In the Babel imagined by Borges, the confusion of tongues takes place inside the tower, the library. The unified architecture does not create a unified linguistic community: “…the most ancient men, the first librarians, used a language quite different from the one we now speak; it is true that a few miles to the right the tongue is dialectical and that ninety floors farther up, it is incomprehensible.” More perniciously, it is possible for language to remain completely intelligible, and yet to house an infinity of differences that make the dual interpretations of Babel seem trivial: “An n number of possible languages use the same vocabulary; in some of them, the symbol library allows the correct definition a ubiquitous and lasting system of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or anything else, and these seven words which define it have another value. You who read me, are you sure of understanding my language?” The narrator seems to take this proliferation of languages as a sign of the comprehensiveness of the library, though Borges treats this notion with irony. The possibilities of a single phrase, word, or letter, can never be exhausted. As our narrator explained, a word can differ from itself, can contain multitudes of interpretations, without differing by a single letter or mark. We can translate these inner differences, but only among source or target languages that are themselves without unity or self-identity.
There is translation not only within each library, but between the possible instantiations of the universal library as well. The structural limits necessary to any project of permutation shape how its texts signify. Borges used twenty-two lower-case letters, space, comma, and period, in books of 410 pages with forty lines and some 80 characters per page. To translate his project for the web, libraryofbabel.info kept as close as it could to the dimensions of Borges’ books, but of course creates them digitally, as a series of hyperlinked “pages.” This transubstantiation is not without its effects on how users approach the text; whereas Borges’ librarians were most satisfied by their discoveries of accidental poetry, visitors to libraryofbabel.info are just as likely to look up memes and ASCII art. Borges signals the impossibility of any library’s “universality” by including in his short story many of the characters (capital letters, digits, a diacritical mark) that were unknown to his librarians. While the narrator celebrates the completeness of his library, Borges gently ironizes this claim by showing that such a character set is insufficient even for his brief fiction.
The change of media was a biblical theme as well. Genesis tells us, with regards to the builders of the Tower of Babel, “they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.”
If the possible significance of a single phrase can never be exhausted, no library can ever be total in the sense imagined by an entire tradition from the Ancient Greek atomists to Borges’ narrator. Only the elements, the atoms of a system can be permuted, which in the case of language are the letters, the marks of punctuation, and a nonfinite series of other contextualizing aspects, from the typeface to the grain of the voice. But language is not atomic; these elements split, divide, and ceaselessly differ from themselves, allowing the unthinkable to emerge from the most familiar texts. The website then is neither a realization of Borges’ fiction, nor a translation in the classical sense of perfect adequation. It translates with a repetition dependent on difference, a discovery indistinguishable from invention, which continues to illumine hidden facets of Borges’ inexhaustible story.