:: Article

The Fetish Eye

By Richard Marshall.


Susan Medina and Derek Ogbourne’s Leather Bound Stories.

Is mistranslation possible? Translation requires intent to achieve fidelity to an original. If a translator intends to mistranslate in order to achieve fidelity to an original, albeit by other means, then it seems to fulfill the requirement of translation. Mistranslation is therefore translation by other means. If it doesn’t attempt to achieve fidelity then it doesn’t seem to even intend to be a translation. It therefore is no mistranslation. A failed translation may intend to achieve fidelity but by failing is not a kind of translation but an absence of translation. It is comparable to failures in other objects where, for example, I say a failed poem is not a bad poem but no poem at all. A failed poem is, at best, merely verse.

Medina and Ogbourne’s project is considered in the light of this peculiar ontology. So the mysteriousness of Medina and Ogbourne’s collaboration twitches a half-life likeness, inheriting its form from the uncanny dolls of Bellmer. It operates between the unacceptable options open for the possibility of the very existence of mistranslation. Rilke’s dolls fetishised lifelessness as death to prove a distinction: ‘We pulled our dolls along behind the bars of our crib, dragged them into the heavy folds of illness. They appeared in dreams and were tied up in the disasters of feverish nights. They did not make any effort of their own; they were lying at the edge of childhood sleep, maybe filled with rudimentary thoughts of falling off, and they let themselves be dreamed. Just as they were accustomed to be lived tirelessly through someone else’s power during the day’. This is the atmosphere of Portishead’s wooden-hearted doll music ‘Nobody loves me’ and ‘Only You’ gurning as a soundtrack to Carlos Nine’s ‘Coloured Relief 2‘ picture reinterpreted by American artist Anna Gaskell, animated by Svankmajer. Its popular contemporary form is found in the monstrous ruins of dead girls in Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Dark Water. Its trash form are the lifeless repeating gestures of commonplace porn and strip-show performances.

Medina/Ogbourne can also be fused with Oshii Mamoru, creator of the animation classic Ghost in the Shell 2, who writes:’There are no human beings in Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. The characters are all human-shaped dolls’. Here the German unheimlich is mistranslated to bukimina in Japanese and to uncanny in English. The obsession is for ningyo, which means ‘human shaped figure’. Dolls, puppets, automata, androids and cyborgs are ningyo. Hartmann Schedel made a woodcut of a ningyo with his ‘Blemmyae’ in Liber chronicarum (Die Schedelsche Weltchronik), Das Buch der Croniken und Geschiten von Hartmann Schedel in 1493. The form is human except that there is no head and the face is in the chest. The ability of these figures to speak not only to the horrific, but also the sublime, is captured in the last lines of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty character. The powerful existential android in the Ridley Scott Bladerunner film contemplates his own death and as such seems to transcend his machine limits; ‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.’


Medina opens chapter one of her novel Philosophical Toys, ‘The sex-appeal of the inorganic’, with the lines; ‘Nina, my name is Nina, the same as my mother. It comes from the Italian, from ‘Antonina’, but in Catalan ‘nina’ means ‘doll’. But it is not only my name. I talk of small things because they have been a recurrent cipher at the centre of my life. Also, those years, the years I am writing about, toys had become ubiquitous, my friends kept giving me small toys as presents, kitsch gadgets, playful objects, I gave them similar trinkets and then I felt, I started to sense, that these trashy toys were relevant players in the hypnotic ritual of post-industrial life.’ It reminds me of Hans Bellmer writing in ‘Memories of the Doll Theme’ where he links the construction of the doll with sadistic fantasies of assaults on the body and the powers of ‘pulp writers, magicians and confectioners’.

It also is linked in Bellmer with a belief in the supernatural powers of prayer, mistranslated here as a similar kind of hypnotic ritual of post-industrial life. Bellmer’s pilgrimage to Colmar to the altarpiece for the contemplation of diseased patients at the Hospital Order of St Anthony in the company of his sick wife was not a matter of aesthetics but resistance to Nazi oppression using techniques of better magic and a mystic uncanny that lay out of reach of political fascists.

