Norman Thomas di Giovanni

The Borges Papers

My work with Borges had its origin in a series of accidents and coincidences that took place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the autumn of 1967 and continued there through the spring of 1968, when his six-month Harvard lectureship drew to a close and he returned to Buenos Aires.

Our undertakings were launched with a volume of his selected poems, for which I chose poets to make translations under our guidance, supplying several of them with literal drafts. I quickly found a publisher for the project, Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte, and it was uncanny how our efforts met with instant success. The poems began to be widely published in magazines, and soon Borges and I were invited to read them on a circuit of Greater Boston universities. In time, we shifted to translations of his celebrated short stories, those that had not yet appeared in English. The activity of these months reached a climax with a reading at the YM-YWHA, an important poetry venue, in New York, in April 1968, and a contract with the New Yorker for translations of hitherto unpublished Borges stories and poems, and immediately thereafter contracts with E.P. Dutton for several volumes of Borges's work. It was an annus mirabilis for him and for me.

On his departure, Borges invited me to Buenos Aires, and six months later I joined him there. I went for five months and stayed for nearly three years. In that time, I even managed to encourage Borges to begin writing new stories and poems. This activity and this period have been chronicled in a memoir, 'In Memory of Borges', published in my book The Lesson of the Master.

I continued working with Borges over the next decade or so during sporadic visits to Buenos Aires. In 1979, I recorded a long programme for Radio 3 on the eve of Borges's eightieth birthday, interviewing him at his home for thirteen hours during the course of a week. In 1982, I co-authored and produced a film, a drama-documentary directed by David Wheatley and shot in Uruguay and in the Argentine, for the BBC's Arena series, with Borges himself appearing in it. These dates are significant because at some point after I left Buenos Aires for Britain, in 1972, rumours and stories began to circulate about Borges having thrown me out of his house.

All of our work, the translations in which he took full part in a joint collaboration, our reading tours, the BBC projects, were well received and highly praised. We even wrote Borges's autobiography together, in English, and published it as a New Yorker profile. According to reviewers and commentators, we had set new standards in the art of translation, and the New Yorker's editor, William Shawn, informed us that he did not regard the work we submitted to him as translation but as elegant works of literature in English.

I was only vaguely aware in the years after I left Buenos Aires and took up residence in Great Britain that a bevy of denigrators was at work, erstwhile friends and academics, individuals who appeared to be jealous of my friendship and collaboration with Borges. Some of them openly confessed their envy to me. Another sent me anonymous letters, threatening in one to destroy me at the New Yorker and at E.P Dutton. My publisher at Dutton once told me that during the preparation of a Borges anthology he had commissioned there were times when he thought that the book's prime objective, as set out by its two compilers, was to keep me and my work out of it. My work, in fact, was my work in collaboration with its author and signed as such. It was therefore Borges's own work.

Sly attacks ensued. Stories mushroomed, and lies about me even began to appear in print. Not one of these perpetrators ever asked for my version of events in what suddenly became a minefield of contention and controversy. A new editor at Dutton informed me that I could not go on translating Borges for them because I was too expensive. I countered by offering to make the required translations for nothing, which was plainly unanswerable because I never got a reply. Then Borges died, and María Kodama, his widow, became executor of his estate. From this point on, surrealism set in. I began to receive letters from her lawyers and agents and from a certain American university insisting that I return manuscripts that Borges had lent me. I had never borrowed any manuscript from Borges; I had never even seen one. Kodama phoned me from Geneva one day to tell me I knew that Borges had a trunk of manuscripts in the cellar of his flat in Maipú Street. I had been aware of no such trunk and of no such cellar.

Behind my back, I was being ushered out of the door (if such a mixed metaphor is permissable) and at the same time was being airbrushed out of history, out of Borges's existence. All of my volumes of his work - work to which he contributed and gave a unique voice - were deliberately allowed to go out of print. No publisher, no editor, no agent, no executor of any estate ever wrote to me to explain any of this. New translations appeared. Viking-Penguin had bought up E.P. Dutton, and unilaterally, without a single word to me, they nullified my contracts, an act which experts in the law have told me was illegal. So ruthless was Viking that they even commissioned a new edition of Borges's poems, stealing from my edition, without permission, without payment, a considerable body of my work.

