A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Borges: a whale of an error

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 …


One response to “Borges: a whale of an error

  1. ---dean October 10, 2005 at 9:47 pm

    Perhaps it will remain unclear how this confusion was orca-strated, but I suspect someone like the following, whom you may encounter on your eventual trip to a physical library, so beware:

    “It will be seen that this mere painstaking burrower and grubworm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane. Therefore you must not, in every case at least, take the higgledy-piggledy whale statements, however authentic, in these extracts, for veritable gospel cetology. Far from it. As touching the ancient authors generally, as well as the poets here appearing, these extracts are solely valuable or entertaining, as affording a glancing bird’s eye view of what has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied, and sung of Leviathan, by many nations and generations, including our own.”

    Quoted from:


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