The Translator’s Poet
Robert Mezey brought Borges’ and his own works to vivid life.
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Jorge Luis Borges loved paradox, the search for meaning in things, the labyrinth as a symbol of human perplexity. The Argentine genius’ short stories were mystical and diabolical. He played games with time and infinity. He plumbed the depths of representation, mapped a world of identity and mirrors, and created a universe of human imagination and a language to contain it.
Consequently, Borges truly appreciated the complexities of translation—especially as it applied to poetry. Borges considered himself first and foremost a poet. And in this literary form where meaning and language are like a garden of forking paths—open to an infinite number of interpretations—he saw that a translator plays the role of cartographer; he is recreating a representation of the world, not the world itself. Yet when done well, the translator’s representation is no less real than the thing it signified. (Of William Henley’s translation of Samuel Beckford’s poem “Vathek,” Borges himself once said, “The original is unfaithful to the translation.”) So consider the monumental pressure of translating Borges’ poetry.
This Saturday, Robert Mezey, one of two poets who had the courage to walk into Borges’ linguistic hall of mirrors, will read his exquisite translations of the Argentine giant’s verse, as well as his own critically acclaimed poetry, at Monterey Peninsula College. Of the Borges poems, which he co-translated with Richard Barnes, Mezey once said, “I’ve been writing poetry for 50 years, and the Borges stuff is the best I’ve ever done.”
It was also the most daunting project of his life—especially considering Borges’ relatively ambivalent view of the English language, which he found harsh and angular. In “Written In A Copy of The Geste of Beowulf,” a poem Mezey and Barnes translated from Spanish, Borges bemoans his own study of the Middle English classic:
I ask myself from time to time what reasons
Move me to study, as my night comes on
And with no hope of mastery or
The language of the harsh Angles and Saxons.
Wasted by the years, my memory
Keeps letting fall the word repeated
Mezey said that in the process of translating the poems, he and Barnes “created a fictitious poet named Borges and re-wrote his poems—the voice in the poems is a voice we heard.”
Unfortunately, like many of Borges’ stories, the tale of Mezey and Barnes’ brilliant translations ends with a murder. Upon translating all 440 of Borges’ poems, their publisher Viking Penguin, acting under the direction of Borges’ widow, rejected the book in favor of a vastly inferior, multi-authored hodgepodge.
As a result, their crystalline translations are not and may never be legally published. Regardless, they continue to circulate secretly.
This Saturday, Mezey will read some of these now-legendary translations. Yet make no mistake—Mezey is not just a translator. His own work spans over four decades and has been awarded some of poetry’s loftiest awards.
ROBERT MEZEY will appear at MPC on Saturday, Sept. 30, at 7pm in the MPC Theatre, 980 Fremont St., Monterey. Tickets are free and may be obtained from
the MPC Public Information Office or the Humanities Division Office.