High-Quality Translation Philosophy with Jorge Luis Borges

Published on November 08, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

Jorge Luis Borges
24 August 1899 – 14 June 1986

“The original is unfaithful to the translation.”
            - Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges is an Argentinian writer, poet, and translator. A key figure in Spanish language and literature. Borges wrote original works of fiction, poetry, and essays. All of these achievements seem to pale in comparison to his secretive contributions to the translation community. He never worked for a translation agency, but consistently translated independently and as a hobby throughout his life. With a translation philosophy similar to Jacques Derrida, another showcase among our famous translators, Borges argues that high-quality translation can enrich a source text, even improve it. High-quality, professional translation and 
localization provides a text, whether it be business, literary, or legal, with nuanced meaning, connotation and association. Borges enjoyed leafing through different translations of the same text, often as a literary exercise, maintaining that any changes in linguistic code were encouraged in his opinion, and at times necessary.

  • With an English paternal grandmother, young Jorge grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a Spanish and English bilingual household. Borges was often reported saying; “the household was so bilingual that [I] was not even aware that English and Spanish were separate languages until later in [my] childhood.”  Later in his life, Borges would move out of his family home to Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied French and German.

  • Borges’s translation philosophy revolves around the belief that the work itself is “ultimately more important than its creator”. Rather than gift his readers a literal translation, Borges applied his own method:

    • He would eliminate elements of the source text that was redundant, unnecessary, or inconsistent with the whole.

    • Remove “textual distractions”, adding nuance, changing the title, etc.

    • He would even rewrite an entire text in the shadow of another, i.e. when he translated Angelus Silesius through a post-Nietzsche lens.

    • Sometimes Borges would even sporadically include a translation from one text in his own work.

  • As a young adult, Borges would develop a career as a translator focusing on English, French, and German into Spanish. He later expanded to include Old English and Old Norse in his language pairs, including the works of William Faulkner, André Gide, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Henri Michaux, Jack London, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf.

Jorge Luis Borges was a champion of Latin American literature, translation philosophy, and along with his friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a pioneer of magical realism. He is responsible for some of the most beautiful writings known to contemporary literature. Thanks to his dynamic interest in professional translation, Borges gives us yet another example to follow.

For a comprehensive reading list of Borges best-sellers, click here.

Jorge Luis Borges in numbers:

When Jorges Luis Borges was just 9 years old, he translated The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde from English into Spanish. Borges’ first publication in his life was a translation, and no doubt had an incredible effect on his original work as well as ignited a passion for translation that would last throughout his lifetime.


The translation theories that Borges developed above came about through a series of three essays:  “Las dos maneras de traducir” (1926), “Las versions homéricas”(1932), and “Los traductores de Las mil y una noches” (1935). The main idea offered in these essays to “challenge the idea that original texts are superior to translations and reject the concept of a ‘definitive text.” Meaning, Borges’ view is that alternate and even contradictory translations of the same source text can be equally fascinating.


The year that the University of Virginia Library built a great collection on Borges. The U.Va. Library holds manuscripts, writings by and about Borges in multiple languages, and has over 1,200 entries.


The age when Jorges Luis Borges became completely blind. He continued to write, however, and some scholars believe that his blindness helped him create some of the innovative literary symbols through his magical realist imagination.



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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.

Citaitons: CulturesConnection, TheGuardian, UniversityOfVirginia, UniversityOfLeon, TrinityCollege, Transpanish, Britannica, TheParisReview