Sunday, June 24, 2012

Lost in Translation

Though this follows on the heels of KeVin’s blog post Reading Like a Writer (Again), this topic was something I began thinking about long before.  The inspiration for this post was an event that occurred while driving in the car with my four year old daughter.  There is a song she listens to on CD constantly.  The Lyrics are “Peter, James and John in a sailboat, all on the deep blue sea.”  While driving she was singing that song loudly, but instead of Peter, James and John, she sang “Peanut butter and Jam in a sailboat.”  Somehow the lyrics of the song were lost in translation.

KeVin alluded to that in his post when he presented the Venn Diagram about what scholars said the author meant to say, as opposed to what the author actually said. As a reader, we interpret what the author means whether it is literally or figurative.  Therefore as writers, the onus is on us to ensure that we communicate clearly what we mean to say.  It is rather difficult sometimes.  While we know what we mean, and what we want to say, saying it in a way that clearly gives the reader a view into our thoughts is not that simple.  Using a few key words we have to communicate sight, sound, emotions, texture, smell, and color without being tediously descriptive or verbose.

At the same time words evoke different emotions in different people.  For example, the word cartel evokes in me a negative emotion.  That is because I have forever heard it used to describe the leaders of the illicit drug trade: the drug cartels.  However I have seen it used to simply mean a coalition of like-minded groups and kept waiting to find out why those groups are “bad”. 

On the flip side, unless we are doing technical writing where we want readers to interpret what we write only one way, writing fiction gives a lot of room for interpretation.  We want our fiction to be open to different interpretations as long as it does not throw the reader out of the story.  Just saying a person wore a frumpy black frock, tells a lot about the character, the personality and can set up a whole story.  It is the readers’ interpretation of frumpy, laced with the connotations that the word “frock” evokes that we rely on to set the story and have the readers understand the character.  And it varies from reader to reader.
Some books, especially literary fiction, lean toward the figurative and can be interpreted to death.  There are thousands of books that dissect Shakespeare’s work, and a discussion of one scene from one book could go on indefinitely.  But for most readers who are just looking for light entertainment, an unclear book, regardless of its caliber of poetic prose, could be tedious.  So my advice to writers: don’t get lost in translation.  Be as clear as you can and leave it up to the reader’s imagination to do the rest.

As for that peanut butter and jam in a sailboat, I did correct my daughter.  But my nine-year-old ran with it and began singing, Peanut Butter and Jam in a sandwich.


Charles Gramlich said...

thought provoking post. I like when certain elements of the fiction I'm reading have what I call "resonance." It feels like it has meaning even though that meaning isn't specified by the writer. this is the way I really like to be involved in the fiction I read as well.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Charles, such things give the books depth and the increases the impact on the reader. Sometimes resonance is the difference between a memorable book and one you gloss over, where you may recognize the title but can't remember if you read it or not.

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Carol Mitchell said...

Interesting post. We did that dissecting and analysis in literature classes together, Jewel and I find it interesting to be on the other side of the table. A few times I have written short stories that reflect what I see in life without too much focus on conveying a message or an underlying theme. Others read them and find meaning in them that actually I neither saw nor intended. I wonder if Shakespeare feels the same!

Jewel Amethyst said...

There is a question, "if you can interview one person in history, alive or dead, who would it be?"

My answer is William Shakespeare. One of the questions I would ask him would be what's his take on the interpretations of his work today. I guarantee he'd be confused as ever at the plethora of scholastic interpretations of his work.