Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Borges, Babel and Translation's broken mirror.

 If not of books, then bricks, Babel had once a Tower, bridging Image and pre-image- Heaven and its Earthly double. But, even in that blissful Arcadia, by baleful Translators untroubled, there arose from Eros' playful confabulations the invidious Eris of distinguishing the literary from the literal. Thenceforth, howsoever fancifully the spume of Language had spun, it but fed as it fled the turbid supervenience of Translation's two way mirror-  a portal of mutual invasion, enslavement and annihilation- such that, through all Time though its tower topple, bricks yet embower books and no bookshelf, however humble or aleatorily arranged, is not the incendiary speculum of Hermetic Alexandria's bibliothetic holocaust; because, though Allah only ordained Alexander's invention of the mirror so it unfold to him, as upon Christ's Lenten lectern, the one kingdom he could never conquer, yet that Book of Sand, bitterly yearning to be read, has ever been before hand in turning books to bricks such that in each is bricked up the enkindled kiln of all its kin's auto da fe. 
For which, of course, blame should be properly affixed on Narendra Modi- vide this letter of mine to the editor of an Indian literary E-zine.
Dear Editor
Receiving an email notification of the latest issue of Phalanx, I eagerly clicked on the link described thus-
 Literary and Literal Translation: The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges: Two different translations, one idiomatic and one literal, of the same story by the great Argentinian author show facets of the story that every critic and translator dealing with Borges appears to have missed.
Alas! I read the essay.
It began promisingly enough-

The everywhere present mirrors of the Library of Babel faithfully duplicate appearances: from which circumstance its clerkly men are wont to infer that the Library is not infinite. The narrating librarian seems to demur. Yo prefiero soñar, he records, que las superficies bruñidas figuran y prometen el infinito: literally: I myself prefer to dream that their burnished surfaces figure and promise the infinite

but lapsed thereafter into outright imbecility, commencing with this pearl of wisdom-
A man will prefer one or other between feasible choices; usually at least; and one cannot choose what to dream
WTF?. No man has a preference between the vast majority of feasible choices because no man has a complete information set. On the other hand, every man chooses everything he cares to day-dream about. As for what one dreams in the night, an aficionado of Borges will know of several esoteric oneirological practices and theories which suggest that not only can one choose what to dream (a notion confirmed by Scientific research) but that those dreams can shape reality or actually create it ex nihilo.
Indeed, 'the contamination of Reality by the dream' is a central trope for Borges.
The author, blissfully unaware of any such fact, merrily continues-
But a persevering man may, nonetheless, continue to prefer what he cannot proceed to choose: he may keep wanting what he cannot have. 
From protozoa to Pope, all beings want what they can't have. It is the condition of life. Nothing to do with 'persevering'.
To prefer does not presuppose being able to actually choose then; not strictly considered; and we may rescue 'prefer to dream‟ from mere solecism thus. 
How stupid is the author? What is his major malfunction? Has anybody ever suggested that every living being's preference to enjoy health rather than suffer disease or death PRESUPPOSES the ability to actually choose not to die and instead enjoy felicity? Not even an extreme Existentialism or relationist Occasionalism would qualify its notion of conatus in this way. Why is the author using pompous, learned sounding, language to say something so foolish and utterly without foundation in the philosophical or hermeneutic traditions relevant to Borges's essay?
The author concludes this truly asinine or Unamuno type sample of Saloon bar casuistry with a rhetorical flourish worthy of H.Bustos Domecq- But the effort seems wasted, for the locution remains strange even so: to dream that mirrors figure and promise the infinite would not be to dream mirrors whose surfaces do so figure and promise. So the promiscuously literary version which accompanies the literal transcription here renders the sentence thus: I wish always to dream their burnished faces: which prefigure and promise infinity.
This is rubbish. Cats don't turn into Kapil Sabil. But I can will myself to dream they do. Also a dream cat can turn into Kapil Sabil- indeed, that's exactly what happened the other day when I'd dozed off with NDTV on and the neighbor's cat jumped through the window and came and made itself comfy on my tummy.
Borges's librarian has said something simple- 'there are mirrors in the library. Mirrors make a place look bigger than it is. That's why some people say 'the library must be smaller than it appears'. If the library is infinite, why put in mirrors?'  I don't accept this. I like to day-dream that the superficies (Borges has chosen a word with a highly suggestive mathematical associations) of these mirrors have a certain sort of relationship to infinity. What sort? Well, the librarian's 'burnished superficies' suggests something like Cohen 'forcing'- i.e. expanding the Universe so as to do things that would otherwise violate the countinuum hypothesis.
Of course, that is just one possible reading.  Depending on one's depth of Mathematical knowledge or direction of professional specialization, the same poetic phrase or sphota can have different 'models' - i.e. demonstrate the coherence of different axiom systems.
Borges knew Cantor's work on degrees of Infinity. He had some hazy idea (he wasn't a Math maven anymore than I am) about developments in the 30's- Constructivists, Logical Positivists and so on. Further, as Floyd Merrel pointed out in his path-breaking book some twenty years ago, Borges knew Kastner & Newman's classic 'Mathematics and the Imagination'. In any case, Borges was au fait with the Husserl vs Heidegger contretemps- and had the sense to despise Heidegger.
This being the case, In interpreting or translating or commenting on Borges why not extend to him the benefit of the doubt? He may not have been a Godel or Heytig or Kripke. But students of Godel and Brouwer and Cohen and Kripke find much to chew over in Borges. Why heartlessly abandon him to Gallic gobshites, J.N.U jhollawallahs, or Foucault spouting M.F.A types?

