the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 2   --   May, 2000

Borges under Review:
Critical Responses to the Collected Fictions


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       The 1998 publication of Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions by Viking (in the US) and Allen Lane (in the UK), translated by Andrew Hurley, was a major publishing event. Volumes of selected poems and non-fiction work followed to make an attractive three-volume set published around the centenary of Borges' birth, but only the Collected Fictions could claim to be anything close to a definitive English Borges (the other two volumes presented only a sampling of Borges' work). It is Borges' stories that he is best known for in the English-speaking world, and the Collected Fiction finally brought together the previously scattered work in a single book. (Though, in fact, the Collected Fictions omits Borges' fiction written in collaboration with Adolfo Bioy Casares, also making it less than complete.)
       Borges' work has long been available in the English-speaking world. The first story to appear in English was in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (August, 1948), but Borges only really made his mark with the 1962 publication of Ficciones and Labyrinths. Most of his fiction has since been made available, in a variety of translations (Hurley counts some seventeen previous translators), and the Collected Fictions introduces only a few additional texts, previously unavailable in any English-language collection.
       The Collected Fictions was widely reviewed, both on its own and in conjunction with the poetry and non-fiction volumes that followed. Unlike the Selected Non-Fictions (which made a great deal of new material available) and the Selected Poems (which were ... well, poetry -- i.e. of little popular interest), the stories were largely familiar to reviewers. Borges is part of the modern canon and remains a college-campus favourite, with a large number of editions of his work continuously in print since their first publication. Familiarity with some of his stories is almost unavoidable.
       A survey of the initial reaction by reviewers to the Collected Fictions offers a useful overview of the industry at work. While reviewers most obviously show their competence (or lack thereof) in evaluating previously unknown work, it is perhaps easier to gauge their strengths and weaknesses with regards to a known quantity. Borges' reputation is such that reviewers can not ignore it. Nevertheless, they are still left with many options as to how to review a volume such as the Collected Fictions -- and it is surprising how many still fall short of doing an adequate job.

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The Reviewers

       The complete review Quarterly surveyed 18 reviews, published between September, 1998 and February, 2000. Reviews came from American and English newspapers and periodicals, as well as one English-language Israeli publication. Reviews came from a variety of types of periodicals, and included reviews that examined only the Collected Fictions as well as those that reviewed it in conjunction with either the Selected Non-Fictions or the Selected Poems or both. Not included were summary reviews such as those found in Publishers Weekly or Library Journal. The complete review's own review was also not included.
       The abbreviations used in this article and the reviews surveyed were:        The reviewers are a varied lot, from workhorse newspaper reviewers (Richard Eder, Richard Bernstein) to noted novelists (Jeanette Winterson, J.M.Coetzee) to Borges specialists (Bell-Villada) to unnamed critics. The coverage and relatively high profile of so many of the reviewers is fairly impressive, suggesting widespread recognition of the significance of the publication of this collection. Few reviewers, however, did the book full justice, even simply in the sense of addressing the major points regarding it that might be of interest to readers.
       Numerous facets of the Collected Fictions are worthy of attention, and several aspects are particularly significant. Among those that one might expect to be addressed in all reviews are:        Discussion of these points varies from review to review, but, except regarding Borges' significance (itself almost a platitude), almost all the reviews ignore or gloss over some or all of these issues.

