The Other Tiger | Jorge Luis Borges #poetrymonth

Photo by ray rui on Unsplash

Have you ever felt haunted by an author?

I had cause to look inside a copy of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours the other day and the very first thing to jump out at me were the epigraphs. The first one was a quote from a Jorge Luis Borges poem called The Other Tiger first published in 1960 in El Hacedor | Dreamtigers.

We’ll hunt for a third tiger now, but like the others this one too will be a form of what I dream, a structure of words, and not the flesh and bone tiger that beyond all myths paces the earth. I know these things quite well, yet nonetheless some force keeps driving me in this vague, unreasonable, and ancient quest, and I go on pursuing through the hours another tiger, the beast not found in verse.

uncredited translation

I hadn’t realised that Borges wrote poetry; so far I have only encountered his short stories. To discover that he was also a poet, during Poetry Month, seemed fated, or meant to be in a Borgesian kind of way.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find out if Cunningham spoke Spanish and had therefore translated the final stanza in Borges poem himself, but to no avail. Eventually, I discovered that Norman Thomas di Giovanni translated the above, although he wrote it out in verse form (like Borges). I can only assume it was Cunningham who chose to structure the epigraph as prose.

A little more digging revealed another two translators of this poem: Harold Morland and Alastair Reid. I think I’m a fan of the Reid version below, and will certainly seek out his other Borges’ translations in future.

I like Reid’s use of ‘flesh and bone’ and ‘perverse’ – they feel more powerful, intimate and emotive than ‘vertebrate’ and ‘senseless’. The way he repeats ‘the other tiger’ towards the end strengthens the poem as well and provides a pleasing rhythm.

We shall seek a third tiger. This
Will be like those others a shape
Of my dreaming, a system of words
A man makes and not the vertebrate tiger
That, beyond the mythologies,
Is treading the earth. I know well enough
That something lays on me this quest
Undefined, senseless and ancient, and I go on
Seeking through the afternoon time
The other tiger, that which is not in verse.

Harold Morland

Let us look for a third tiger. This one
will be a form in my dream like all the others,
a system, an arrangement of human language,
and not the flesh-and-bone tiger
that, out of reach of all mythologies, paces the earth. I know all this; yet something
drives me to this ancient, perverse adventure,
foolish and vague, yet still I keep on looking
throughout the evening for the other tiger,
the other tiger, the one not in this poem.

 Alastair Reid

Norman Thomas di Giovanni (3 October 1933 – 16 February 2017) was an American translator. He first met Borges in 1967 when he proposed they work on a collection of his poetry, using twelve translator/poets. Many of the poems appeared in The New Yorker before being published in 1972 as Selected Poems, 1923-1967 with the Spanish and English versions on facing pages. If I could read Spanish, this would be an incredible way to explore Borges’ poems.

Borges then invited di Giovanni to translate ten of his books into English and went on to share royalties for these editions equally with him. After Borges death, di Giovanni’s translations were allowed to go out of print. Andrew Hurley was then commissioned to published new translations. I do not know what royalty arrangements were made with him!

Harold Morland (1908 – 1999) was a British poet and translator known for his translations of Jorge Luis Borges’s poetry. 

Alastair Reid (22 March 1926 – 21 September 2014) was a Scottish poet who translated the work of Borges and Pablo Neruda.

Reid was fond of recalling Neruda’s instruction: “Don’t just translate my poems. I want you to improve them.” The duty of the translator, he felt, was to “make the thrill of the original come across”.

Obituary | The Guardian | 27 Sept 2014

Finally, the 3rd of August 1959.

Borges included this date in the second stanza of his poem. Borges was born in August on the 24th of the month, so it’s not a birthday reference. Perhaps it was simply the date he wrote this poem? Whatever his motivation, it should be obvious what is mine.

And that today, this August third, nineteen
Fifty-nine, throws its shadow on the grass

Norman Thomas di Giovanni
And today, the third of August, ’59,
Stretches on the grass a deliberate

Harold Morland
and today, 1959, the third of August,
a slow shadow spreads across the prairie,

Alastair Reid

Have you ever felt haunted by an author? I wonder where Borges will pop up next?

5 thoughts on “The Other Tiger | Jorge Luis Borges #poetrymonth

  1. I can’t say that I’ve been haunted by an author in the way that you describe.
    But I am struck by the difference in tone between ‘We shall seek’ and ‘Let us look’. I think I prefer the Morland, though not the ‘vertebrate’!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, ‘hunt’, ‘seek’ and ‘look’ are very different ways to describe the search for a tiger. I was also struck by the different times of day used ‘hours’ ‘afternoon’ or ‘evening’.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Well, what a lovely set of coincidences! I’ve just posted a review of Brazilian author Verissimo’s witty Borges and the Eternal Orang-Utans (2000) which has Borges as a ‘collaborator’ on the text; it turned out to be a signal for me to think about returning to Borges’s own work in those early translations, including some of his poems which – to my shame – I’d tended to skim or even skip when I first read Labyrinths, Fictions and The Aleph.

    Another coincidence: my birthday’s the same day as Borges’s, an extra excuse to be fond of his work. Plus I had hoped to reread a Woolf novel this year, Orlando, though had considered Mrs D after I picked up a copy of … The Hours! I think the Fates are trying to tell me something… An opportune post, thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has these serendipitous times with authors! Curiously, Virginia Woolf is another one for me, which is partly why I was dipping into The Hours.

      I’ll check out your review in the weekend.

      Liked by 2 people

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