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Really Only Words

“All things are really only words
in a tongue of endless gobbledygook
that someone or something is writing in a book
that is the history of the world. In herds,

you, I, everyone, Carthage, Rome travel,
and my unfathomable life too, and this stigma
of having been an accident, a cipher, an enigma,
of being all the unmelodious dialects of Babel.

But behind every name is what has no name.
Today, I felt its shadow flicker and take aim
in the blue compass needle, lucid and light,

that points far away across seas that gleam,
something like a timepiece glimpsed in a dream,
or the stirring of a bird in the middle of the night.
– Jorge Luis Borges, The Compass

This poem was originally written in Spanish, and I’ve read two versions of it that are completely different from each other, depending on the translation to English.  And such is the challenge of interpreting both language and poetry.  Words mean different things to different people, and I wonder sometimes at the words I’ve read that were interpreted by another and how close to the truth those words truly are.  The better path would be to invest the time to learn to speak Spanish fluently and read the poem as Borges intended.  Instead I rely on the interpretation of others.

Isn’t that the way it is with the news?  We rely on the interpretation of facts by writers who put their own spin on it, often to feed people what they want to hear.  I’ve stopped watching the news so that I can hear my own voice instead.  And what of hearsay?  You hear a story about someone else from the viewpoint of the speaker and make up your mind about them based on what someone else said about them.  The question is how much do you trust the source of your information?

The gist of this poem is the mystery of who we are, and our path to figuring that out.  Finding our true north in a jumble of lives and words and interpretation.  And that makes the different versions of this poem somehow appropriate, I suppose.  Brian Doyle called Borges one of the greatest writers in history, but with a limited grasp of Spanish, Borges’ brilliance is largely lost to me as I rely on others to provide meaning to his work.  If ever there was a reason to learn languages its to truly understand and to be understood by others.  I’m just scratching the surface with a writer like Borges in reading an English translation, and you could say the same thing about Homer or Nietzsche or Marcus Aurelius for that matter.  They’re really only words, but the way you put those words together matters.

Doyle pointed me to Borges, who’s work is frustratingly just out of reach for me in its original form.  I have the same frustration with bird calls and plants in the forest and other such things I can’t figure out given the scope of my current knowledge.  But its all part of the journey, isn’t it?  The unknown is either a roadblock or a welcome sign, depending on your own interpretation.  And there’s that word again.  All forks in the road that lead us down the next path towards a greater understanding of the world and our place in it, should we be so bold as to keep moving forward.

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  1. Reminds me of how different written music can be, as apposed to that heard from a talented musician’s interpretation. Do we really know how Mozart was supposed to sound when he would play it?

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