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10. Becoming the author: the translator as actor. How to relive the cultural and existential experiences that have generated works of literature. The paradox "Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote" and Borges's reflection on the theme


a) A network of agreements

Borges wrote a story that is a kind of apologue about the impossibility for a translator to recreate that special aura on which the fascination of a text depends: an expressive mood resulting from the private experiences, readings, and linguistic choices of an author; or all that mass of inscrutable derivations summed up in the misleading category of ‘poetic expression’.

But why misleading?

The poetic conception of an author is summarized and completely expressed in the work of art, and is therefore indefinable, or represents that accumulation of insights and private languages from which the writer, in writing, seeks to free himself; and is thus pointless.

In Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote, Borges presents a modern writer so in love with the hidalgo as to want to rewrite the story line by line. However, he does not want to copy Don Quixote, but rather to reach a psychological symbiosis with Cervantes allowing him to reconstruct the edifice of Don Quixote, after having ‘reviewed’ it line by line inside himself. Hence our writer goes to study in Salamanca, studies Aristotle mediated by the Arabs, becomes familiar with the "theory of moods" common to the anti-reformist physiology. He eats and sleeps like Cervantes, undergoes a naval battle, and even loses an arm. Lastly, he is imprisoned for debts. On being released, he writes Don Quixote. Borges compares the first page of Menard with that of Cervantes. They are identical. Parodying the know-it-all language of the textual critics, Borges distinguishes the two incipits, pointing out what in his opinion are the clear differences.

The story deserves a whole discourse on literary translation. In fact, it is a narrative metadiscourse on the psychological and historical aporiae present in every transition from a source text to a target text.

Then what is lacking in Menard’s Quixote?

The reception of the text, its re-elaboration in the collective unconscious, the ability it developed over the years to become an archetype of the romantic Wanderer, Gogol’s mugiko, Steinbeck’s slave-driver country-man, etc..