The beginning of the talk about translation at the UEA Symposium: Disordering the Disciplines. I always feel awkward talking to specialists, and this was a half hour talk, so a little extra daunting.
...You will remember this famous exchange between Hamlet and Polonius. In Act 3, Scene II
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud, that's almost in shape like a camel?.
Polonius: By the mass, and 't is like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks, it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or, like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale
The Players have performed their play in front of Claudius and Gertrude. King Claudius, having recognised himself in it, dashes off, distraught; Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern have come to quiz Hamlet on his state of mind and to attempt a reconciliation, and finally comes Polonius who is essentially humouring Hamlet in his possible madness.
Just before Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern depart and Polonius appears, Hamlet talks to himself, saying:
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.
The scene ends with the famous ‘Tis now the very witching time of night’ speech.
The whole passage is about interpretation on three levels. The player’s performance lends itself to a specific interpretation, especially to a specific audience. There is something vital at stake and an action to follow. The parallels are clear. This character in the play equals this character among the spectators. This action in the world of the play denotes that action in the world of the audience. The play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the king. Hamlet modifies the players’ play in order to achieve a particular end. The point of the play is recognition.
But while we can see and interpret the player’s play with relative ease, in the scene with Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern we are presented with a different mechanism. Hamlet is the musical instrument that the two false friends would play. ‘You would play upon me,’ says Hamlet. ‘You would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass.’ Hamlet moves on from the idea of an instrument to the music itself:’ and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ’. Here it is the nature of an identity that is at question. That identity is conceived in terms of music. Hamlet is an instrument that contains music, but the music remains secret, more of it, and more excellent than Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern allow for. It may be that to a good friend, a proper friend, that music might be revealed or at least partly sounded.
When it comes to Polonius’s cloud, however, no clear action, no clear purpose is implied. It is in some ways a game to be played by Hamlet against Polonius, - a game of ‘guess my subjectivity’- and poor, desperate Polonius just plays along. Nevertheless, the clouds are really out there and are really to be seen as they are, as clouds with a certain shape and form, and while we, or they, may dispute whether that form be interpreted as camel, weasel or whale, it is agreed there is a hump that provides a certain minimal basis for all three interpretations.
The cloud is an important game to Hamlet, but it raises an important question, particularly to a poet. Translation, a practical affair, is our subject but interpretation, a less clearly defined act, is our focus. It is not original to suggest that the act of composing is in itself a form of translation, or that listening even to the most familiar language remains an act of interpretation. But how does a translator tell the subjective from the objective, the camel from the cloud or the wood from the trees?
As a poet I am struck by the unfixity, evanescence, constant shifting of language, the way a word changes shape from context to context, how a phrase awakens a range of associations that the next phrase modifies. That process of building phrase on phrase, rhythm or rhythm, emotion on emotion, meaning on meaning, within certain assumed physical laws of a poem (involving lineation, metre, rhyme, punctuation, syntax) is what I think of as composition. The poet, according to this, begins with an idea, proceeds to a form, and launches a series of interpretations that hold the form together. In effect he starts with a play where some things are known, he moves this to the music of voice and identity and so creates a cloud. The cloud has a necessary form governed by physical factors that might suggest camels, weasels, whales or any other thing without necessarily confirmable as being camel, weasel or whale. It suggests. Something has formed the cloud. But it is not a clear intention. The cloud is as it is for a reason, a reason that implies, but can never quite offer, the clear hard core of substance...
I might continue with the text, but it may well appear on the symposium's own site. Or possibly, elsewhere. If anyone specifically wants me to carry on posting, I'll see if that is permissible.