Okay, full disclosure, I'm a rank philistine- an Economist by training but not a real smart one- I have to get my own miserable scribbling checked for mistakes by Math guys. Still, purely subjectively, the word 'superficies' with its legal, mathematical, and philosophical associations seems to me to be a rich one and worth highlighting.
My guess is that a mathematically literal, though utterly un-literary, translation which remains faithful to the word Borges has so felicitously used, might read  'the surface of the mirror promises us something like the projective plane of the Reimann sphere whose parallel lines intersect at the vanishing point of the visual cortex- and whose further quality of being burnished suggests that something can occur- like 'forcing'- such that it itself prefigures -or. constructively performs- a sort of Cantor diagonalization.' 
Precisely because Borges writes poetically, both naive reception and metanoiac correction have the quality of immediacy and get me to some concrete open question in Math- i.e. though Borges isn't a Math guy, he has chosen his words so carefully, or has been guided by such native Genius, that a line from him gets us to an open problem whereas many Maths guys from fifty years ago, in their prose, seldom hit on open questions instead of arguing the toss on questions already know to be closed.
It may be that everything that exists is computationally equivalent to an open question, but most things which pop into our heads under the spell of a poetic phrase aren't yet questions at all- they are Indra's winged mountains not yet captured as convenient salinecies by underlying co-ordination problems. For instance, since I'm interested in the influence of Ibn Arabi's concept of barzakh, mediated by Asin Palacios and his commentators, on Borges, the word 'burnished superficies' suggests to me some still hazy notion of 'negative complexity' as linking to apophatic theology such that Blake's leaping tiger tears through its own reflection to fulminate all but the frame of its own immortal symmetry.
Robert Frost's dictum- 'Poetry is what is lost in Translation', though massively confirmed by the cunt-queefery of the last fifty years of American Academic output- yet must be false because poems are but the brick-dust of Babel and so, provided Translation is a Knight's tour through all Language, it's terminus must be apocatastatic. Clearly, I'm assuming something like Liebniz's 'law of continuity' - 'in any supposed continuous transition, ending in any terminus, it is permissible to institute a general reasoning, in which the final terminus may also be included whereby what is true of the finite is true of the infinite'- which begs the question rather. After all, precisely because a poem, or at least every poetic phrase in a poem, is an infinitesimal increment for a given Language's 'poetic', it follows that the Translator first needs to empty out the target language of its native 'poetic' to make space for the Source language's 'poetic'. Following the American Academic path, or just being a cloth eared dolt, is certainly highly efficacious for stripping out what is poetic in your own language. What that can't do is repeat the process for the Source language to recover the infinitesimal increment represented by what is to be translated. Indeed, put this way, the project sounds impossible. Even if you can dissolve everything apart from some tiny atom in one thing; even if you can seize that tiny atom and translate it to exactly the right point in the midst of something else; how can you accomplish this when you have already dissolved the latter in your own mind?
More importantly, even supposing all this could be done, what would be the point? Infinitesimals scarcely exist. Translation can't change anything. Liebniz was wrong. Univocity can at best be National or Racial. Not poetry, what it is possible to have is the slogan; that great unanimous shout, Canetti tells us, of the conjoined horde of the living and the dead.
Yet we know that a Language's literary 'poetic' is almost entirely translation driven and that fact changes much, if not almost entirely all, of what the literary poetic can change.
The truth is, the two way stripping I've described, which sounds a bit like the way you construct a Cantor ternary set, is something we all do all the time. There's a huge amount of Cantor dust floating about. The good news is that it always adds up to the same thing we started with. Univocity of this sort- and Borges was more troubled by this then anybody else- can be both many and the same. The infinitesimals of standard analysis, which always sum to nothing, are resurrected as the hyper-reals of non-standard analysis and can do all the cool things real numbers do. Borges's librarian is vindicated by Mathematics which permits the enrichment of reality such that Infinity's existence pushes none to oblivion.
Indeed, a straightforward reading of Borges's new refutation of Time cashes out as - if one guy perceives the same thing twice- like stumbling twice on the same clearing while trying to hack your way out of the woods- or if two people perceive the same thing at different times- like if you share a cab with a fellow tourist in a strange city and you go 'whoa dude! I just saw Vivek Iyer drunkenly sodomizing the equestrian statue of the Great Liberator!' ' and the other guy goes 'What? I saw that twenty minutes ago. This fucking cab driver must be taking us round in circles to bump up the fare!'- what is empirically refuted is both Newtonian Time and Kantian Time because, clearly, Time has lost its sovereign succession and legitimacy as Psychopomp.
But that's good news because it proves that with respect to any given School trip, if we are non uniquely perceived as sodomizing equestrian statues rather than having, quite pardonably and that too in a moment of inebriation, mistaken a humongous and marble horse's ass for yo momma's face, then not only is Time refuted but the category of causality has no necessary order. Thus our personal univocity with the Infinite is re-established since, not us, only Time gets wasted and thus what we witness as its walking in circles is to Eternity its linear but equally unavailing approach.

