Borges: a whale of an error
October 10, 2005
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I received an email from Justin Bur that says (quoting with permission):
Your English version of Borges’ celebrated essay http://www.entish.org/essays/Wilkins.html contains a rather spectacular mistranslation based presumably on a typo in the original Spanish. Section 16 of Wilkins’ taxonomy classifies the *whale*, not beauty, as a viviparous oblong fish. There is a complete text online at http://reliant.teknowledge.com/Wilkins, and the relevant passage is on page 132.
The confusion seems to arise from the graphic similarity between “ballena” (whale) and “belleza” (beauty) in Spanish. I cannot imagine that Borges himself did not know the difference, but I have no idea where the error first arose.
Hmm. I based my translation on the Spanish original at http://www.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/wilkins.html. It has belleza/beauty. Douglas Crockford’s Spanish version and translation has ballena/whale. I looked for other online copies of the Spanish original: a comp lit site has “belleza.” Another Language and Literacy post (one has to scroll down quite a bit) has “belleza/beauty.” This Finnish site has “belleza.” I don’t have a Spanish print edition of Otras Inquisiciones to check.
Perhaps Borges was using a Babelfish translation. Seriously, I’m curious whether Borges was using a bad translation, or just had an eye for ‘beauty.’ This might mean I have to actually go to a physical library to find out …