Not So Lost in Translation

On Sunday, I attended a wonderful literary gathering entitled, “The Translated World: Reading and Discussion on Art and Translation.” It featured eight local writers, each assigned to discuss how they use translation in their writing. Those writers were Angela Carter, Stan Galloway, Shannon Curtis, Cliff Garstang, Indigo Eriksen, Chad Gusler, Susan Facknitz, and Paul Somers. The session was moderated by Michael Trocchia and held in a wonderful used book and record store in Staunton, Virginia, named Black Swan.

If you’re thinking the obvious meaning of translation–translating from one language to another–that’s only part of it. In the arts, translation also means bringing something from one context to another or bringing something non-linguistic to the linguistic in symbolic form.

The basic definition of translate is to move from one place to another, and that did bring to mind an archaic use of the word translate I read in some old English mystery or the other. However, as several of the writers pointed out translation has no fixed meaning and is relational to the person doing the translating.

Before the session started a few of us were talking about translating but in that basic sense of rendering one language into another. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered translation as a multi-layered concept. Then, I realized that in my writing, I take historical events and “translate” them into fictional stories, keeping the history intact but ¬†changing the context in which the events get perceived.

Hey, I’m not a rube after all.

Perhaps the most vivid depiction of translation was Indigo Eriksen’s presentation, wherein she read a poem she had written and a local student of Vietnamese decent played the music the poem evoked in her. Duyen Phan played a one-stringed Vietnamese instrument called a dan bau. Google it and watch a video of someone playing it because I can’t being to “translate” how it’s played except to say it’s extraordinary. Then, Eriksen and Phan changed the translation by having Phan play the music and Eriksen read a poem the music evoked.

Dan Bau

A dan bau


Phan concluded by playing well-known western music on the dan bau, and, again, words are paltry in attempting to describe the ethereal sounds this instrument made in such young hands. This was a perfect physical representation of what translation means in art.

And did I mention I love where I live where such great opportunities for expanding my literary knowledge exist?