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Found in Translation

October 5, 2009

Under the Volcano – and the Bluecoat exhibition and accompanying book – has this recurring theme of misunderstandings and mistranslations.  It’s an interesting one for an artist.  Here’s a couple of quotes on the subject, from people called Jean…

“Misunderstandings and hostility between artists and society cannot be denied”

“it was to be taken for granted that… to be unknown was better than to be famous. If a writer became known it was to be explained by a misunderstanding

Jean Paul Sartre

My work around the Under the Volcano exhibition, and the Chapter and Verse festival, will utilise different levels of misunderstandings and mistranslations.  First though, I’m going to post a few examples of the field.

Firstly, here is one of Ross Sutherland’s amazing poems created using internet translation software to extrapolate new poems from old…

Of Reduced Principle Scale

Translated from ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ by X. J. Kennedy


We conclude with extremes. The meat hands down its eyes,

Bread and carrots become temporary gold, the light of the sun

filtering through the sleeping stairway like an interactive translator

of instructions, and it will swell with insignia as it repairs its spirit.


In the ideographic lowlands, these things are unchangeable

The thigh indicates to us that we are fixed, one

To one; one alcoholic to one drink,

Our fine mouths making the air vibrate.


Cascade of the A-woman, consumed and moved away

In a slow inclination toward a long end

We stop briefly, in the final stairs,

To gather our movements into the dimension of a variable.


Then, here is Zukovsky and his wife tackling Catullus…

A: Catullus

Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,

et quod uides perisse perditum ducas.

fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,

cum uentitabas quo puella ducebat

amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.

ibi illa multa cum iocosa fiebant,

quae tu uolebas nec puella nolebat,

fulsere uere candidi tibi soles.

Nunc iam illa non uult: tu quoque impotens,noli

nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser uiue,

sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.

uale puella, iam Catullus obdurat,

nec te requiret nec rogabit inuitam.

at tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla.

scelesta, uae te, quae tibi manet uita?

quis nunc te adibit? cui uideberis bella?

quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris?

quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis?

at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura.



B: Louis and Celia Zukofsky (translated for sound AND sense)

Miss her, Catullus? don’t be so inept to rail

at what you see perish when perished is the case.

Full, sure once, candid the sunny days glowed, solace,

when you went about it as your girl would have it,

you loved her as no one else shall ever be loved.

Billowed in tumultuous joys and affianced,

why you would but will it and your girl would have it.

Full, sure, very candid the sun’s rays glowed solace.

Now she won’t love you; you, too, don’t be weak, tense, null,

squirming after she runs off to miss her for life.

Said as if you meant it: obstinate, obdurate.

Vale! puling girl. I’m Catullus, obdurate,

I don’t require it and don’t beg uninvited:

won’t you be doleful when no one, no one!

begs you,
scalded, every night. Why do you want to live now?

Now who will be with you? Who’ll see that you’re lovely?

Whom will you love now and who will say that you’re his?

Whom will you kiss? Whose morsel of lips will you bite?

But you, Catullus, your destiny’s obdurate.



I think the extrapolation of these works is emblematic of the overall way in which artists and societies influences each other – taking and distorting modes and traditions until they are made their own.  One poet has spoken of this kind of translation as ‘reading the poet’s lips’ – which I like.



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