But, it seems, I too have strayed off topic.
Getting back to my Email to that editor, this is how I conclude-

The author of this essay appears to have zero knowledge about the Philosophy of Infinity- surely a prerequisite for the task. What great point is he making? If the translator is stupid, ignorant and out of his depth, then there is no difference between a literal and a literary translation because both are shit.
The author writes-
The literary version will seem wantonly false to the original; and only in the sudden if modest assertion of his last and valedictory sentence does the plausible commentator there show himself kin, at all, to his fictive model. 
Why wantonly false? After which Strange God has the literary version gone whoring? Why this baroque self-regarding punctilio in the context of an exhibition of naked illiteracy?
But just so must I seek excuse: I must hope that the pronounced difference here, between locution literally transcribed and its egregiously literary glossing, will somehow disclose, between them, the strange presence that the speaking voice becomes in the original.
Stupidity is its own excuse and not one far to seek. There is no pronounced difference between the stupid illiterate shite spouted by this author under either rubric. He can't write decent English. How is he going to write literary English? He doesn't understand the first thing about the subject matter- how is he going to give us a faithful literal translation?
As for 'the strange presence that the speaking voice becomes' in the echoing chamber of the gap between the literary and the literal- how strange can that presence be? We are talking about an elderly librarian not fucking Pierre Riviere.
What is uncanny, for Borges, is not what is monstrous or grotesque, nor what is predestined or preternatural, rather it is the baffling fact- which, like Death, no one does not know or care to know- that the secret sealed, by the secret symmetry of all things, is a secret so banal that if, by Banach-Tarski, Unviocity's double is real, it is also double, and thus mimetic rivalry constitutes Satrean seriality not Girardian sacrifice. The Rabbi isn't fulminated by his uncanny Golem, nor the uncanny Golem by the all too common Goyim, though, in a Divine sense, they are all but doppelgangers.

Okay, no doubt, the Golem is a 'P-zombie'- but so what? Only wankers still get worked up about P-Zombies. On the other hand, questions like P=NP are of abiding interest in this context because the Golem and the Rabbi are complexity-wise highly distinguishable to us but not so to God who isn't computationally constrained.
But, surely, for Borges's librarian, all that matters is that his autobiography (which is what he gives us) though, no doubt, already contained in the Library as a 'Vindication' equally applicable to an infinity of men, yet be constructively unique to him as auteur? So what if for le Rêveur- Grothedieck's dream giving God- all operation is unary? It is at least binary for us and as that arity goes to infinity- by reason of our indiscernible, save by spatio-temporal location, difference from others equally subject to that operation- our self-wrought haecceity, or Kolmogorov complexity equally increases precisely because only mortals live in Space-time and that's where we've got God beat.
One consequence of having this justified true belief in our own irreducible complexity is that it permits us to have a rational preference without a corresponding feasible choice such that the Universe- that is the intersubjective information set- is shown to be incomplete. This is the only sort of ontological dysphoria which doesn't cash out as merely an adolescent or romantic sehnsucht which, by the contagion of the World's slow stain, inevitably turns into a corrupt aldermanic, or crackpot revolutionary, schwarmerei

