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Borges' Mother and Saroyan

In the 1978 edition of “The Aleph and Other Stories,” written by Jorge Luis Borges, edited and translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, there’s a throwaway line in the final section titled “An Autobiographical Essay”1:

My mother has always had a hospitable mind. From the time she learned English, through my father, she has done most of her reading in that language. After my father’s death, finding that she was unable to keep her mind on the printed page, she tried her hand at translating William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy in order to compel herself to concentrate. The translation found its way into print, and she was honored for this by a society of Buenos Aires Armenians.

This book was given to me by a friend as a birthday gift, and since her inscription is dated, I know exactly that for over twelve years this thought has haunted me from time to time: Borges’ mother translated Saroyan. I’ve read several biographies on the writer and poured over his archives at Stanford, and no one has ever mentioned the possible effect his prose had on Borges. Is it not a delight to think that the Argentine could’ve been influenced by the Armenian?

From time to time, I’ve done some research on the relationship Borges and his mother, Leonor Acevedo Suárez, had with Saroyan, although truthfully it hasn’t been in earnest. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the relationship more and more, and began to search for information. There don’t seem to be any resources in English for the triangle between Saroyan and Suárez and Borges. How Suárez even came across the desire to translate this novel is a mystery to me. I can’t find an Argentinean publication date for La comedia humana; the oldest one I can find online is from 1965, published by Plaza & Janés, which is based out of Barcelona. Borges’ father died in 1938 and The Human Comedy came out in 1943, so this edition seems rather late, if it does happen to be Suárez’s translation.

Instead, I did manage to find more information from Borges himself on the translation undertaken by his mother. Borges en diálogo, published in 1985, is a set of radio interviews between Borges and the writer Osvaldo Ferrari. It’s pretty much just Ferrari tossing a topic up into the air like a tennis ball and allowing Borges to strike against it for a few minutes. Incredibly, the English translation for this conversation only came out in 2015, 30 years later; if I had been just a little more motivated, perhaps I could have offered the first translation of the additional information on Borges’ mother and Saroyan. Unable to find any copies of the English text online, though, here’s at least my rendition of the transcript, deposited into the eddies of the Internet for someone else to come across and make use of:

Now, my mother understood very little English; when my father died in 1938, she wasn’t even able to read. She would read a page and then forget it, as if she had been reading a blank page. Then, she set upon herself a task that forced her to pay attention, and that was to translate. She translated a book by William Saroyan called The Human Comedy (La comedia humana). She showed it to my brother-in-law, Guillermo de Torre, and he published it. On another occasion, the Armenians put together a small party for my mother at the Argentinian Society of Writers, on calle México—that old run-down house close to the National Library. Well, I remember I went with her, and it was a great surprise to see her stand up and give a little speech, for about ten minutes. I believe that it was the first time in her life that she spoke, let’s say, in public. Fine, it wasn’t a large audience, just a group of men whose last names ended in “ian,” without a doubt all residents of Retiro, the neighborhood I live in, an essentially Armenian neighborhood. In any case, there are more Armenians here than any other peoples. And very close by, there’s an Arabic neighborhood. But unfortunately, these neighborhoods aren’t preserved, or they don’t have their own proper architecture. One has to pay attention to the names, and here there are certainly many Toppolians, Mamulians, Saroians.

En diálogo, 1 En diálogo, 2

  1. This essay was originally published by The New Yorker, September 19, 1970 pg. 40