Translation & Transcription

We can translate. Translation is another way of making one thing be represented by another. It is where we change the language of representation. Instead of speaking English we can speak Spanish. Translation is about trying to express something within the same basic medium but with another set of symbols, that is, within a different language. On the task of the translator I would recommend an essay by Walter Benjamin, called “The task of the translator”. It is in a book of collected essays called Illuminations.


During translation tiny changes occur, changes, which happen because different languages have different ways of trying to express the same thing, different idioms. That changes the image we are trying to convey a little bit.


For example: In Dutch we say: Machtig Mooi! How would I translate that? Literally translated it would mean: Powerfully Beautiful. If we were to be satisfied with that translation it would turn a commonly used phrase into something rather high-brow. Using the English idiom to say the same thing, one would come up with a phrase like fabulous (for the polite) and Wicked! for the young-up-to-date-colloquialist. These two options cover the meaning of the Dutch phrase better.


Translation helps in finding a perspective. Translating a photograph into a drawing, reveals the focus of the draughtsman: what he has selected, what he finds important. Translating a piece of literature, reveals (if only to the sensitive translator) the special nature of the translated piece. It is not just about the information, it is about the quality of that information. Think of the conductor in front of the orchestra: he translates the notes on the page for his orchestra, so that these notes translate into drama. Actually this last example has more to do with transcription.


Transcription is something different. It is not about changing the language, but about changing the very medium: Trying to express the same thing within a different medium. It is a re-writing in a different script.

Mark Raymond, in a project he organised for the Caribbean School of Architecture in 1996-7, challenged the students to transcribe a poem into architecture. He wanted students to read a poem and then rewrite that poem as architecture. He asked them to interpret the poem, discover and create the meaning of it for the student. Then the student had to represent that meaning in the language of architecture, the poem had to be rewritten in terms of specific visual qualities: scale, light, colour, structure, context, material, texture, volume and massing, proportion and ordering. With that transcription something had to be composed. An architectural poem. It was a very exciting project.



That brings me to the end of this hectic journey. Confused? Go for it.