Bridging the Humanities Lecture

Marten Van Valckenborch I (1534-1612):
The Building of the Tower of Babel

Creative Writing & Translation
Guest Lecture
(Wednesday, 28 April, 2010)

Extract from a report on the Expressive Arts Major
(Bachelor of Communications)

The Expressive Arts are the applied branch of literary and media studies ... That students perform plays, make videos, or write creative texts as vocational preparation is no more surprising than that students taking a drafting qualification build a house as part of their training.

Writing is about communication. That's our starting point. Or it should be, at any rate.

Now, there is a kind of writing (private diaries, secret poems) which is meant for no-one else's eyes, and which therefore has no need to accommodate itself to an audience. I have to emphasise that that's not the kind of writing we're interested in here. The writing that we study and practise here in the university is the kind that looks beyond the self to the world outside. It has to be robust enough to deal with the rough and tumble of different ways of life and different opinions. It's about ideas, essentially - the best, most effective and economical way of getting them across.

Communicating your own ideas clearly isn't a particularly easy thing to accomplish. If it were, life would be a far simpler thing for all of us. For instance, most of the wars in world history are alleged to have been caused by miscommunication. But then, how can one tell? You don't always know when information hasn't got across - nor do you know when some bits have, and other bits haven't.

Hence the immense significance of the field known as translation: translation from one language (or one culture) to another. Is there a difference, in fact? It's particularly important for a course called "Bridging the Humanities."

Vladimir Nabokov

Opinions on Translation:

Poetry is what gets left out in translation.

– Robert Frost

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s speech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.

– Vladimir Nabokov

el original es infiel a la traducción
[the original is unfaithful to the translation]

– Jorge Luis Borges

Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.

– Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin’s view of the translator [is] one who elicits, who conjures up by virtue of unplanned echo a language nearer to the primal unity of speech than is either the original text or the tongue into which he is translating … this is why, says Benjamin, ‘the question of the translatability of certain works would remain open even if they were untranslatable for man’.

– George Steiner

Those last two quotes would appear to imply that the translator, whilst engaged in the act of translation, inhabits the transcendental realm between languages, thus repairing temporarily the ancient rift of Babel. The creator’s vision, too, must originate in this ‘more final realm of language,’ but descends immediately to particularities. The act of translation thus seizes the essence of a work in a way that its author, bound up with its potentialities, cannot do.

Eugenio Montale

Lungomare [By the Sea] (1956)

Il soffio cresce, il buio è rotto a squarci,
It blows more strongly, the dark is torn to rags,
e l’ombra che tu mandi sulla fragile
and the shadow you throw upon the fine
palizzata s’arriccia. Troppo tardi
paling is crinkled. Too late in the day

se vuoi esser te stessa! Dalla palma
if you want to be yourself! Down from the palm
tonfa il sorcio, il baleno è sulla miccia,
thuds the rat, lightnings are playing upon the fuse,
sui lunghissimi cigli del tuo sguardo.
on the sweeping eyelash of your gaze.

- Eugenio Montale, Tutte le Poesie, a cura di Giorgio Zampa, 1984 (Milano: Mondadori, 1991): 198; Eugenio Montale, Selected Poems, trans. George Kay, 1964, Penguin Modern European Poets (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969): 91.


The air quickens, the darkness is shreds,
and your shadow falling on the frail
fence curls. Too late

if you want to be yourself! The fieldmouse
plops from the palm, lightning’s at the fuse,
on the long, long lashes of your gaze.

- William Arrowsmith, trans. The Storm and Other Things (New York: Norton, 1985): 23.

Promenade by the Sea

The gusts grow stronger, the dark is torn to bits
and the shadow which you cast on fretwork railings
creases and curls. Too late

if you want to be yourself. From a palm tree
a rat catapults, a flash of lightning plays about
a transformer,
about the so very long lashes of your glance.

- Kendrick Smithyman, trans. Campana to Montale: Versions from Italian, 1993 (Auckland: The Writers Group, 2004): 55.

Douglas Adams: Babel-Fish
[The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981)]

The Exercise:

I said above that Creative Writing is about the communication of ideas. It's also about critical thinking, and I guess it's that which makes it an appropriate subject to teach side by side with the more traditional humanities.

The Exercise we're going to do today is intended to test both. It is (of course) a translation exercise. Only the paradox here is that we're going to be translating from English into English.

Here's the exercise:

  1. You'll be put into pairs. Each of you will be given a page of text. Your job is to turn it into a poem.
  2. You can produce a joint poem from both pieces of paper, or a poem each - whichever approach suits you and your colleague best.
  3. Here are some suggestions for what to do:
    1. Significant others. Go through the passage underlining any words or phrases that particularly stand out (to you).
    2. Second Thoughts. Try trimming the passage by cutting out every alternate sentence.
    3. Synonyms. Try finding a different way of expressing the meaning of chosen phrases.
  4. You can make any further modifications you like (names, dates, places) to make it read like a connected piece. You may also wish to add some new writing of your own.
  5. Now read out your poem to the class.

Fritz Lang: "The Tower of Babel"
[Metropolis (1927)]

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