It’s no great secret that, when it comes to reaching an international audience, painters and sculptors have an advantage over writers. Even a Nepali yak herder with no knowledge of Christianity might at least look up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and think, “Wow, that must have taken a long time.” Not so with words. If you read to me the psalms in Hebrew or Doestoevsky in Russian, I will hear nothing but the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher droning, “Wonh-wonh-wonh” unless you also give me a translation. We are all beholden to the people who transmit the wisdom of one language to the speakers of another. Personally, I also suspect that no matter how much I love and appreciate foreign writers, I’m probably still missing something they wanted to convey. I used to engage in debates about theology with a friend who was studying to become a minister in the Church of Christ. We would go back and forth for weeks, but every discussion tended to end the same way:
Him: Well, if you go back to the original Greek, the text really says…
Me: Then why didn’t Bible scholars translate it that way?
So it has been since the Tower of Babel. We disagree about the translation, and then theology, philosophy, government–society in general–fall apart.
The art form most browbeaten by this linguistic tyranny is, of course, poetry. When meter, cadence, and rhyme are an artist’s very medium, studying poetry in translation can seem about as fruitful as trying to bottle clouds. At least, that’s how I felt about it–until I learned how to listen to great poetry through the ears of great composers. I still need a literal translation to get any meaning from a foreign piece, but once a guy like Brahms or Debussy steps in to supply the meter and cadence, for me, the poetry of other nations leaps out from the page. I have become engrossed in Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, and more. I do not pretend I understand these texts the way a native speaker or a professor of literature might, but I am no longer a yak herder staring blankly at the Sistine Chapel. Someone has kindly leaned over and whispered, “Psst, that one’s God.”
If you have never experienced this effect, try it. Below is an English rendering of Paul Verlaine’s “Prison” and a recording of Gabriel Fauré’s musical setting of the poem:
The sky above the roof is so blue, so calm…
A tree above the roof rocks its crown…
The bell, in the sky that one sees, softly rings,
A bird, on the tree that one sees, plaintively sings…
My God, my God! Life over there is simple and quiet!
This peaceful clamor comes from the town…
What have you done, oh you, who now weeps endlessly,
Say! what have you done, you, with your youth?
Can you hear the softly ringing bell? The endless weeping? The misspent youth? If not, it doesn’t mean you’re deaf or stupid; it just means Fauré’s language is as unfamiliar to you as Verlaine’s is to me. All art forms–even the kinds that don’t employ words–require an audience that knows their language, and the “native speakers” are always a small subset of the human race. An artist’s vision must be translated in order to touch other minds and hearts, as a book reaches new demographics when it becomes a movie or a fairy tale takes on new meaning when it becomes a ballet. Art is communication, subject to the same vagaries of interpretation as any other language, confined by the limits of its own form. Even Michelangelo’s great depiction of God does not truly capture God.
Fortunately, all art worthy of the name attempts to translate the same thing, that is, our human experience and its calling toward (or separation from) something greater than ourselves. If we take the Sistine Chapel together with, say, Dante’s Paradiso, Mozart’s Lux aeterna, and maybe just a dash of It’s a Wonderful Life, we start to internalize a vision of the Divine in a way that transcends any language. Darkly, in a mirror, through a fog, art can lead us to approach the true Original, the first Word, the one that spoke all life into being. We can look up, like Verlaine, to see beyond the walls of our prisons, to recognize that they are of our own making, and to reach up toward the freedom of the bright blue sky. But first, we have to put our yaks out to pasture and go ask somebody, “Hey, what are those bars there for?”