Jorge Luis Borges's lost translations
A dispute with Borges's estate has left works he produced with the translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni in publishing limbo
Friday 19 February 2010 14.35 GMT
The work of the translator is painstakingly thankless, resulting in an end product with a short shelf life that is of scant interest to any individual, bar academics, once the next edition is inevitably commissioned. But what happens when translations made by authors of their own works find their way to the pulper's bellows because of dubious decisions by their estate? This is part of the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges's unfortunate legacy.
In Buenos Aires in 1967 Borges began an unusual working relationship with a young Italian-American translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, whom he had met at Harvard. Di Giovanni had recently translated a collection of verse by Spanish poets, and asked Borges for a contribution. He got more than he bargained for: the privilege of translating several books of poetry and prose and an intercontinental job relocation scheme. The collaboration was all the stranger given the pair's differing political ideas: di Giovanni was once an anarchist; Borges would go on to support Generals Videla and Pinochet.
Nonetheless, what they produced during this period were not simple translations. Some of their time was given to the collaborative composition of original versions of Borges's stories in English. Borges's grandmother was from the Midlands, and he was consequently fluent in English, albeit in a reportedly antiquated turn-of-the-century style. So di Giovanni earned equal writing credit for versions of stories including Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, The Library of Babel and The Lottery in Babylon.
This was an important time for Borges. While the English-speaking academic world was warming to him, his wider popularity had yet to be confirmed. With di Giovanni in tow, this process picked up speed, starting with lucrative contracts with agents and publishing heavyweights such as the New Yorker and Penguin.
But there it ends. When Borges died in 1986, his second wife María Kodamaarranged with his publishers and agents to rescind all publishing rights and agreements on works that di Giovanni had either collaborated on or translated, including a 50-50 royalties deal. This prose hasn't been reprinted since. This might not sound like a big deal, given the availability of Andrew Hurley's excellent translations of Borges for Penguin. So what's the fuss?
First, di Giovanni has had a rough ride. Last year I met him at his modest home in the New Forest, UK. Given the sums of money generated by the Borges industry, he might expect a little more ease. Speaking shortly before Christmas, di Giovanni expressed indifference on the topic of cash. Earlier in 2009 he'd attempted to publish some of the short stories on his website, which met with a swift response.
"I never thought in terms of market," he said. "The money never meant anything. When Viking-Penguin recently saw my website with some of these short stories, they wrote to me complaining, and eventually these items were removed without even asking me. All of the stuff that Borges and I wrote together in English I put up there because it doesn't exist in print anywhere anymore, and they claimed that it belonged to them."
I do not know the strict legal position, but it's easy to see why di Giovanni is baffled. "It's copyrighted in Borges's and my name because they're not just translations – it's stuff we wrote together in English," he said. And while Hurley's translations are competent, the fact remains that some of Borges's original works are effectively hidden from the reading public.