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Preliminary definitions

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a. The concept of "field"

The path leading from perception to sensation, and thence to conceptualization, is complex and for the most part remains a mystery. Ancient cultures made use of ideograms to express image and thought at one and the same time. The word "idea" derives from the Greek eidolon, which has to do with visualized images. Sight gives place to thought. Repeated images create expectations to which we attribute the value of substantial things by giving names. If value, as Max Weber suggests, is that which gives direction to hopes and dreams, then every linguistic culture is an organization of values influencing the discovery of the world. It follows that every language is the expression of a different way of understanding the world. This is not a philosophical question, given that it is the senses first and foremost which are involved. When Homer describes the sea as being the "colour of wine", he is not being poetic, but simply giving expression to the way his contemporaries perceived the effect produced by the reflection of the sun on the water. Similarly, a crystalline structure is one that evolves slowly as perceived by the human eye. To the Attic perception, the transparencies and translucencies of a Monet would appear uniform, black, violet...

But literary languages do not take shape only through the sensations and physiological characteristics of a people. Customs and usages are also an important factor. When, in the Song of Songs, the breasts of the beloved are likened to fawns, we cannot identify any erotic urge in the metaphor without first considering how, in the ancient nomadic civilizations, the main role of the women was to draw water and bring it to the village in jars which they would balance on their heads, so that the origin of this vision of beauty lies in the profile of the swaying breasts silhouetted against the horizon. Hence, the idea of envisaging a flock of fawns in the line of approaching women, with the youngest tending to drift off and then being brought back into line, and the notion of comparing the breasts of the beloved to such an image... these things take us along the path that distinguishes everyday language from literary language. Our vision of beauty on the other hand has its roots in Renaissance representations of the Virgin, set motionless against a stylized natural landscape, or in Raphaelite portraits, with those profiles delineated as margins interfacing the light of the incarnate with the relaxed serenity of far-off horizons.

This "dynamic" vision of beauty implies a perspective different to ours, in the theatre of the mind where life experiences determine how things are perceived. Another example: in a poem by the Chinese Li Po, a group of young people are depicted drinking and making merry in a pagoda. The idea (eidolon) would seem to be one of carefree abandon, were it not for the reflection of their images being drawn by the current of the river toward an inevitable demise... A stylized culture like that of the Chinese, all profiles, intent on outline rather than perspective, cannot help but see the truth as a shadow cast onto a wall. Chinese culture is the culture of the Sosie, the Double ¾ the Other Self concealed behind the social mask imposed by Confucianism.

Likewise in the West, romanticism reflected the beginnings of an obsession with the idea of this Other Self as a revealer of hidden truths. In Heinrich Heine's famous poem Der Doppelganger, a traveller obsessed by the moon passes by the house where he had formerly known happiness in love. The light of the moon is reflected in a window, behind which the man sees himself as he once was. He experiences a deep jealousy as the moon casts his own shadow on the ground. Are we in the same "field" as Li Po? Not really. Here the truth of the Other Self is a shadow cast over time, rather than in space. On the other hand, there is a certain logic in finding the poetry of Li Po in The Chinese Flute, a Buddhist anthology compiled by the German Hans Bethge in the late nineteenth century.

Staying with things German, in the Nibelungslied, gold and purple symbolize the human desire for power, whilst the sword and the ash tree are symbols of liberation. In a culture where the social order was determined principally by Sippe, clans bound by feudal relationships, the gold of the crown was synonymous with civil war. The arrival of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire would turn this whole symbolic framework upside down. Changing the field, in our eyes. In effect, we find in the Baroque period ¾ the necessary transition to "modern" civilization ¾ that gold and purple have come to symbolize the redeeming power of Faith. Similarly, at the height of the Mediaeval era when relations between the sexes were conditioned by a totally rigid class structure and erotic passion was necessarily adulterous, the "dramaturgy" of the dawn is a representation of death, not resurrection. The late Middle Ages show us a culture of Night, albeit the separation of light and darkness has not yet become representative of the struggle between good and evil. A secular" culture, as it were. And, following a historical hiatus, it was another German, Richard Wagner, who took up the threads and wove another panel into the tapestry when in Tristan and Isolde he used the nocturnal duet of the lovers to define a moment in which life triumphs over the masks of social pretence ¾ masks of the daytime. We have seen it already in Heine: Romanticism, reaching out toward alien and/or ancient cultures in an attempt to recapture a secular dimension to human existence.

So what significance has all this, in practice, for the translator of literary texts?

First and foremost an awareness of the prejudices, the original perspectives, the symbologies, indeed the "cultures" on which the powers of imagination are to be exercised, and on which any judgement of the source text is bound to depend. This judgement is necessarily an a prioriconception. A personal "field" of observation in and with which the translator's own experiences are also placed, stored and interconnected.

And what is this thing we are referring to as "field"? An assemblage of parameters relating to perspective, formulated from perceptive data attributable to the physiological constitution, the cultural learning, the emotional temperament and the life experience of the individual translator. Every "field" has collective and individual elements. Each is unique and incompatible with others, charged with a mixture of allusions, evocations and references to an inner world that is by its very nature untranslatable.


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