In preparation for a trip to Japan this spring, I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to pick up a bit of Japanese. Initially, I just wanted to learn a few phrases to ease the logistics of moving around in a country sparse with English-speakers. Now, however, my aims stretch beyond just that. I am eager to soak up every drop of the Japanese culture that I can during my visit, and much of culture is expressed in language – spoken or written.
When catching the speech of an unfamiliar language, the words, packaged into garbled chunks of sound, hardly rise above the din of ambient noise. Unfamiliar writing, especially in unfamiliar character systems, consists of masses of coordinated lines. In this way, we gloss over the foreign. When we learn a language, however, our experience of these sounds and scribblings are permanently altered. Learned words and characters, newly infused with the breath of meaning, lift off the plane of the sensory manifold and drift into the realm of the understanding.
I’ve become addicted to the feeling of new sounds stretching and slipping in between the neurons in my brain, new shapes straining from the grain of the page with the newfound force of familiarity. I now know the word 家族 (ka-zo-ku) to mean “family.” And when I see these two little line-creatures I don’t just say the word “family” in my head. Rather, I think of my mother, and father, and sister, Perri (and even my dog Mabel). I feel the certain warmth, security, tenderness that appears in my inner sense when I conjure the thought “family.”
As in my concept of “family,” our thoughts often overflow the verbal declaration of words in our inner sense. Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch illustrates this phenomenon beautifully in her 1951 paper “Thinking and Language”:
“Words do not occur as the content of thought as if they were cast upon a screen and there read off by the thinker… The meaning-character of uttered speech often demands an awareness of gesture, tone, and so on, as well as of context, for its full understanding… The thought is not the words (if any) but the words occurring in a certain way with, as it were, a certain force and colour… there is a region where words occur but in a more indeterminate imagining manner (indeterminacy is a main characteristic of the mental image) and not at all like a rehearsed inner speech.”
When we have trouble “articulating our thoughts,” even in our native language, we are having trouble taking the infinitely rich array of images, abstract notions, emotions, sensations, and reducing them to a finite set of symbols. As such, even simple words such as “family” carry additional “thought baggage” that is specific to each individual’s experiences and vocabulary. (It is perhaps this “thought baggage” that both necessitates and facilitates metaphor and poetry.)
What does this say, then, for the task of translation? How can we transfer the meaning of words and all of their “thought baggage” between different languages? When we work with two different languages, we are working with two non-overlapping nets through which to filter our inner sense. This requires a process of dissolving the thought which has been distilled in one language back into thought, then re-distilling it in the other language. It seems that there is only one way in which this process can be done: carefully.
For an example, let us call upon a brain-buttering essay (gifted from my friend Sofia) by Ilya Kaminsky on the process of translating the work of Paul Celan. Celan (1920-1970) was a Romanian-born poet whose parents died in Nazi concentration camps while he studied medicine in Paris. The trauma of the Holocaust was the primary theme of much of his famously opaque poetry, which he wrote in German, his mother-tongue, despite fluency in several other languages. Celan, chose to “break” German, eschewing conventional structure and meaning, as demonstrated in this excerpt from a translation of his most famous work, “Deathfugue” from John Felstiner:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus
Kaminsky asks and answers: “Why break a language? To wake it up.” Celan chose to “break” his mother tongue, which was insufficient to express his trauma as a victim of the Holocaust, in a process of “reclaiming” the language to express this trauma.
But, if it is difficult enough already to transport “thought baggage” between languages, how does one translate a broken language? Again, carefully. In the above translation, Felstiner departs from the literal translation of the German, instead “breaking” English in the same way that Celan intended to break German. He even chose to retain some of the German words in the English translation, transforming the work from a unilingual to a bilingual poem in an attempt to retain the sense of “foreignness” in the original work.
Preserving meaning in the process of translation is tricky – and risky – business. In one historical instance, the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews having horns, depicted in art and culture for centuries, has its root in a faulty translation. St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators (ironically), mistranslated the “radiance” (“karan”) around Moses’s head when he descended from Mt. Sinai as “horned” (“keren”) in his translation of the Torah (Hebrew bible) into Latin.
The complexity multiplies when we consider that the boundaries of language exist in forms other than our traditions distinction between, say, Swahili and Hindi, or Indonesian and Russian. If we further divide the population on the basis of the “thought baggage” that comes with the meaning of words (founded in shared experiences), we create new, more specific languages. This subdivision can be carried out until we even define a language between two people, or between an individual and their own thoughts. From this perspective, every instance of communication, every time we reach outside of the language of our own inner sense, is an exercise of translation. One that must be carried out, as you guessed it, carefully.
Many of the common objects in my life have a new secret life in my eyes since I discovered the work of Japanese artist Tatsuya Tanaka. Tanaka’s photographs, which are released daily in the form of a calendar, play with scale and semblance, turning everyday objects into the architecture of a miniature world. (You can also easily summon Tanaka’s work to your Instagram feed.)
Sometime between now and its release in 2015 I stumbled across the album Comme Ca (Spotify, YouTube, Bandcamp) from a myserious artist named Domenique Dumont. To my great excitement, this past October the French label Antinote released another album, Miniatures de Auto Rhythm (Spotify, YouTube, Bandcamp), from the Paris-based producer, now revealed to be the Latvian duo of Artus Liepins and Anete Stuce, with the same sun-streaked, ethereal, soundscapes of their debut release.
If you’re withdrawing from the addictive cultural moment that was the Fyre Festival documentaries, block out a little time in your day to indulge in this article from New York Magazine’s The Cut on the recent meteoric rise (and impending fall) of Tulum, Mexico, a paradise for Instagram influencers and “the next stop after Ibiza on the global DJ party circuit.”
It is fun to ponder what any pre-20th-century Western artist would think of the walls of art museums in our day – empty rooms with lights going on and off, blocks of color on a canvas. The arrival of abstract art was a paradigm shift that required the boldness and ingenuity of artists such as the formerly-overlooked Hilda af Klint (1862-1944). Klint’s work, wondrously warm and feminine in contrast to much of the abstract art that followed, is riddled with symbols of the occult, and perhaps serves as a sort of manifesto of her mystical-prophetic worldview. Regardless of your feelings on her brand of spiritualism, Klint made beautiful art in a time beyond her own. Catch the exhibition of her work at the Guggenheim before it ends on April 23rd!
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