Sunday, July 06, 2008

Un Cuarto Propio

I never did blog about my recent trip to the 18th Annual Woolf Conference in Denver the other week. That experience my be lost to the ether. One part of it, however, I want to make sure to document: Leah Leone’s paper on Borges’ translation of A Room of One’s Own, Un Cuarto Propio. Leah explained that, given Borges’ stature—and Woolf’s—this particular translation of Woolf’s 1929 feminist pamphlet is by far the most widely available one. It was commissioned by another Latin American modernist and Woolf fan, Victoria Ocampo. However, while Ocampo was a feminist, Borges was not.

Leone’s paper laid out in really persuasive detail five or six examples of moment when Borges muted Woolf’s feminism. For example, even though Borges’ collection of stories was entitled Ficciones, he translated the phrase “woman and fiction” as “las mujeres y la novela” (working from memory with only Dora-grade Spanish) abjuring the cognate “fiction”—less common in Spanish but very much in Borges’ vocabulary—in favor of the Spanish for novel. Why does this matter? “Novel” is a narrower genre, a more feminine one, and a genre that Borges did not admire.

Elsewhere, where Woolf uses “we” in the context of a room full of women, Borges translated the pronoun not as “nosotras,” which indicates women, but “nosotros” which indicates any group that contains at least one man. Sigh.

Still, what was so elegant about Leah’s paper was that for all she found lacking in the Borges translation, she did not deliver a screed against him. Instead, she discussed feminist theories of translation on the one hand and what we can learn about Borges himself on the other.

Part of me wanted someone to get up and just really get angry about the injustice of it all, but mostly I was really impressed and fascinated by Leah’s work—and I know that I would have striven for the same balanced and intellectual tone that she so ably struck.

I wished Ana Maria had been there, but I promised Leah that I’d write it up so that she could read it—and you can, too.

Apparently, there are new, better translations out—several in recent years—but they come from smaller feminist presses and, of course, don’t carry the Borges name.

UPDATED to correct my mispelling of "propio" as "propRio"--as I mention in the comments, I'm sure it's all those years of trying to get my tongue around the French "propre." I don't speak Spanish, so I muddle my way through...


Richard said...


Borges's Spanish has always seemed odd to me, almost as if he had acquired it as a second language as a native English speaker. But I can't discern if that is because my own reading in Spanish (good enough to pass a master's program translation test but you know how little skill that requires) is so poor or if it seems that way to native Spanish speakers as well.

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. I had completely forgotten that Borges had translated Woolf -- and of course his rendering inevitably refelects much of the man's politics, blind spots, prejudices (which is something we should always remember whenever we read a translation).

amcorrea said...

Fascinating, Anne. Thank you so much for sharing this! As gender is rendered much more transparently in Spanish than in English, I can imagine the potential minefield that exists... What perfect examples. I wonder what Ocampo thought of Borges' translation?

Incidentally, my UK student visa came through this week, so I'll be off to begin an MA in literary translation this September! (Something that will inevitably help to focus my little litblog.)

Mariano Orosco Zumarán said...


Good post. But you got one word wrong: in Spanish we say "propio" (meaning "mine" or "of my own"), not "proprio".

Greetings from Lima, Perú.

Mariano Orosco Zumarán

Anonymous said...

'Scure the digressions, Borges rather than Woolf is my thing...

@Richard: he grew up reading English and speaking it with his grandmother -- no idea how his Spanish sounds but some influence wouldn't be surprising.

He's also been variously treated by translators. "The Circular Ruins" begins "No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night" in one translation, but "in the all-encompassing night" in another. I'd love to know how "unanimo" sounds to a native Spanish speaker, if it's as extraordinary as "unanimous" in this context.

Anonymous said...

Bah. I mean "'scuse".

Anonymous said...

I believe Borges once had that very line, about the unanimous night, quoted to him and was asked what it meant, and he waved the question off with a comment such as, "That just shows how irresponsible a writer I was than."
John Shannon

Anonymous said...

Bah, I mean "then."

Anonymous said...

very interesting-- I had no idea borges translated woolf.
but then woolf in translation is always a fascinating topic.

Cecilio Morales said...

Can one trust a blogger who can't even manage to type the correct title of the work she attempts to skewer?

One "proprio" could chalk it up to a slip of the finger, except it's in her headline and also in the text. The repeated error reveals that she has never glanced at the title page of the translation she more than willing to pillory.

Those Latin Americans are all misogynists, right?

Unknown said...

Sorry about "propio"! As I think I said, this is an account of a paper I heard, not one I read.

And, alas, that extra R is, I'm afraid, the residue of years of trying to get my tongue around French. I used to speak French quite well, but "l'arbre" was the death of me and "propre," the French cognate of "propio" was not much better....

I'm so happy that so many of you found this as fascinating as I!

Mariano Orosco Zumarán said...


Don't worry for your mistake. It happens all the time... specially if you quote a word from a language you don't speak.

Keep on doing the good work!

Mariano Orosco Zumarán

Cecilio Morales said...

No, I did not find it "fascinating" that you find it so cutsy to mangle Spanish repeatedly -- proudly proclaiming how little you know the language ("Dora-grade") in the course of an essay about one of the major writers in the Spanish language of the 20th century. I daresay that you would not proudly write an essay on Shakespeare in pidgin English, announcing your ignorance of the language to the four winds.

And, oh, let's stop the presses: Borges was "not a feminist." How many men born in 1899 were? How do you even know that he wasn't since you can't read what he wrote?

It's infuriating that some wannabe literary analyst who takes up the cause of her own kind can't be bothered to respect the culture, language and literature of others.