Posts Tagged ‘Spanish’

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

If you want a good reason to learn Spanish, here’s one: you’ll be able to read Borges in the original. Learning won’t be very difficult, but it would be worth it even if it were. Spanish is a clear and elegant language and Borges is a clear and elegant writer. He puts his stories together like mosaics, using words as chips of coloured stone to create the strangest of worlds and situations.

This collection, which combines El Jardín de Senderos que se Bifurcan (1941) (The Garden of Forking Paths) and Artificios (1944) (Artifices), has the very strange world known as “La Biblioteca de Babel” or “The Library of Babel”, an infinite library of hexagonal rooms whose books are a kind of drunkard’s walk through alphabetic possibility:

Uno, que mi padre vio en un hexágono del circuito quince noventa y cuatro, constaba de las letras MCV perversamente repetidas desde el renglón primero hasta el último.

One book, which my father once saw in a hexagon in circuit 15-94,consisted of the letters M C V perversely repeated from the first line to the last.

Borges was fascinated by concepts like randomness and infinity, which is why he drew on mathematics so often in his stories. “The Library of Babel” is an exploration of those ideas, but amid the abstraction and universality of mathematics there are haunting images like this:

Muerto, no faltarán manos piadosas que me tiren por la baranda; mi sepultura será el aire insondable; mi cuerpo se hundirá largamente y se corromperá y disolverá en el viento engenerado por la caída, que es infinita.

When I am dead, compassionate hands will throw me over the railing; my tomb will be the unfathomable air, my body will sink for ages, and will decay and dissolve in the wind engendered by my fall, which shall be infinite.

That’s both horrible and beautiful. The first words of the quote – “Muerto, no faltarán…” – are an example of how Spanish can be more precise than English. A literal translation would be: “Dead, there shall not lack caring hands to cast me over the railing…” But in English the referent of “dead” hangs in the air and doesn’t settle very readily on “me”. In Spanish, muerto is masculine singular and clearly refers to the speaker.

English has to paraphrase, just as it does with the title of Gautier’s «La Morte Amoureuse» (1836). One of the strange titles in the Library of Babel, Trueno peinado, translates well into English: Combed Thunder. Another title doesn’t: Calambre de Yeso, or Plaster Cramp. I think Sandstone Cramp or Onyx Cramp would work better in English: the translation fails by being too faithful.

But Borges survives translation better than most writers, because his prose is precise and his themes are universal. Or perhaps you could say fundamental. He’s playing with words and ideas, exploring the relationship between language and reality, between reality and imagination, between imagination and mathematics. “The Library of Babel” is an excellent example, which is why it’s perhaps his most famous story.

But there’s a melancholy and even a terror in the story too, which come across more clearly when you’re reading more slowly and with closer attention. That’s one reason it’s good to read in other languages: people whose mother tongue isn’t Spanish can find things in Borges that native speakers can’t.

But that applies to every language: in some ways the natives are trapped by their own familiarity and fluency. Borges was aware of questions like that and in “The Library of Babel” he suddenly throws a door open to an infinity of mirrors. If the relation between symbol and sense is arbitrary, then any combination of letters can have any meaning. That’s why the narrator of the story suddenly asks:

Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

You who read me — are you certain you understand my language?

In other stories, like “La Muerte y la Brújula”, or “Death and the Compass”, Borges’ games with symbols and coincidence can begin to seem like self-parody. This is the story of a series of murders committed to form the letters of the Tetragrammaton, or great and unspeakable name of God in Hebrew. I think the title in Spanish is better than the story, because brújula has an enticing echo of brujo, “wizard”, or bruja, “witch”. Borges was a profound writer, not a broad one, and he repeated himself, like a garden of forking paths or an echoing labyrinth. But my Spanish isn’t good enough to appreciate him fully or get the most out of his humour.

Whatever language you read him in, you’ll probably agree that he is among the greatest writers of the twentieth century. But one of his biggest services to literature may have been to encourage more people to try G.K. Chesterton, one of his own heroes and inspirations. He would certainly have been pleased to do so, because you don’t get ego with Borges. Instead, you get ideas, some of the strangest and most haunting ever set to cellulose. As I said in one of my own attempts at Borgesian weirdness:

Black Aikkos the God is eternally blind,
But he sees with the eyes of the infinite mind… (“The Dice of Aikkos”)

Homer, at the beginning of European literature, is said to have been blind. Borges certainly was, and if he proves to have been at the end of European literature, he is great enough to bear the comparison.

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Rok 1984 by George OrwellRok 1984, George Orwell (MUZA SA, Warszawa 2001)

It’s an odd experience to pick up a famous book in an unfamiliar language. I’ve read Nineteen Eighty-Four many times in English and also tried it in French, Spanish and Italian. Reading it in English is like picking up a perfectly ripe apple and biting into it. I don’t have to think, I just have to experience.

It isn’t like that in French, Spanish and Italian. The book isn’t a ripe apple any more: it’s an exotic fruit with a tough skin that has to be peeled and cooked. I have to think about what I’m doing and it takes much longer to eat much less.

In Polish, Nineteen Eighty-Four becomes a coconut with an exceptionally tough and hairy shell. And I don’t have any way of getting inside. All I can do is pick it up and shake it, hearing the swish of the milk inside and feeling its solidity. I know there’s good eating in there, but I can’t get at it.

