Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
It originally appeared in Spanish in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1939. The Spanish-language original was first published in book form in Borges's 1941 collection El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths). That entire book was, in turn, included within his much-reprinted Ficciones (1944). Two English-language translations were published more or less simultaneously in 1962, one by James E. Irby in a diverse collection of Borges works entitled Labyrinths, the other by Anthony Bonner as part of a collaborative translation of the entirety of Ficciones published in 1962. The Bonner translation is reprinted in Borges, a Reader (1981, ISBN 0-525-47654-7). Quotations in this article follow that translation.
"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is written in the form of a review or literary critical piece about (the non-existent) Pierre Menard, a 20th century French writer. It begins with a brief introduction and a listing of all of Menard's work.
Borges's "review" describes Menard's efforts to go beyond a mere "translation" of Don Quixote by immersing himself so thoroughly in the work as to be able to actually "re-create" it, line for line, in the original 17th century Spanish. Thus, Pierre Menard is often used to raise questions and discussion about the nature of accurate translation.
"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" is indeed literary criticism but through the medium of fantasy, irony, and humor. His narrator/reviewer considers Menard's fragmentary Quixote (which is line-for-line identical to the original) to be much richer in allusion than Cervantes's "original" work because Menard's must be considered in light of world events since 1602. Cervantes, the reviewer claims, "indulges in a rather coarse opposition between tales of knighthood and the meager, provincial reality of his country". While Menard writes of the distant past ("the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope”), in Cervantes “there are neither bands of Gypsies, conquistadors... nor autos de fe". In this, Borges anticipates the post-modern theory that gives centrality to reader response. In "The Library of Babel", Borges contemplates the opposite effect: impoverishment of a text through the means of its reproduction. In a pattern analogous to the infinite monkey theorem, all texts are reproduced in a vast library only because complete randomness eventually reproduces all possible combinations of letters.
Borges wrote the story while recovering from a head injury. If it is to be counted as a work of fiction, then it was the first such published under his own name. (The 1933 "Hombre de la esquina rosada" was published under the pseudonym H. Bustos). As so often in his writings, the story abounds in clever references and subtle jokes. His narrator/reviewer is an arch-Catholic who remarks of the readers of a rival journal that they are "few and Calvinist, if not Masonic and circumcised". According to Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid, Menard is in part "a caricature of Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry … or Miguel de Unamuno and Enrique Larreta".
Two English-language translations were published more or less simultaneously in 1962: one by James E. Irby in a diverse collection of Borges works entitled Labyrinths; the other by Anthony Bonner as part of a collaborative translation of the entirety of Ficciones (1962). The Bonner translation is reprinted in Borges, A Reader.
In his foreword to P. G. Wodehouse's Sunset at Blandings, Douglas Adams recommended the story: "You should read Jorge Luis Borges’s short story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’. It’s only six pages long, and you’ll be wanting to drop me a postcard to thank me for pointing it out to you." The foreword was reprinted in Adams's posthumously published collection of writings, The Salmon of Doubt. In Italo Calvino If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1979) the character Silas Flannery tries to copy a "famous novel" to gain the energy from that text for his own writing, and finally he feels tempted to copy the entire novel Crime and Punishment.