Borges' "The Golem"

Prompted by this nice but rather free translation of Borges' "El Golem", here's my attempt. I tried to be as literal as possible; I've changed some words that were obviously chosen by Borges not for their meaning but to preserve the rhyme ("soga" in the eleventh stanza, for instance, is rather gratuitous).

If (as one Greek states in the Cratyle)
the name is archetype for the thing,
in the letters for rose is the rose
and all of the Nile in the word Nile.

So, made of consonants and vowels,
there'd be a terrible Name, the essence
of God its cipher, that Omnipotence
guards in letters and syllables full.

Adam and the stars knew it
in the Garden. Sin's stain
(so the kabbalists say) erased it
and the many generations lost it.

The cunning and candor of man
have no end. We know that in their day
God's own people searched for the Name
in the small hours of the Jewry.

Unlike that of some other vague
shadow betrayed in vague history,
there is still fresh and living memory
of Judah Loew, a rabbi in Prague.

Thirsty to see what God would see,
Judah Loew gave in to permutations
with letters in such complex variations
that he at last uttered the Name that is Key.

Portal, Echo, Host and Palace,
upon a doll with clumsy hands
he engraved, and taught it the strands
of Word, of Time and Space.

Through dreamy lids was this likeness
confounded by forms and colors,
utterly mixed in subtle rumors
and made its first timid movements.

By small degrees, like us it was
imprisoned in this resounding net
of Before, After, Yesterday, While, Now,
Left, Right, I, You, Them, Others.

(The kabbalist that gave it home
this vast creature nicknamed Golem;
these truths are told by Scholem
in a learned passage of his tome.)

The rabbi taught to it the universe
"My foot, and yours; here is a clog."
After some years this thing perverse
could sweep, well or not, the Synagogue.

It could have been a miswriting,
or an error uttering the Holy Name;
despite so high a spell, it did not
learn to speak, this apprentice of man.

Its eyes, less a man's than a dog's
and so much less of dog than of thing,
tracked the rabbi through the trembling
shadows of their closed quarters.

Something odd and crude was in the Golem,
since out of its way the rabbi's cat
scurried. (This cat is not in Scholem
but, across time, I can glimpse that.)

Raising its pious hands to God
it mimed his God's devotions
or, dull and smiling, it sank
in hollow oriental genuflections.

The rabbi looked upon it with pride
and with some horror. How (he mused)
could I give birth to a pitiful son
and lose the sanity of inaction?

Why did I add yet another symbol
to the infinite Series? Why bring
to the vain skein spun by eternity
another cause, another effect and pain?

In that hour of dread and blurred light,
his eyes lingered on his Golem.
Who will tell us, what did God feel,
looking upon His rabbi in Prague?

I'm extremely thankful to psykotic whose input (there over reddit) was invaluable. Without it this would be much worse than it is now.


James Honzik said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Honzik said...


I had trouble with the word "soga" also. I looked it up in multiple places, wondering if there was an obscure Argentinian dialect translation. I finally thought of it as a coarse, hand made rope, such as gauchos would use to tie up stray cattle - hence my translation "this the rope"

The rabbi and the golem tied together. (as borges ties them together in the last stanza - the rabbis feeling about the golem as is god's feeling about the rabbi)

Unknown said...

"Soga" is not particularly dialectal rioplatense, except perhaps in frequency when compared with peninsular "cuerda" (the Real Academia dictionary gives "leather strip used to tie down horses", which I would render as "tiento" or even, in a gauchesco context, "verga").

Translating "rope" would have been optimal from a literality point of view; since to me it sounded as a word used to preserve the rhyme, I felt free to change it. Using "clog" felt appropriate, in a foot-matching context.

The parallel between the two last stanzas didn't jump at me until I read the translation. The "look upon" repetition didn't sound quite right to me, but checking with the original I saw that Borges used exactly the same structure.

Either way, I like your version better; I like it better still than Borges' original Spanish. Maybe I'm used to blank verse that privileges rythm over structure, but to me your version is superior.

Anonymous said...

Great translation of a wonderful poem!.

When it says "tosco" I think it should be translated as stubborn or rough, instead of crude.

JC said...

Borges, being a scholar of (among other things) Nordic languages, might have used the word "soga" both for the enforced archaicism - for which he is famous - and to make a near-homonytic reference to "saga". Borges was quite comfortable in English.