Books: Life member of the gaucho club

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley Allen Lane/ Penguin Press, pounds 20, 565pp; Borges bewitched the world with his fables, but readers - and translators - should remember his roots, argues Jason Wilson
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To celebrate the centenary of Jorge Luis Borges (who was born in Buenos Aires on the 24 August 1899), the Borges estate and Viking Penguin have commissioned this new translation of his "fictions" from Andrew Hurley. To have all Borges's stories and parables in one hefty volume can only be a good thing, but why re-translate them?

These quirky intellectual teases caught on, remarkably, in the 1960s, first in the US and then Britain, in the wake of an earlier French discovery. They formed part of the commercial blossoming of Latin American fiction in the heyday of Che Guevara and the Cuban revolution. Borges was then misread as a magical realist: as unlikely as the cover, based on a painting called "Havana", which adorns the clever anthology called Labyrinths that Penguin launched in 1970. It was unlikely because Borges was always conservative, and silly in his political views.

In subtle ways, Labyrinths created a false Borges by stripping him of his Buenos Aires roots. His first published books were poems celebrating his return to his native city after seven years in Europe, along with an idiosyncratic biography of a minor suburban poet. Borges was so fascinated by the paradoxes of Buenos Aires cosmopolitanism that he wrote essays in a refashioned creole Spanish, and loved imitating the ways street-toughs talked. But the writer who wrote mind-twisting story-essays blurring genres, mocking realism and psychology - and who appeared so cunningly modern that he was bracketed with Samuel Beckett when both won the Prix Formentor in 1961 - became the author the world now knows as Borges.

Mainly for political and class reasons, this Borges has had few detractors abroad (Vladimir Nabokov excepted), and many at home in Buenos Aires. His fictional world still strikes me as narrow and limited, with few moving human relationships, no sex, little about women and weak plots. This is a world as odd, and as bookish, as the man himself.

In the 1970s, readers had to turn to several further translations to reach the whole writer, especially those by Anthony Kerrigan and Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Here, for the first time in English, is all of Borges the story-writer. Will he catch on again, as he did in 1970, and is the new translation justified by the poverty of the previous ones?

First, the Borges who emerges in this volume struck me as more varied than I expected, with work spanning the years from 1935 to 1983. But, for an author who famously derided length as padding ("the madness of composing vast books - setting out in 500 pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes"), there is something worrying about this brick of a book. Could it fuel a mistaken belief that this complete Borges is the same Borges who stunned so many readers and writers? (His roll-call of admirers runs from Michel Foucault to George Steiner, Salman Rushdie and Carlos Fuentes, though few followed his concision.)

In fact, the Borges who counts is the author of two slim volumes: Fictions (1944) and The Aleph (1949). This decade of creativity, for a lazy writer who preferred reading, started when Borges wanted to prove to himself that his mind still worked after an accident. It changed our awareness of literature: within Latin American writing, there is a clear pre- and post-Borges style of self-awareness and irony.

But this short outburst was not maintained. Even Borges himself became annoyed with the fame of these despairing and vivid parables. In 1974, he closed his complete works in Spanish with a mock obituary that omitted these two volumes; he often quipped that he was first a reader, then a poet, and only lastly a story-teller.

So this new book blends in several further Borges to the essential writer of the 1940s. There is the Borges who loved parody, and who defined his A Universal History of Iniquity (1935) as "the irresponsible sport of a shy sort of man who could not bring himself to write short stories". This vein continued with his mock detective works, written in collaboration with his friend Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Then there is the Borges who had turned blind by the 1950s and was coaxed back into writing by his translator and editor Norman Thomas di Giovanni, a process that led to Brodie's Report (1970), published an amazing 21 years after The Aleph, and The Book of Sand (1983). These stories have little bite: the rigour of thought is lost and the syntax loose, simply because Borges was blind and could not think and correct himself as he wrote. Had Borges only written these later stories he would not have become "Borges".

Then there are the sincere poet and the witty, anachronistic essayist. Such a confusion of different Borgeses is noted by the master himself in his self-mocking parable about fame called "Borges and I". It concludes, slightly awkwardly in Hurley's version, "I am not sure which of us it is that's writing this page". (Compare Di Giovanni's "Which of us is writing this page I don't know".)

Why re-translate all these uneven Borgeses and not edit the best into a revamped Labyrinths? Here, there's a behind-the-scenes clash between translator's rights and literary estates, and a mistaken, even mercenary, attempt to bring out the "real" Borges by suppressing previous translations.

I have carefully checked Andrew Hurley's new versions with earlier ones and with Borges's own Argentine Spanish. Look, for example, at Borges's own favourite, fantasy-autobiographical story "The South", about an accident, a fever and a doomed, imagined duel with a pampas gaucho. Hurley, who lives in Puerto Rico, misrepresents the basic country word casco as "shell of a large country house" (as did Anthony Kerrigan, a previous translator). It simply means the main house and outhouses of country estates (estancias). Another common word, hacienda, meaning cattle, becomes "pastures". Kerrigan had "ranches", which it can mean, but not in Argentina.

In the end, a pattern emerges of mistranslations of words with specific Argentine associations. Some of the translator's useful notes are also imprecise.

Another trait is to fill out or explain. For instance, an "old" house in the Spanish becomes a "ramshackle" old house. Yet Borges was tough on himself about such padding.

All this might simply be the kind of erudition that Borges mocked. It is not intended to be a slur on Hurley, who often reads well in English. But it touches on what is unique about Borges: that unexpected oscillation between local and universal knowledge. Through a plethora of biographies, Borges is being read today in the Hispanic world as a very porteno (someone living in the port of Buenos Aires) writer - one soaked in Argentine culture but open, crankily, to the outer world, at least in a literary way.

An opportunity has been missed to include the best translations of the best Borges - the alert, quirky writer of his midlife crisis in the 1940s - in a volume that would ensure that he remained canonical. He may do so, of course, but not in this format, which cannot be smuggled into a pocket and which contradicts what Hurley succinctly calls Borges's "laconic terseness". A last, pedantic note: the first translation of Borges into English was not, as Hurley affirms, in 1948. In 1942, Robert Fitzgerald translated poems in a New Directions anthology; and in 1945, Paul Bowles also presciently translated Borges.

Jason Wilson teaches in the Spanish Department at University College, London