Jorge Luis Borges published a Spanish translation of William Faulkner's The
Wild Palms in 1940, which Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American
writers have cited as a major influence on their work. Although many similarities
exist between Faulkner's work and the writings of the magical realists, two
differences are apparent even to the layman. Firstly, Garcia Marquez is in some
ways an "easier read" than Faulkner, even to a native English speaker.
Secondly, the fantastic element is much more apparent in Garcia Marquez than
in Faulkner. When reading Faulkner, one asks, "what does that sentence
mean?" When reading Garcia Marquez, one asks "how can what that sentence
obviously means, be possible in a realistic, or even internally consistent world?".
Both Faulkner and the later magical realists are attempting to do justice to
world filled with ambiguity and confusion. Faulkner does so by creating confusion as to what objective situation his words are referring to, whereas the magical realists specify their object clearly, but present the reader with an object whose internal logic is ambiguous and confusing. It would make sense for Borges' translation of Faulkner to be an intermediate step in this progression. I contend that this translation does provide such a step, both by reducing the purely linguistic ambiguity and confusion in Faulkner's original, and perhaps also by introducing some confusion into the referent of that language.
Previous criticism of the translation, as well as Borges's own comments about The Wild Palms, are compatible with this hypothesis. Borges himself praised Faulkner's work in general, but found the use of Faulkner's characteristically novel techniques in The Wild Palms "menos atrayentes que incomodas, menos justificables que exasperantes" ("less attractive than uncomfortable, less justifiable than exasperating"). (Monegal, p. 335). This frustration on Borges' part strongly suggests that he may have intentionally reduced the "difficulty" of the language in his translation. In fact. Emir Rodriguez Monegal specifically praises the translation as exhibiting a style "quizas mas apretado que el de Faulkner" ("perhaps tighter than that of Faulkner"). (Ibid.). To begin with, the infamous Faulknerian sentence creates a certain amount of language-based difficulty due to its sheer length. Comparing the word counts of four randomly selected super-sentences from the text and the translation, I found a marked trend towards brevity in the translation. Of the four sentences selected, a 103 word English sentence was converted to a 104 word Spanish sentence, a 232 word English sentence remained 232 words in Spanish. The following 229 word English sentence was 208 words in Spanish:
It turned readily, it outpaced the aghast and outraged instant in which
he realized it was swinging far too easily, it had swung on over the arc
and lay broadside to the current and began again that vicious spinning
while he sat, his teeth bared in his bloody streaming face while his
spent arms flailed the impotent paddle at the water, that innocent-
appearing medium which at one time had held him in iron-like and
shifting convolutions like an anaconda yet which now seemed to offer
no more resistance to the thrust of his urge and need than so much air,
like air; the boat which had threatened him and at last actually struck
him in the face with the shocking violence of a mule's hoof now
seemed to poise weightless upon it like a thistle bloom, spinning like a
wind vane while he Hailed at the water and thought of, envisioned, his
companion sate, inactive and at ease in me tree with nothing to do but
wait, musing with impotent and terrified fury upon that arbitrariness of
human affairs which had abrogated to the one the secure tree and to the
other the hysterical and unmanageable boat for the very reason that it
knew that he alone of the two of them would make any attempt to
return and rescue his companion, (p. 145).
Doblo alegremente y rebaso el atonito y ultrajado instante en que el
hombre entendio que giraba con demasiada facilidad; habia flotado
sobre el arco y se tumbaba de costado en la corriente y volvia a
empezar aquel maldito baile, mientras el estaba ahi con los dientes
mera en el ensangrentado rostro chorreante, mientras los brazos
agotados agitaban el imponente remo hacia el agua, ese, al parecer,
inocente medio que lo habia aprisionado en moviles y ferreas
convulsiones como una anaconda, pero que ahora no ofrecia mas
resistencia al empuje de su avance que el aire, que la atmosfera; el bote
que lo habia amenazado y que acabo per golpearle en la cara con la
estupefaciente violencia del casco de una mula, ahora se posaba
ingravido como una flor de cardo, girando como una veleta mientras el
agitaba el agua y pensaba y evocaba a su companero a salvo, inactive y
comodo en el arbol sin nada que hacer mas que esperar, cavilando con
impotente furia aterrada en esa arbitrariedad de los asuntos humanos
que habia destinado a uno el arbol seguro y al otro el histerico bote
inmanejable por la razon de que entre los dos, el solo haria alguna
tentativa para volver y rescatar a su companero. (p. 141).
