by Joel Pablo Salud
Author Anthony Burgess once wrote that translation is not only a matter of words. “It is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.”
What Ateneo de Naga University Press did in its translation of the selected poetry of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is just that: it brought to Filipino homes a world Borges himself had seen and felt, through the eye and skin of his reality and his imagination.
The book, Ang Maglaho sa Mundo: Piling Tula ni Jorge Luis Borges, translated into Filipino by renowned poet Kristian Sendon Cordero, is no less an opening into the world of Borges in ways that only a fellow Hispanic–us Filipinos—can probably see.
The language Cordero uses—Tagalog—is exceptionally lyrical, yet one that is easily understood within the intertwining verses. Beyond the language itself sits the harrowing imagery of Borges’ visions, the heavy silences shaped into words, the lines and verses which the poet had hoped to make intelligible for people who could hardly see what was in front of them.
“In translating Borges, I have to read all available translations of his works in English and compare these versions,” Cordero said in an interview. “I have to read commentaries and get travel books about Argentina and Latin America. This task can be daunting but it is most rewarding. Translation is like crossing over to the other side. The waters can be treacherous but one must sail towards its destination and part of it is ‘getting lost’ in translation.”
Borges is renowned for his Ficciones, his collection of short stories. He was also well-aware of his standing as a poet in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As the son of well-educated parents, he knew even then that he was destined for a literary career, especially after having received his Bachelor of Arts at the Collège de Genève.
As a poet, Borges had discovered and rediscovered his beloved Buenos Aires, a shabby old city during his youth. He sang its praises every so often in poems that depict city life, its mornings and evenings, the cries of its young, energetic but largely poor generation.
The poet’s eyes were ever at the suffering, inconsolable people of his time, his memory besmirched often by the cruelties that had stained its history.
In Cordero’s Tagalog rendering of Borges’ poem, “Tuwing Umaga Pagkagising,” the Bikolnon poet and translator brings home an image that is, by and large, extremely close to the Filipino experience, our struggles with the world around us and with ourselves:
Nanuot ang liwanag; tinatamad ngunit pangangailangan
itong panahon mula sa panaginip sapagkat naghihintay
nang salubungin ang mga kinasanayan, at muling hahayaang
humuli ng hininga hanggang sa humupa ang lahat ayon
sa inaasahan. Ngayon at dito, dalá-dalá ng nakakaliyong nakaraan,
ang lambong na lumulukob, ang libo-libong taon ng mga pagsilikas
ng ibon o tao, o ang mga kawal ng mga lehiyon na inutas
ng punyal sa kampo man ng Roma o ng Cartago. At muli–
naririto ako, bihag ng nakasanayang patibong: sariling
tinig, mukha, alinlangan, ang aking kapalaran.
Nawa’y ang Kamatayan, yaring pag-ahon ng ibang pampang,
maghandog sa akin ng isang panahon ng pagkalimot
sa aking pangalan, sa buo kong pagtao!
Sana’y wala nang dalá-daláng alaala tuwing umaga.
More than just a crafter of verse, Borges took his folk storytelling prowess seriously, even in his poems. He dedicated his verse to people he knew, or had engagements with. The 20th century was the century of Borges’ genius, celebrating life as any poet was expected to do, digging for deeper truths than what the eye could see.
Like any poet of his day, Borges wasn’t famous in his little Buenos Aires until after his death. His demise brought about the rise of his short fiction, altogether compared to the dark world of Franz Kafka, one of his influences.
“My attraction to Borges as a poet is as strong as my attraction to his thoughts on language and translation,” Cordero said of Borges. “His gradual losing of sight, his being a librarian, his fascinations with certain European literary works and authors, all these are manifested in his poetry and his fiction. He is as enigmatic as his works.”
From his humble beginnings as one known for “literary tricks,” Borges rose to prominence by bringing language, once holed up in the halls of the academe, to the reach of ordinary people.
Cordero noted that many Filipinos will regard Borges “as a fine storyteller, but if one surveys his poetry we will realize that most of his stories find its origin in the early poems he wrote. Borges also returns to particular subjects like his ‘dreamtigers’, his Babel, his codes, his libraries and his favorite authors, his street corners and Buenos Aires, all these can pose certain difficulties to the uninitiated and, I guess, it helps if the translators are poets themselves—there is a certain union, and I look forward to this kind of co-mingling every time I embark on the work of translation.”
This Argentinian writer once wrote that “the original is unfaithful to the translation,” reminding us that translated works are artworks on their right, that such attempts to cross the boundaries of language and culture to another’s should be given as much accolade as the original.
“In translating Borges, I have had to improve my Spanish with the help of some friends who speak both Bikol/Filipino and Spanish,” Cordero said, adding that this translation was “supported by the Programa Sur by the Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Argentina. The Argentine Embassy in Manila assisted me throughout the entire process of making this translation.”
Anyone who has borne the weight of translation work knows this for a fact: that language is culture, and the sharing of such a culture with another is not only an act of courage, but omniscience.
To even understand the minutest details of how a people think and act, let alone view their world in ways that others cannot fully grasp, is in itself a force to be reckoned with. Such is the power of language translated into form and substance that resemble another’s, so much so that the intertwining cultures now stand as, virtually, one. It is a challenge very few have attained.
In translating Borges’ poetry, Cordero brought the words of a renowned Argentinian poet into our homes. Cordero also enables us to take an insightful look into the life of a writer struggling to make sense of his own world.
Perhaps we can do the same with our poems, broach a world that is true regardless of the stains and wounds it carries, and even cross the line of suggesting solutions to our darknesses, as poets are wont to do, as he or she seeks to reshape our realities to better ones.
Ang Maglaho sa Mundo: Pilíng mga Tula ni Jorge Luis Borges (translated in Filipinong Bikolnon by Kristian Sendon Cordero) is published by the Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2015, and launched as part of the university press’ 75 books in celebration of the university’s 75 years.