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Editorial Concerns

       Collected editions of any author's works are always dangerous beasts, implying finality and completeness. Borges' Collected Fictions became, upon publication, the de facto definitive (English) Borges. Given how many versions of Borges' work have previously appeared (by some seventeen translators -- so Hurley's count), and given that Borges himself was closely involved with at least Norman Thomas di Giovanni's English reworkings of some of the stories, it must be understood that there is at least some question as to how definitive the Collected Fictions can be considered.
       Hurley states simply that: "The text that the Borges estate specified to be used for this new translation is the three-volume Obras completas, published by Emecé Editores in 1989." He does not suggest the consequences of this choice, not noting even the existence of textual variations that might exist in other editions (and specifically is some of the previous English translations). (Note also that the choice of what Spanish edition was to be used is said to have rested with the "Borges estate", leaving it unclear how close to Borges' own wishes this decision was.)
       These textual issues should have been of fundamental interest to reviewers and readers alike -- and are exactly the sort of points that reviewers should make readers aware of. There is perhaps no need to dwell on it at length, but a passing mention seems essential. Stunningly, only one of those surveyed -- J.M.Coetzee (NYRB) -- addresses this issue at all. Coetzee usefully makes note of a number of revisions in, for example, some of the di Giovanni collaborations which Hurley ignores (though Coetzee seems to give Hurley too much -- and then too little -- credit in what decisions he made: since the Spanish edition was dictated to him his hands were tied in what he could and could not leave out).
       Jamie James (WSJ) and Eric Ormby (NC) are the only critics who address the question of the inclusion of the prose pieces from The Maker and In Praise of Darkness in the Collected Fictions: James writes:
Both books were conceived as collections intermingling poetry and prose, and to break them up frays, if not destroys, the author's intent. (...) Next year Viking will publish the collected poems: Surely it would have made sense to respect the integrity of the original texts and permit these gentle prose meditations to find a home there, next to their companions in verse.
       James was apparently unaware that Viking had no intention of publishing the collected poems -- indeed the volume wound up not even including all the poems from these two books, though, as it turns out, the Selected Poems does include several of the prose pieces also found in the Collected Fictions (though naturally not in Hurley's translation). (It makes you wonder whether any editorial oversight went into this supposedly historical edition -- it sounds more like some kids fresh out of college got entrusted with the job.) Ormby suggests that the versions in the Selected Poems "with Spanish text en face, are markedly superior". In any case, the question of including the prose pieces in the Collected Fictions is at least worth making (though given Viking's incomprehensive edition of the poetry we must disagree with James and Ormby, and are thankful that they are included). Certainly, it is shocking that Viking has made such a hash of these two books, presented nowhere near as how Borges intended, and James and Ormby should be thanked for at least bringing it to readers' attention. (But hey, since when do publishers give much of a damn about their authors ?)
       Another significant point regarding the Collected Fictions is that it does not include Borges' fiction written in collaboration, specifically with Adolfo Bioy Casares. Again, it seems essential that at least passing mention should be made of the existence of other fiction that Borges worked on -- especially since Hurley only casually mentions it in a footnote. Again, only a single reviewer saw fit to mention this fact (Alfred Mac Adam, LA1).
       Somewhat more attention is paid to Hurley's presentation of the text, and specifically his supporting material (a note on the translation, and then some 40 pages of (end)notes on the text). The majority of reviewers make no mention of this critical apparatus. Reaction from those that do varied greatly. Bell-Villada (CL) neutrally describes "forty pages of detailed endnotes that elucidate obscure references, particularly those regarding matters South American", Henry Sheen (NS) calls the collection "well annotated" (without, incidentally, mentioning Hurley), while Coetzee (NYRB) suggests that "the notes appended by Hurley, while valuable in themselves, are limited in scope".
       Only Mac Adam (LA1) and Ormby (NC) consider the annotations more fully. Mac Adam explores them in conjunction with those in the other two volumes of Borges' work, a useful comparative survey that points out one of the major weaknesses of the three-volume set. Even he, however, backs away from much specific criticism of the notes. Ormby at least addresses certain specifics, pointing out, for example:
(I)n certain of Hurley’s notes, but especially those that deal with matters Islamic, he shows himself quite unequal to his task. (...) No one expects Hurley to translate or interpret Arabic or Persian names and titles with any expertise but he should not interpolate errors into texts where they were previously lacking.
       The limited critical apparatus provided with the Collected Fictions is clearly one of its greatest weaknesses. The complete review found the the annotations chatty, aimless, and pointlessly limited in scope (supposedly simply limited to matters South American) and went so far as to suggest that readers might be better off without any notes whatsoever (see our review). The fact that only one other reviewer pointed out some of the many faults of these notes is disturbing.