I think Co-evolution- which even Babel can't wholly forbid its books and but breeders- even for Borges or bibliolatry, is always ontologically dysphoric in the good sense- after all, librarians do scribble their dessins d' enfants on the margins of the books they curate, thus practicing a Grothendieck Yoga, and, so long as they don't lift their pencil from the doodle, at every moment they overturn arithmetical invariants as they continue to sketch: thus- for it is an open question as to whether dessins can be distinguished by combinatorial or topological invariants- restoring haecceity to that samadhi which sublates Pascal's atrocious sphere and defeats the atomistic determinism of the Polis by raising up the barricades of that barzakh  which Zeno did not know-  which is interesting because, now for a purely Secular, albeit specular reason (because it is the mirror in our library which is doing all the heavy lifting) we are released from the Humanist duty to be at home in this twilight world maintained by our do-good-nik Golems or spectral Social Welfare Functionaries.
So yah booh, sucks to you Roberto Unger!.
I can always re-read Borges to spark valuable literary insights, like the one presented in that last and lapidary line, and, sure, looking at Borges's Spanish text can help me see something new. In this case 'superficies brunidas' served that purpose. But only because I've taken the trouble, over the last 30 years, to read a little of the philosophy of Math which contributed to shaping and inspiring Borges.

The guy who wrote this has not taken any similar pains.
That's why this essay is a waste of time.
Why, dear Editor, did you publish this?
Who wrote it?
Was it you?
If so, I apologize for any hurt feelings this post may cause you.
Still, do commit suicide to protest something or the other. Blame will properly be affixed on Narendra Modi
Mind it kindly.

Note- in an earlier version of this post I inadvertently suggested that Borges's native country suffered from high levels of machismo fueled domestic violence.
I apologize.
Argentina is in no way related to Tina Turner.
Who knew?


  1. Have you seen this-

    1. Many thanks! The great Velupillai- did he ever Visitingly Profess in India? I don't suppose so. Pity.
      He highlights 2 'non-consistencies'- the second of which seems fallacious
      1) the librarian's dad sees a book with capitals though capitals are not one of the 25 given symbols.
      So there's phenotypal plasticity in reception which is interesting because it means the librarians can collectively process way more information though with a trade off in terms of noise.
      This is reminiscent of one's uneasiness as to the reasonableness of the assumption of homogeneous reception of the underlying Kolmogorov 'universal description language'
      Might not co-evolution over time change how we look at this.
      Borges's melancholy librarian may well be evincing precisely the sort of fin de siecle pessimism which thought Knowledge had hit a wall and there was no way through it.
      2) that the number of possible books is finite. (I don't understand why Velupillai says this is a 'non-consistency'.
      Okay, the placing of a book also gives information so a finite number of books can give infinite information. (Is this what Velupillai means?) If the Librarians are correct, and no 2 books are exactly the same, then clearly each could be a hieroglyph and permit a very much bigger number of possible books and, okay, these books could be infinite in length and therefore there are infinite non-identical 'hieroglyph' books- but this kind of gets us back to the upper bound on the Information processing capacity of the Librarians.
      I guess, in infinite time, they will get to explore what that upper bound might be.
      Since there's no evolutionary pressure on them to develop better information processing, still just a dash of phentotypal plasticity would still ensure the experiment will be made.
      One way to kick start things would be the use of semiotically more interesting books as a currency and store of Value thus incentivizing trade, theft, Empires, Revolutions, Corrupt Democracies, Credentialized Rent seeking Higher Education such that men become walking books and Books, being Wealth, enslave men... yadda yadda yadda

      One question Borges's story seems to raise - I mean the stuff about whether the Library can have a catalogue shorter than itself- if we have a notion of Kolmogorov complexity, why don't we have a notion of negative complexity? Suppose some new thing comes along which allows us to do a lot of compressing of a whole bunch of other things- shouldn't we credit that saving to the new thing such that we say we need, overall, negative computing time to specify it?
      Mightn't this be the crucial aspect of co-evolution?