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Borges "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" by Elizabeth Lagresa

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Research Report: Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"


By Elizabeth Lagresa, Los Deformadores de Textos Project Team


  1. Abstract:


    Borges’ fictional short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is an acute commentary on translation that anticipates the post-modern theory of reader response.  He posits the argument that it is possible to re-construct identically a text in a foreign language, and by comparing them he asserts that the translation is almost infinitely richer than the original.  The years that elapsed between texts are credited for having altered the meaning reader’s endow to words, consequently enriching the text.  Borges concludes by highlighting the importance of the context, the reader and the translator as co-creators of meaning, ushering a new theory of literary criticism and translation that trivializes the preoccupation with notions such as faithfulness, authorship and originality. 


  2. Description:


    Within the short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” published in Ficciones in 1944, Jorge Luis Borges succinctly presents a discussion on the problematic subject of translation, and utilizes it as a vehicle to situate readers and translators face to face with their function as co-creators of literature.  The story begins with an introduction by the narrator enumerating all of Menard's “visible” works, and then moves to a discussion and defense of his invisible or “subterranean” works, namely his unfinished production of chapters VIIII, XXXVIII and fragments of XXII of Cervantes’ Don Quixote (Borges 88-90).  The character of Menard asserts that his intent was not to copy but to re-construct “…a number of pages which coincided – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes” (Borges 91).  The impossible task of the translator, taken to its extreme by Menard, is a subject that is often discussed in translation theory, but Borges masterfully satirizes it, for since the goal of an exact translation is impossible from its conception, the only logical way to attempt achieving it is through impossible means.  The methodology chosen to bring about this unfeasible task is to re-create Cervantes’ work as though it was Menard who had conceived it, effectively supporting the authorial claim established by the title of the story (Borges 92).  As a result, the hierarchical divide between author and translator, original and translation is not only blurred, but somewhat inverted.  According to Menard, his task as a translator is of greater difficulty than that of Cervantes, and consequently, his creation is more worthy of praise.  He asserts that Cervantes “…did not spurn the collaboration of chance…and was often swept along by the inertia of the language and the imagination,” while the translator’s job is premeditated and deliberate, language is scrutinized, and imagination is subjugated to the rigor of reason (Borges 92).  Additionally, Menard’s reconstruction of what for Cervantes was spontaneous creation must occur by working through various artificial constraints, which require the translator’s ultimate sacrifice and subordination to the original text’s intentions.  Menard in order to recreate the novel, had to put “…forth ideas that were the exact opposite of those he actually held,” as exemplified by the Quixote’s discourse on arms and letters, in which Cervantes gives primacy to arms much contrary to the argument Menard, “…a contemporary of La trahison des clercs and Bertrand Russell…,” would support (Borges 93).  To bring the point home, despite the fact that Menard did not commit any infidelities, for “The Cervantes text and the Menard text are verbally identical…,” the narrator points out that a major disparity has emerged between the two: “…the second is almost infinitely richer” (Borges 94).  By placing in the body of the story two mirror images of an excerpt of Cervantes’ “original” and Menard’s Quixote (both in English), Borges makes unequivocally apparent that although the words might be the same, it is the reader, and consequently the meaning the reader endows to those words that has been altered.  The three hundred years that elapsed between the original and Menard's text, and the weight of the events that transpired have filled these words with new meanings and allusions for the readers, ultimately enriching the text (Borges 93).  The time that passed amid each writer’s Quixote has also altered its perception, rendering Menard’s style as archaic and Cervantes’ as natural for his time (Borges 94).  The Quixote’s original audience might have found it to be “…foremost a pleasant book…” as Menard claims, but in present times its value has risen drastically to that of “…an occasion for patriotic toast…” (Borges 94).  The story concludes by stressing the importance of the reader, the translator, and their context as co-creators of meaning, introducing a new theory of translation and literary criticism (reader response) that minimizes the value of concepts like faithfulness, authorship and originality. 


