Two reflections on literary translation

“The original is unfaithful to the translation.” I came across this characteristically gnomic utterance in an essay by Borges on French writer William Beckford’s Vathek (1782). For Borges, translation was both a primary literary act and a primary metaphor for the literary act: many of his best stories revolve around the notion of the translation, of the dislocation and rewriting, of a literary text. His Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, for example, raises questions about authorship and translation by chasing the concept to its logical, absurd, extreme.

Here Borges is reflecting on an observation by Vathek‘s English translator, that ‘eighteenth-century French is less apt than English’ to communicate the message of the novel. In other words, for Borges, what is at stake in literary translation is something more than fidelity to the original text. Here he seems to be saying that a novel takes on an independent existence, and that a translation represents a form of reincarnation which is sometimes truer to the essential spirit of the original than the original itself.

This statement reminded me of a famous anecdote about the American humourist James Thurber. Thurber was once approached, in Paris, by a woman who professed to have read his writing in both English and French, but to have enjoyed it more in the French translation. Yes, madam, Thurber replied, my work often loses something in the original.