It has been my observation, culled over years and years of eliciting “Ma Mignonne” translations from relatives, friends, colleagues, and students, that those people who do the most imaginative, liveliest, and most polished jobs are invariably those with the best senses of humor. They are people who love to play with ideas, juggle words, take risks, laugh at themselves, be silly, let themselves go. I suppose it suggests that having a sense of humor is tightly bound up with a propensity for intellectual risk-taking.
We had seen posters all over the city advertising an exhibit of strumenti di tortura (“instruments of torture”), and after weighing our heavily mixed feelings, finally decided to go see it. As we expected, it was very, very grim. There were spiked iron balls on chains, used to bash people to a pulp; there were large wheels upon which victims were fastened and stretched till their bones cracked apart; there were cages in which people were suspended in the air without water or food for days or weeks, until they died; there were tightenable metallic bodysuits that had huge spikes facing inwards; there were instruments for removing fingernails, for peeling off a live human’s layers of skin, for pulling organs out of abdomens; and on and on and on, ad nauseam. What struck Carol and me most of all, though, was that without any exception, all these demoniacal devices had been concocted in the name of God by the Catholic church, and they were used systematically by the clergy in order to keep people in line.
There is certainly no sharp black-and-white crossover line, however–no magic moment at which meaning suddenly attaches to a symbol that up until then had been totally empty. Rather, over a period of days, weeks, months, or years, symbols gradually acquire layers of meaning, like boats accumulating layers of barnacles.
Basically, the direction in which I am moving is toward the conclusion that there is not a simple one-to-one correspondence between human souls and human brains, but that instead each human soul is a distributed entity that is, of course, concentrated most intensely in one particular brain but that is also present in a diluted or partial manner in many other brains, and the degree of presence of A’s soul in B’s brain, not surprisingly, is a direct function of the depth of shared history and mutual caring between A and B.
Words are translatable among cultures to the extent that the worlds inhabited by their host languages are the same–and that extent is very high for many modern languages.
And yet, each language inhabits a world slightly different from all other languages, and so it has certain special terms whose meanings cannot be expressed concisely in other languages. They can be explained, but there is nothing like a terse corresponding expression.
To avoid the ironic fate of drowning in an ocean of your own micro-variants, you have to be courageous enough to part forever with lovely ideas that only a few minutes earlier you were terribly proud of.
(He was writing of translation, but it seems applicable to creative works in general.)
People not only wish but deeply need to attribute Profound Sensitivity to the performer when, in reality, the profundity is all, or nearly all, in the notes on paper. It’s the composer’s soul, not the performer’s, that is speaking to them. But it’s such a typical human desire to assign credit or blame to the flesh-and-blood human before their eyes rather than to an invisible abstraction of a human, a shadow long since vanished from view.
I’m not saying, mind you, that if queried explicitly, readers would deny a translation process ever took place–I’m just saying that translation tends to be one of those “out of sight, out of mind” kinds of things. Most readers take translators and translations for granted. And it would be wrong to think that the blame for this mistake falls solely on each individual who makes it; it is in large part the result of a collective attitude spread throughout our entire culture. We basically are taught–both by omission and by commission–to ignore, forget about, and disrespect translators.
…It makes me think of the wagging of a dog’s tail. (Could tail-wagging-ese be translated into American slang? “Hey folks–dig! I’m feelin’ groovy!” wagged Spot.)
Every task involves constraint,
Solve the thing without complaint;
There are magic links and chains
Forged to loose our rigid brains.
Structures, strictures, though they bind,
Strangely liberate the mind.
James Falen’s “odelet in praise of constraints”, quoted in DRH’s book