Sobres — Blog

On Borges and Quevedo

December 04, 2021

Spanish literature, despite its greatness, mostly hasn’t found its deserved fame in the English-speaking world. The reasons for that are varied and contested (the fact that it hasn’t found its deserved fame in modern day Spain might be related, though), but the consequence of this is sometimes Spanish-speaking authors referencing these works and authors are hard to grok.

This post is meant to be an explanation of some questions raised by Alvaro de Menard in his blog (recommended) here.

No, Borges isn’t joking when he talks about a Quevedian translation of Browne.

In his essay “Sir Thomas Browne”, present in Inquisiciones (which Borges himself will describe as a “quite bad essay” years after), Borges shows the translation of a page in this style. Years later, they will publish an annotated translation of the fifth chapter in Sur (in Spanish).

On to the main point:

How to translate a XVII century writer like Browne into XX century Spanish? Well, you can’t write with modern vocabulary, the anachronism is evident, but doing it like a XVII c. writer just sounds pretentious or antiquated… unless it’s explicitly announced as a Baroque-style translation.

And here we get to “Quevedian”. Long story short, you could substitute “Quevedian” for “Baroque”. Quevedo is, in fact, one of the few Spanish-speaking writers that Borges enjoyed. I will simply quote the ending of Borges’ “Quevedo”, an essay from Otras Inquisiciones:

Three hundred years have passed since the corporal death of Quevedo, but he still continues to be the leading artisan of Hispanic letters. Like Joyce, like Goethe, like Shakespeare, like Dante—like no other writer—Francisco de Quevedo is less a man than a vast and complex literature.

It’s not hard to see how Quevedo might be a close approximation to Browne in Borges’ eyes. A reading of some of Quevedo’s political and theological prose will only add further motives for this comparison. 1(es) 2(es)

The (sad) irony in Tlon’s ending is, therefore, not in a contrast Quevedo vs Browne, then, but in the contrast (Borges + Quevedo + Browne) vs Tlon. Or, maybe, grecolatin tradition versus modernity. With a tinge of sad resignation for the slow but unstoppable victory of the second over the first.

Finally, some notes on conceptismo. It’s popularly associated with “simple vocabulary”. But we should keep some things in mind. First:

The idea of conceptismo is grossly misunderstood. To be clear, this is a problem that originates in the Spanish-speaking world, not something lost to translation, and constitutes one of the (many) things I had to unlearn after school.

For starters, many scholars don’t consider conceptismo and culteranismo (the other major literary current of the period) separate movements anymore. At most, the two sides of the same coin. But definitely not positions on an axis measuring ornateness. A more succinct way of putting it might be that Góngora and the culteranos added ornateness to conceptismo —and was therefore mostly a poetry-centered movement—.

Baltasar Gracián (a favourite of Schopenhauer’s, highly recommended) defined conceptismo as “An act of the understanding that expresses the links found between objects”. To stay with Gracián: “Truth, the more difficult it is, the more pleasant it is, and knowledge that costs is more valued.”.

The idea is to pack as many things as possible in the fewest words. The words that remain, though, will be deliciously Baroque in both shape and meaning. Rich of classical allusions and packed with metaphors, ellipsis, polysemy and amphibology1.

But this still doesn’t solve where the misconception comes from. In my opinion, the reason is fairly simple:

The definition of “simple” is always relative. Compared to the vocabulary and structure used in culteranismo, conceptismo is definitely simple. Let’s take a look at Góngora (the main exponent of this movement).

Specifically, I will use the first stanza of Soledad Primera. Here’s the original in Spanish:

Era del año la estación florida
En que el mentido robador de Europa
—Media luna las armas de su frente,
Y el Sol todo los rayos de su pelo—,
Luciente honor del cielo,
En campos de zafiro pace estrellas,
Cuando el que ministrar podía la copa
A Júpiter mejor que el garzón de Ida,
—Náufrago y desdeñado, sobre ausente—,
Lagrimosas de amor dulces querellas
Da al mar; que condolido,
Fue a las ondas, fue al viento
El mísero gemido,
Segundo de Arïón dulce instrumento.

I’ve taken an English translation from here:

It was the flowery season of the year
In which Europa’s perjured robber strays
-Whose brow the arms of the half-moon adorn,
The sun the shining armour of his hide-
Through sapphire fields to feast on stellar corn,
When, fitter cupbearer than Ganymede
For Jupiter, the lovesick boy gave tears
(Absent, disdained and shipwrecked) to the tide
And winds, which moved by his complaining lays
As to a secon Arion’s harp gave heed.

This stanza is a single sentence. The syntax in the translation is slightly different, the “strays” from the second verse isn’t there in the original. In fact, we don’t find a verb until “pace” (“to feast”) on the sixth line, and that’s from an embedded clause. The verb for the main sentence is on the 11th verse (!): “da” (“gave”).

(As a side note, if you know anyone that speaks Spanish, you should try giving them the original and measuring how long they take to come up with a simplified sentence, along with a measure of how confident they are and how many verses or references they had to ignore and hope they didn’t miss anything relevant.)

When we hear “simple vocabulary”, we might think of something like:

“It’s spring. A handsome shipwrecked boy with broken heart is crying.”

I guess a way to put it is that the language of conceptismo lies somewhere between these two points, but much closer to the first than the second.


  1. Tyler Cowens of the world rejoice!