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Old 10-08-2013, 07:23 AM
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Jennifer Reeser Jennifer Reeser is offline
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Default Translation Bakeoff Finalist: Borges

A Compass
To Esther Zemborain de Torres

All things are words in a vernacular
in which each day and night some One or Thing
writes that infinitude of squabbling
that we call history. There, passing, are

Carthage and Rome, and I, you, he, my life
I cannot understand, this agony
of being enigma, chance, cryptography,
all babbling with all of Babel's strife.

The unnamed lies behind the name. I seem
to feel its shadow gravitate today
in this clear keen blue needle, feel it sway,

pulled by an ocean's shoreline, by the deep,
with something of a clock seen in a dream
and something of bird moving in sleep.

Jorge Luis Borges

Una brújula
A compass

A Esther Zemborain de Torres
To Esther Zemborain de Torres

Todas las cosas son palabras del
All things are words of

Idioma en que Alguien o Algo, noche y día,
A language in which Someone or Something, night and day,

Escribe esa infinita algarabía
Writes this infinite of gabble/nonsense/gibberish/racket/clamor

Que es la historia del mundo.En su tropel
That is the history of the world. In its throng/crowd/flock

Pasan Cartago y Roma, yo, tú, él,
Pases Carthage and Rome, I, you, he,

Mi vida que no entiendo, esta agonía
My life that I don't understand, this agony

De ser enigma, azar, criptografía
Of being enigma, random/hazard/chance/fate/disaster, crypography

Y toda la discordia de Babel.
And all the discord of Babel.

Detrás del nombre hay lo que no se nombra;
Behind the name is that which isn't named;

Hoy he sentido gravitar su sombra
Today I have felt gravitate its shadow

En esta aguja azul, lúcida y leve,
In this blue needle, lucid/clear and light/keen/slight

Que hacia el confín de un mar tiende su empeño,
That towards the edge of a sea tends/stretches/distends its endeavor/effort

Con algo de reloj visto en un sueño
With something of clock seen in a dream

Y algo de ave dormida que se mueve.
And something of a bird moving in sleep
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Old 10-08-2013, 07:43 AM
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Jennifer Reeser Jennifer Reeser is offline
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Default Judge's Comments

Spanish Operative Two, good day.

A Compass

To Esther Zemborain de Torres

All things are words in a vernacular
in which each day and night some One or Thing
writes that infinitude of squabbling

Resourceful, the use of “squabbling” here, to stand in for nonsense or gibberish. Not exactly the author’s original, but close enough the reader gets the gist and import. I commend the inventiveness.

that we call history. There, passing, are

Beware of clipping out too much, or of clipping the stronger, in favor of the unnecessary. Here, ““troop” is eliminated, which takes much of the punch out of the original. “…that we call” is filler – but so is Borges’s “del mundo” – “of the world.” The image of the troop, though, is crucial, and needs to be retained. Try:

“called ‘History.’ Passed in its bustle are…”


“called ‘History.’ Passed in its jumble are…,” “Passed in its chaos,” etc.

Carthage and Rome, and I, you, he, my life
I cannot understand, this agony
of being enigma, chance, cryptography,
all babbling with all of Babel's strife.

Exquisite stanza, the above, skillfully done, moving in those staccato utterances, “I, you, he my life…,” and with integrity to the original.

The unnamed lies behind the name. I seem
to feel its shadow gravitate today
in this clear keen blue needle, feel it sway,

pulled by an ocean's shoreline, by the deep,

I suggest “toward the deep,” which, though somewhat flipping around his exact image, would more closely convey Borges’s idea of the reach for meaning, as well as recovering that subliminal feeling of elongation and “stretch” in the original.

with something of a clock seen in a dream
and something of bird moving in sleep.

The concision in all of the above is admirable – no “tarting up” of the text, but such clean, precise and faithful rendering. Perhaps:

and something of a bird that moves in sleep ??

Mission accomplished. English thanks you.

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Old 10-08-2013, 01:35 PM
Adam Elgar Adam Elgar is offline
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I’m glad the DG admires this, and God knows verse translators need all the encouragement they can get, but I’m finding it hard to share 007’s enthusiasm. The translator hasn’t made life easy for us, either in the wording of the English version or in the layout of the interleaved Spanish text and literal translation.

There are a couple of questionable moments in the literal version. For example, why does the translator think that “infinita algarabía” means “infinite of gabble”? This isn’t a trivial matter: the English sonnet is pretty hard to understand, whereas the Borges original is crystal clear.

