Is the replacement of the definitive Borges/di Giovanni English translations of Jorge Luis Borges by the grossly inferior translations of Andrew Hurley perhaps the greatest literary crime of the century?
The heart of the case is that the Borges/di Giovanni translations — the product of a four-year personal collaboration between Jorge Luis Borges and Norman Thomas di Giovanni during 1969-72 — were aimed precisely by Borges to provide definitive translations into English, and to supersede all other translations of his work into English. As each new translation was finished, they were published in the New Yorker, to universal acclaim, and were largely responsible for establishing Borges’ international reputation.
Their subsequent replacement, some twenty years after Borges’ death, by Borges’ eccentric widow Maria Kodama, aided by her agent Andrew Wylie, has been a dereliction of both Borges' work and Borges’ will.
Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine who is widely considered to be the most influential Spanish language writer of the 20th century, was also an Anglophile who felt that the English translations of his work were inconsistent, to say the least. Borges himself admits that he was largely to blame for the circumstances. In the past, when translators had approached him to make translations of his work from Spanish into various languages, Borges tended to say “yes” because he felt that the alternative was no translation at all. The result was a very uneven crop of translations.
Borges found an opportunity to undertake definitive translations after he had effectively retired from creative literary work, when he met the young editor and poet Norman Thomas di Giovanni in 1968. Di Giovanni had already translated a number of Borges’ poems into English. Borges sensed that here was a potential collaborator of sufficient zeal and rigour to create definitive translations of the main body of Borges’ prose work into English. He invited di Giovanni to Buenos Aires. From 1969 to 1972 Borges and di Giovanni worked together daily to create English translations which would do justice to the Spanish originals. Their combined efforts became one of the great collaborations in the history of literature. Borges said that they "thought with one mind". In certain respects their collaboration was so successful that Borges used the opportunity to revise his Spanish originals in the course of creating the new English translations. To a considerable degree, the Borges/di Giovanni translations into English can be considered the most complete and final form of Borges’ work.
What are the motives of Maria Kodama, Borges’ widow, in replacing the Borges di Giovanni translations with laughably inferior versions from Andrew Hurley? They appear to be entirely pecuniary. The underlying facts are that Borges himself insisted that ownership of the copyright of the Borges/di Giovanni translations should be shared equally between the two men. It seems that sharing the income from the English translations was not enough for Borges’ widow, however. Accordingly, she funded for an outright fee a new set of translations by Andrew Hurley - translations which, through the Borges estate, she would own one hundred percent.
In considering the consequence of these actions, one should take into account that Borges’ subtle writings depended greatly on the accuracy and coherence of the translations. Hurley’s truly execrable versions undermine and often destroy Borges’ complex meanings. To anyone who doubts my characterisation, I refer them to the translations themselves. Perhaps I may add one further rhetorical flourish regarding the translations, given that they were conceived by Kodama for pecuniary advantage. What serious academic or translator would have the temerity to concoct English translations of Borges' main works which are aimed to replace those generated by Borges himself in concert with his chosen collaborator di Giovanni? What type of person, in other words, would deliberately flout Borges’ own final will and testament on his English translations?
During the next months I am going to run a campaign under the general heading of The literary crime of the century? The shorter term aim of this campaign will be to direct attention at the current parlous situation. I believe that the effective removal and replacement of the Borges/di Giovanni translations has already denied a new generation of English readers access to the definitive works of one of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century. In support of this view, I have written a 50-page mini-novel called Icon, which is set out below, and which aims to reconstruct the circumstances and tragedy of this great loss in fictional terms. Although I know di Giovanni well, and regard him as a close friend, I emphasise that Icon is entirely my own work and my own responsibility as a writer. Di Giovanni has remained strictly detached. He neither approves nor disapproves of my efforts, but in characteristically liberal spirit believes I have the right to approach the subject in fictional form should I wish to do so.
To emphasise Icon’s fictive aspects, I have used different names for the leading characters. A great, blind Argentine writer is named Luis Váldez. His young Italian-American translator is called Victor Gambini. I leave it to the reader to decide how close my account comes to the truth.
Icon, printed below, is approximately 10,000 words or about 55 pages. Given that the average rate of reading is approximately a page a minute, a reader who wished to complete the short novel at a sitting should give himself or herself the best part of an hour to do so. Meanwhile, if should you wish to undertake that journey, I hope Icon entertains you.