On Borges and Languages, or, On rigor in translations

In the process of writing something else I wanted to use a quote from Jorge Luis Borges’ short story _Del rigor en la ciencia._ I ended up doing my own translation of it, and it seemed worthwhile to document why. (Note: I will use italics for Spanish words throughout the text, for clarity).

This short story (quite short actually, less than 130 words), was first collected in Historia universal de la infamia (“A universal history of infamy) and later in El Hacedor (“The Maker”). It is of the “recovered text” genre, supposedly dating to the year 1658.

The English translation quoted most frequently is by Andrew Hurley (Collected Fictions_, _Penguin, 1998). Hurley translates the title as “On Exactitude in Science” and that’s where my disagreements with his version begin.

First, the word “Rigor” from the Spanish title is translated by Hurley as “Exactitude.” However, “Rigor” (which is spelled the same in English and Spanish) is more than just “Exactitude.“ The Oxford English Dictionary defines rigor as “the quality of being extremely thorough and careful; severity or strictness; (rigors) harsh and demanding conditions,” which is roughly equivalent to the definition of the Spanish word by the Real Academia Española (although the Spanish word includes other meanings that are not exactly the same, but closely related to the ones used by the OED).

Second, the word “Exactitude” exists in Spanish: “Exactitud.” Borges would have used it if that’s what he wanted to convey.  The structure “_Rigor en_…” is frequently used in Spanish, and in this case it actually conveys accurately the Latin cultural perception of Science as being not just exact but also strict, even severe, a perception that is far more muted, if at all present, in Anglo-Saxon cultures. The argument using “Exactitude” could be that “rigor in science” would be a somewhat archaic phrasing, but this is actually something that works to our advantage given the supposed origin of the text in the 17th century.

Third, Hurley also capitalizes the words “Exactitude” and “Science” in the title, whereas the original Spanish text does not. This matters because in this particular story Borges actually turned several words into their “proper” form (e.g. Nouns into Proper Nouns), using the effect of capitalization to expand the importance of those words. Critically, this use of capitalization places the text in a historical context — use of capitalization was not generally properly codified prior to the 18th century in either English or Spanish (for just one example of archaic use of capitalization in english, see George Washington’s “Rules of Civility,” starting with Rule 1: “Every Action done in Company ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”)

Within the text, other differences in tone and depth of meaning become visible:

**Spanish Original:** "Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados […]" **Hurley's translation:** "In time, those Unconscionable Maps […]" **My translation:** "In time, these Excessive Maps […]"

To start, “_estos Mapas” _is ”these Maps,” not “those Maps.” While I can see why Hurley would choose “those” here, I have no doubt that Borges would have used “_esos” _or “_aquellos” _if his intention was to say “those”. Then there’s the translation of “Desmesurados“ as “Unconscionable” which on one hand captures some of the feeling of the Spanish word but not all. Lacking context “_Desmesurados”  _means “Without Measure,” but in this context I’d actually say that “Unconscionably Excessive” or “Unmeasurably Excessive” is probably the most accurate reflection what Borges was going for. I ended up using only “Excessive,” exchanging brevity for lack of verve and depth. ** **

Another example can be found in the following partial sentence:

**Spanish Original:** "Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil […]" **Hurley's translation:** "The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless […]" **My translation:** "Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless […]"

Hurley here introduces another proper noun (“Forebears”) which isn’t even included in the original, and demotes “Following,” by reversing the capitalization of the word. In the process he affects, in my view, the weight implied by “Generaciones Siguientes” and not in a good way (he makes this mistake in the opposite direction with the word “Relic” in the last sentence).

Hurley translates “_entendieron” _as “saw” but I think there’s no reason to avoid the direct translation “understood” since it maintains the implication of understanding not just as the cognitive process but also as seeing or realizing something. Hurley’s addition of a comma before “saw” also affects the pace of the sentence for no good reason.

He also changes “Adictas” (“Addicted”) to a much more mellow “not so fond of” from the original, much harsher implication of addiction (with a capital “A” no less!). If we recontextualize the change into a more common setting we can see the damage this causes to the text. Compare “Joe was less Addicted to heroin after that” to “Joe was not so fond of heroin after that.”

I did have some qualms about using “dilated Map” here instead of Hurley’s “vast Map” but once more I defer to Borges on this. Using “dilated” for a map (“ese dilatado Mapa”) is pure literary license and not the way in which you’d ascribe vastness to a map either in English _or _in Spanish, so there’s really no reason not to use the English word (“dilated”) that is the exact translation of the Spanish text to maintain the mental image that Borges was going for.

There are other specific changes I made, but need to work on other things. So, without further ado, here are the original, my translation, and Hurley’s for comparison.

Spanish Original

"Del rigor en la ciencia", by Jorge Luis Borges . . . En aquel Imperio, el Arte de la Cartografía logró tal Perfección que el Mapa de una sola Provincia ocupaba toda una Ciudad, y el Mapa del Imperio, toda una Provincia. Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados no satisficieron y los Colegios de Cartógrafos levantaron un Mapa del Imperio, que tenía el Tamaño del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente con él. Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil y no sin Impiedad lo entregaron a las Inclemencias del Sol y los Inviernos. En los Desiertos del Oeste perduran despedazadas Ruinas del Mapa, habitadas por Animales y por Mendigos; en todo el País no hay otra reliquia de las Disciplinas Geográficas. Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

My English Translation

On rigor in science . . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the map of the Empire, an entire Province. In time, these Excessive Maps did not satisfy and the Schools of Cartographers built a Map of the Empire, that was of the Size of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that that dilated Map was Useless and not without Pitilessness they delivered it to the Inclemencies of the Sun and the Winters. In the Deserts of the West endure broken Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in the whole country there is no other relic of the Disciplines of Geography. Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

**Andrew Hurley’s English Translation, in Collected Fictions, Penguin, 1998.**

On Exactitude in Science . . . In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. - Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658