This week, I’ve spoken with translators.
One is a translator for German and English; the other is a translator between many languages; another translates feeling through art; and the final translates feeling through therapy. When I looked at these four characters of this week, I began listing others who could be considered translators: the person who helped me when I was confused about how to do things in New York; the friend who told me about how they’d helped some friends; the person who corrected me when I made an error in a Zoom call; and myself, too — on a train trip, I found myself surrounded by chatty French Canadians and I fell into the rhythm and music of their speech, not even bothering to hide my eavesdropping.
I’m deliberately messing up concepts of translation and interpretation here. While books could be written on the subject, an easy (but perhaps single-layered) distinction is that translation refers to written material, whereas interpretation refers to spoken. Interpretation can be considered a subsidiary of translation.
(Go easy on me, ye professionals!)
The play Translations by Brian Friel features characters speaking to each other across a language barrier. In reality the actors are all speaking English, but you understand, when watching, that the play depicts some people speaking English, some Irish, and the gap that exists between them is the contributing factor to confusion, miscomprehension, worry, threat, possibility, and meeting. Watching the play, from the vantage point of an audience member who follows everything, you can follow what happens when translation is absent, or flimsy, or misunderstood. Primarily the experience is one of feeling: feeling frustrated, worried, anxious.
This, too, then is part of what interests me in translation: the place of feeling in what’s being translated, not just meaning. The two share much, of course, and neither can be finally controlled. Brian Friel’s play shows that the past is as much a factor in understanding as language is. If someone doesn’t understand my history then my present may be incomprehensible to them, even if we share a language.
Sometimes I wonder if I understand myself, never mind anyone else. And then I remember that the human experience is one of plurals. It can be bewildering to attempt to understand yourself, and others. I find myself coming back to a magnificent essay by Arthur Sze where he writes:
The disorientation of the speaker is how I sometimes feel as a translator. Disorientation, the losing of one’s bearings… involves confronting your own limited understanding. It forces you to suspend your own judgment of where you are in place and time, and it gives you the possibility of re-envisioning and experiencing things “for the first time.”
What I love about this quote is that the frustration with self at the lack of understanding is itself part of the essential feeling of the entire enterprise.
So I’m curious:
When have you tried to translate (whether in languages, or meaning, or art)? What was achieved? What was oriented? What was disoriented? What was re-oriented?
Ag eirí le bhur fhreagraí, a chairde,
PS: The wonderful Courtney Martin (she’s had a long association with On Being) invited me for a Q&A as part of her own Substack newsletter, the examined family — how lovely to be in touch with her about this.
Poetry in the World
The Craft of Translation | Torn Page, NYC (435 W 22nd St)
Later tonight (March 5), I’ll be joining the magnificent Patricio Ferrari for a multilingual poetry reading (English, Irish, Italian, Spanish) and a lively discussion on the craft of translation. You can register here, with a suggested donation of $10 in support of Tender Buttons Press. 5pm ET. I’d love to see you there — do come up and say hello.
Poetry at Calvary Episcopal Church | Memphis, TN
I’ll be doing a series of events in association with Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis from March 15-19. While the Saturday half-day retreat at St. Columba is fully booked, you may wish to go on the waiting list. You can find more details on their website about events on March 15, 17, 18 and 19.
I'm a poet and therapist. My husband is an inventor and patent attorney. Our marriage requires constant translation/interpretation. I operate in feeling words and colorful visuals. He operates in algorithms and spreadsheets. I'm gut-spills and gestures. He's flat affect and mystery. We've found a few ways to move through these barriers, humor being the most effective! I write poems for him and he creates Excel documents for me with the important parts highlighted (he knows I can't resist a pop of yellow!). These document exchanges are openings for us. They make us laugh (the universal language) and carry us into the conversations we've been trying to have all along. We celebrate 16 years of marriage on St. Patrick's Day, so I think we're onto something;)...
I have a nephew who is very conservative politically. He lives in the middle of the US and services large pieces of agricultural equipment. I'm much more liberal, live in the suburbs and have retired from a university.
Some years ago, he asked if I would explain to him why I held my political views on a rather long list of topics. He cautioned that he was not intending to change his views, but he wondered why I held mine.
Through some unexpected divine nudge, I had the forethought to take each topic and say, "Here is how liberal people think about that topic and why, and here is how conservative people think about that and why. Finally, here is how I think about that."
You see, we both speak American English, but we have arisen and have been shaped by different experiences - different cultures and narratives. I didn't change his mind that night - and it stretched me to carefully value both perspectives while refining my own position. However, it did create a meaningful bridge of communication that has continued and grown into a more honest conversation about our two lives and the family systems and experiences that have shaped them.
We see each other about once a year. We recently had a civil three-hour discussion over breakfast, and I feel that doors which had been nailed tightly shut are now ajar.