Lost in translation


We were talking today about how much is lost in translation. This was being discussed from an abstract, as well as a literal viewpoint.

It started with a conversation about books and moved on to language in general and thence to poetry and song. I mentioned Jacques Brel, a poet, singer and performer of, in my opinion, utter genius, who wrote almost exclusively in French. Many people know the songs for which he was best known, even though they are generally known best in English as cover versions.

To take one of the original songs and translate it into literal but literate English is fine.. it allows access to the meaning, but not the poetry. To take the original and make it into a song that has rhyme and rhythm is wonderful.. but it then loses must of the lyricism and the depth of meaning and emotion created by the choice  and juxtaposition of words that create that unique imagery.

Yet Brel sang with absolute passion and emotion. I would point the curious in the direction of the incredible recording of his concert at l’Olympia, available piecemeal on Youtube. Each song is a showstopping performance and portrayal of human emotion. Even when the lyrics are not understood, one cannot help but be moved by the emotion. Understand the words and it is simply stunning. Look for ‘Ces gens la’, ‘Jef’ and ‘Ne me quittes pas’. I remember well the first time I saw that last recording on TV. I knew the song word for word. My husband, himself a singer/songwriter, sang it frequently. Yet, I sat, mid dusting, mouth open in utter amazement and with tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched and listened.

I have to say that I think Brel understood living with passion.

Of course, the discussion then moved on to how other things are lost in translation. Especially the abstract personal concepts that deal with the evolution of the self.  It is not a secret that that SilentEyeSchool seeks to promote a way of living in vivid colour, a way of moving through life with passionate awareness and on to another level of being.  It is exceptionally difficult, sometimes impossible, to share in words the depth of emotion a spiritual realisation can give. There are expreiences off the normal scale for which there are no common phrases or images. And they are uniquely personal.

Yet, as teachers we have to find the words, the images, the scenario that will illustrate and suggest to the mind of the student something abstract and subjective. We have to describe a spiritual ‘taste’, and if you think about it, even that sense of taste, something we are all very familiar with right from birth, carries impossibility.

How can you describe a taste? You can compare it, say it is similar to or different from.. you can generalise and say it is sweet, acid, savoury… but you cannot describe a taste accurately. Nor, if you think about it can you describe an emotion. It is something you can only learn for yourself through experience. Although you may be able to learn if it will be pleasant or painful in advance, you cannot know how it feels until you feel it. Sometimes the best way to share it is to show it, allow it to be observed and witnessed. Sometimes all you can do is point the way.

The School takes students down tried and tested pathways. We walk them ourselves. It gives a map and a companion, and, if you will, a set of tools to use along the way.Yet ultimately the experience will be as different for each of us as we are from each other, and each will find they take their own unique journey with its own flavour.

21 thoughts on “Lost in translation

  1. There are so many things that words can not justify. One can only show but grasping, understanding and feeling is done from another heart. Yes, each one of us find a unique journey based on our feelings, perception, likes and will.

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  2. Yes, I agree with you. A translation is always one writer’s (or non-writer’s) version of another writer’s words. There’s no such thing as an exact translation. Poetry in translation is a different poem to the original. I don’t know Spanish so I don’t know Neruda’s poetry, for example. A translation isn’t the same. Actually, I’d find it hard to get passionate about the poetry of such a detestable character anyway, but that’s another part of the equation.
    There is never one way of looking at anything, but a translation is always a vision seen through a distorting lens.

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    1. I have a bit of a quandary here, Jane. I don’t know the poetry of Neruda, either in Spanish or translation, but the question is: Should we judge an art form by the character of the artist, or by the art itself?


      1. It’s a difficult one. In theory, no, the ‘art’ should be judged on it’s own merits, accepting that it will strike different chords in different people.
        The thing is, we can’t unknow what we know. It’s impossible to not read hypocrisy into love poems written by an arsehole. A poem is a piece of the poet, not something in a glass case in a museum.
        I know that Neruda dumped his eight year-old handicapped daughter in Nazi occupied Holland (where she died) to get his own arse out of the country. I know that his treatment of his various wives/lovers was questionable if you’re being generous. I can’t unknow that so it would taint any reading of his poetry, even if I could read it.

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  3. Another interesting post Sue. Tes, I agree. A translation always loses a lot of the meaning and emotion of the original. And always remember there are some words that just won’t translate.

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  4. For matters of the heart, of the soul, I turn to mystics. They speak of universal truths, ones in which I feel at home. Differences in religion fade when love or oneness or beauty are considered. There are no adequate words for ultimates such as these. But through poetic suggestion, we sense and sometimes experience their reality. Beautiful post, Sue. 💗

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  5. I’ve been wondering if all creative expression isn’t always a translation. Isn’t even what we “see” a translation of what may or may not be actually there? We can definitely never know if our sensory experiences match anyone else’s, even if we describe it with similar words. (K)

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  6. So interesting, Sue. It makes total sense that we can’t share the exact same experiences. Perception is a powerful filter. All we can do, as artists and fellow travelers is try to point the way. Lovely post. Hugs. ❤

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  7. So as each of us is moved by the words of another, and expresses that in our own words, we add to the whole and possibly lead others to the original song or poem. Works that are read or heard are living things.

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  8. So true, Sue. It’s like trying to describe color. We have all these names for colors, but I know my husband does not see what I see. We have to rely on our senses for the experience.

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  9. You can see some of the magic if you’re fluent in both languages. Don Quixote is not the same in both languages, neither the book nor the Broadway musicals. I much preferred the version I saw in Mexico City. Much richer.


  10. There are certain songs that carry with them an emotional connection whatever language they are sung in. There is a Xhosa lullaby that our nanny used to sing to us which made us feel safe as children even though we didn’t know the translation.. I remembered it all my life and in my mother’s last weeks I would sing her to sleep with it. We as individuals with our lifetime of experiences will translate words and their meaning in different ways.. even more so when combined with music. Love to you Sue.. xxx


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