Medina’s parents fetishised the shoe. Freud explains the general phenomenon in his 1927 essay on the subject. He thinks the foot or shoe ‘owes its attraction as a fetish… to the circumstances that the inquisitive boy used to peer up the woman’s legs towards her genitals …’ and ‘… the underlinen so often adapted as a fetish reproduces the scene of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic’. Bellmer’s 1934 Die Puppe ‘… presents the doll’s detached legs, nestled in a white eyelet undergarment from which a rose emerges. Beneath the flower, as if in a defensive response to what it symbolizes (the female genitals), Bellmer has positioned a woman’s high-heel shoe, with the rigid heel protruding outward toward the viewer’ according to Sue Taylor. Taylor sees the Bellmer doll as instantiating the Freudian thesis.

Medina takes to this scene in the mode of Angela Carter and all those fantastic girls dallying in their bloody chambers. She finds her pleasures in the fascination of ‘… traumas, pathologies, compulsions, the blurring of boundaries, negative pleasures. We explored these in our lives, in our work. Repetition, desire, destruction, that’s what we were into, disagreeable objects, the beauty of the abject, transmuting shit into gold.’ The trim metaphysical gestures and summarised plots contained in Medina’s work re-render the marvelousness of fairy stories. It is an act of rehabilitation of wonder from childhood, a girl’s eye view that takes pleasure and power from these objects and memories from the past. The luminescent Marina Warner would feel most at home here.

The film Leather Bound Stories mistranslates this earlier novel of hers. Her ouevre in turn mistranslates that of Borges. It is Borges’s notion of mistranslation at work throughout, which involves the strangeness of mirroring, dopplegängers, zombies and replicants. In the essay ‘About William Beckford’s Vathek’, Borges says; ‘the original is unfaithful to the translation’. The double is prototypically uncanny, as in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, as in Gogol and in Poe. Borges’s Ficciones place the uncanniness of mistranslation at the heart of his aesthetic discoveries. So Medina displaces Borges as Borges once displaced Joyce.

She errs to conjoin with Borges’s lineage, one that strays and meanders through mistranslations of Argentine history identified by Sergio Waisman in ‘Jorge Luis Borges’s Partial Argentine Ulysses; A Foundational (Mis-) Translation’ as ‘other texts and declarations by the Literary Salon of 1837; the avant-garde projects of journals like Proa and Martín Fierro’s Sur and Victoria Ocampo’s cultural importation machine; the moment of the translation of Ferdydurke by Gombrowicz in Buenos Aires (from Polish through French into an Argentine Spanish with multiple collaborators in 1947); perhaps the whole of Borges’s œuvre, as well as much of Julio Cortázar’s and Manuel Puig’s; and, if we jump to contemporary fiction, the machine at the center of Ricardo Piglia’s 1992 novel The Absent City, or the importance of translation in issues of identity and sexuality in Sylvia Molloy’s latest novel, El común olvido (2002).’

The childhood memory becomes a version of the infinite library, a defence of plagiarism, a recognition of her own precursors and the reflexive jewel of an intricate life. She displays a panoptican view that fetishises the fetish of parents. She conjoins with another riddling fetishist, Buñuel, playing with ‘… the music box from The Criminal life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, the wedding dress in Viridiana, the female heads of hair nailed to a cross in L’Age d’or’ and the shoe fetishist in Diary of a Chambermaid. ‘Playing’ suggests the make-believe element of the work but also signals its slightly suggestive threat, where playing becomes toying. Sinister inequalities of power also swirl into the mix, in the form of the corrosive sexuality of the too young for the too old.

The link between reading and erotic fetish is made explicit when she writes in her essay ‘Buñuel’s Philosophical Toys’ about Montiel; ‘The old man in the film, old Montiel, “old boots and shoes” is the nickname his neighbour gives him, is, according to his daughter, a man of refinement. He calls all his chambermaids “Marie”, regardless of their names, as if all of them were interchangeable, all the same. He asks the chambermaid to read a passage from Against Nature by Huysmans, a bit where the whole of society is condemned. The chambermaid reads. He enjoys her voice. She reads beautifully. He enjoys that. The beauty of a voice, as if her voice was detached from her body. He then makes her try a pair of old boots, fondles them, fondles her leg, makes her walk.’ This is further elaborated to link the sexual fetish of shoes to reading on through finally to death where ‘he dies hugging the little boots’.

Fetish-death as separation is discussed as the theme of The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz of 1955 which features a ‘memory where death, the erotic, separation and magical omnipotence are inextricably linked’. The film features Lavinia and her sister, ‘her inanimate double, a mannequin … an exquisite corpse in the surrealist game’. Medina rereads the foot fetish from her own female perspective, so the game becomes the ‘denial of death, the ritual of sense, the overwhelming importance of female masquerade, the fetish as intimately related to class distinction through the power of culture to transcend natural reality’.