I don’t at all mind translators taking liberties with the original text, but the gains need to outweigh the losses. It’s a pity that the translator resorted to adding a “seem” (for the sake of the rhyme). And the needle’s swaying is a weak substitute for the beauties of “lúcida y leve” and “tiende su empeño”. In Borges the needle isn’t passive, but determinedly active.

The result is a mistily Romantic vision; very un-Borgesian.
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Old 10-08-2013, 02:21 PM
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Seree Zohar Seree Zohar is offline
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Yes, I’d have to agree with Adam that the crib inserted beneath each line of original makes this harder to work with. But it’s not a simple thing to translate this poem yet again, especially considering the translations it might be compared to…

L1’s a good opener and ‘vernacular’ is a great choice. Not sure why the One and Thing need to be capped – a crazy association I guess but it kind of reminds me of Thing 1 and Thing 2… would it work just to have some-one or –thing perhaps. ‘infinitude’ seems to carry the wrong tone, of something positive such as eternity, whereas ‘endless’ carries the tone of exasperation and would seem more suited to this poem: after all, we do refer to endless bickering rather than infinite bickering so if it’s a vernacular this piece is going with, some of these lines seem to need some tighter, er, vernacularization.

S2L1 – I don’t understand ‘he’ and wonder if it shouldn’t be ‘it’, referencing the life that can't be understood. The fact that agony and enigma come straight from the original doesn’t make them any less a delicious sonic echo; what can be done to S2L3 to get around the awkward ‘being’, and ‘chance’ which doesn’t quite have the tone of the options offered in the crib? Very not keen on x2 ‘all’ in L4 but I do like babbling and how it echoes squabbling.

In S3, I seem is very uncertain compared to the crib’s certainty; can ‘deem’ be used there? L3 is awkward; and in S4, I’m not sure what I'm supposed to be seeing, though it sounds like the image should be ‘tugged at’ rather than ‘pullled by’; and the closing two lines [S4] have pretty much lost me; perhaps ‘with something’ in both instances should be ‘as though’ ?

A bit of tightening would make this come together better.
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Old 10-08-2013, 02:32 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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I think this is a solid effort, but my opinion is probably closer to Adam's than to DG's. My overall complaint is similar to Adam's, namely that the sonnet in English is much more difficult to understand than the sonnet in Spanish. I think the clarity of the original is elegantly conveyed in Richard Wilbur's version.

Here are some quasi-random thoughts:

(1) "squabbling" -- The word suggests arguing over trivial concerns, like bickering, but that's not what Borges is saying here at all. The word "algarabía" means lots of people or voices are speaking at one time, producing a confusing din, but as far as I know it doesn't suggest discord or triviality. Since the word is used here in a very important role -- to characterize nothing less than the history of the world as we know it -- I think it's too great a liberty to introduce the suggestion (not found in the original) that the history of the world amounts to trivial bickering.

(2) "that we call history" -- The Spanish says that it is "the history of the world," not merely that "we call" it that. Perhaps this doesn't matter much, but it strikes me as an important distinction and one that would be easy enough to tweak the English into reflecting. I'd also like to see "of the world" or something to that effect in the English.

(3) "its shadow gravitate today in this clear keen blue needle" -- I'm not sure what it means for a shadow to gravitate "in" a needle. I think that perhaps the temptation to translate "gravitar" as "gravitate" should have been resisted, since "gravitar" also means things like "loom over," or "be a burden on," "threaten," or even "rotate."

(4) I think the meter and one of the rhymes depends on pronouncing "babbling" and "squabbling" as three syllables each, but I stumbled at first because they more naturally (to me) seem like two-syllable words.

(5) I think "clear keen blue" piles on the adjectives too much (three in a row). I would also question "clear," since I don't think that's what lúcida means in this context. I think it's something closer to graceful or elegant. In fact, I thought at first that the use of "keen" was meant to be a translation of lúcida (as it is in the Wilbur), but that would mean that "clear" is the translation of "leve," and "leve" doesn't mean "clear" but "light" (as in not heavy, or not serious).
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Old 10-08-2013, 03:49 PM
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Catherine Chandler Catherine Chandler is offline
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I must congratulate the person who took on this gorgeous sonnet by Borges. As Roger points out, the beautiful Wilbur translation sets the bar very high indeed.

However, I have the same reservations as Adam and Roger as to some of the choices made in this translation.

The poem touches on philosophical themes central to some of Borges' short stories and essays (see HERE).