Even more strikingly, the following 165 word English sentence was cut off at
in Spanish by Borges:
He had not been warned, he had felt the first snatching tug of the
current, he had seen the skiff begin to spin and his companion vanish
violently upward like in a translation out of Isaiah, then he himself was
in the water, struggling against the drag of the paddle which he did not
know he still held each time he fought back to the surface and grasped
at the spinning skiff which at one instant was ten feet away and the next
poised above his head as though about to brain him, until at last he
grasped the stem, the drag of this body becoming, a rudder to the skiff,
the two of them, man and boat and with the paddle perpendicular above
them like a jack staff, vanishing from the view of the short convict
(who had vanished from that of the tall one with the same celerity
though in a vertical direction) like a tableau snatched offstage intact
with violent and incredible speed, (p. 143).
No habia side advertido, habia sentido el primer tiron arrebatado de la
corriente, habia visto el esquife empezar a remolinear, y a su
companero desaparecer violentamente hacia arriba, como una parodia
de Isaias, luego el mismo estaba, ene el agua, luchando contra el tiron
del remo que no sabia que aun empunaba, cada vez que trataba de subir
a la superficie y se agarraba el esquife giratorio que en un instante se
alejaba diez pies y en el siguiente se veria sobre su cabeza como si
quisiera aturdirlo, hasta que por fin se agarro a la popa, y el peso de su
cuerpo me como un timon para el esquife. Entonces los dos, hombre y
bote con el remo perpendicular sobre ellos como un asta de bandera,
desaparecieron de la vista del penado bajo (que habia desaparecido de
la vista del alto con identica celeridad auque en sentido vertical) como
un cuadro arrancado intacto de la escena con increfble rapidez. (p. 139-
Since my definition of a "super-sentence" was simply subjective, I hesitate to apply strict methods of statistical inference to these data, but to my mind the pattern is fairly clear. In two cases, the sentence length does not seem to have changed significantly, and in the other two cases the translation has shortened the sentence length. In the first case, this may have been caused by a combination of Borges's intent and the Spanish language itself In the final case, however, Borges exploited a temporal break in the action being described to insert a period and effectively amputate the end of Faulkner's mammoth uber-sentence. This shows clear intent on Borges's pan to shorten the sentence. The addition of a period allows the reader to process the earlier information, and prepare for more, rather than trying to process the entire passage at once.
The shortening of unwieldy sentences, whether unintentional, or as in the last case clearly intentional, would tend to reduce the "cognitive load" which the reader must take on in order to simply understand the language being used. Since sentences break down a discourse into discrete grammatical entities, the length of the sentence defines the amount of text which the reader must hold in memory in order to grammatically process a thought. This task becomes more complicated as the length of the sentence becomes larger. Beyond a certain length, the task can become overly burdensome, and the reader may fail to recall the referent of a pronoun or the subject of a verb. At this point, the reader must either backtrack, or else continue reading without a clear idea of what the sentence means. Sentence length, however, is only one source of difficulty, and therefore still a crude measure of the linguistic difficulty of a text.
At the other extreme, one can examine the choices which a translator makes with almost every word. Very rarely can a translator "fully" match the meanings and connotations of a pair of words. The connotations of a word must often be jettisoned, and in some cases, the translator must even choose between two meanings of the same word, especially when that word is used ambiguously in the original.
Borges is apparently confronted with this dilemma as early as the first page.
The narrative voice explains that a character eschews both pajamas and cigarettes
because his father had once said that these objects were "for dudes and
women". The word "dude" may be used here to refer to a regional
stereotype, or to allude to gender-based stereotypes and homosexuality. By translating
"dudes" as "maricas", Borges commits to the second interpretation.
Unfortunately, since the word is only used once in the original text, we can't
observe whether Borges would have translated it differently in another context.
One could argue that this decision has little to do with an attempt to reduce
overall, linguistic ambiguity, but a second example shows this intent more clearly,
this time at the level of an entire sentence. Faulkner describes a truck full
of convicts being
transported and then states: "A trusty drove, two armed guards sat in the truck with him." Faulkner throws his readers for a loop on a strictly linguistic level, because those of us unfamiliar with the slang of the Mississippi penitentiary in the 1920's have to wait more than 100 pages to find out that a "trusty" is a prisoner who has earned the confidence of his captors to the point where he performs some guard duties.