Medina and Ogbourne’s film suspends objects before us that work as stories in themselves. In this, we are confronted with a new species of fetish. A meta-fetish is a fetish of a fetish. The sophisticated narrative that spookily winds together the images duplicates the object’s stories. What is suggested is a perfect match. The strangeness of the film becomes an effect of this indiscernibility of object and narration. The voice acts like a shadow of the objects, a strange one that is an exact fit, which covers the objects in a perfect match. The voice makes the objects disappear. The meta-fetish cancels the original fetish. And we recall, a shadow is an absence caused by an object blocking the light source.

Medina parks her shadow-narrative as a means of making the objects disappear. There is no room for the objects. Yet the objects take up the whole space. The perversity of the film is that in obliterating sight of the objects we wonder what space is left for the voice. If the match is exact then not only the objects become squeezed out of view. There is no room either for the voice. Just as a shadow cannot exist within a solid object, nor can the narrative survive within its objects. This reminds us of Beckett’s struggle with minimal visibles, the attempt to write through to the other side of language by reducing objects to the minimum requirement for representation, as if maybe from three objects we can subtract to two, to one and then unproblematically to zero. Beckett’s failure to reach zero points to a constraint lurking in the background. Perhaps the mathematical operation ‘subtract one’ finds its limit of application as it approaches the metaphysics of an empty universe.

Is the film what is left after the occlusion of both narrative and object? Are we watching and listening to the film as an abstraction of a film, just as someone might stare at the place where the equator is, a logical limit between hemispheres that can only be an abstraction. Medina is an expert in the art of such impossible limits. She knows it is impossible to see an abstraction, for what would cause the eye to see? ‘Abstracts,’ as the philosopher Roy Sorenson reminds us, ‘ cannot sustain the causal relations needed for visibility’.

The narrative takes up all the space of the fetishised objects in the film. There is only room for an abstract layer shimmering weirdly between the two. That can’t be what we are seeing. We ask what is it, this strangely compelling film? It strikes us as being similar to an abstract. But it is no covering that reveals what lies beneath. It is abstract and so there is no functional dependence on whatever lies beneath.

There is a temptation to think that perhaps we ‘fill in’ for what is being hidden, but this would mean that what we see is caused by what would have caused us to see the stories or the objects. But fifteen years ago the philosopher McLaughlin rightly pointed out that ‘we do not actually see an object by virtue of the fact that it would cause us to have the same type of experience’.

Medina is fascinated by memory. Perhaps then the film is an act of memory. What we see is what we think lies hidden in its occluded objects and narratives, which would suggest that we are drawing on memory of having seen the objects once, free of the narrative. But someone without memories of the objects would still see the film. So seeing the film can’t be so reliant on these memories. Many who have seen the trailer for the film will not necessarily have read Medina’s Borgean novel on which the film is based, and yet they see it just as they see other films.

What is hidden in the objects, the narrative and the film? Even if hidden, we are tempted to say we know what lies inside the film, but we just can’t see it. The idea of something being contained inside an object that exactly resembles what lies within it reminds us of a Russian Doll scenario. But the abstract surface means that, unlike a Russian Doll, there is nothing on the outside for us to see. The analogy breaks down.

Perhaps the film works like an after-image caused by a camera flash. Austen Clarke writes about how such flashes disable the eye, where photons bleach out photopigments and cause a temporary blindness. Similarly, where the optic nerve connects to the retina there is perpetual blindness. The reason we don’t see a perpetual blindspot is that the brain actively fills it in on the basis of its surroundings. Is the film then a kind of blindness that is filled in by the activity of our automatic gestalt imagination, the very mechanism that allows us to see any series of still images as a movie? There seems too much similarity between seeing an ordinary film and seeing this one. One feature that makes the active filling-in blindspot theory seem suspect is that the film is public. Our blindspots are subjective, private, interior events.


Ogbourne works to create doubt about this. He bombards us with data that destabilizes our beliefs about what is public and what is private. He presents us with a museum of optography, images held in the retina at the moment of death. The project is both a conjurer’s trick and investigation, a unanimous ghost story and Gestalt testing room. A whole encyclopedia and exhibition of this phenomenon creates doubt even though we don’t believe our own eyes when looking at them. It is possible to stop someone knowing by presenting them with things they believe are false. Disbelief can erase knowledge if knowledge isn’t analysed in terms of belief. In a flood of falsehood the knower is inclined to start doubting the facts she once knew. Confidence eroded, she falls back into a suspended state of true belief that isn’t knowledge any more.

