A new edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges has just been published by Viking (ISBN 0-670-89180-0). The translation is by Andrew Hurley, but the new translation is not the only difference. This book has almost as bizarre a history as some of those in Borges's own fictions. (Then again, the history of the various collections of Borges's short fictions was quite convoluted as well. Perhaps it is just another self-referential aspect of Borgesian fiction.)
Let me start by noting that this work is a compendium of beings "created" by other people or traditions--Borges (and Guerrero--see below) merely collected the ones they considered the most interesting. So unlike Borges's fictions (such as "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", which I commented on last year), one cannot analyze it as being strictly the creation of Borges's mind. One can, I suppose, ask why certain beasts are included, but given a co-compiler, even that is not as useful.
There was a 1957 book, Manual de zoologia fantastica, with the authorship given as Jorge Luis Borges and Margarita Guerrero, containing eighty-two entries. A 1967 version, titled El libro de los seres imaginarios, had some revisions and a hundred and sixteen entries, with the order re-arranged as well. The text for this is the text of all subsequent Spanish-language editions.
In 1969, a version in English (translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni) was published by E. P. Dutton, followed by one by Jonathan Cape in the United Kingdom, and then an Avon edition, with Guerrero still listed, though in a lesser credit and misspelled as "Margaritta Guerro". (This was correctly spelled in my 1974 Penguin edition [ISBN 0-1400-3709-8].) The English-language version had four new entries: "The Carbuncle", "An Experimental Account of What Was Known, Seen, and Met by Mrs. Jane Lead in London in 1694", "Fauna of Chile", and "Laudatores Temporis Acti". There are also many changes other than mere translation from the previous Spanish edition. (I will mention some of these below).
A new Spanish-language edition was published in 1978. The order was changed for copyright reasons, but the four new pieces were not included. A 1981 Spanish-language edition came out in strict alphabetical order, again with the four pieces missing, and these have been omitted from all subsequent Spanish-language editions as well. Hurley has chosen to keep the revisions from earlier English-language editions only when these have shown up in subsequent Spanish-language editions.
Borges biographers Emir Rodriguez Monegal and James Woodall both claim that Borges worked with di Giovanni on the translation and contributed the new pieces as well. Monegal even says, "Its final version appeared in the 1969 English translation done by the author in collaboration with Norman Thomas di Giovanni." (Note that Rodriguez Monegal explicitly, and Woodall implicitly, consider Borges as the sole author, ignoring any contribution by Guerrero.) Hurley seems to feel there is no substance to these claims because the changes were not included in future Spanish editions. However, one needs to consider that Hurley is doing a translation, and could hardly claim to be translating passages that have not appeared in Spanish, but only in English and credited to other translators. The inclusion of these passages is therefore almost impossible in a new translation, so Hurley may have been swayed by practical considerations.
(The Spanish version I have is an on-line version in which the 1967 preface refers to "Robert Burton" as one of the sources, when it should be "Richard Burton". [italics mine] Whether this is a typo in an actual edition, a transcription error to the web, or Borges having a little joke is, of course, unclear.)
So this edition is a more accurate rendition of the various Spanish-language versions (order excluded). But I wonder if perhaps Borges did not intend (as Rodriguez Monegal and Woodall suggest) for the English-language editions to have some differences. For example, the last paragraph of the "A Bao A Qu" in the Hurley translation says, "Sir Richard Francis Burton records the legend of the A Bao A Qu in one of the notes to his version of The Thousand and One Nights." The di Giovanni translation says, "This legend is recorded by C. C. Iturvuru in an appendix to his now classic treatise On Malay Witchcraft (1937)." John Dyson of Indiana University thinks this change (from the Spanish text) was made to make it even more exotic, and is in fact a literary hoax, because various people who have attempted to track down the Iturvuru book have found nothing (except that Borges had a friend named C. C. Iturburu). It is a pity that this additional fillip has been discarded in the new edition. Hurley cites sources for most references in his edition, which is a great boon, but says nothing about this particular one. He does say in his end note that "some of [Borges's] 'quotations' are almost certainly apocryphal, put-ons." Interestingly, though Hurley claims to hew close to the Spanish, he translates "El capitán Burton" as "Sir Richard Francis Burton".