Borges's translation (Docil manada, arreada por dos guardias armados) seems
totally incongruous, until you realize that he has translated trusty as an adjective
and drove as a noun. Borges's sentence translates roughly as "a manageable
herd, flanked by
two armed guards". Now, the sentence becomes an extended metaphor, comparing the prisoners to a herd of animals. To a certain degree, the pun is there in Faulkner's English as well. Not only does Borges make the sentence unambiguous (out of necessity, since the same pun won't work in Spanish), he also chooses the metaphor over the simple vocabulary confusion that Faulkner seems to be playing on.
Borges's tendency to decrease the language difficulty, while perhaps increasing
conceptual difficulty, can be seen across more extended passages as well, such
as the following, which is already quite Borgesian in subject matter, but characteristically
in Faulkner's English:
I was outside of time. I was still attached to it, supported by it in space
as you have been ever since there was a not-you to become you, and
will be until there is an end to the not-you by means of which alone you
could once have been - that's the immortality - supported by it but
that's all, just on it, non-conductive, like the sparrow insulated by its
own hard non-conductive dead feet from the high-tension line, the
current of time that runs through remembering, that exists only in
relation to what little of reality (I have learned that too) we know, else
there is no such thing as time. (p. 137)
Yo estaba fuera del tiempo: todavia estaba ligado a el, sostenido por el
en el espacio como tu has estado desde que hubo un "no-tu" para que tu
existieras, y estaras ahi hasta que se acabe el "no-tu" que te ha
permitido existir -esto es inmortalidad-, sostenido por el, eso es todo,
justo encima, no conductor, como el gorrion aislado por sus duros pies
muertos no-conductores de la linea de alta tension, la corriente del
tiempo que corre por el recuerdo, que existe solo en relacion a la escasa
realidad (tambien he aprendido eso) que conocemos; fuera de eso el
tiempo no existe. (pp. 134-5)
The translation is fairly literal and predictable, with a few notable exceptions.
The words "as you have been ever since there was a not-you to become you,
and will be until there is an end to the not-you by means of which alone you
could once have been" are replaced by something which approximates "as
you have been since there was a 'not you' so that you would exist, and you will
be there until the end of the 'not-you' which has allowed you to exist".
Borges thus simplifies the expression of the idea, but at the same time adds
a new dimension of purpose: the not-you is not only necessary for the existence
of you, the purpose of the not-you is to enable your existence. In this way,
Borges adds philosophical complexity while reducing grammatical complexity.
In addition, the word used by Borges as the verb "to end" (acabarse)
has temporal connotations of finishing or running out, which add a layer of
philosophical complexity since the subject of this verb is in a certain sense
time itself. In a similar move from linguistic towards philosophical complexity,
Borges replaces "else there is no such thing as time" with "outside
of this, time does not exist". Faulkner simply states that there is no
plausible conception of time other than the one he has outlined in the passage.
Borges, however, uses a spatial analogy, which evokes two coexisting regions
of reality, one in which it is relevant to speak of time, side by side with
another region where 'time does not exist". Borges's translation thereby
adds a subtle metaphysical point to the philosophical manifesto. Instead of
just describing the characters subjective experience of time and stating that
no more objective perception is possible, Borges goes the extra step and begins
to speak of a truly relative universe. Not only is it impossible to be sure
that subjective experience corresponds correctly to objective reality, it is
now quite possible that seemingly contradictory statements (time exists, time
does not exist) can be simultaneously true in whatever objective universe does
exist. Faulkner's phrase does not suggest that a universe without time would
be possible, whereas Borges all but challenges us to picture it. On several
different levels, then, it appears that Borges's translation overall
contains less difficult language than Faulkner's original. Characteristics of the Spanish language and the inherent difficulties of translation doubtless contribute to this effect, but it also appears that Borges made several conscious decisions in this direction. This investigation also suggests that within the limitations imposed by the desire to produce a faithful translation, Borges's translation shows a tendency towards replacing confusing language with increased confusion in the universe described by that language, specifically metaphor and philosophical abstraction. These two findings support a view of this translation as an intermediate step between Faulkner and magical realism.
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