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Is English Better Than Spanish?

Is English Better Than Spanish?

Borges speaking on Buckley's "Firing Line" -  (  Adobe Stock Photo)

Borges speaking on Buckley's "Firing Line" - (Adobe Stock Photo)

Yes, it is. Just ask Jorge Luis Borges.

I was taking advantage of my Amazon Prime membership one weekend in which I wanted to wind down and "Netflix" or should I say "Prime"? When I stumbled upon what appeared to be the entire collection of the "Firing Line" episodes. It was a very enlightening television program which featured great interviews and was hosted over a period of 30 years by arguably one of America's most significant voices of the so-called "conservative movement", William F. Buckley Jr. 

In an interview in 1977 which took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina William F. Buckley Jr. sat down with latin-American writer Jorge Luis Borges, "South America's Titan" (or so the episode is titled) to talk about language, literature, and politics. Out of the entire interview, what was perhaps the most striking and memorable quote was one given seventeen minutes and eighteen seconds in.

Borges said: "I find English a far finer language than Spanish".

It was an opinion freely volunteered (with which I personally agree with and had been longing to hear from a public intellectual who could actually pull it off) and it wasn't even directly prompted by Buckley. After a follow-up question examining how Borges compared to his contemporary “new” writers at the time to “old writers,” Borges went on to explain his affinity for the language and specified that while he wrote most of his work in Spanish, he had done most of his reading in English.

I'm guessing the translators of his work instinctively know this when they read it. And I think this is the reason why I prefer to read Borges in English than in Spanish.

Remembering books in other languages

Borges said that when he thought about the Bible he would think of the “King James” version and that when he thought about the “Arabian Nights” he would think about Captain Richard Burton’s translation. In Borges’ mind (and in many others, I am sure) the information contained in these masterwork books existed more presently in their English embodiment than in any other language. He even admitted that the first book he ever read on the history of South America was “The Conquest of Peru” by American historian William H. Prescott.

The same thing happens to me when I think of Borges' stories.

I don't think of "El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" I think of "The Garden of Forking Paths". The same goes for "The Book of Sand""The Gospel According to Mark", "The House of Asterion" or "The Writing of the God". Maybe I have an inherent bias because when Borges revisits certain themes and characters like for example those in the "Arabian Nights", I too think of Burton's translation of Scheherazade's tales.

Borges' Reasons

1. English is "both latin and germanic"

This means you have "two registers" at your disposal and or discretionary use. Simply put, you will always have at least two words to describe the same thing but those words are distinctly different from each other. This gives the writer/speaker the possibility of more nuanced nouns and fitting adjectives. Borges gave the example of "ghost" being a darker and more phantasmagoric variation of the lighter Latin "spirit". He also examines that "kingly" is not the same as "regal" and that "brotherly" is not the same as "fraternal".

If you think about it, there is no word for "freedom" in Spanish. Those of us who come from the Spanish-speaking world only know the word "liberty" which is also, not the same.

2. In English, you can do almost anything with verbs and prepositions

Borges declared that English is the most "physical" of all languages and his argument is largely based on the fact that in English you can do "almost anything" with verbs and prepositions. The author rightly points out that there is no Spanish equivalent to linking function words in a way to express such things as: "loom over", "laugh off", "dream away", or "live up to".

Here are a few other examples I can think of. These are mainly taken from my daily use in journalism, many conversational expressions, and the promises of rock & roll.

I'm sure many of the following have come up in your life:

Call up, call out, come up, stay in, drop out, go on, rock on, dream on, hold on, double down, being down, move up, stand up, wise up, rise up, end up, roll out, fall out, stand out, stand down, hold up, break up, cozy up, make up, start up, take in, take out, call in, mess up, screw up, give up, dumb down, wind down, read up, follow up, end up, etc...

3. The music of adverbs in English remains in the first part of the word and isn't taken over by the device

In Spanish, many adjectives become adverbs just by adding "mente" at the end. A deep, dumb, and dry "mente". In English, you just add "ly". How fast are you reading these words? Maybe the answer is slow-ly or quick-ly. In Spanish it would be "lenta-mente" or "rapida-mente". That incessant and lamenting "mente" steals the music away from the first part of the word and is overtaken by the sound of "mente". Especially when used repeatedly. Whereas in English the music of the word is left almost intact since the weight of the melody remains in the first part of the word. The accessory "ly", though vital, isn't taking away emphasis from the important part of the word.

Bilingual is better

I recommend you watch the full interview with closed captions and make up your own mind. Borges' conversational English is hard to make out sometimes because of the recording and his low sounding voice. Even though Borges' mind was as sharp as ever, by the time of the interview, he was 78 years old. By this time as he somewhat jokingly pointed out to Buckley, he had already gone completely blind and shared some anecdotes on how this changed his life with some soft self-deprecating humor. You may also look for a copy of “Buckley: The Right Word” which features a transcript of this section and much more of WFB's writings. "The Right Word" was edited by Samuels S. Vaughan and I got my copy from Strand Book Store on 12th St. That’s 828 Broadway.

The reader should also bear in mind that I’m clearly indulging my ‘provocateur’ self by claiming one language to be “better” than another. But if there’s one takeaway I could stress you live by from this piece is that by pointing out the differences, peoples of the spanish-speaking world will become empowered. This is because they will now find themselves (hopefully) overtly conscious of how English builds most of its “physical” expressions.

I claim this knowledge will especially come in handy when those who speak Spanish can’t find “the right word” in English but know they can resort to an expression like one of the many I listed above. And to the “nationalist purists” in Latin America who defend Spanish at all costs, let me just (gently?) remind you that nobody in the Americas spoke “Spanish” prior to “Columbus Day” 1492.

On a more personal note, I consider Jorge Luis Borges to be the best short story teller of all time. And I recommend you read the man in English. Don't bother learning Spanish to read Borges. Andrew Hurley’s translation of his work is brilliant.

In Borges, you will find how human beings search and strive to comprehend their meaning in what appears to be infinite space and time. Where mythology, mysticism, religion, and the observable natural world are intertwined in an unsolvable puzzle of existence.

Of course it goes without saying that great poetry can be achieved in any language, as Borges tells us. And all I can say is that I am lucky to have both. 

Rule Brexitannia

Rule Brexitannia