  3. Commentary:


    From the onset the title of the story questions the very concepts of authorship and originality by introducing Menard as author of the most influential work of literature of the golden age and possibly the entire Spanish canon.  Since Menard is not credited as a translator, but as an author, this establishes the possibility of equating translation to a creative process that results in a unique text, an original, ultimately eliminating the hierarchical divide that exists between author and translator, original and translation.  This concept of translation provides the theoretical basis for linking translation to text analysis since both involve the re-creation of a text, and also presents an opportunity to develop a heightened understanding of what is the role of readers and writers as co-creators of literature.  In the story, Borges, as in previous occasions, addresses the readers directly and pre-empts our incredulous response that the goal of an identical translation word for word is “Too impossible, rather!, the reader will say” (Borges 91).  Yet, if a perfect, exact, or possibly “faithful” translation is admittedly impossible, then we must conclude that all translations must be equally encompassed as “unfaithful,” or for that matter “faithful” up to the degree that we are conscious that translation is an act of subjective interpretation and re-creation.  By eliminating the preoccupation with issues such as truthfulness, faithfulness, and conversely those of originality and authorship, a new set of possibilities emerges, which leads to the acceptance of multiple versions that are all simultaneously genuine and divergent.  The project, which involves comparison between different “versions” of Calderon’s La vida es sueño, is not intended to determine which translation is more accurate, but to explore what is revealed about the translators and their context through their creative “infidelities.”  This is reinforced within the story when the narrator claims Menard’s unfinished production of the Quixote is “…perhaps the most significant writing of our time…” (Borges 90).  Furthermore, Menard himself states, “Not for nothing have three hundred years elapsed, freighted with the most complex events” (Borges 93).  The importance of the cultural and temporal context is emphasized making it apparent that something is fundamentally different in both the writing and its perceived value, due to the mere passage of time.  Irrevocably, the weight of the events that have taken place has altered the relationship between words and meaning, a relationship that is mediated by the reader.  Ultimately, this posits that translations not only have the power to share the work with a wider culture, but also to enrich both languages and texts through the act of remaking.  Lastly, it is significant to note that the chapters Menard’s character chose to translate carry hidden, additional layers of meaning.  For example, chapter nine of the Quixote revolves around the subject of multiple perspectives.  By informing the reader that the story of Don Quijote is a translation from a moor manuscript, it implicitly questions the veracity of the story told and explores the gap that exists between reality and its numerous possible representations.  Consequently, Menard’s as well as all translations of the Quixote (and by extension translations of all texts) are actually translations of a translation of a subjective version of the original events that took place.  Translation then shares similarities not only with text-analysis, but also with deformance and the profound subjectivity from which critical insight emerges.  Borges’ theory of translation opens up a world of limitless possibilities by elevating translation from an act of reproduction to one of re-creation, which will be explored in the class project with the goal in mind to expand our understanding of La vida es sueño and literature in general.


  4. Resources for Further Study:


    Benjamin, Walter.  “The Task of the Translator.”  Illuminations.  Trans. Harry Zohn.  Ed.  Hannah Arendt.  New York:  Schocken Books, 1968. 69-82.


    Borges, Jorge Luis.  “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”  Ficciones.  English Trans.  Buenos Aires Editorial Sur, 1944.  88-95.


    - - - .  “Some Versions of Homer.”  Trans. and Introduction by Suzanne Jill Levine.  PMLA.  October 2001.  1134-1138.


    - - - .  “The Translators of the One Thousand and One Nights.”  Trans.  Esther Allen.  The Translation Studies Reader.  Ed. Lawrence Venuti.  2nd ed.  New York:  Routledge, 2004.  94-108.


    Kristal, Efraín.  Invisible Work: Borges and Translation.  Nashville:  Vanderbilt University Press, 2002.


    Paz, Octavio, “On Translation.”  UNESCO Courier.  May-June 1986.


    Rodriguez Monegal, Emir.  “Borges: The Reader as Writer.”  Triquarterly 25, 1972.  102-43.


    Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation.  New York:  Oxford UP, 1975.


    Venuti, Lawrence, ed. The Translation Studies Reader.  2nd ed.  New York:  Routledge, 2004.


    Waisman, Sergio.  “Borges and Translation: The Irreverence of the Periphery.”  Bucknell Studies in Latin American Literature and Theory Series.  Lewisburg:  Bucknell University Press, 2005.


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