The Translator’s Revenge? Di Giovanni on Borges

“I’ve committed what seems to me now an unaccountable mistake, a huge mistake—a quite unexplainable and mysterious mistake.”
–Borges on his marriage to Elsa as recounted in Georgie & Elsa.

 

 

Norman Thomas Di Giovanni first met Jorge Luis Borges in 1967, in Cambridge, Massachusetts while Borges was there to deliver the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. A rather bold request by Di Giovanni for a meeting led to a lasting friendship and unique collaboration between the two. The Di Giovanni translations of Borges’s work into English were, and still are, unique examples of collaboration between an author and his translator. For months the two would meet in Borges’s office at the National Library (where Borges was director) in Buenos Aires during the late afternoons and work on the English translations of Borges’s poems and stories. But to hear Di Giovanni tell it, his role was much more than a collaborator/translator: he also functioned as a friend, confidant, secretary, agent, and a host of others.

Norman Thomas Di Giovanni’s latest book on Borges (his earlier book, Lessons from the Master is a memoir about his work as Borges’s English translator) is titled Georgie & Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife, The Untold Story. The book recounts, sometimes in uncomfortable detail, Di Giovanni’s witnessing of the three-year marriage between Borges and Elsa Astete Millán, a woman from Borges’s past. Georgie & Elsa covers a relatively short period, 1967-1970, but as Di Giovanni explains, part of his project is to explore the possibility if Borges’s short marriage to Elsa can shed any light on the man himself, a synecdoche that can unlock further secrets to the mind behind some of the greatest stories and poems of the twentieth century. Di Giovanni: “The story told here in Georgie & Elsa, in which I was both reluctant witness and tricky participant, took place in a three-year span between 1967 and 1970. What I have recounted, besides depicting and illuminating hitherto unknown facts and events in the couple’s affairs, is an attempt to find out whether a person’s life can be typified by a single part of it.” Di Giovanni is quick to inform us that this book is not one of literary criticism, or even biography, but a strange hybrid of genres that seek to explain a certain period in the author’s life (both Borges and Di Giovanni are implicated here) and connect that period to the whole.

By all accounts the marriage between Borges and Elsa was anything but happy. Di Giovanni portrays Elsa as a gold digging woman of limited intelligence. Often jealous and conniving, Elsa comes across as a woman who married the great writer only to further her own life. A recurring question, then: if this woman was so horrible, why did Borges marry her? Di Giovanni asks himself and Borges this question several times throughout the course of the marriage. Each time Di Giovanni recalls Borges giving a less than forthcoming answer. What we know is that Borges and Elsa knew each other during their youth (she was seventeen and Borges twenty-eight) and loss contact. Then, encountering one another decades later, the two became involved and married. We are never given a definitive answer as to why the two married. Yet, as one reads it becomes clear (at least to me) that Borges may have given into the romantic impulse of destiny. That is, fate had thrown them back together after so many years apart. Given Borges and his grasp of the fantastic, this hypothesis rings true.

There are several times when I felt uncomfortable while reading Georgie & Elsa. Di Giovanni, in an effort to remain true to his mission, which is to tell a story about a man who stumbled into an unhappy marriage in order to explore what that marriage would mean to the subject’s life as a whole, gives over to a gossipy tone throughout much of the book. Granted, this is not a work of criticism, but Di Giovanni does seem to be talking out of turn during several sections. A fundamental question about the relationship between author and translator is raised: is the translator who is also a trusted friend guilty of betraying trust by revealing certain personal stories to the public? One could also ask: is it the translator’s obligation, for the sake of understanding the artist, to give us all of the gory details? It’s hard to answer this question because I can only consider it from the perspective of a reader, someone untouched by the personal engagement of either men. Yet, answer it I will.

In one heartbreaking scene Di Giovanni and Borges are walking to the National Library when Borges suddenly stops and looks at Giovanni, informing him that he needs a bathroom right away. The two make there way into a café, but not in time. Di Giovanni: “The toilets in Buenos Aires are always at the far rear. The passage to this one was quite narrow. Borges stuck his arms out ahead of him like a sleepwalker, the crook of his stick hooked over the bend in his elbow. He was wearing a grey tweed suit. The onlookers in the bar shifted themselves out of his path as he hurtled along. But it was too late. Urine was gushing in a heavy stream down his legs inside his trousers and squishing over the sides of his shoes.”

The scene recounted above is a grand example of overstepping the threshold of friendship and plunging into betrayal. The scene above tells us nothing about the work or the creative process involved in that work. Instead, a trusted friend and collaborator spills the beans on something incredibly embarrassing and personal. It was at this point in my reading that I began to suspect Di Giovanni of writing for some other intention than the illumination of an author at a particular time in his life. However, like all such scenes, once we have witnessed the act we are unable to erase it from our memories. Only time will tell if I am doomed to forever remember Borges unable to control his bladder in public rather than the Borges who wrote this sentence: No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night, no one saw the bamboo canoe as it sank into the sacred mud, and yet within days there was no one who did not know that the taciturn man had come there from the South, and that his homeland was one of those infinite villages that lie upriver, on the violent flank of the mountain, where the language of the Zend is uncontaminated by Greek and where leprosy is uncommon.” (This is Andrew Hurley’s translation of “The Circular Ruins” which appears in Collected Fictions, Viking 1998.)

Things begin to get strange for Di Giovanni after the death of Borges in 1986. The literary estate, administered by Borges’s second wife María Kodama effectively cut Di Giovanni and his translations of Borges out of the picture. (Incidentally, the copyright to Collected Fictions published by Viking in 1998 is held by María Kodama and not labeled the Borges Literary Estate.) Two things are relevant here: one, Di Giovanni would not be able to collect on the 50/50 royalty agreement he set up with Borges; and two, the Di Giovanni translations would begin to disappear form the world. This is indeed a shame, as it is possible to consider some of the Di Giovanni translations of Borges’s work collaborative. A translation also tells us quite a bit about a particular time and place. The Di Giovanni translations are an important part of the Borges oeuvre and his creative process and they should be accessible to those who wish to read them. One wonders, then, if the stories recounted in Georgie & Elsa are a sort of literary revenge where the subject, Borges, is caught between two opposing forces. In any case, it’s Jorge Luis Borges who ends up being tossed around like Hector’s dead body on the plains of Troy.

Until Di Giovanni comes to an agreement with the Borges’s literary estate, which is highly unlikely, I am afraid that all we will have are the types of gossipy memoirs found in Georgie & Elsa. 

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