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.”


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


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]



[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)):