A Trick

(a translation from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges)


Fifty-two cards push real life aside:
flimsy, parti-colored charms
that make us forget where we’re bound to end up in the end.
And who cares where? —we’ve stolen this time, anyway,
let’s build a house of cards,
decorate it, move in, and then play
as we were always meant to play.

Nothing beyond the table’s edges
carries any weight.
Inside, it’s a foreign land
where bluff and bid are high affairs of state:
The Ace of Spades swaggers authoritatively
like Lord Byron, capable of anything;
the nine of diamonds glitters like a pirate’s dream.

A headlong rush of lethargy
slacks conversation to a drawl:
our slow words come and go
the while chance exalts some, lays others low;
the while the players echo and re-echo all the tricks they know:
until it seems that they’re returned—or nearly so:
the crones and cronies and their bony friends
who showed us what it meant to be true Americans
with the same old songs, the same old works for idle hands.


This is a reasonably faithful translation of El Truco, a poem from Fervor de Buenos Aires, the first published poetry collection of Jorge Luis Borges. As the book was published in 1923, its contents are in the public domain in the United States. When I say the translation is reasonably faithful, I mean that I consider I haven’t taken unconscionable liberties with the original text. But I’ve taken some, in swapping Buenos Aires for America. I have, for example, altered the forty cards of Borges’ Spanish deck to the familiar fifty-two cards of the decks I grew up with. The Spanish cards are of four suits—swords, cups, coins, clubs—and their faces are marked along the borders with patterns of lines (pintas) that also indicate the suit. I have changed the swords to spades, the coins to diamonds, and left the pintas entirely out of it. Perhaps glaringly, don Juan Manuel (somewhat of a moralist, I understand) has become Lord Byron—who was, by report, quite the opposite. But (I insist) it is the work that matters, not the man.

At any rate, if ever there were a writer with whom one could—should—take liberties, it must obviously be Borges.

Borges’ original poemthe 1923 version, not the later, re-written version:

Cuarenta naipes han desplazado a la vida.
Pintados talismanes de cartón
nos hacen olvidar nuestros destinos
y una creación risueña
va poblando el tiempo robado
con floridas travesuras
de una mitología casera.
En los lindes de la mesa
la vida de los otros se detiene.
Adentro hay un extraño país:
las aventuras del envido y quiero,
la autoridad del as de espadas,
como don Juan Manuel, omnipotente,
y el siete de oros tintineando esperanza.
Una lentitud cimarrona
va demorando las palabras
y como las alternativas del juego
se repiten y se repiten,
los jugadores de esta noche
copian antiguas bazas:
hecho que resucita un poco, muy poco,
a las generaciones de los mayores
que legaron al tiempo de Buenos Aires
los mismo versos y las mismas diabluras.

Here is Google’s auto-translated version, which is not so bad, actually:

Forty cards have moved to life.
Painted cardboard talismans
make us forget our destinations
and a smiling creation
It will populate the time stolen
with flowery antics
a homemade mythology.
On the edge of the table
The Lives of Others is stopped.
Inside is a strange country:
envido adventures and love,
the authority of the ace of spades,
as Don Juan Manuel, omnipotent,
seven golds and clinking hope.
A slow cimarrona
It is delaying the words
and as the alternative of the game
repeat and repeat,
players tonight
copied old tricks:
a fact that raised a little, very little,
generations of older
they bequeathed to the time of Buenos Aires
the same lines and the same mischief.

Image: Three men playing cards in an alcove (ca. 1900); photographer unknown, from the  Phillips Glass Plate Negative Collection of the Powerhouse Museum.

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