Sunday

The Task of the Translator


Around 1916, I decided to apply myself to the study of Oriental literatures. As I was reading with credulous enthusiasm the English translation of a certain Chinese philosopher, I came across this memorable passage: “It matters little to a convict under a death sentence if he has to walk on the edge of precipice; he has already given up on living.” To that phrase, the translator had appended an asterisk, and indicated that his interpretation was to be preferred to that of a rival sinoloist who had rendered the same passage thus: “The servants destroy the works of art so as not to have to pass judgment on their beauty or defects.” At that point, like Paolo and Francesca, I read no further. A mysterious skepticism had crept into my soul.

Jorge Luis Borges
“An English Version of the Oldest Songs in the World” (1938)

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