It’s more than Greek to me: on visual translation

Andrew David King
July 24, 2012
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I’ve written in the past about typography and materiality—how the physical elements from which language is forged can influence, govern, or dictate its semantics. The relationship, though, is complex; there are limitations to how much we allow this materiality to affect what some philosophers of language and cognitive scientists to call “token manipulation.” For instance: I could change the font, size, or color of the previous two sentences, and chances are the reader of ordinary English would still be able to comprehend them. But they would be, nonetheless, markedly distinct from one another. The trouble comes when we try to determine to what extent exactly we can fidget with a thing’s material encapsulation without making it something altogether other, without taking away its own being. Sometimes, as with the more effective pieces of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, this happens, and what the viewer of a project gets is access to the possibilities of otherness within a system that banks on its being perceived as immutable. When this happens we see beyond language and to its origins, but not without first seeing through it. Pinning down what’s at the other end of the microscope when we get there invokes an impossible loop-de-loop of postulation that takes the same form as its evidence. And the armada of beaten-to-death but socially-policed aphorisms about language—by age four, the Department of Education insists, preschoolers should understand that “print carries a message”—don’t advance the case for an intelligent discussion of materiality or alternative semantics.

The typography of text seems to especially intrude when we’re looking at “foreign” languages, or at communication systems whose materials we haven’t been trained to read semantic values into. I remember riding in the backseat of my parents’ car when I was a toddler and looking at the signs along Mission Blvd. in Hayward, California. I was unable to read them, but they held such fascination for me—the neon squiggles, the angles of incandescents, shards of an everyday dialect exalted. I was pre-reading then, but not pre-language; I knew what some words meant when I heard them, but more importantly, I knew that words meant. And I remember how it felt to first anchor meanings to those bulbs and backlit plastic signs. It was as if I’d tossed a magnet onto a floor full of iron shavings: I could never, even if I tried to, go back to my original state. I couldn’t imagine what a world full of iron shavings and meaningless written marks would look like, though I’d spent my childhood in it up to that point. Every sign thrust its words into my brain; I couldn’t help but hear them. It was impossible for me to see only the medium anymore. I was condemned to tie officiated discourse to objects that couldn’t possibly have inherent meaning, or even care for it.

I’d eventually find some substitutes for my non-visual linguistic state: Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. Years later, I’d come closer to understanding Pound’s fascination with the ideogram not just as a linguistic fact but as a poetic metaphor, poetic device: here was an “object” of language, a manifestation that couldn’t be parsed down further, a hybrid that ceased to make any sense—ceased to mean—when reduced to its ingredients. I still search for that experience today, especially when I read poetry that tasks itself with prodding the restrictions of materiality. In these moments, words with semantic values fused to them become, if only for a fraction of a second, foreign again. I’m allowed to experience their materiality in its pristine state, without a coating of convention and content plastered over it. Several relatively recent works of poetry also analyze this moment of simultaneous departure from and re-emersion into language, that moment in which a latticework of connections and what a given thing might mean come into view. In Linda Kunhardt’s “Clifton Webb,” which appeared in the December 2011 issue of Poetry, the sentence “I smell the blood of low-definition attorneys” is repeated four times: firstly as it would normally appear, secondly in italics, thirdly underlined, and fourth in “Greek” text:

I smell the blood of low-definition attorneys.
I σμελλ τηε βλοοδ οφ λοω-δεφινεδ αττορνεψσ.

The reason I put “Greek” in scare-quotes is because my first encounter with the poem led me to think that the English sentence had been visually translated in reverse from a Greek sentence with a conventionally accepted semantic value. In other words, knowing no Greek, I thought that Kunhardt had attributed English semantics values to the components of the Greek sentence that resembled them. “βλοοδ” = “blood,” “αττορνεψσ,” = attorneys, and so on. I soon realized this couldn’t be how she proceeded. Google Translate, upon my amateur sleuthing, deciphered the “Greek” sentence as Kunhardt had written it as “I smell THE vlood loo-offs defined attornepss,” and suggested that I what I might have actually meant was “I smell THE vlood looe-offs defined atarneos.” (Is there an algorithm that knows more about language than we do?) No, Kunhardt wasn’t visually translating “from” the Greek; she’d done something trickier. She had located the letters of the Greek alphabet that corresponded with the English and switched them, conscious that the aesthetic discrepancies between the final appearance of each sentence wouldn’t influence its semantic status. With “Clifton Webb,” she’s rigged several puns to explode at once. The idea that typographical similarity and historical affinity cause us to conflate Greek letters with English ones is straightforward enough, but more arresting is the idea that our linguistic programming causes us to see through an unfamiliar language and to our own, which may or may not have anything to do with it.

Clifton Webb in a trailer for the 1944 film Laura.

