"If," I said, "like me, you are ignorant of languages other than English, how do you determine that something is a 'good translation'?"
"When we think that we're reading a good translation, in fact we're simply reading something that has been well re-created in English. And that, I think, is the best that a translator can do, because I'm convinced that it is simply not possible to think the same things in one language as in another. I think that language shapes not only our thoughts but even provokes the thoughts that we then put into words."
We talked about the intimacy that develops between writer and reader. "Reading," I said, "sometimes seems every bit as intimate, in its own way, as physical intimacies."
"Absolutely. I have compared the act of reading with the amorous act. I think that it has very much in common in the same way that you're not attracted to just any person, you're not attracted to just any book. You're very careful about whom you take to bed. You don't take any book to bed.
"And the text on the page does create for you an amorous space. And you don't want to be with just anyone in that amorous space. I don't want to be with Bret Easton Ellis in that amorous space. He seems to be somebody who delights in the pain of others."
I said that I often imagine a book as a protective barrier against the exterior world.
Mr. Manguel disagreed, "I see it more as a door or a bridge -- a connection that allows me to then give words to that experience outside."
"That," I said, "is because reading, if what you're reading is good, makes you want to write."
"Yes," Mr. Manguel sighed. "There are some fortunate people who don't have that feeling, and it must be wonderful to be able to simply enjoy reading without having to try and make the effort of writing. Borges used to say that 'Readers are fortunate because they can read what they want, while writers can only write what they can write.'"
"Poems," I said, "more than prose, make me want to write."
Not so, Mr. Manguel. "Well, reading poems more than making me want to write makes me want to speak. That is to say that they very often call for being read out loud. So I will walk in the garden and read to my cat. But I'm very afraid of poetry. I love to read it but... As an adolescent, I never tried my hand at writing poetry -- one or two things, like everyone. What I admire about someone like Nabokov who can write two or three poems, and those poems will be perfect, is that he knows he's not a poet but that he is a prose writer. Yet when he sets himself to write a poem, it is truly magical. He wrote that wonderful poem about discovering a new species of butterfly. It is written by somebody who seems to have the craft and has decided not to exercise it. I certainly don't.
"Poetry suits the distilled expression of something that requires the poet to become an alchemic vessel. I don't think I am capable of that. Prose is somehow more down to earth."
I asked about Mr. Manguel's schooling in Argentina, where he lived until he was 20.
"I was lucky enough to spend in Argentina the few good years that the country was allowed, shortly after the fall of Perón and before the takeover by the military. And during that time there was an explosion of intelligent thinking in Argentina. I was lucky enough to go to a high school where teachers were university professors. This was a new scheme that was being tried out. These teachers communicated their knowledge and their enthusiasm to us in a way that is very, very uncommon today.
"We were told that intelligent thinking was good, that we could probe and ask and explore and that difficulty was not something negative. I find it so curious that today we think of that which is slow and that which is difficult as negative qualities. We were taught that they weren't. The way you learned was by overcoming difficulties and by going slowly. But now the merits that are advertised are exactly the contrary. 'This is easy, and this is quick.' The ad for a PowerBook was 'faster than thought.' I wonder if anybody really stopped to think what they were saying when they came up with that ad."
"How did you make the decision," I asked, "to set this new book in 'real time' rather than set it down in an undated timelessness?"
"I wanted it to be as loose as possible. I keep notebooks. I don't really keep a journal. I keep notebooks, so whenever I feel like it, I'll make notes, and sometimes they will be personal notes, and sometimes they will just be quotations from my reading. So I thought that if I managed to turn that into a book, I wouldn't want to go back and force a date structure on it. I wanted it to appear to be as fragmentary as possible. I suppose the idea behind it was that I thought I would like to share with some readers the way in which I read, as if they could sit in my brain and watch what happens. That is not attached to dates."
"But," I said, "certainly what's happening in real time impinges upon what one is reading."
"Of course. That is why I do mention things like the rain and the cat and the visit of my children and political events that happen on a certain date. But it impinges a little less when you are traveling on a train and from time to time you see the name of the station outside, but not always. You know where you are going; you know where you've come from, but unless you are a fanatic of railway travel, traveling with maps and drawing schedules out, you just let yourself go, and you'll arrive when you arrive."