Bill Richardson, director of the Department of Spanish at the National University of Ireland in Galway, has published several essays on Spain and Latin America, with special interest in the work of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. He is the author of Spanish Studies: An Introduction (2001), and co-author (with Chris Ross and Begoña Bleeder-Vegas) of Contemporary Spain (3rd ed. 2008). His other publications deal with issues such as spatiality and deictic references in language, literature, and Spanish translation. His latest essay is Borges and Space (Peter Lang, 2012).
Sergio Angulo: —Bill, when did you start learning Spanish?
Bill Richardson: —Well, in this country there are few people studying Spanish and there have always been few people, but I did study Spanish in secondary school. I started when I was twelve or thirteen. Then, at the age of fifteen, I spent six weeks in Oviedo with a warm Spanish family and I was hooked. They treated me very well, but they didn’t speak English at all. I had to get by in Spanish.
Sergio Angulo: —At your university, in your department, what level of Spanish have first-year students?
Bill Richardson: —We are a bit like the other universities in Ireland. The vast majority of students are beginners. They have never studied any Spanish. 80%, or even more, of our students start from scratch. We also have a separate group for those that have studied Spanish in secondary school and have achieved a Leaving Cert level. But we have to provide this 80% with a very intensive course, to enable them to reach an appropriate level to study or even read literature, of course, and to study for a year in Spain or Latin America, as in our third year, students go abroad to study.
Sergio Angulo: —What is the demand for Spanish?
Bill Richardson: —Very good indeed. It grows every year. Every year there are more students who want to study Spanish. In the last five years, the number of students studying in our first year has risen from 100 to about 250. So there is much demand for Spanish. But most students are beginners. French has always been strong here as a foreign language, but now the number of students studying Spanish grows more and more, even at school. However, at the moment, that is not comparable to the number of students who speak French.
Sergio Angulo: —You have written articles and books on translation and literature with a special interest in Borges, who was also a great translator. But he said he liked to make the original better in order to create a new work. That’s not very common now.
Bill Richardson: —That’s not fashionable anymore. Now, the original text, the original culture, is much more valued, even if it creates difficulties for the reader in understanding these cultural references. Lawrence Venuti, for example, asserts that we shouldn’t homogenise, we shouldn’t change much in the text to suit the target reader, we have to respect the original text. It’s a way of recognizing the importance of the original culture and the original text. But that was not the way Borges translated. He took the liberty of creating a new literary work. If he thought he was improving it with a light touch here and there, he always did this.
Sergio Angulo: —Why Borges?
Bill Richardson: —I have always been interested. In college, when I was 18, I studied Borges´s literary works and I was fascinated. Borges is a writer who writes many things – prose, poetry and essays. But even the short stories he writes are like poetry, in the sense that one can always return to the story and find out more meanings, more wealth, more depth. You can return to them again and again, and yet, it is impossible to understand all the references and nuances of meaning. A Borgesian tale is very dense, there is so much in each paragraph.
Sergio Angulo: —Also symbolism.
Bill Richardson: —Sure. The labyrinth, for example. It is typical of Borges. The labyrinth symbolises, in some way, the lack of knowledge that characterises us as human beings, imperfect, in the sense that we don’t understand the meaning of life around us. He always felt, more than anything, that he was a bewildered man, that life is full of mysteries that are very difficult to understand.
There are also other symbols. Mirrors, for example. There are many mirrors in Borges. The mirror is very interesting, especially from my point of view, as I study the space issue. A mirror is in space, but somehow, it shows us something that seems to be in a space but is not really there. We are looking at ourselves in a place where we are not. This is a way of altering our perception of life. He is always subversive in this context.
In his short stories, which are like detective stories, there is always a hint that indicates something else is going on, a metaphysical twist. In his great short story “Death and the Compass”, for example, every crime scene seems to suggest something else. And then there’s the irony. Borges seems to be a very serious man. He knew philosophy very well, but he is actually very ironic. He plays with the reader and has a great sense of humour.
Sergio Angulo: —He wrote short stories, essays and poetry, but never a novel. Would a novel by Borges have been impossible to deal with, because of its complexity?
Bill Richardson: —I think there is some of that. He said he preferred to imagine that the novel was already there and he had to summarise it. Why waste two or three hundred pages saying something, if it can be summarised and analysed in half a dozen pages? This is what draws attention to Borges in the modern world, this way of self-reflecting on what a story is, and our existence.
Sergio Angulo: —After all the books that have been written about Borges in dozens of languages, what is new in your book, Borges and Space?
Bill Richardson: —The theme I focus on is space, which affects us in many ways. There is physical space, where you find something in one place, the physical location. In Borges, you can see this in that short story I mentioned, “Death and the Compass”. He plays with physical geographical locations within the city of Buenos Aires, although he doesn’t say that it is Buenos Aires. On the other hand, there is speculation about space and the shape of the universe. Borges also wants us to reflect on our place in the universe and ask, “Is this universe infinite or not?”
In any case, it’s wonderful. To think that the universe continues to infinity is unimaginable. On the other hand, if it ends somewhere, what’s next? In “The Library of Babel”, Borges makes us speculate on such topics. He invents the infinite library, or almost infinite, we don´t know. It´s a library that holds every book that exists and somehow, it´s also a symbol of the universe.
In several chapters of my book, I have tried to focus on some of the most important issues related to space. These are some of them, but there are others, for example, the issue of power.
Power is related to the domain or establishment of a space. There is also the issue of finding something in space. In “The Library of Babel”, the story speaks about people who are “seekers”. They are looking for books that can show us the meaning of life. This is very seductive, the idea that you can find something somewhere that is so special, it can explain the meaning of life. This longing for meaning and significance is very human. Sometimes, people say that Borges is very inhumane, very intellectual, very cold. But in fact, behind a seemingly cold surface, all these issues are human, very human.
About Jorge Luis Borges