Ogbourne’s hoax plays a serious game and dismantles the easy confidence of his targeted scientific discourse. The unease his work creates embarrasses science. He emphasises the surrealist imagination that placed the eye at its sacrilegious, scandalous heart. He disturbs lineages by showing how the photographic investigations of pioneers like Muybridge with his running horses and wrestling nudes collude with those of artists such as Max Ernst and Bataille. He works to manage a haunted space; 145 retinal drawings, historical drawings of eye diseases, the taped voice of German optographist Alexandridis discussing what optograms are with Salvador Dali, the weird documentary Medina describes as a surrealist ‘quest to uncover the truth and constant fascination behind the myth of optography, beginning with the seventeenth century, when a Jesuit astronomer called Christopher Schiener observed an image laid bare on the retina of a frog. It then travels to the town of Heidelberg (a recurrent topos for optography) where Wilhelm Kühne made the first and most successful visually identifiable optograms recorded as drawings in the late 1870s and also obtained the only known human optogram from a condemned young man who had killed his two children, Edhard Reif. We learn that the arbitrary shape that looms large at the entrance of the Museum of Optography is presumably the last thing Edhard Reif saw as he was beheaded. In the documentary, this human optogram spins, pulsates and flashes on the screen creating afterimages and reminding us that the last thing we might see could be a meaningless abstraction that leaves us in suspense for eternity. An interview with Dr. Alexandridis, who made a series of optograms in 1975 for the German police, tells us about the process of obtaining retinal images. The documentary ends with a life-affirming sequence, as a couple of rabbits hop around a landscape covered in snow’. If Ogbourne’s film works on Medina, here Medina reverses the pattern. Neither tames the other so the collaboration is fertile in both directions, a marriage of merging weirds.

Unlike Borges, Joyce and Milton, the three blind giants of literature, there is nothing wrong with our eyes. The mystery of the Ogbourne/Medina film survives knowing how it has been constructed. But this leads to a further suspicion. Perhaps then the whole mystery is bogus, another of Ogbourne’s tricks. The solution to the mystery is that there is no mystery. There is no ghost. But the attempt to understand the mysteriousness can’t be dissolved through identifying some self-referencing absence. This is genuine ghost terrain, more Susan Hill’s ‘Woman in Black’ than Wilkie Collins’s ‘Woman in White’.

By denying that there is any space between the objects in the film and the narrative, we have described the edge in between as being an abstract. But perhaps the analogy with shadows requires that the penumbra of shadows be factored into the described scenario. A penumbra of a shadow is light pollution at the edge of a shadow. A shadow is strictly the exclusion of all light, the umbra, but perhaps we need an expansionist reading of shadow to include the penumbra within the scope of what we mean by shadow.

But there is no room for anything analogous to a penumbra. The objects and the narrative are an exact match. The meta-fetish is perfect. Medina/Ogbourne have suspended us between unacceptable alternatives. The strangeness is the beauty of the calibration. And there is unutterable strangeness in both her novel and in the film.

The strangeness is unappreciated if wrong inferences are drawn. There are parallels when discussing hearing silence or seeing darkness. When Fred Dretske says that people can ‘non-epistemically’ hear silence or see darkness he is claiming that we can believe without believing what is being perceived. But when we hear silence or see darkness we don’t rely on reflective awareness on silence or darkness. Roy Sorensen points out that turning off a radio can be enough to wake us from a dreamless sleep and this requires no reflective awareness. We unreflectively hear silence.

Someone accepting Dretske’s argument would miss the eeriness of the Medina/Ogbourne film. The film dedicates itself to energies that exist beyond physical attributes. Wittgenstein pointed out that we don’t need eyes or ears to see or hear. We can introspect our sensations. In sleep we may detect absence of sensation. Austen Clarke wrote his ‘Theory of Sentience’ to point out that when we no longer perceive we introspect to detect absence. For how else could absence of perception be detected if a person is senseless?

