The Translator who Couldn´t Translate Tragedy and Comedy

Francisco Zaragoza Zaldívar fev 16 2023

By Francisco Zaragoza Zaldívar

In the short story Averroes’s Search, Jorge Luis Borges addresses a common translation problem: how to find a suitable cultural equivalent in the target language for a specific word in the source language.

Jorge Luis Borges, born in Argentina: one of the greatest writers in the Spanish language

In Borges’s story, Averroes, a 12th century Arabian philosopher born in Spain, famous for translating the Greeks into Arabic, is translating Aristotle’s Poetics.

Statue of Averroes in Cordoba, Spain

His work is interrupted by a problem: he couldn´t understand the words tragedy and comedy, because theater did not exist in the Islamic world at that time. The philosopher consults reference works, telling himself that “what we are looking for is usually very close to us”, but is unable to find a satisfactory answer.

At that moment, he hears a kind of melody and looks out of the balcony. Below, three children speaking the incipient Spanish dialect of the Iberian Peninsula in the 12th century are pretending to call Muslims to prayer. One of the children pretends to be the minaret. Another, standing on the first boy’s shoulders, pretends to be the muezzin calling the faithful. The third boy, who is kneeling, pretends to be the people who are praying.

What Averroes is watching is acting, mimesis, a spontaneous manifestation of theater, that is, the object to which the words he is trying to understand allude. However, although the answer to his problem is right in front of him (he already said to himself — note the irony — that what we are looking for is usually very close to us), Averroes does not realize this.

A little later, Averroes has another opportunity to get a glimpse of the meaning of tragedy and comedy; in other words, to understand drama. A friend who has come back from a journey recounts his experience in a theater, a place where people “suffered imprisonment yet nobody could see the prison; rode horses that could not be seen; fought, but with swords made of rods; and died only to stand up again.”

Medieval theater: European popular culture during Averroes’s time. According to Borges, it did not exist in the Muslim world.

Although his friend is describing it, Averroes again fails to understand the phenomenon of the theater, tied as he is to his own world.

Tragedy and Comedy: words Averroes could not translate in Borges´s short story, for he didn’t understand what theater is.

The fact is that translating is much more than merely changing from one code to another, much more than substituting words in one language for words in another. Translating is, above all else, understanding.

What about us? Are we really so tied to our own values that we find it impossible to communicate with a different culture? Are we really so unable to understand others? Is our cultural environment a kind of fence, an enclosure?

In his story, Borges answers yes to these questions. He interrupts his tale abruptly and tells us that Averroes’s search, that is, an Arab’s efforts to understand a Greek from whom he was separated by fourteen centuries (Aristotle), are as futile as Borges’s own attempts to understand Averroes.

Ironically, as far as the translation of Borges’s writings is concerned, everything seems to suggest that cultural barriers are not insurmountable for translators. After all, 75 years after the publishing of Averroes’s Search, Borges is no less than the fifth-most translated writer of the Spanish language, just behind Miguel de Cervantes.

Borges in China


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