Lost In Translation

My oldest son took longer than usual to learn how to speak. He was, however, desperate to communicate from very early on, and so he developed a kind of sign language that my wife and I learned to translate. While he told stories with gestures and grunts I would repeat back to him what he was saying so he could hear it in words.

Because he was my son I was happy to do this and would do so again were he to lose his power of speech—a skill he has now mastered sometimes to the weariness of his parents. I am not however, as inclined to be as generous with writers. I am all for experimentation—it is the only real way to discover how best to say exactly what it is you want to say. But at some point a writer goes from experimenting to being considered experimental, and often times with the most experimental writing, the onus of translation shifts from the writer to the reader, and this where I almost always lose interest.

One of the great dynamic tensions faced by any artist is the challenge of translating something he or she knows internally into an external expression that can be understood by another. This is not always easy. You know what you mean, but how can you ever know what someone else will understand? In truth, you cannot, at least not individually, but if you have ever been moved by another artist’s work, then surely you believe it is possible. As artists seek to create something both original to themselves and understandable by another, they reach for a universal human experience, the ties of love and loss and desire and surrender that bind us all, and in so doing may even discover something beyond his or her own isolated truth. This translation, then, benefits not just the audience, but the artist as well.

That said, I want every writer to write in the way that makes him or her happiest. But if you hear a voice saying, “No one can understand me,” don’t believe it. You would not be writing if you did not think anyone could understand you. You know that at heart what you have to say is perfectly knowable to another. If you must experiment, experiment; and if you must be experimental, then by all mean, be experimental. But never hide behind your experiments. If you do, the only ones willing to read your work may be those people who already know you.

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