Medina’s film might report experience without sensation. This would allow the possibility of knowing what death is like. Is the film Parmenidean, working its weird beauty as a way of understanding sleep as a brother of death? ‘For according as the hot or the cold predominates, the understanding varies, that being better and purer which derives from the hot . . . . But that he [Parmenides] also attributes sensation to the opposite element in its own right is clear from his saying that a dead man will not perceive light and heat and sound because of the loss of fire, but that he will perceive cold and silence and the other opposites. And in general, all being has some share of thought.’ (Theophrastus De Sensu 3-4, Robinson 1968, 124)

But this is not right. The dead experience nothing. And perception of darkness, silence, cold and so forth are perceptions of absence, not perceptions of what is. As Sorensen makes clear, ‘absences are not at the low end of a hierarchy of being’. But silence is a most negative sensation. Nothing is sensed and no sensation represents the absence, contrasting it with pitch blackness where, although nothing is sensed there is a sensation of the absence taking the form of a colour, black.


Medina’s objects are quintessences of brevity — to the point of hovering between unacceptable options — and the film’s condensing and squeezing gives the Borgean idea of narrative another daring twist. Borges defined his writing as a project working out a relationship to Joyce’s Ulysses. In the preface to his first collection of short stories ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ he writes, ‘It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them’.

Borges wrote in a press article of 1941 about a short story not quite completed when he published that first collection. This story, ‘Funes, His memory’, is about a man whose mind is incapable of forgetting things and so is stuffed full of irrelevant details such as the shape of clouds at sunrise on April 30, 1882. Borges concludes that Funes is a monster and that “a consecutive straightforward reading of the four hundred thousand words of Ulysses would require similar monsters”. In 1925 Borges was the first South American to translate Ulysses. He only did the last page. He always said that he never actually read Ulysses. His fictions about imaginary novels that contained all stories in them are characterised by Andres Perez Simon as a brilliant process that organised a mythical translation to a polemical defence of censorship. Andres Perez Simon suggests it all wound out of Borges’s reflections on Ulysses. The great novel of the plenum, the novel of everything, including all stories and the whole universe, but contained in a single day, a single city, is the Aleph of literature that transfixed and galvanized Borges’s writing.

Borges’s fiction of the ‘Aleph’ is an account of an object that like the Joycean novel offers perception of the plenum, as well as expanding and reforming English. The translator of Joyce is charged with a similar duty by Borges. So we read Borges commenting on a particular translation and translator’s efforts; ‘The aim of this note is not to accuse Mr. Salas Subirat of incapacity…but to denounce the incapacity, for certain ends, of all Neo-Latin languages, and especially, of Spanish. Joyce expands and reforms the English language; his translator has the duty of taking similar licences’. Beatriz Sarlo thought, in 1999, that ‘Borges’s translation of the last pages of Molly Bloom’s monologue is, without doubt, the best translation of Joyce ever achieved in Spanish’. Borges delighted in the ‘delicate music’ of Ulysses, comparing it as being in places equal to Shakespeare and Sir Thomas Browne.

Medina takes notice of this delicacy and the requirement to temper her energies in accordance with Borgean stylistic felicity. The film’s phantasmagoria is intense with light impossibility. It works as an abbreviated note presenting a picture that includes all and every picture that doesn’t picture itself. In this lies the dark madness of ‘The Aleph’ and Ulysses where it is claimed everything can be depicted. There never can be a picture that depicts all and only those pictures that don’t depict themselves. Ulysses and ‘The Aleph’ are self-contradictory objects.

Unless a dialetheistician, and therefore Australian, we don’t think contradictions can exist. Unless we are paraconsistent logicians (again making us more than likely Australian) we also think they are false. Borges’s intriguing paradoxical fictions inseminate this idea by asking us to believe in the Aleph. David Hume thought it impossible to believe in the possibility of a mountain without a valley. He thought the difficulty of a completely different nature to believing in unicorns. Borges imagines the Coin of Odin as a coin with only one side to challenge Hume.

The Australian dialetheist and paraconsistent philosopher Graham Priest believes in the existence of contradictions and wrote a story called ‘Sylvan’s Box’ about an empty box with something in it. He intends this to be read as a straight contradiction. Like Borges he writes convincingly of the possibility of characters believing in such an inconsistent object. The fact that we can believe in characters believing an inconsistent object existing is enough to show that we can believe in inconsistencies.

Medina likens this to a kind of hallucinating. Sorensen thinks it is a commonplace because he thinks it is a natural feature of thinking. He thinks everybody believes contradictory beliefs. Haskell Fain and A.Phillips Griffiths are gullibilists who think ‘There is no proposition so transparent in its falsehood that all of mankind could see through it. There is no proposition so compactly true that no one could miss it. The most trivial of tautologies can be believed false; the most blatant of contradictions can be believed true. Even the most venerable proposition ‘I exist’ — which, Descartes claimed is ‘necessarily true each time I pronounce it, or that I mentally conceive it — can be falsely believed to be false. For what is to prevent some lunatic from believing that he does not exist’.

