Borges's Translations of German Expressionist Poetry: Spaniardizing Expressionism

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Discussions of the Spanish avant-garde generally emphasize only its French surrealist orientation, the "dehumanized" and "hermetic" poesia pura and its (equally evasive) neo-populist and classicist tendencies. (1) It tends to ignore other possible influences. Yet, in the 1920s, at a time when the Spanish image of Germany was still shaped by the romantic love and nature poetry of Goethe, Holderlin, and Novalis, Jorge Luis Borges began translating and publishing recent German Expressionist poetry. (2)

Most literary histories, however, dismiss any impact of Expressionism on the Spanish literary scene. According to the editor of a book on Expressionism as an International Literary Phenomenon, Spain "remained quite unaffected by Expressionism" (Weisstein 31), and the Latin countries in general found Expressionism "uncongenial to their way of thinking" (30). Moreover, most literary dictionaries and encyclopedias define Expressionism as an exclusively Germanic phenomenon. (3) Not surprisingly, then, Borges's translations and commentaries of Expressionist poetry are either left unnoticed, mentioned only in passing, or as an insignificant influence in central studies of the Spanish avant-garde (e.g. Geist 61; Diez de Revenga, Poesia espanola 25; Videla 99-101). (4) Even critics who do discuss Borges's relationship to Expressionism are concerned more with his prose commentaries or his "Expressionist techniques" in his own early Ultraist poetry, rather than with the translations themselves, (5) stressing what they see as Borges's later distance from the movement, and the lack of further reception (e.g. Soria Olmedo 85; Gallego Roca 206; Maier, "Borges" 148). In this paper I will make the case for taking a new look at Borges's versions of Expressionist poetry, viewing them as acculturations and rewritings as defined by Andre Lefevere (6-14). I will examine them as conscious transpositions of the social criticism and the linguistic innovations of German Expressionism in terms of the Spanish aesthetic climate of Ultraism. These notions of rewriting and re-contextualizing are, in fact, closely connected to Borges's own views on translation as exemplified in "Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote." (6)

While Menard translates from and into the same language, and does so literally, a translator who works with two languages may need to take considerable liberties with the language in order to preserve the sense of the original. Since no text is superior or definitive in Borges view, the translator may cut, add to, and edit the original for its own benefit. This process may result in a translation that highlights aspects of a text of which a reader of the original would be unaware (Kristal 8). Firmly opposed to literal translations, Borges believes that a translation, especially one of poetry, must be above all literary, that is, it must attempt to convey what the poet meant by recreating the work (cf. "Translation" 51-53). In "Las dos maneras de traducir," he champions the translatability of poetry. In the essay "The Homeric Versions" Borges defines translation as "a long experimental game of chance played with omissions and emphasis" (69). In his discussion of the translations of the 1001 Nights, Borges regards those translations as successful which represent "un buen falseo," that is, whose infidelities and falsifications actually improve on the original (Waisman 70). Thus, as Waisman underscores, translation for Borges is a "site for potentiality and gain--a gain clearly linked to the creative infidelities of the translator/ creator" (72).

Borges's own work as translator confirms these notions of a liberal, rather than literal, concept of translation. As a translator, Borges generally "has no scruples about editing the original as he translated" (Kristal 2). Some of his most frequent practices, as Efrain Kristal has shown, are to remove redundant, superfluous or inconsequential words or phrases, to cut what might distract attention from another aspect he preferred to highlight, and to add a major or minor nuance not found in the original, such as changing the title (87). …