My feeling is that the translation fails to convey the appalling horror of the useless compass metaphor (i.e. man's place in a universe that has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere), so brilliantly conveyed by Borges. Borges dedicated the poem to Esther Zemborain de Torres. Perhaps she represented, for him, the fleeting compass (esta aguja azul, lúcida y leve)?

Many of the rhymes seem "easy outs" (Thing/squabbling; agony/cryptography) or rhyme-driven (life/strife) or invented, i.e. not in the original and changing the meaning (the word "seem" to rhyme with dream).

Though I didn't need the crib, I thought the way it was presented was an unnecessary distraction.

Last edited by Catherine Chandler; 10-08-2013 at 04:08 PM. Reason: Added link to Esther Zemborain de Torres obituary
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Old 10-08-2013, 11:12 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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It takes a lot of chutzpah to follow Dick Wilbur into this sonnet by Borges, but I want the translator to know I read it to Wilbur.
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Old 10-09-2013, 03:18 AM
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Eric Chevlen Eric Chevlen is offline
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This translation is lovely to the ear, but I think that at critical junctures it does more than exercise poetic license, it mistranslates. Spanish is not my first language, so some of my remarks might be askew. I hope that someone for whom it is a mother tongue will weigh in here.

A key point is that "del idioma" is not "of a language," but "of the language." Borges is describing the language in which the din of All is recorded. If "él" in line 5 is translated as "he," the reader is left to wonder who that he is. But note that "idioma" is the only masculine noun preceding the word "él." Borges was famously intrigued with the concept of recursion. If "él" is translated as "it," referring to the language, the meaning of the poem is clarified: in the throng of things recorded in that language, we find Carthage, Rome, you, me, that language itself, etc.

This approach helps clarify "Detrás del nombre hay lo que no se nombra" too. "Nombre" also means noun. Behind all the nouns, the things named in the language, lies the ineffable or unspoken.

"Esta aguja azul" is the object of the verb phrase "gravitar en," not the place where it occurs. "Sombra" is the subject of that verb phrase. Thus, the meaning of the poem is clarified by translating that phrase in the sense "I felt its shadow tug this blue needle..."

Thus, the ocean's shoreline is not the force tugging the compass needle. Rather, the shadow tugs at the blue, clear, light needle which (otherwise) points to the (distant) seashore.

"With something of a clock" is so literal that it loses its original meaning. First of all, I think that "watch" is a better translation of "reloj" than clock, since a watch is similar in size to a compass, and it's sweep second hand resembles the needle of a compass.

The phrase means that the slight movement of the compass needle, drawn by the shadow, is somewhat like the movement of (a sweep second hand of ) a watch in a dream.
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Old 10-09-2013, 11:11 AM
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Marion Shore Marion Shore is offline
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I think this is a very fine rendition of Borges' haunting and lyrical sonnet. As a reader, I have no quibbles with it. As a critter in full hunting mode, I found some nits to pounce upon.

Firstly, in L1, "vernacular" seems too academic, and is not in the original, which is simply idioma (language).

In L3, I have to disagree with DG007 - I don't like "squabbling" - reminds me too much of a married couple having a petty argument... Or of pigeons, for some reason. Or my kids! I guess it's hard to come up with a word for "gibberish" with the openness and beauty of "algarabía"…

L8 -"all babbling with all of Babel's strife" just blows me away! Operative Two has made brilliant use of babbling/Babel - IMO, an example of Translator/Transformer wherein the translation actually surpasses the original.

L 12 - I disagree with DG. I would keep "by the deep" as I like the repetition of "by" which evokes for me the rhythm of ocean waves..

L14 - Similarly, I would keep the line as is - to my ear, it sounds more natural and flows better than DG's suggestion.

Just one more thing - the title. I would prefer dropping the article and calling it simply "Compass"

I should add, I haven't read any of the critiques besides DG's, so if I appear to be repeating or ignoring other remarks, please forgive me.

[I'd like to make a general remark about formatting – I much prefer the original uninterrupted, rather than interspersed line by line with the crib, which I find makes it hard to read the original with any kind of coherence or flow.]

Agent 86

Last edited by Marion Shore; 10-09-2013 at 12:30 PM.
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Old 10-09-2013, 11:47 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is online now
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I don't know Spanish, so I don't feel I can comment on the nuances of meaning. I will say that I like the DG's suggestion for the last line and that I got little shivers at points while reading the translation, which suggests to me that some of the power of the original (which I did not know) is coming through.

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