The strange wonder of the work infiltrates classical logic but for it to maintain its strangeness it mustn’t replace it. The effect requires the tension. There is a history to classical logic. It was invented in the early twentieth century and tends to be thought of as the only game in town. It is therefore what deviant logics tend to oppose. As pointed out, deviant logic has found fertile ground in Australia, being labeled humorously ‘wallaby logic’. Mainland Europe and Critical Theory departments everywhere have variants of Hegelianism and Marxism as their favoured brand of deviation. Even in the UK Michael Dummett has been a giant figure arguing for deviance in terms of Intuitionism. In the USA the pervasive influence of Quine is cited as a reason for the difficulty of getting deviant logic off the ground there. What is the big issue? Classic logic is committed to contradictions implying that everything follows. A contradiction is an explosion into triviality.

The paraconsistent logician denies the conclusion. She thinks that it is possible to have a proposition that is both true and false. A dialetheist is an extreme paraconsistent logician and thinks that true contradictions exist. They have examples to suggest why they are right. They claim that Calculus theories of Leibniz and Newton initially involved contradictory theories about infinitesimals. The solution was to just assume that infintesimal values were zero at some point and not at others. The explosion to triviality need not happen. The literary fictions of Beckett may be explorations of this embedded contradiction.

Borges enjoys the paradox of self-reference and Cantor’s exploration of the infinite as helpful ways of understanding the power of literature. Zeno and Kafka are bedfellows. A dialetheistic approach allows for semantic overexpressiveness. The self-referencing liar paradox confronts someone asserting: ‘I am lying’. Graham Priest thinks truths are in the world rather than in semantic theory and that the world can make the assertion true, even though contradictory. He wrote the short story “Sylvan’s Box’ in memory of the paraconsistent philosopher Richard Sylvan who died in Canberra. It was a story that was to help him get his head round inconsistent reality. Yet I think the strangeness of such metafiction is lost if the classical reflex isn’t set up first. I tend to think without the tension in the conflict the strangeness is tamed and the weird becomes domesticated. I tend to think the Hegelians have somewhat done this, and Theorists too. They don’t seem shocked, moved or awed by the weirdness coming through. Me, I’m like a kid in the Wonka factory with this stuff, and I think Medina and Ogbourne are too, just staggering around in a daze.

Medina’s work may be understood in terms of Borges’s condensed theory of originality and translation found in his essay ‘The Homeric Versions’ where he writes: ‘To assume that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original form is to assume that draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H — for there can only be drafts. The concept of the “definitive text” corresponds only to religion or exhaustion’. For Borges, and on my reading, for Medina/Ogbourne also, there is no definitive text, merely drafts.

There is flexibility in this stance, however. Borges also wrote; ‘I only know that any modification would be sacrilegious and that I cannot conceive of any other beginning for the Quixote. . . . The Quixote, due to my congenital practice of Spanish, is a uniform monument, with no other variations except those provided by the publisher, the bookbinder, and the typesetter’. Here, he seems rather insistent on taking the Cervantes text as a final version. His story ‘Pierre Menard’ suggests he treated the text as a sacred text.

As an aside, I note that in the new paperback of Borges, On Writing, edited by Suzanne Jill Levine et al, which offers, according to Martin Schifino’s recent review in the TLS, ‘ten new translations and represents twenty-eight pieces from Weinberger’s selection’ we find that ‘the first sentence of Don Quijote is misquoted in an essay that starts with a word-by-word analysis of that sentence’. Is Schifino right to accuse the copyeditor of failure rather than acknowledge a surprising version of Borges’s theory of mistranslation at work?

Ogbourne and Medina’s wonderfully delicate but zesty film is a Borgean cabinet of wonders that seems to work like Ricardo Piglia’s translation machine in his The Absent City novel we mentioned in passing earlier ,where: ‘At first they had tried to make a machine that could translate texts. […] One afternoon they fed it Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ and asked it to translate it. Three hours later the teletype began to print the final version. The story was stretched out and modified to such a degree that it was unrecognizable. It was now called ‘Stephen Stevenson’. That was the first story. […] We had wanted a machine that could translate; we got a machine that transforms stories. […] It takes what is available and transforms what appears to be lost into something else. That is life’.



Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 14th, 2011.