Literary Notes: Blown away by the Borges style

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THIS YEAR marks the centenary of the birth of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose stories changed forever the way writers and readers would look at fiction. For most readers, it was Borges' images - the labyrinths, libraries, knives, blindness, tigers, roses, rivers, maps, mathematics - that were most striking and original, but for Spanish-language writers, it was Borges' prose, the writing itself, that blew them away. Spanish had quite simply never been written like this before.

Borges worked hard at his style - by the time he published his first story he was in his late thirties - and in his prefaces and introductions he is forever talking about purging it of a youthful baroque, trying always for directness. If a translator is to convey some of the awe, the shock of the new, that readers in Buenos Aires felt when they first read Borges' fictions, then something of the style of that astounding writing needs to be captured.

What Borges finally achieved is a style characterised by a determined economy of resources in which every word is weighted, every word tells. In this unemphatic style, effects are often achieved with a single exploding word or phrase, dropped almost as though off-handedly into a quiet sentence: "He examined his wounds and saw, without astonishment, that they had healed." This laconic detail "without astonishment", coming at the very beginning of "The Circular Ruins", will probably only at the end of the story be recalled by the reader, who will, retrospectively, see that it changes everything in the story; it is quintessential Borges.

Another clear mark of Borges' prose is its employment of words - usually adjectives, but sometimes nouns - with, or for, their etymological value. One of the most famous opening lines in Spanish literature is: "Nadie lo vio desembarcar en la uninime noche": "No one saw him slip from the boat in the unanimous night." What an odd adjective, "unanimous" - "the one-souled night." It is so odd, in fact, that other English translations have not allowed it. But it is just as odd in Spanish, and is a manifestation of Borges' explicit intention to let the Latin or Greek root govern the modern word's usage.

Borges' writing has often been called intellectual, and indeed it is dense with allusion. But it is also simple: the sentences are almost invariably classical in their symmetry, in their balance. Borges likes parallelism, subtle repetitions-with-variations; his only indulgence in "shocking" the reader (an effect he repudiated) may be the "Miltonian displacement of adjectives" ("the readers at their studious lamps") that he alludes to in his preface to "The Maker". He uses a great many semi-colons; in subtly suppressing the ands, buts, thens of the connection between two clauses, Borges achieves mystery. One knows these two statements are related, but the relationship is not overt or explicit; the reader finds, instead, the shimmer of indeterminacy.

Recognising these aspects of Borges' hard-won style, I have tried, of course, to reproduce it in my English translations, even though it would only seem "classical" and even a bit "old-fashioned" to the English-language reader. In every way I could - the choice of words, the shape of the sentences, the displacement of those adjectives, the punctuation - I have tried to respect the elements of his style.

Borges' prose was historic; Mario Vargas Llosa tells us that Spanish was suddenly "purified," "intellectualised" by it. For the translator who is aware of the historical importance of Borges' texts, the watershed they represent in Spanish-language letters, it is that prose that one must at least attempt to capture. An appreciation not only of Borges' images and themes, but of his astonishing achievement in prose, depends on it.

Andrew Hurley is the translator of `Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions' (Allen Lane, 21 January, pounds 20)