Mirrors, by Jorge Luis Borges

I humbly offer here my own new translation of “Mirrors,” a poem by Jorge Luis Borges. The poem has existed in English translation for decades, and in more than one version, perhaps most popularly the translation of Alistair Reid, which is the one through which I first discovered this wonderful work. However, for reasons I will discuss below, I believe this new attempt is warranted. Whether the person making the attempt is worthy of it is another matter, upon which I pass no comment here, other than to say, “Of course not.”

In any case, let us begin with the poem itself. (You may read the Spanish original here.)

by Jorge Luis Borges

I who sense in mirrors an inherent doom,
Not only before the impenetrable glass
Within whose uninhabitable limits pass
Reflections within an impossible room,

But before the specular water that imitates
The other blue within its bottomless height
Which is sometimes streaked with the illusory flight
Of an inverted bird, or which a ripple agitates,

Or before the silent superficial repose
Of a subtle ebony whose smooth face
May reflect as in a dream the white trace
Of a vague marble or of a vague rose,

Today, after so many a perplexing year
Of wandering under the varying moon,
I wonder what accident of fortune
Has made the mirror, to me, a source of such fear.

Mirrors of metal, and also the mirror concealed
As mahogany, which in the haze
Of its red crepuscule blurs the gaze
Of the face that both sees it and is in it revealed,

I see them as infinite, substratal
Executors of an ancient pact,
To multiply the world like the act
Of generation, sleepless and fatal.

They prolong this vain uncertain world with thread
In whose vertiginous web we are shrouded;
Sometimes in the evening they become clouded
By the breath of a man who is not yet dead.

The glass lies in wait for us. If among the four
Walls of my room, a mirror is mounted there,
I am not alone. There is another: the reflected glare
Which in the dawn assembles a secret stage floor.

Everything happens but nothing is preserved
In those cabinets, crystalline synagogues
Where, like fantastical rabbi pedagogues,
We read books from right to left, while observed.

Claudius, king of an evening, a royal dreaming,
Did not sense he was unreal until that day
When an actor mimed his crime within a play,
In silent art reversing being and seeming.

That there are dreams, that there are mirrors, is strange,
That the normal and worn-out routines of each day
Include this illusory, deep world of display,
Woven of reflections laid out in a range.

God puts an effort (I have begun to deem)
Into all that architectural ambiguity
Which forges light out of the continuity
Of the glass, and shadow out of the dream.

God has created nights in an armed parade
Of dreams and of shapes in replication,
So that man may sense he himself is imitation
And vanity. It is of this that we are afraid.

(translated by Daren Jonescu)

The challenge of all translation — a high art and noble subsidiary of the love of wisdom, upon which so much civilizational insight depends, but which is currently in the process of being sacrificed to the gods of blind technology — is to strike the right balance between fealty to the original writer’s form and content on the one hand, and the proper desire to do justice to that writer’s spirit within the communicative norms of the second language, on the other. There are moments in every honorable translator’s life, no doubt, as well as in the life of every serious reader of a translated work, when he is absolutely adamant that the only thing that matters is literal accuracy, achieved at almost any cost of cosmetic appeal. But there will likely be just as many moments when said translator or reader will find himself stewing over a missed opportunity to capture “the essence of the work,” forsaken in the name of “mere slavish literalness.”

I am not a translator, but I have read so many great (and awful) translations of so many important works, that I have gradually formed some principles of my own on the questions I have just outlined.

As one who knows that the supreme value of the great writing of the past is precisely its ability to preserve and deliver to us, however imperfectly, thoughts and perspectives different from our own, often radically so, it is imperative to me that a translator never succumb, least of all intentionally, to the temptation to make the classic work “relevant” or “relatable” to modern readers. The great work’s relevance to modern readers lies precisely in its strangeness, or even its seeming unfathomability, which is to say in its priceless gift of alternative ideas about human nature, reality, and society. Our progressive education folly of systematically (i.e., theoretically and pedagogically) reducing all past thought and writing to nothing but disappointing or promising precursors to us, with its implicit lesson that we are of necessity superior to all previous peoples, and hence stand to learn nothing significant from the past other than how great we are, codifies and sanctifies the opposite, history-burying approach to translation, the “current relevance” method which I both abhor and dread on every level, for the very same reason we all abhor and dread Orwell’s “memory hole” in Nineteen-Eighty-Four

