not use that word or its synonyms – e.g. sin fin, interminable, sempiterno, eterno, etc. Borges used the word innumerable – without number. Why is this significant? The Garden of the Forking Paths is a story about time, and about the numberless forking roads we might take – “the various futures”. Various, without number, but not exhaustive. “Innumerable” evokes this entire train of thought, so essential to the “essay” half of this classic “cuento-ensayo” of Borges.

Endless evokes entirely the wrong notion of time – a temporality that is flat and pre-determined, the temporality of Newton, not of Heisenberg. Borges’ deity (the Librarian of Paradise) does not simply play dice with the world, but rather busts out of a copy of Risk with half a dozen worlds at once!

And so, dear translator, I must ask – why make this change? Are you, perhaps, attempting to subtly undermine the work of Yu Tsun’s illustrious ancestor, Ts’ui Pen, and of Borges himself? Hmm?

Respectfully, and wearily,



  1. Yep,… innumerable traición.

  2. veo

     /  April 21, 2010

    we live for the subtleties

  3. Javier

     /  November 6, 2013

    I believe both Yates’ and the other translator’s versions are wrong; I believe the person narrating the events is adressing someone when he says “No puede saber”.
    “No puede saber” can be translated as “Usted -formal you form- can not know”.
    Otherwise who is the “he” the narrator refers to?
    What am I not getting? Is he refering to a universal “He”, like “Man can not know”?

    • Dear Javier,

      Fascinating theory. But let’s back up a sentence or two for more context. Here’s the text in Spanish: “El Jefe ha descifrado ese enigma. Sabe que mi problema era indicar (a través del estrépito de la guerra) la ciudad que se llama Albert y que no hallé otro medio que matar a una persona con ese nombre. No sabe (nadie puede saber) mi innumerable contrición y cansancio.”
      Two sentences earlier, we have the subject being “El jefe”. The next sentence is in the third person, and the boss is clearly the subject; “He know that my problem was to indicate…” must be “[The boss] knew my problem was to indicate…” So, the “he” from “nadie puede saber” is presumably still “el jefe” in the final sentence, I.e. “[The boss] does not know (no one can know) my innumerable contrition and weariness.” Does that make sense?