Of course, to a literate Pole Rok 1984 is a ripe apple, ready to be experienced without conscious effort. Languages aren’t like ordinary phenomena. A knife is a knife. A bird is a bird. A cloud is a cloud. Billions of human beings for thousands of years have perceived those things in more or less the same way. But human beings haven’t named them or talked about them in more or less the same way. Language both defines humans and divides us. No-one can be familiar with all languages, so everyone can have the experience of picking up something familiar that is suddenly encased in something impenetrable.

Here’s the opening line of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English:

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.

And here it is in some other languages:

• Era un día luminoso y frío de abril y los relojes daban las trece.
• C’était une journée d’avril froide et claire. Les horloges sonnaient treize heures.
• Era una luminosa e fredda giornata d’aprile, e gli orologi battevano tredici colpi.
• Był jasny, zimny dzień kwietniowy i zegary biły trzynastą.
• Был холодный ясный апрельский день, и часы пробили тринадцать.

English suddenly looks anomalous: “and” in all the other languages is represented by a simple vowel and “thirteen” starts with “tr-”. You see English differently when you look at other languages and you realize that English doesn’t have a fixed form. It changes when you look at from the perspective of another language.

So does every other language. To a speaker of Russian, Polish is partly familiar. To a speaker of English, Polish seems almost wholly unfamiliar, although English and Polish have a fairly recent common ancestor and have a lot of words in common, beneath the disguise of orthography and historic change.

One of those shared words is readily apparent in the opening chapter of Rok 1984 (which I assume means “Year 1984”):

Była tak namalowana, że oczy mężczyzny zdawały się śledzić każdy ruch przechodzącego. WIELKI BRAT PRATZY, głosił napis u dołu plakatu.

Most readers of the English version will remember that Winston sees a poster and a slogan at the beginning, so the meaning of WIELKI BRAT PRATZY isn’t hard to guess. Wielki Brat must mean “Big Brother” and pratzy must be “is watching” or some equivalent. Brat is closer to “brother” than French frère, from Latin frater.

But brat behaves like the Latin word. A little further into the book, you’ll see this:


Which must the part where Winston repeatedly writes “Down with Big Brother” in his new diary. Wielki Brat has become Wielkim Bratem. So Polish inflects like Latin. And the last line of the book (before the “Aneks”, or Appendix) is: Kochał Wielkiego Brata – He loved Big Brother.

Then there are phrases like Policja Myśli, Dwóch Minut Nienawiści and Ministerstwie Miłości, where Winston is asked what he thinks of Wielki Brat and replies “Nienawidzę go” – “I hate him.” “Nienawidzisz go,” O’Brien says. “You hate him.”

So you could gradually work out a lot of Polish vocabulary and grammar using simply your memories of Nineteen Eighty-Four in English. With an actual copy of the English version, you could compare and contrast line by line, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. In short, you could learn Polish from Rok 1984.

There’s a much simpler way to do that, of course, but I can imagine a story about a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in an unknown language falling into this universe from a parallel one. Then linguists would have to use the Rosetta stone technique.

But what if the book from a parallel universe were in a wholly unfamiliar script too and didn’t have any images? This Polish copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is instantly recognizable as such. It’s called Rok 1984, names the author as “George Orwell”, and one edition has the face of Stalin on it. In Russian, “George Orwell” becomes Джордж Оруэлл. It’s stepped away from English. What if it stepped a lot further? What if an unknown version of Nineteen Eighty-Four didn’t use an alphabet but an ideography like Chinese or Japanese?

I still think it would be identifiable, given sufficient computing power. In fact, I wonder whether any sufficiently long text in any conceivable human language might be comprehensible to a sufficiently powerful computer, based simply on the relationship of the patterns within it. I don’t mean that the computer could identify it as related to a known text in a known language: I mean that any text at all might be comprehensible, because there are only a limited number of things one can say about the world, even if there are an infinite number of ways of saying those things.

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Front cover of The Monk by Matthew LewisThe Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796)

It’s hard to believe that Lewis was only nineteen when he wrote The Monk, which is richly inventive, deeply perceptive and highly entertaining. Scandalously lubricious too and Lewis might have got in more trouble if he hadn’t been satirizing Catholicism for a Protestant audience. The Monk is the story of a highly talented abbot brought to lust, crime and final doom by a mixture of overweening pride, worldly inexperience and demonic temptation in eighteenth-century Spain. Fortunately perhaps, the bloody twists and turns aren’t very realistic, partly because Lewis seems barely to believe in the supernatural, let alone in Christianity, and partly because The Monk reads like a converted play rather than a true novel. The older literary form, to which Lewis turned later in his short career, was still informing the newer and his characters seem to be performing on a stage rather than living in a fully imagined world. There are “scenes” in grottos and bedrooms, with exits and entrances, and the moonlight or sounds that accompany them could easily be realized as stage effects. Also theatrical is the poetry that punctuates the text, declaimed by a gypsy fortune-teller or an aristocrat’s page. Even if the plot weren’t so fantastic, The Monk would not purge with pity and terror as true tragedy should. Lewis didn’t intend it to: The Monk is a jeu d’esprit written to entertain first the author himself, then whatever readers happened to come his way. A lot did when it was first published and a lot have ever since, even in the expurgated second edition Lewis produced when the scandal caused by the first threatened his career as a Member of Parliament. If you want to enter the Gothic, step this way.

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