Granting, then, that a translator must never seek to reduce the original writer to “us,” nor fall into such an error by carelessness, it behooves us to ask, “At what price literalness?” Much of this will depend on what kind of work is being translated. If it is pure science, or perhaps dry scholarship, then literalness ought to rule without question. But this is partly because in such cases literalness is actually more achievable than in other forms of writing. For in the novel, the drama, the poem, the classical history, or even the greatest philosophical writing, very little can be described as strictly literal, even in the original language. In these cases, literalness means something more like cleaving as closely as possible to the terms of the writer’s own metaphors or other figures, even where these may seem obscure in modern or foreign terms. The danger here would be that the literal-minded translation might in some cases connote something different from the original writer’s intention in the new language, for reasons extraneous to the context of the work but uncontrollable. I believe this method is essentially desirable, however, even when it leads to greater obscurity than would have been true in the writer’s time, because the alternative approach — updating everything according to the translator’s personal understanding of meaning and intention — runs the risk of turning the translation itself into a kind of inadvertent memory hole, since it leaves the life and preservation of the original writer’s thoughts entirely at the mercy of the translator’s intellect and his passion for the original ideas, which, however well-intentioned and talented he may be, will almost invariably and necessarily be vastly inferior to those of the writer being translated.

As a model of what modern English translation ought to aspire to, I often refer to Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic, where strict literalness reigns supreme, in all its glory and all its dangers. For example, in assiduously clinging to a translation of Socrates’ description of Glaucon’s questioning nature that observes the etymological relation between the Greek word for “questioning” and the word eros, Bloom produces a translation in which Socrates directly addresses Glaucon as “you erotic man,” a translation which certainly captures an idea consistent with Bloom’s own (Straussian) interpretation of Socrates’ teaching method, but which is susceptible to criticism as a distortion of the words Plato actually wrote. After all, there is a difference between playing with an etymological connection as a matter of subtle suggestion, which Plato may well have intended, and openly equating Glaucon’s eager inquisitiveness with an erotic gesture. By following the principle of literalness to the point of overstating Socrates’ implication in the name of preserving it, Bloom’s choice shows the special danger of literal translation which I noted earlier, namely the fact that a literal translation of a figurative text is almost a contradiction in terms, or at least an impossible dream.

On the other hand, I believe Bloom would have defended this choice against the criticism, on the grounds that it is better to preserve for the modern reader the important content of the implication, even at the price of losing the nuanced form, since the alternative, a more modern idiomatic English translation, would conceal the wordplay altogether, and thus risk losing what he regarded as an essential underlying element of Plato’s philosophy, of the Socratic method, and of The Republic taken as a human drama. And I come down on Bloom’s side here. Much risk must be run in the name of preserving what lies at the heart of a work, if such risk is the only way to ensure that the writer’s underlying intellectual and literary nuances — his soul and deepest concerns — are not lost entirely. 

With this, I turn to the peculiar case of poetry translation, which would seem to be almost impossible from the literalist point of view due to the fundamentally figurative nature of the medium, both in form and content. However, I believe that in this last point lies at least one key to the possibility of poetry translation. The figurativity of a poem resides not only in the word choices and imagery, but also in the musicality and, shall we say, the poet’s attitude toward language as a musical means of presenting ideas, his compositional sensibility. Here, I think fealty to the writer’s form and content must include a sincere effort to approximate the structural concept that is inseparable from both of these elements of a poem understood as a musical composition in words, which is the original and proper way to understand what poetry is.

To illustrate simply what I mean by this, I offer Dorothy Sayers’ translation of The Divine Comedy, which follows Dante’s terza rima style, but without sacrificing Dante’s imagery and ideas to priorities of mere abstract structure. That is, Sayers holds on tight to Dante’s fierce imagery and vernacular appeal — so essential to the spirit of an epic poem decisively written in Italian, the popular tongue, rather than in the Latin which was the standard for “serious” work written for the educated reader in early fourteenth century Italy — while also, with relentless care, rendering her translation in Dante’s own invented rhyme scheme, so distinctive, and so notoriously challenging and relatively rare in English poetry.