       Overall, coverage of the editorial aspects of the books was very disappointing. While perhaps of more academic than popular interest, note of certain aspects of the Collected Fictions should have been (and generally was not) made -- including the fact that there are textual variations, that the volume does not include all of Borges' fiction, and that there are forty pages of notes (the quality of which is -- possibly -- debatable).

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The Translation

       Translation is always an issue when foreign literature is presented in English. Where previous editions of Borges' fictions were often the work of multiple translators, the Collected Fictions finally collects them all as re-written by a single hand -- Andrew Hurley's. This noteworthy aspect of this volume was, in fact, mentioned by almost all the reviewers.
       That translators' contributions (to phrase it politely) to a work can still be ignored is demonstrated by the remarkable fact that three of the reviews (E, NO, NS) do not mention Hurley by name at all. Most curious among these is The Economist's (anonymous) view that:
(Borges') stories often read as though they had been written in English in the first place. Why does this syntax seem to resemble our own so closely, we ask ourselves, somewhat bemused?
       Bemused we note that this might have something to do with the translator -- but since this nameless reviewer refuses to even acknowledge a translator's existence this idea is not considered.
       Fortunately, most of the reviewers are aware of a translator's presence, making at least passing mention of it. The comments, however, tend to be less than helpful -- in large part because most of the reviewers presumably are unable to compare Hurley's work with Borges' originals. The gamut of summaries includes:        Our favourite is Richard Bernstein's (NYT) wonderfully empty phrasing, "freshly translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley" -- the only remark regarding the translation in his entire review. A close second is Jamie James' (WSJ) bizarre description of the collection as "newly translated with stylish scrupulosity by Andrew Hurley".
       A number of reviewers -- generally those also able to read the original -- do consider the translation in greater depth.
       Mavis Gallant (NYTBR) looks specifically at Hurley's English. Beginning with hollow praise (she writes: "this collection is testimony to hard labor and devotion") she then does give a few examples from the work itself, mentioning specifically that the only true difficulties she had with Hurley's versions were "a sometimes jarring mixture of British and American usage". Helpfully she refers to particular examples from the texts in explaining her comments.
       Gene H. Bell-Villada (CL) is enthusiastic about Hurley's work, calling it "almost consistently first-rate, with supple rhythms that roll trippingly on the tongue". Richard Eder (LA2) is slightly more careful in his praise: "Hurley is occasionally stiff and once in a while persnickety. (...) On the whole, though, he has done a prodigious job". Others are more critical. Alfred Mac Adam (LA1) suggests that:
Hurley's translations, while generally adequate, are not necessarily superior to those of his predecessors. There is, certainly, a benefit to having virtually all the fiction assembled in one volume, but this translation is not a work of genius.
       This assessment (by a noted translator from the Spanish) is certainly meant to be critical, but is not particularly well expressed. "Generally adequate" might do, but what does "not necessarily superior" mean ? And what might it not mean ? And to say that the translation "is not a work of genius" still leaves open the question of how good (or truly bad) it might be.
       Alfred Mac Adam's review examines all three volumes of the Viking Borges (or, in the UK, the Allen Lane Borges), and his review is comparative and general, with little room for specific criticism. He does speak generally about Hurley not being entirely true to Borges, and gives an example of what he believes to be a mistranslation ("sueno" is amplified to "Morpheus" where the literal "dream" or "sleep" would do).
       It is Alberto Manguel (O) who addresses the question of translation most straightforwardly, fully acknowledging its significance. He is the only one that dares say that Borges has historically not been served well, offering a sad litany of failures:
English-speaking readers have been very poorly served. From the uneven versions collected in Labyrinths to the more meticulous, but ultimately unsuccessful, editions published by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, from Ruth Simm's abominable apery of Other Inquisitions to Paul Bowles's illiterate rendition of The Circular Ruins, Borges in English must be read in spite of the translations.