Because Hurley adds notes at the end of the book giving attributions, he does not insert them in the text unless they were in the Spanish-language version(s), whereas di Giovanni sometimes did. For example, in "The Catoblepas" Borges quotes "The Temptation of Saint Anthony", but does not name Flaubert explicitly. di Giovanni says, "At the close of 'The Temptation of Saint Anthony', Flaubert describes it . . .", while Hurley just says, "Toward the of 'The Temptation of Saint Anthony' we read . . .", and puts the attribution to Flaubert in his notes. Conversely, di Giovanni includes the appropriate excerpt about to night as "a monster made of eyes" from Chesterton's poem "A Second Childhood", while Hurley just copies Borges's original Spanish in referring to Chesterton without actually quoting him.
di Giovanni has other additions missing from Hurley. In "The Double", di Giovanni adds an entire paragraph on the Egyptian ka. In "Hochigan", he adds a reference to a story by Lugones about a talking chimpanzee. In "The Jinn", he adds references to Victor Hugo, Richard Francis Burton, and Noah Webster. In "The Simurgh", he notes Edward FitzGerald's translation of the part of Firdausi's "The Book of Kings" regarding that creature. And in "The Sow in Chains" (which he calls "The Sow Harnessed with Chains and other Argentine Fauna"), di Giovanni adds a long paragraph about werewolves and other shape-shifters in Argentina.
For the other differences that I checked with the Spanish-language version, Hurley is almost always closer. In "Swedenborg's Angels", for example, di Giovanni refers to the selling of "trinkets", while Hurley more accurately calls them "jewel[s]". But where di Giovanni says that "Moslems venerate Mohammed", Hurley translates it as "Muslims are in the habit of worshipping Mohammed". The phrase in Spanish is "Como los musulmanes están acostumbrados a la veneración de Mahoma, Dios los ha provisto de un ángel que simula ser el Profeta"--Hurley matches the structure but gets the key word wrong (in my opinion).
For "The Behemoth", the original Spanish quotes a Spanish translation from the Book of Job by Fray Luis de Leon, while di Giovanni quotes Father Knox's English translation from the Vulgate, and Hurley quotes both the King James and Douay versions. It certainly makes sense to substitute a traditional English translation rather than for di Giovanni or Hurley to re-translate de Leon into English, but Hurley's giving two versions seems a bit of overkill. Hurley does say in his end note that when Borges appeared to have used a translation of the original--for example an English translation of a Greek source--he tries to use the "canonical translation" into English, rather than add another level of translation. However, this devotion to original sources results in the Zachary Grey quotation in "Cerberus" using the elongated 's' (that looks like an 'f') where it was used in the original. This is not a genuine spelling difference, but a mere calligraphic change (in my opinion), and just makes reading the text more difficult. (Hurley also uses the "ae" ligature in "Chimaera", even though this is rarely seen these days, and is probably not in the Spanish--though the Spanish edition I am reading is mysteriously lacking that entire entry!)
In the entry for "The Centaur", Hurley restores the original English of William H. Prescott's account of an incident in Pizarro's conquest of Peru (Book 2, Chapter 3) rather than di Giovanni's translation of Borges's (?) translation of Prescott (which di Giovanni then describes as "a text quoted by Prescott"!).
What Borges (and Hurley) call the "Borametz", di Giovanni rendered as "Barometz", with the Latin name being "Lycopodium barometz" rather than "Polypodium borametz". According to Hurley's note, both spellings and designations are known, though now most botanists say that it is really "Cibotium borametz". I have no idea why di Giovanni chose the alternate designation. (Google turns up only non-Borgesian four entries for each of the first two names, with none in common, and only two for the last.)