Bringing these principles and touchstones together, I now address my immediate intentions in daring to provide a new translation of Borges’ “Mirrors.” To state the case bluntly, it would never have occurred to me to attempt such a thing were it not for two particular observations I made recently, having recovered, after many years’ absence, my old copy of Borges’ poems in facing Spanish and English pages.

The first observation was that Alistair Reid, who produced the enjoyable translation in my book, offers no attempt, here or with any of his other Borges translations, to reproduce Borges’ enclosed rhyme quatrains — that is, his ABBA rhyme scheme. Borges, in both poetry and prose, writes in a most reflective and cerebral manner, intentionally eschewing emotionalism or lyricism of any obvious sort in favor of intellectual labyrinths (to use the noun perhaps most typically associated with his name) which combine the dream-like quasi-realism of Kafka with the dry detachment of a cobweb-covered old librarian tirelessly reciting anecdotes from his long life as a collector of rare tomes. In the case of his poetry, this tendency would, one might imagine, undermine the force of his verse. All the more reason, then, for the translator to make a good faith effort to retain whatever hints of poetic voice, whatever musicality of language, might be found in the Spanish of this seemingly unmusical man. And in this case there is indeed something to retain, most especially his rhyme scheme which, aside from occasionally highlighting points of emphasis or thematic essence in exciting ways — there is something bracing about the rhyme of elementales and fatales, of arman and alarman, and of silenciosa and vaga rosa — also, and more importantly, serves as a reminder that Borges is not merely a technician of playful intellectual excursions, but also a genuine poet with a good ear and an abiding concern for the inflection of his thoughts, rather than merely their incisiveness. In leaving this peculiar choice of rhyme scheme out of account, Reid (and other translators) do Borges a bit of an injustice, it seems to me, for all their honorable efforts to bring his work to the English-speaking world.

The second observation is more specific in nature, and comes in the quatrain that I have rendered as:

Everything happens but nothing is preserved
In those cabinets, crystalline synagogues
Where, like fantastical rabbi pedagogues,
We read books from right to left, while observed.

I freely admit to taking some liberties with the second line in order to construct a proper English rhyme, adding a little more emphasis to the “rabbi” reference in line three with my “synagogues” in line two, which has no equivalent in the Spanish version of the stanza, which runs thus:

Todo acontece y nada se recuerda
en esos gabinetes cristalinos
donde, como fantásticos rabinos,
leemos los libros de derecha a izquierda.

In Reid’s translation, line three becomes, “in which, like rabbis in fantastic stories.” Why “in fantastic stories”? What stories could Borges be referring to? And more to the point, why do they need to be rabbis from fantastic stories to be “reading from right to left”? Do not all rabbis do this when reading Hebrew texts? And is that not obviously the meaning of Borges’ image? In a mirror a man reading — such as Borges in his own room, seen in his own mirror — appears backwards, and therefore as one reading “from right to left,” as one would read Hebrew. Hence, he appears in his mirror, book in hand, like a “fantastical” (imaginary, unreal) rabbi, as indeed do we all in our own mirrors. 

To their credit, Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland, in their 1960 translation, rendered lines three and four with the natural meaning, as, “Where, magicked into rabbis, we / Now read the books from right to left.”

In sum, my sense that earlier translators (at least the ones I have read) have had a somewhat loose grip on the core meaning of Borges’ philosophical reflection (pun intended) about mirrors — for example his oblique references to ancient arguments against the moral-cosmic sin of reproduction (a very Pythagorean concern) — along with a rather too dismissive approach to representing in English the most noteworthy feature of Borges’ musical voice, namely his very strict and regular rhyme scheme, compelled me, somehow, to take a stab of my own at providing a translation that might, while bending the literal just a bit in the name of preserving his music, nevertheless also capture with fewer obvious weaknesses the profoundly ruminative essence of this lovely poem.

I do not pretend to have done for “Mirrors” what Bloom did for The Republic, let alone what Sayers did for The Divine Comedy, which is the more obvious (and more humbling) point of comparison. Not by a thousand miles. But I hope my version is enough to satisfy the little replica of Borges that, to his chagrin no doubt, continues to live on in my mind, as it has for at least three decades.

You may also like...