Peering into Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinth

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 9:34 AM

In honor of Jorge Luis Borges's 112th birthday, Google has prepared a special doodle for today. Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinian author best known today for his fantastic short stories and influential essays and poetry. His ideas have made a lasting impact on fields as far-ranging as mathematics, philosophy, literary theory, translation studies, and studies in cyberculture/futurology.

Google Doodle by Sophia Foster-Dimino

The New York Times piece "Borges and the Foreseeable Future" highlights Borges's surprising influence on the Internet era. Focusing on Borges's story "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," the article shows how Borges's idea of an infinite encyclopedia can be interpreted as a prototype for Wikipedia.

In a similar light, Borges's story "On Exactitude in Science," which is about a map as large as the area it depicts, has a virtual corollary with Google Earth and Google Maps. In "El Aleph", Borges wrote about a single point in space through which all other points in space and time could be seen. The Google search box hasn’t quite reached this breadth, but we are adding to the index everyday.

In The Library of Babel, Borges describes an infinite library that holds every conceivable book, composed of every conceivable combination of letters. This story has left scholars pondering the consequences of this infinite library, and recent titles, like William Bloch’s The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel, have set about analyzing the mathematics in Borges’s story.

Visualizing Borges’s literary legacy

The Google Books Ngram Viewer is a tool in Google Books which allows you to search for terms and phrases. Using the tool, you can compare trends in word usage in the millions of books in the Google Books digital corpus. Below are Ngrams showing the trends in the number of books that have "Jorge Luis Borges" in Spanish and English. The graphs go from 1899 (when he was born) to 2000. These graphs show Borges's explosive rise in popularity for Spanish and English-reading audiences.

References to Jorge Luis Borges's name in Spanish-language books in Google Books 1899-2000

Books Ngram Viewer graph for Borges references in Spanish

References to Jorge Luis Borges's name in English-language books in Google Books 1899-2000

Books Ngram Viewer graph for Borges references in English

What's interesting about these graphs is how there are Spanish-language books referencing Borges as early as the mid-1920s. However, for English books, Borges's popularity didn't take off until he shared the Formentor Prize, an international literary award, with Samuel Beckett in 1961.

At that point, Borges's popularity in the English-speaking world took off. English translations of his works became more widely available thanks to the efforts of Norman Thomas di Giovanni and other translators, and Borges traveled the world in the later years of his life with Maria Kodama, giving lectures on literature. The number of times Borges's name appears in English books rises sharply in the decade from 1961 to 1971 and continues its upward trend through 2000.

Interestingly, for Spanish books, the frequency of his name dropped soon after his passing in 1986, only to surge from 1990 to 2000. It will be interesting to see in the future, if references to Borges keep rising.

"Of a language of the dawn"

How would Borges, a lover of language known for his exquisite word choice, have used Ngram Viewer? This tool is a step beyond the card catalogue and library indexes he used as a librarian, but is a data visualization tool that allows one to simultaneously peer at and dissect individual words and phrases used in millions of books.

Would Borges have used Ngram Viewer to track trends and the emergence of words in the many languages he knew? Could he have used it to write about the death of one word or language, to be supplanted by another, similar to how he describes the birth of English from Anglo-Saxon in his poem "On Beginning the Study of Anglo-Saxon Grammar"? Or would he have have used the tool in ways we have not yet imagined?

Want to learn more about Borges and his writing?

Visit Google Books to access ebooks by and about Borges:


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