In an earlier post last month I outlined the case that the definitive Borges/di Giovanni translations of Borges’ work into English are now largely no longer in print as the result of the actions of Maria Kodama, Borges’ widow. Motivated by what appear to be entirely pecuniary interests, she has effectively replaced them with grossly inferior English translations by Andrew Hurley. The object of the exercise appears to have been to create alternative translations in which she has 100% ownership.
One eccentric individual’s pecuniary motive is not surprising in itself. What is truly shocking, however, is the pusillanimity of both our publishing and literary establishments in allowing this literary outrage to proceed.
Meanwhile, di Giovanni has a strong legal case for republishing the Borges/di Giovanni translations on his own authority. He possesses numerous signed contracts with Borges in which he has joint and equal copyright over the translations. It is clear, indeed inarguable, that Borges wished to conduct these definitive translations entirely on the basis of joint ownership.
In Britain and America, a great raft of mercantile law supports the notion that the surviving equal partner in any enterprise has a moral right to earn a living by his own work. Di Giovanni’s case as the surviving partner — should he wish to authorise the republication of the Borges/di Giovanni translations — is therefore strong, perhaps unanswerable, in law. Any attempt by another party to prevent that publication is likely to be considered in restraint of trade.
There are, in addition to the legal case, clear moral precedents. As I set out in my earlier post, Borges not only collaborated with di Giovanni in minutely overseeing the translations, but in the process of that collaboration Borges took advantage of the opportunity to revise his Spanish originals. The Borges/di Giovanni translations therefore not only represent Borges’ determined attempt to create definitive English translations of his major works, but there is a strong case for believing that the Borges/di Giovanni translations represent Borges’ final revision of the major body of his oeuvre.
Borges is amongst the most influential writers of the twentieth century. His poetic conciseness, in combination with his philosophical and metaphysical range, have had a huge effect on subsequent writers. If Britain and America possessed a strong and healthy literary elite, rather than a collection of literary celebrities promoted by large publishing corporations, there would be widespread and public outrage at this literary felony. Instead, a number of those figures who admire the Borges/di Giovanni translations and who might be enlisted to help — for example Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie — are also represented by Andrew Wylie, the same agent who has colluded with Maria Kodama to replace the original definitive translations with the grossly inferior Andrew Hurley versions.
A melancholy symmetry pervades the story. Borges’ full international reputation was first established with the publication of the Borges/di Giovanni translations in the New Yorker between 1969-72. Before their publication he was considered an obscure Argentine master. After their publication he was elevated to one of the dominant figures of twentieth century writing. The Hurley translations, which first appeared in 2002, have effectively reversed this process. They have already helped to reduce Borges’ international reputation, and in due course, without access to the definitive Borges/di Giovanni translations, that reputation will continue to decline to its original position before the publication of the Borges/di Giovanni translations.
Given the story, and the legal and moral precedents involved, one would assume that major publishers would beat a path to Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s door, compete to seek his permission to republish the works, and enjoy the glory of returning to print arguably one of the most important bodies of post-war writing in the English language. The fact that this has not happened is, unfortunately, testament both to the nature of that publishing establishment and the nature of those who enjoy its patronage.
A constant refrain of this blog is that corporate publishers and editors tend to be somewhat pusillanimous creatures, driven by their marketing departments on the one hand and by a narrow vision of commercial imperative on the other. The case of the Borges/di Giovanni translations illustrates, to a remarkable degree, the literary bankruptcy of the English language publishing establishment, and the shallowness of those writers whom that establishment seeks to promote. At the most brutal level, it is a literary establishment manifestly incapable of protecting its most important heritage.
In the absence of a publishing industry worth the name, one of the options which di Giovanni will consider is whether to publish the Borges/di Giovanni translations on the internet, perhaps supplemented by print-on-demand editions. At the very least this would give access to a younger generation of readers. And it may even have the unexpected benefit of shaming our publishing establishment into behaving responsibly at last, and into putting its weight behind a new edition of some of the most important and seminal works in the English language.