       The present attempt offers little more, according to him: Scathingly he writes:
English-language readers have either to resign themselves to the old, barely serviceable translations, or submit to the new, barely serviceable translations by Andrew Hurley, Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico. Hurley has no ear for the rhythms of Borges's language.
       (Acknowledging Hurley's academic title is a particularly nice touch -- as is the use of the verb "submit".)
       Manguel offers a few examples of what he feels Hurley has failed to translate properly (such as the title Funes, His Memory -- which he calls "both inaccurate and ugly"). He also admits that:
A number of stories have been decently translated and are as readable as the best among the earlier versions, but mere readability is not good enough.
       Coetzee (NYRB) also takes up the question of translation and examines it in some detail. His general summary is far more generous than Manguel's:
Hurley's versions are generally excellent, marked by accuracy of word choice and a confident sense of narrative style. If there is one weakness to them, it is that Hurley's feel for the level of formality of English words is not always reliable.
       Coetzee usefully compares some of Hurley's translations with those made by di Giovanni in collaboration with Borges, suggesting that Hurley might have resolved some ambiguities by looking to the choices Borges himself made for the English versions -- an intelligent and useful observation. There are only a few specific comments regarding the translation, but Coetzee at least points out some important issues.
       Like many of the others Coetzee also admits that "there is much to be said for an integral retranslation of the whole of Borges such as Viking has set in motion". As it turns out (and, as was perhaps not clear when Coetzee wrote the review (published 22/10/98), when only the Collected Fictions was available), the three volumes from Viking/Allen Lane are far from integral, and especially the Selected Poems relies on old reworkings by numerous translators. Hurley's reworking must be seen apart from the other two volumes (both of which have multiple translators -- and offer only selections, rather than the entire non-fiction and poetry output -- bringing other difficulties with it).
       Eric Ormby (NC) also focusses on Hurley's translation in a very useful critique. He does allow that "by any standard his accomplishment here is immense" (really ? "immense" ? why ?). After this bit of pointless praise Ormby then does, however, offer a sensible examination of Hurley's strengths (few) and weaknesses (many -- including that "he appears not to have a good sense of English prose style, or to command such a style himself").
       Ormby offers a number of examples, including comparisons of Hurley's take with that of previous translators as well Borges' original versions. He concludes that "Hurley’s translation is weakest where he must render dialogue", and also judges that "since he seems to approach the texts as purely linguistic or literary puzzles, he scants certain dimensions of Borges’s vision". It is a sensible and straightforward criticism of this translation, without Manguel's bite but with useful examples of exactly what he is getting at. One can disagree with Ormby, but he at least makes a strong case for his interpretation of where Hurley goes wrong.

       The single aspect where the reviews might be most useful to a non-Spanish speaking audience -- in evaluating the quality and fidelity of Hurley's translations -- turns out to be an area where very little useful commentary is provided. The quality of the translation is generally dismissed in a single (and often banal) line. A few reviewers do comment on aspects of the translation, but the information is generally limited to a few examples (or to broad comments), and there is almost no agreement among them.
       Bell-Villada (CL) speaks of how Hurley's choice of titles "exemplify his skill", insisting that presenting Funes the Memorious as Funes, His Memory "achieves extra clarity" -- while Manguel (O) calls the same revision "both inaccurate and ugly". What is a poor reader to think ?
       Translation is a notoriously complex issue (as Gallant (NYTBR) acknowledges). Discussion of it tends to focus on the details, out of which, perhaps, a larger picture then forms. There is little room for such criticism in the average book review, and so translation is called good or bad or adequate and left at that. Nevertheless, more should be expected. As most of the stories in Borges' Collected Fictions have been previously translated there is no excuse for not at least comparing Hurley's versions with previous efforts.

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© 2000 the complete review Quarterly
© 2000 the complete review