lost in translation

Interpreting and Translating Worlds:

Meaning What You Say.

There is no PanTimes talk this Wednesday 05 August. Here is a PanTime thought as entertainment.


Every translation is an interpretation. I had a few minutes, between household chores, so I did the sort of thing that entertains me, when I have a moment. I checked out a few lost fragments from Euripides.

There were a few lines that caught my attention. I won’t copy the original, since that’s Greek to me. What got me was how the same lines, translated by different scholars, convey different senses and meanings.
Sometimes it’s a poetic nuance, and doesn’t make that much difference to the meaning.
Silence is an answer in the eyes of the wise. Fragment 977
Variant: Silence is true wisdom’s best reply.
Nevertheless, the translation changes from the human beings, and their eyes – you can feel the  person looking directly at another, and saying nothing – to an abstract concept of wisdom. Nobody home either side.  
This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought. The Phoenician Women
Variant: Who dares not speak his free thoughts is a slave.
Here it’s the other way round. From the idea of slavery and all that evokes as an felt-image, to the embodied idea of a slave, a sort of judgment. It changes the way we experience the image conveyed by the word.
Sometimes, the meaning and the impact both change:
Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish. Bacchæ l. 480.
The speaker is addressing the fool, and it is the intelligent person’s experience that is emphasised.
Variant: To the fool, he who speaks wisdom will sound foolish. The fool’s experience is emphasised.
Variant: He were a fool, methinks, who would utter wisdom to a fool. Now the speaker is actually called a fool, rather  than being considered one by the fool.
Variant: Wise words being brought to blinded eyes will seem as things of naught.
That’s just silly. Words can be understood by the blind. They’re blind, not deaf. It’s a careless phrase.
And sometimes the meaning changes altogether:
Some shrewd man first, a man in judgment wise,
Found for mortals the fear of gods,
Thereby to frighten the wicked should they
Even act or speak or scheme in secret. Bacchæ
Variant: He was a wise man who originated the idea of God.
That’s just not the same thing. For starters, it suggests that the entire ‘idea of God’ is the same as ‘the fear of gods’. In the longer verse, the implication is that belief in and presence with ‘the gods’, as forces of fate and existence, already exist. To this was added that one should be reminded to fear such gods, at least to keep the wicked in check. In the variant, the very idea of the existence of the gods is being questioned.
Nor are these the same:
‘Twas but my tongue, ’twas not my soul that swore. Bacchæ l.612
Variant: My tongue swore, but my mind was still unpledged.
A soul is not a mind. But the real difference is in the poignant presence of the poetry, in the first translation, compared to the distant, and calculated sense, of the statement of the second.

And this one didn’t have variations. It is rather just to share a riff of Euripides, because he’s lovely and smart.
Of all things upon earth that bleed and grow,
A herb most bruised is woman.

Translating as love. To be a decent translator, to convert and convey the sense of what is intended, and make it known as it was meant, a person needs to have a lot more than knowledge of the meaning of words. They need to open heart and soul to the heart and soul of the original text, to be dissolved into the world of the original, and to allow that world to enter them completely, like making love. For a legal text, public notice, or directions for using an electronic device, accuracy of words and grammar is relevant. But for fine literature, passionate poetry, creative mythology and the transports of religious texts, far more is required. The transmission of knowledge is always below the threshold of the audible or written words used to convey the message. It makes all the difference if we are to receive a sense of the beauty and wisdom of the source.

Good translation of holy words – and we make no distinction here between scripture and erotic poetry, if both are sourced through the soul – needs a more subtle sort of literacy, one that includes the life experience of the translator. This is usually achieved when one has been sufficiently pathologised and passionate oneself, to allow the joy and suffering of the poet to be felt, before the words arrange themselves on the page. The same shattering and disorientation that every prophet and valuable artist has endured, that allowed the gods to get through in the original words, must also be known to the one who would translate. Otherwise, what follows, though it might be technically exact, will be lifeless. Cleverness of mind is not much use when it comes to hearing the rhythms of infinity, neither in the art of eavesdropping on the gods, nor in the art of translation.

Everything in life is a translation. Our physical existence translates the life force of our soul as a display. Our words translate our thoughts and heart into breath and sound. Our actions are the translation of our unconscious instincts, or conscious intentions, into time and space.

In each case, the same action which reveals also limits. Translation is a process of interpretation from a number of possibilities, and then a choice of the one way, or particular words, that seems the best way for that idea to be expressed. We usually think of limitations as inhibitions and hindrances to our freedoms and self-expression. “No limits” is an ultra-performance sportswear brand, a car-race video game, the title of a few songs and a general mantra of the break-out youth. We are told that we ‘live out life to the fullest’ when we have no limits, and impossible is an attitude.

The Kabbalah has a teaching that says “the greater the limitation, the greater the actualisation”. This usually refers the esoteric philosophy of how infinite nothingness becomes finite somethingness, a little like the Big Bang Theory. (In this case, the sitcom is more appealing than Hawkins.)

The Kabbalistic idea can be easily understood. For anything to be here, the screen on which you are reading these words, or the eyes in your head doing the reading, by definition, everything else in the entire universe cannot be here. No elephants, no highway, no crashing wave or meteor or banana. A mosquito could also be here, on the screen, but not exactly where the screen occupies the space and time. This means that existence is limited. Being is the expression of the infinity of ultimate limitations, of this one thing only, right here and now, out of an infinite series of possibilities that might have been here, but aren’t.

Which is a bit like translating a text, except that with the text, there are fewer options to choose from. But the principle is the same. Choose this one way to express the idea, and all the other could-have-beens remain only potential, and do not actualise. For meaningful creativity, it is wiser to develop the art of ‘yes limits’, and leave ‘no limits’ to the creatively unskilled.

It’s the the same with your life. You are the translation into time and space of your own infinite possibilities. And the same guidance applies. To be a decent translator of yourself into the world, you need to be a bit cracked open, to allow the gods through. That way, the unfathomable will radiate through your human limits, and you’ll reveal the best meaning of who you are. And others, or at least those who are psychically literate, will be able to read you and receive the loveliest sense of who you are, as you will receive that also with them.


“I had always been impressed by the fact that there are a surprising number of individuals who never use their minds if they can avoid it, and an equal number who do use their minds, but in an amazingly stupid way.” C G Jung, Man and His Symbols