But, on that note, how could we not if Kunhardt manipulated the language’s text and broke its diction and grammar to trick us? The truth is that the Greek lettering for “blood” is “αίμα” (an interesting kinship with “aqua,” there), and for “attorneys” it’s “δικηγόροι.” In either example, nothing like what Kunhardt wrote above. Hers, then, is not a visual translation from Greek, but to Greek: it’s a visual translation of an English sentence, one that maps its author’s powers of association when confined to the pen of a particular alphabet. In Kunhardt’s poem, the remarkably constructive and destructive force—at any rate, a shaping force—of semantics proves capable of imposing itself on linguistic vehicles like letters. It is as much a commentary on the impossibility of untarnished efforts of translation as it is on the impossibility of objects to ever have a singular meaning or purpose. And throw in a dethroning of classical syntax and systems for good measure (obligatory, I guess, in a poem titled after an Oscar-nominated American actor from the mid-twentieth century).

Polly Duff Bresnick’s Old Gus Eats (Chapbook Genius, 2010) is, in light of Kunhardt’s poem, a genuine visual translation from Greek, not to it. Bresnick excerpted the fourteenth through twenty-third stanzas of Homer’s The Odyssey in order to figure out which English terms the original Greek words seemed most equivalent to. There needn’t be any emphasis on grammatical coherence in the susbequent visual translation, but Bresnick’s visual translations manage to preserve a sense of English grammar and syntax. It’s a wonder how many linked combinations she went through in order to find lines like “Vulva of hippopotamus, very omnivorous. / Avenue of water tombs. Elk pout and evaluate. Tutu me: tour a pelvis.” Contrary to how the author frames her project, these aren’t mistranslations—just a very specific kind of unconventional translation, that which concerns itself with material first and foremost (and ends up inevitably demonstrating the confusion caused by shared or similar alphabets). The ancient Greek text itself reads: “νῦν δ ̓ ὃς ἀποτμότατος γένετο θνητῶν ἀνθρώπων, / τοῦ μ ̓ ἔκ φασι γενέσθαι, ἐπεὶ σύ με τοῦτ ̓ ἐρεείνεις.” As she progresses, protagonists emerge—Old Gus, of course, but also Etta—and necklaces of audible and verbal jewelry are strung together:

…Our ape voice takes you to
wet Möbius, covetous uterus pliant as dork ovals.
A diaper vial caterwauls in vehement alto keys. A van naps.
Rolodex toll pow wows. Optic tile versus eyes. Meta-cool.

Homer’s The Odyssey (Jemimus; Flickr/Creative Commons)

As Bresnick continues, the semi-reality she constructs gets more real and more surreal at the same time. At one point, Tupac gets mentioned. At another, “‘To life, you velveteen power mile!’” is uttered as an invocation. Brenick’s translation is surely guided by her twenty-first century lexicon, and this makes it all the more fascinating for its perhaps unintentional service as the thermometer of an age: what materials we have available to us dictate what associations we will make, where our consciousness will go when it’s free but wants to hitch significance to a willing vehicle. It’s a cross between the tendency toward critical insistence on dictionary-defined correlations, and the inscription on the oracle at Delphi—“know thyself,” “nothing in excess,” or “make a plan and mischief is nigh”—tattooed in the crease of an elbow for aesthetic pleasure. But in the chapbook’s opening pages she veers toward the critical, adopting a major formality of conventional translation that not even all conventional translators abide by. As she writes in her Translator’s Note, she provides the original ancient Greek text for the judgment of her readers, clothing her visual translation in scholarly approach:

To visually mistranslate The Odyssey while not knowing the language, I looked for familiar shapes in the Greek symbols that could form English words. This has been termed eye-rhyming, bad lip reading, and Rorschach writing. The Greek and English have been placed side-by-side so that you can confirm or reject the mistranslations.

Eye-rhyming. Bad lip reading. Both fine terms in that triad, but Rorschach writing—“What do you see here?” “A wolf’s face.”—bests them by far for its incorporation of the sensation of the experience. Another ink blot’s placed before us and we’re told not to see nothing; something must be there. In response, we rack the molded-over libraries of our psyches for what they hold. A word, an image, a related motif glued in memory. Bresnick’s project captured so aptly that experience of sounding out a foreign language using the phonics of one’s own language when first coming upon it. Those sounds might or might not have any bearing on the conventionally-accepted version of that language, but so what? What else do you have? What Kunhardt (Donald Hall’s companion; opposites attract?) and Bresnick both get right is the absurdity of the situation: the weird and occasionally hilarious consequences of language’s material existence. Witness Kunhardt’s one-word response to a question from the Poetry Foundation asking her to explain how the humor behind her “faux-Greek transcription” worked: “No,” a gesture that could be read as either terribly faux-edgy or terribly sincere. I think it’s the latter; if one could put the experience of such a translation into words, wouldn’t it be a markedly different experience that got recounted? I can only speak for my three-year-old self, speechless before a movie theater’s marquee, my tongue pawing one jawbreaker of a word: “world.”

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