The article on "The Golem" is particularly complicated. di Giovanni incorporates Borges's note on Schopenhauer (which appears as a footnote in the Spanish-language editions). Hurley leaves it as a footnote, but then writes an end note longer than the entire article questioning the accuracy of Borges's translation and other textual issues relating to Borges's references in Spanish from a German text which quotes an English text. di Giovanni also pins down "third-grown" as meaning "three-year-old calf", while Hurley notes that scholars disagree on whether it means that, or a calf one-third its full growth, or even "third-born" (fat).
For "The Perytion"/"The Peryton" ("El Peritio"), Borges (and hence Hurley) gives the location of the treatise of the rabbi from Fez as the University of Munich; di Giovanni gives it as the University of Dresden. I suspect the latter was because the bombing of Dresden is better known than that of Munich, and the bombing is given as a possible reason for the treatise's disappearance.
In "The Zaratan", both di Giovanni and Hurley provide a translation from the Latin of the excerpt from "The Navigation of St. Brendan", but Hurley provides one in contemporary English, while di Giovanni gives a Middle English one which many would claim needs another level of translation.
This new edition is in alphabetical order, but omits an important feature of the Penguin edition--an index. While one can argue that re-arranging the articles into strict alphabetical order cuts back on the need for this, one still has the problem of where to look for complex names. "An Animal Dreamed by Kafka" is under 'A', "A Crossbreed by Kafka" is under 'C', and "The Odradek by Kafka" is under 'O', with no cross-references. "The Offspring of Leviathan" is under 'L'. "Six-Legged Antelopes" are under 'A', but "The Hairy Beast of La Ferte-Bernard" is under 'H'. Also, "Swedenborg's Angels" are under 'A' and "Swedenborg's Devils" are under 'D', rather than being together under 'S'. And without an index, one cannot easily check all the references to, for example, mirrors--in the articles on the basilisk, the carbuncle, the double, the salamander, and (of course) the fauna of mirrors. I suppose it comes down to whether one wants to treat the book as literature or as a reference. Of course, the ability to find words and phrases even in fiction is worthwhile, and an index will not find all the indirect allusions in any case. For example, in the introduction, Borges says, "A book of this nature is nesecessarily incomplete; each new edition is the nucleus of future editions, that can be multiplied to infinity" [my translation]. The whole notion of multiplication brings to mind Borges's line from "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" ("One of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had stated that mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.")
The new edition also has illustrations by Peter Sis, who does some wonderful stippling work. I notice that he illustrates the beings whose appearance is most agreed on, or least familiar to readers, while avoiding the pitfalls of such beings as sphinxes and unicorns (though he does give two possibilities for the Minotaur).
A further note on editions: The collection The Aleph is primarily worth having in addition to the Hurley Collected Fictions because of the long autobiographical essay written by Borges especially for this volume, and not appearing elsewhere (that I know of). However, Hurley does omit one story from The Aleph, "The Immortals", undoubtedly because it was co-authored with Adolfo Bioy-Casares. (One of the reviews I read somewhere noted that the Collected Fictions were not really complete, because nothing co-authored with anyone was included.)
This is made more complicated by the fact that the contents of English-language The Aleph (more accurately, The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969, Dutton/Bantam) have very little overlap with the contents of the Spanish-language Alianza/Emece edition titled simply El aleph. For example, the latter does not include "The Immortals" ("Los Inmortals"), but does contain a story titled "El inmortal"--which bears no resemblance to "The Immortals", and in turn does not appear in the English-language book! However, "The Immortals" does appear in another English-language collection, as the final story in Chronicles of Bustos Domecq.
[I am beginning to wonder if this Borgesian analysis will become a regular feature every August.]
[This article appeared in the 08/25/06 issue of the MT VOID.]
Evelyn C. Leeper email@example.com Copyright 2006 Evelyn C. Leeper