Translators have at least this in common with dentists: the art of building bridges. Finding ways of bridging the gaps between languages and cultures, forging a passage from one set of linguistic assumptions to another, arching across shoals and pitfalls, we try to make ideas, humor, and preconceptions accessible to those for whom they may otherwise remain unattainable. It’s not very different, really, from what artists do, as they work in their own media to build a bridge between their viewers and what they themselves perceive.
Dorrit Black (1891 – 1951), one of Australia’s most innovative and ground-breaking modernists, epitomizes the art of translation in her beautiful oil painting “The Bridge.” It captures that iconic structure, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in the course of its construction, an image seized on by several other Australian modernists as well. Over the eight years taken to complete it, from 1923 to 1931, this architectural feat came to dominate the skyline, becoming an intricate part of the city’s image of itself. More broadly, the bridge and the harbor were to play an energizing role in the evolution of Australian art and literature. Grace Cossington Smith captures the curve of the bridge in construction in a startling and highly-colored tribute to the energy of 20th-century engineering in her 1930 canvas, while a few years earlier Black’s friend Roland Wakelin had contrasted the brash curves with a reassuringly pastel palette to create a reading of the theme that is disturbingly difficult to interpret.
Working in a different medium, Eleanor Dark in her 1938 novel Waterway used the harbor and its criss-crossing ferries to explore the nature of time, light, and human relationships. Dark’s novel provides me with another metaphor for translation, when her ferry starts to pull out from the shore forcing late-comers to leap aboard, crossing the gap:
Lesley jumped, Ian jumped; Mr Smith and Mr Smith’s friend, Mr Bindley, for whom he had waited, jumped. Mr Mason, in an heroic culmination of effort, grabbed the outstretched hand of a deck-hand and jumped. After the railing across the gangway opening had been shot home, three young bank clerks sprang down the wharf and leapt on board like kangaroos. And finally Bobby Younger, sailing through the air, landed on the remaining three feet of available stern having lingered on the steps so that he might fulfil a self-imposed vow of always being last on board.1
Black, however, leaps further into modernism than any of her contemporaries, with a painting that follows Clive Bell’s insistence on the emotional force of significant form, the ability of lines, curves, and flat planes to summon up mood, just as color can convey emotion. Her experience in France, working under the guidance of Cubists André Lhote and, to a lesser extent, Albert Gleizes, helps shape her canvas, creating a powerful melding of Lhote’s compositional practice, especially his insistence on the mathematical ratios of the Golden Section, and Gleizes’s use of color, especially his vibrant ochres.
But she also drew on the experience gained working in England with Claude Flight, from whom she learned the techniques of the linocut, a form she continued to develop throughout her life. Her linocuts frequently exaggerate natural forms, allowing a vibrant combination of the element of compositional speed with the sense of nature seen at its most dynamic.
That same dynamic is evident in “The Bridge.” Against the disquieting planes and harmonious curves of sky and sea, the house in the foreground of “The Bridge”offers the cubist forms of Cézanne, while the brooding telegraph pole and the five-masted ship evoke other modern forms of communication. But the canvas also, as we read it from left to right like a text, shows the passage of time from the harsh brilliance of a sunny Australian morning to the softer tones of dusk, as well as suggesting the clarity of the present arching across to the uncertainties of the future. The eyes of realism tell us that the two arcs of Black’s painting will never meet, but those of modernism insist on different ways of reading, forcing us to translate what we see differently and therefore offering us new truths, new understandings of the complexity of both the real and the imaginary.
As Black herself argued, when she opened Sydney’s Modern Art Centre two years after the completion of the painting, we don’t expect music to reproduce the sounds of nature, so “why, in the name of common sense, should plastic art be chained to this imitative process?”2
The imitative process is also one with which translators have a complex relationship. In the translator’s notes to his brilliant version of Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Breon Mitchell raises the following questions: “Should a translation transport the text into our own life and culture, or should a translation convey the reader into the world and culture of the original? Should the translation of a difficult and innovative work be rendered into a more readable and simplified form for readers, or should they be treated to an equally difficult and innovative text in their own language?”3 Bridges of course go in both directions, here, from north shore to south shore and back again, as translations can both lead us from the domestic to the foreign and bring what is foreign into the familiar.
This sense of bridging, together with the fear that the two arcs of my bridge might not meet, was brought uncomfortably home to me in my most recent translation. Two of my friends, Mylène Catel and Anne-Catherine Aubert, had asked me to translate a volume of French poetry they’d written, a volume full of puns and wordplay, and dominated by the letter C. It meant not only finding equivalences rather than literal translations for various series of words ending in “sée” or “cée” (the sound of the letter C in French), but also working my way through some extraordinary verbal jokes. Take for instance the lines: “ni he / sans chien,” where “ni he” should be read as “niche” (an anagram of chien) from which the dog, the “c,” is missing. Or the poem title “Chant d’Elle,” both candle and “song of her”: how can you find an equivalent here? Or for the wonderful dynamics of “Protée C” with its opening line: “GrIotte Gourmandise brioche condensée Orange olive.” The capitalized I in the middle of the word for a form of cherries, griotte, is a translingual pun, demanding that the writer be seen as cherry herself. Drawing on the strong vein of self-indulgence that runs through this text, I replaced the capital I with a capital R, for my own name, rendering the line as “ProteaCeA. CheRry chocs candy blocks condensed brioche Orange olive.”
Like the arches of Dorrit Black’s bridge, the two languages translators try to bring together are often squinting sideways at each other across a sundering sea, but the challenge, and the fun, lies in taking that leap across, even when you feel that there is considerably less than “three feet of available stern.”
- Eleanor Dark, Waterway, Sydney; F. H. Johnston, 1938, p. 95.
- Reproduced in Tracey Lock-Weir, Dorrit Black: unseen forces, Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2014, p. 220.
- Günter Grass, The Tin Drum, trans Breon Mitchell, Boston: Mariner Books, 2010, p.569.
ROSEMARY LLOYD has taught at the University of Cambridge and Indiana University and now lives in retirement in Australia where she continues to translate French poetry and watch birds.