Monday, May 07, 2007

The Architects (Translators) of Babel

[Updated on 8 May 2007]

I recently reread Borges's "The Library of Babel" and realized that the physical layout of the library is unclear, at least to me.

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between [en el medio], surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves, five long shelves per side, cover all the sides except two; their height, which is the distance from floor to ceiling, scarcely exceeds that of a normal bookcase. One of the free sides leads to a narrow hallway which opens onto another gallery, identical to the first and to all the rest. To the left and right of the hallway there are two very small closets. In the first, one may sleep standing up; in the other, satisfy one's fecal necessities. Also through here passes a spiral stairway, which sinks abysmally and soars upwards to remote distances. In the hallway there is a mirror which faithfully duplicates all appearances. Men usually infer from this mirror that the Library is not infinite (if it were, why this illusory duplication?); I prefer to dream that its polished surfaces represent and promise the infinite ... Light is provided by some spherical fruits which bear the name of lamps. There are two, transversally placed, in each hexagon. The light they emit is insufficient, incessant.

That is James Irby's translation. Anthony Kerrigan, to my mind more plausibly, puts the ventilation shafts "in the middle [en el medio]" of the hexagons, not between them. What I hadn't noticed until now is that the galleries seem to be connected by the stairwell, two-by-two: each gallery is connected to only one other gallery, i.e., only "one of the free sides ... opens onto another gallery". This would apply also to this other gallery, which thus opens onto the first. These two galleries are connected to the others only by means of the stairs. That is, the Library is a tower.

Given the height of such a tower, however, it would be impossible to "see ... the upper and lower floors". This leads me to think that this, too, is an error in the translation. Borges had written, "Desde cualquier hexágono se ven los pisos inferiores y superiores: interminablemente." Though I have no independent understanding of Spanish, I think his meaning would be better captured by, "From any hexagon the floors above and below [i.e., the superior and inferior floors] can be seen: interminably."

Andy Wilkins seems to agree with me about this point, though not the previous one. Kerrigan, it seems to me, botches this point completely by rendering "y" as "or" rather than "and", which my Spanish-English dictionary, in any case, does not license. That is, Kerrigan is suggesting a very finite height for the Libary so that from any gallery one can see either the top or the ground floor.

If anyone has any thoughts, I'm all ears.

[Continued here.]

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