“Translation is the essence of moving information between levels of organization (including modes of representation)

often leading to mutually illuminating meanings.”




All art is translation —because all life is translation.  We selectively attend to one element or another and trust ART & ORGANISM with naturalizing ART as we know it in everyday culture.    Translation is the essence of moving between levels of organization, no one of which can be understood in isolation.  Most famously from preconscious understanding (that cannot by itself be expressed) through gate after gate, each one at more-or-less cost to the organism and sometimes at great cost to conscious expression and then back again…. sometimes I do not know  the meaning of what I just said. I can Rorschach the life out of it … but I’ll never know.


So,  we must be as clear-eyed as possible—even confrontational—about the problems of translation.  It may begin in the genes whose origins are lost forever in prehistory, and project into the unknowable and possibly endless future.  But to get a grip on this vast issue with something at a manageable level I found inspiration in Madeleine Thien’s review of recent works on Chinese poetry by David Hinton in 8 October’s NYRB .


Madeleine Thien supports Hinton’s observation, writing “that a particular line, severed from its radically different philosophical context, “fails absolutely in translation.” But the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems begins the moment a mark is made. Chinese ideograms are composed of strokes, and each of the brushstrokes references others.”  And she further points out that To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art, significantly multiplying the levels at which the experience of a poem communicates.  Hinton’s great efforts at translation emphasize the poetry of Du Fu, who met and was inspired by Li Bai, the other great Tang Dynasty poet in 744, Hinton writes that “as his world collapsed, was trying to awaken language itself: “To include all of experience equally, rather than limiting it to privileged moments of lyric beauty or insight,” and thus to express a “relentless realism” synonymous with consciousness itself.”


IN discussing the biology of art and aesthetic experience I am motivated to use unfamiliar—foreign or technical—language, even jargon.  I tell myself and others that this is an attempt to divest some key terms we use of their baggage.  

Recently, I found some comfort from reading about the  Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s journey away from the automatisms of her mother tongue, English.  Benjamin Moser, in reviewing Lahiri’s new book, observes that “…by providing a steady drip of prefabricated words and ideas, your only tool for thinking and feeling can just as easily become a tool for not thinking, for not feeling; and when forced to do without those words and ideas, you realize how many of your so-called thoughts are nothing more than clichés grafted onto you by the language with which you grew up.” 

“We are individuals to the extent that we can express ourselves within certain patterns, in accord with specific necessities and relations. Language, like biology or social circumstance, is one of these patterns; and as anyone who has ever tried to lose a foreign accent knows, escape from those patterns is impossible for almost everyone.

Yet that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Hidden in Lahiri’s “Translating Myself and Others” is a quasi-mystical project of self-creation: “To translate is to look into a mirror and see someone other than oneself,” Lahiri writes. What is left of us when we strip away the apparatus of inherited expression?”   [from A&O – TRANSLATION – mother tongue (NYTBR Benj Moser]       https://neilgreenberg.com/ao-communication-translation/ 


Lewis Thomas wrote: “The recorded songs of the humpback whale, filled with tensions and resolutions, ambiguities and allusions, incomplete, can be listened to as a part of music, like an isolated section of an orchestra. If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic timpani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.” (quoted TWA for 11/25/2017)

EKPHRASIS  Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness.” (W)

see, for example,

Ekphrasis is at its core a means by which “one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness.” (Wikipedia)

WORDS.  A crystalized version of the problem with translation are “untranslatable words” usually terms for emotional state. Because they are, at best, approximations of what they point towards or hope to mean, precise congruence of meaning in two individual are not possible (see notes on The Psychosemantic Mind Map) –that is, WORDS have meaning in terms of the connections in the minds of those using them. They are, in detail, UNIQUE, but their ambiguity allows us to tolerate more-or-less imprecision:  For example, “I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina  (see A&O notes on uniqueness)  (from A&O notes on WORDS)


A KEY problem in translation:  WORDS can be vectors in our brain’s understanding of time and space [1].   WORDS have MEANING—and like everything else we discuss in A&O meaning relies on connectedness:  for example, the words poets choose have more-or-less meaning.  Robert Pogue Harrison reviewed a translation of Canti by Giacomo Leopardi (in NYRB February 10, 2011) & commented on a very significant element for all writers to consider:

An …”exasperating feature of Leopardi’s poetry for the English translator is its systematic deployment of common words. Leopardi sheds light on this practice in his notebooks, where he draws a distinction between what he called parole and termini, words and terms. Parole are words that have been in circulation through the ages and contain a number of associations, connotations, and latent meanings. Termini, by contrast, are unhistorical, univocal, often technical terms that do not connote, only denote. By preserving their metaphorical and sensory history, parole come with a host of “accessory images,” whereas termini “offer only a single idea of the object signified.” Leopardi elaborates: “If I call a plant or animal by the Linnaean name, I have aroused none of these [accessory] images, even though the thing itself is clearly indicated.”   

