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.     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  ghe meaning of what I just said. I can Rorschach the shit 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.”


A crystalized version of the problem with translation are “untranslatable words” usually for emotional state: