I'm trying to translate another poem by Jorge Luis Borges into English:

Mis Libros

Mis libros (que no saben que yo existo)
son tan parte de mí como este rostro
de sienes grises y de grises ojos
que vanamente busco en los cristales
y que recorro con la mano cóncava.
No sin alguna lógica amargura
pienso que las palabras esenciales
que me expresan están en esas hojas
que no saben quién soy, no en las que he escrito.
Mejor así. Las voces de los muertos
me dirán para siempre.

My attempt is:

My Books

My books (that don't know I exist)
are as much a part of me as this face
of temples grey and grey eyes
that vainly I seek in looking glasses
and that I retrace with concave hand.
Not without bitter logic
I think that the essential words
that express myself exist in their pages
which know not who I am, not in those I have written.
Better that way. The voices of the dead
speak to me forever.

But I made a flying leap when I got to los cristales. Normally I would expect it to mean just the same as its cognate: "the crystals". But that doesn't fit the context very well. (Why would he seek his face in crystals?) But Borges didn't use los espejos, which I believe is the usual word for mirror. Does my old-fashioned word for mirror ("looking glass") capture any of Borges meaning in the poem?

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    Please remember he was "vainly" looking for his face on the mirrors, or crystals, or whatever, because he was blind. Abhorrence of mirrors is one of the main Borges themes along his literature. Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 3:28
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    Also ... translating Borges is one of the more difficult tasks I can think of. He had a vast culture, and used Spanish in a very subtle way. So subtle in fact, that many native speakers understand his works only partially. Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 3:33
  • @belisarius: On the plus side, nobody can prove I was wrong. ;-) I love reading Borges in translation and I really want to be able to read his poems in Spanish. There can be no better way than to try translating them myself. Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 5:26
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    I am not sure if the task is doable without a PhD :). Seriously. For example the last sentence "las voces de los muertos me dirán para siempre" can be read in Spanish in at least five different ways. The mastery of JLB was that that was made intentionally Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 5:40
  • After savouring some of the answers and comments here I think this question would be just as at home in literature.SE - in fact it's making us look a bit more literary than them already (-; If the translation.SE proposal ever goes live I think this is an excellent example of a good question for that site too. Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 9:00

4 Answers 4


Here, I would understand cristal as a crystal made surface that give poorer reflections than a mirror. Think when you look through a window and see your reflection on the glass. I do not dare to give an English translation.

On the other hand, I think the phrase Not without bitter logic has a subtle different meaning. He says that he feels bitterness, but it is logic to feel it.

Finally, I think the last phrase me dirán para siempre means that the dead will talk about him. He has become text and they will say that text.

  • Would "The voices of the dead speak of me forever." fit better do you suppose? Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 23:11
  • Yes, that's the intended meaning of cristal in this poem. Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 0:09
  • @Gonzalo: I wondered if it was an allusion to 1 Corintios 13:12: "Ahora vemos por espejo, en obscuridad; mas entonces veremos cara á cara: ahora conozco en parte; mas entonces conoceré como soy conocido." Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 0:35
  • @Jon Ericson Yes, I think it is a better translation although it is difficult to translate that verb because "me dirán" sounds weird without a "direct object".
    – J. Calleja
    Commented Nov 24, 2011 at 22:15

My Larousse Gran Diccionario does in fact give mirror as one sense, but of the other senses, glass, window pane, or lens (or a pair of spectacles) might also fit:

cristal nm

  -1. Esp (material) glass; el suelo está lleno de cristales there's glass all over the floor q cristal ahumado smoked glass; cristal blindado bullet-proof glass; cristal esmerilado ground glass; cristal inastillable splinter-proof glass; cristal labrado cut glass; cristal tintado tinted glass

  -2. (vidrio fino) crystal q cristal de Murano Venetian glass; cristal tallado cut glass

  -3. (de gafas) lens; Esp (lámina) (de ventana) (window) pane; Esp bajar el cristal (ventanilla) to open o roll down the window; EXPR todo depende del cristal con el que se mire it all depends how you look at it q cristal de aumento magnifying lens

  -4. (mineral) crystal q cristal de cuarzo quartz crystal; cristal líquido liquid crystal; cristal de roca rock crystal

  -5. Esp (espejo) mirror

Also at least one translator of this poem into English has chosen mirror.

  • I guess you have to know where to look. ;-) I need to dig up my physical dictionary because the online ones seem to be lacking. (At least the online ones Google is pushing.) Commented Nov 22, 2011 at 23:16
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    I'm lucky that one of my big physical dictionaries came with a CD ROM so I installed it on my netbook and can look it up even though I'm nowhere near any Spanish speaking country and nowhere near my boxes of books. Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 0:22

I think the term "los cristales" is most referred to "the windows" where the character swipe the front of the hand over them.

Now that reviewing the poem I found the text: "...como este rostro [...] que [...] busco en los cristales" so I think that text can be translated as "...as this face [...] that [...] I seek in the mirrors"

  • No, he is not swiping his hand over the "cristales". He is repassing his concave hand over his face, to recognize it (he was blind) Commented Nov 23, 2011 at 5:07

First off, the proper word for a mirror is "espejo" with the "j" being pronounced as an "H", and secondly, it would be in the singular form of "el espejo". El in the masculine form being the proper order since the word "espejo" ends on "O" and "O" signifies the masculine form and words ending in an "A" are in the feminine form requiring "la" as in "la vaca" = the cow". In a plural usage just add "s" and you have either "las muchachas" or "los muchachos", "the girls" and "the boys" respectively. "Cristales" means "crystals" such as in a chandeleirs or if used in the sense of crystal-ware but only in the informal and familiar manner. Los would only be used for multiple mirrors and in Mexican society, having more than one mirror in any room is considered vain and superficial.

By the way, a glass as in a window would be a "vidrio", the entire window would be "vantana" and a window as in a service center where you advance to the next window would be a "ventanilla". The example of "broken glass" in a parking lot would be on a more specific level and the source of the "broken glass" would be noted, usually from glass bottles = "botellas quebradas" meaning the word "broken being used to describe bottles which is always feminine so the word to break would be conjugated to the femenine, however "carros quebra dos" being conjugated to the masculine since "carros" is always masculine due to the "os" ending. An eyeglass lens is a "lente' but eyeglasses are "los lentes" and in the end of the word.the masculine due to the lack of an "a" near the end of the word. Oh yeah, "GringoS" drink from a glass, but we Mexicans always drink from a cup or "una copa" or "un vaso" which to us Mexicans is like white folks drinking from a glass. Again masculine due to an "O" ending.

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