                                                            [See A&O notes on The Problem with Wordsconnections and ambiguity


“One reason Paul Valéry’s literary reputation has languished among English readers is the near impossibility of successfully translating the work of a poet who strove for what he called “la poésie pure”—his theory, influenced by the Symbolists, of an autonomous poetic language that relies on sound over signification.”

The Dream of Pure Expression – Claire Messud, NYRB 12/3/2020



AS STIMULI are translated to PERCEPTION and CONCEPTION …and then perhaps to EXPRESSION  … with feedback at each level enabling error-detection BUT also clarity: Twice in Wordsworth’s preface to the lyrical ballads, he defines poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of feelings,” however, Wordsworth does not believe that anyone can have these feelings. Without coming out and saying it … CD Lewis wrote We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” Extracted from Lewis’s book The Poetic Image  (1983), I believe this applies to all artistic expression.  Arguably the first “audience” for any creative expression is one’s self.   

  • My own experience of enlarged insight emerging unexpectedly along tghe path from idea to expression was when once, reading out loud to an audience a sentiment I expected would be very touching, but my efforts at expression were being caught by sanglot… I was chocking up with emotion and I needed a few seconds to recover my composure and voice.


FEEDBACK? We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand”


From A&O’s collection of autobiographical comments by artists on the importance of their activities to SELF-KNOWLEDGE




A&O discussion: we started with gesamtkunstwerk–a fusion of multiple art forms, each lending the other power and came somehow to Walter Pater’s idea of the arts aspiring to the condition of music.  This was developed early in his famous essay on “The  School of Giorgione,” in  his book The  Renaissance.  Here he presented “his famous thesis  that  although “the  sensuous  material  of each  art  brings with  it  a special  phase  or quality  of beauty, untranslatable into the  forms  of  any  other,  an  order  of  impressions  distinct  in  kind, yet it  is noticeable  that,  in  its special  mode  of handling  its  given material,  each  art  may  be observed  to   pass  into  the  condition  of some other  art,  by what  German  critics  term  an  Anders-streben­ a  partial  alienation  from  its own  limitations,  by which the  arts are able, not  indeed  to supply  the place of each other,  but reciprocally to  lend  each  other  new  forces.”    But  in  addition   to  the  Anders­ streben of  each  art  to  the  condition  of  some  other   art,  all  the arts  in  common  aspire   towards   the  condition   of  music;  “music being  the  typical,  or  ideally   consummate   art,  the  object  of  the great  Anders-streben of  all  art,  of  all  that  is artistic,  or  partakes of artistic  qualities.”   His  reason  for  making  music the goal  of the common  aspiration  of  all  art  is  that  “while  in all  other  works  of art  it  is  possible  to  distinguish   the  matter  from  the  form,  and the  understanding can  always  make  this  distinction,  yet  it  is  the constant   effort  of  art  to  obliterate   it.”  (From Walter Pater on  the Place  of Music  among the Arts by Max  Schoen (1942) The  Journal of Aesthetics and  Art Criticism , Summer, 1942,  Vol. 1,  No. 6 (Summer, 1942),  pp.  12-23.  Published by:  Wiley on  behalf of The  American Society for Aesthetics; Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/426154)


Anders-streben in Pater’s sense of the word resonates in tantalizing ways with the idea that as information courses through the brain and information is translated from one module to another it accumulates more meaning.  So to think an idea … then articulate it and/or to write it down –and perhaps to represent it in non-verbal art, is to most fully embrace it.   A kind of love–recalling Goethe again: what we would understand we must first love.  


Could there be a deeper, more meaningful translation than from (for example) an objet trouvé to a fully elaborated work of art that expresses the greatest possible fullness of the meaning of the object to the artist and communicates it successfully to their audience?



BROWSE one of the most authoritative journals: TRANSLATIONAL MEDICINE, reporting “research at the intersection of science, engineering, and medicine.”

there may be no more powerful sense of the translation than seeing how information is transformed and deployed than going from molecular biology to the existential consequences of medicine. 

[1]  Words as vectors in multidimensional space: Semantic projection recovers rich human knowledge of multiple object features from word embeddings. (Grand et al. in Nat Hum Behav 6, 975–987 (2022)):