Of the new versions of the stories, one professor from Chicago told me that he could no longer teach Borges in English because he had to spend the whole class unravelling the translation to make the stories intelligible. Paul Theroux wrote to me that a proof copy of the work had been sent to him and that 'It seemed to me like a new translation of the Bible. It simply doesn't work. It is not Borges. You are Borges.'

A culmination seemed to have been reached when I had to place an injunction on a Barcelona publisher for attempting to bring out an edition of Borges's autobiography, in a Spanish translation, without my having been informed. Well, to be fair, I was informed - when the book was already printed, bound, and set to be distributed the very next week. The publisher countered by suing me. It got extremely complicated, but the problem arose in the first instance when Kodama presented the unwitting publisher with the autobiography while failing to explain that I owned half of it. The case took seven or eight years to run the course of the Spanish courts. I eventually won. This too is chronicled in The Lesson of the Master. One of the plaintiff's chief arguments against me was a declaration by Kodama in which she stated that it did not seem to her that I had co-authored the autobiography.

She phoned me out of the blue from Paris a few years ago in what appeared an effort to elicit my sympathy for the bad treatment and racial slurs she was receiving from all quarters in Buenos Aires. She ended the conversation saying she would phone back a few nights later. She didn't. A year and a half passed, and in October 2006 I informed her by letter that I planned to republish the full body of my Borges translations. I got no reply from her but instead received a mildly threatening letter from her New York agent. This did not surprise me as he had been bullying and threatening parties interested in my plans for some time. A few months later, one of Penguin's lawyers warned me that if I persisted I would 'be liable for willful copyright infringement, for which the U.S. Copyright Act imposes statutory damages of $150,000 for each violation.' I was elated. Viking-Penguin had stolen thirty-eight of my Borges poems for an edition of theirs. This meant I could very well be the recipient of a settlement worth $5,750,000.

In recent years - decades after the appearance of our work - I have also begun to be pilloried by academics who, wielding their scalpels and microscopes, have sought to condemn me for translation crimes and transgressions. A lecturer of translation theory from Barcelona cornered me about the fact that a certain short prose piece by Borges contained seven paragraphs in the Spanish and eight in the English version. Why was that, and why were there 677 words in the original and 819 in the translation? Another took me to task over a single phrase, my rendering of Borges's strange and problematic unánima noche in one of his most famous stories, and from this condemned the whole body of my labours. Some told me, I am not sure whether in praise or blame, that the translations were clearer than the originals. Another said that Borges and I should not have corrected mistakes in one of his stories because those mistakes were charming. These mistakes had been pointed out to us by the New Yorker's scrupulous editors, and Borges not only hastened to correct them for our translation but had me engineer the changes for future reprints of his Spanish versions. One reviewer accused me of a Svengali role for having directed Borges to write stories about Buenos Aires lowlife. I must repeat that the translations were all made in direct collaboration with the author, whom everyone declared a literary genius - except, apparently, when he sat down with me to turn his work into English. Beneath it all I saw a tiresome ignorance of editorial standards and practice, to say nothing of an absence of common sense.

I want to use these pages, then, to remove some of the tarnish, to restore the record, and to introduce to new readers - who will be unaware of their existence - the stories and poems I translated with Borges or under his aegis. I want also to share aspects and details of his life that derived from my daily contact with him. I may also turn up a few letters and documents to illuminate aspects of his character. Along the way, some of my remarks may even prove useful to apprentice translators.

The programme will start by the gradual presentation simultaneously of two of Borges's books. The first, a collection of thirty conversations with the Argentine poet Osvaldo Ferrari, dates from 1984 and has never before appeared in English. The second is a version of Borges's earliest and most celebrated stories, the set of eight originally brought together in 1942 under the title The Garden of Branching Paths.

- N T di G

web development by