Lost In Translation
William Blake, “Capaneus the Blasphemer” from The Inferno of Dante
Years and years ago, John Ciardi, then the best-known translator of Dante into English, defined poetry as the thing that is lost in translation.
This may seem like a pessimistic perspective for someone who translates poetry, but I think that what he meant is that the thing most likely to get lost in translation is the unique way that fine poetry communicates the poet's personal experience of his or her subject. Anyone can count the circles of Hell and locate the usurers, but Dante's poetry was a combination of the subject matter and his unique attitudes and reactions to it. And when a translator interposes himself or herself between Dante's verse and the reader, we readers of the translation are no longer in Dante's company.
But I don't believe that essence is “lost in translation” only in poetry. I think that the most basic struggle of all artists, no matter how skillful they are, is the struggle not to lose in translation – in the act of writing or painting or composing or whatever – the thing that initially sparked the work.
It seems to me, on the broadest scale, that there are two components to being an artist of any kind. First is to see the world in an individual way. Second is to develop the control of the chosen medium well enough to show it to us—not to lose it in translation.
All the novelists I know have had the experience of a finished book not meaning quite (or even nearly) what he or she meant to say. And I don't personally know any writer who will point to a finished work and say, “In that one, I got it all.”
Visual artists have the same problem, but at least they don't have to push what they mean through the wall of language. One of the things I like about the visual arts is the sense that I'm close to the imagined image (hmm, never saw those two words side by side like that) that prompted the work. Here's some recent work I really like.
Thierry Cohen, “Darkened Cities – New York
Thierry Cohen is a French photographer who travels to remote locations—the Sahara, for example—that share the same latitude of a great city. He photographs the night sky and then superimposes upon it a “darkened” photo of that city. He's interested in the way cities would look at night if they were completely free of light pollution, but these images also suggest very strongly that even the mightiest cities are blips in time compared to the heavens.
The work of Danish photographer/installation artist Rune Guneriussen examines the relationship between nature and the man-made world, and I think his images are brooding and mysterious and even funny. Guneriussen declines to attach any text or “meaning” to the images, but they communicate a great deal to me, about the ways we hold back the mystery of the world and even (sometimes) create beauty when we do so.
Just some musing. Lisa Brackmann will be back next week.
Note: All these images are taken from the invaluable art site http://www.emptykingdom.com
Tim (in for Lisa) – Sunday