Translate This!

We know that translation and translation studies have fairly recently achieved critical and academic legitimacy, following Walter Benjamin’s appreciation of “the translator’s task” (Illuminations: Essays and Reflections) as agent of cultural vitality, transmission, and exchange. Nevertheless, the critical and aesthetic value of translation, adaptation, interpretation, and commentary exists in a persistently secondary relation to the primary creative—and indeed legal—value of the so-called “original.” There is a standard—if rather refined and sophisticated—contempt for translation as a mere and usually inadequate “copy” of the original, best expressed in Robert Frost’s famous pronouncement that, in regard to poetry at least, what gets lost in translation is the poetry.

Poetry is what gets lost in translation - Robert Frost

Of course, this evaluation, in its arrogant insight, blinds itself to the fact that every unique “original” is already always a copy or translation snatched out of that incommensurable and inter-changeable flow of Sameness we might think of as Nature, that horizon against which every imaginable scene is always already ob-scene. It may also misjudge how inter-dependent and/or co-dependent an original and its translated copy are on each other. The abased economy of copying and trans-lation is both the restriction of and the supplemental sign of that original which exceeds the translation. Paradoxically, we might say that translation materially produces the imaginary excess or surplus value of the original it never fully matches. Translation and copying—in all their various incarnations in interpretation and critique—actually proliferate that dream of originality and ontological security towards which they “faithfully” aim and which they always betray. The aura of originality and full authenticity is paradoxically and parasitically produced only in the supposed ornamentation and/or stripping of that aura. Originality is both what exceeds the signifying desperation of translation and that site of exclusivity the supplemental duplication situates. In its excessive, depraved attempts at constricting the original, translation produces the abundant, universal dream of so-called originality. Only the metaphysical/aesthetic failure of translation guarantees the original’s imaginary ontology of full or “true” Being.

The question of cinema’s proximity to or equivalence with of the Real is perhaps the central question of film theory, and this is also a question of translation. The structuralist film theorist Christian Metz (Film Language) tells us that though it is certainly possible to think of cinema as a language of expression, it is not really, in its one-way delivery, a language of communication or dialogue. Furthermore, though cinema has powerful traditions and dominant conventions, it lacks a fully linguistic system of paradigms and formalized rules that would give it the kind of transformational grammar we associate with written and spoken language systems or langues. Where is cinema’s dictionary? Where is the “double articulation” of signs or images that would give to them the fully linguistic arbitrariness of words? Cinema’s signifiers instead seem so “active,” so iconic, so indexical, so close to their “real” referent that we can hardly speak of them as signs at all.

An honest adaptation is a betrayal - Francois Truffaut

However, this “paradigmatic poverty,” as Metz calls it, of cinema inspires other theorists to restore the translational richness of cinema’s relationship to reality. The classical realist theorist Siegfried Kracauer, along with other realist theorists such as André Bazin, observe that it is cinema’s supreme privilege, and therefore duty, to witness and to reveal, even redeem reality since cinema literally attests to the raw, indexical fingerprint of the real on its photographic base. Kracauer reminds us that, “since Reality is essentially incalculable, it therefore demands to be observed rather than commanded,” and that “realism on the screen” and an absolutely formal—eventually fascist—organization or translation of reality will necessarily exclude each other (From Caligari to Hitler). For cinema, any attempt at a universal language of reality would be increasingly less “Real.”

This paradoxical notion that cinema gains its translational vitality and richness precisely because it lacks or fails in the systematic capacity fully to author or subsume reality is at the heart of filmmaker and theorist Pier Paolo Pasolini’s appreciation of “The Cinema of Poetry.” Pasolini says cinema is “real poetry” because it makes its poetry with reality itself; as reality’s written language, cinema in nature is reality. What is important here is the implication that reality is always already a translation, a poetic, allegorical sign of an existential (we might say “cinematic,” or mimetic) encounter of consciousness and experience. For Pasolini, the cinematic sign is both extremely analogical, iconic, objective and profoundly metaphoric and subjective—just like felt reality in all of its phenomenological flux and aesthetic passion. The cinematic image-sign, or “im-sign” is never just iconically, indexically referential, nor capable of complete denotative systematization. It is also a reflection of that “oneric,” connotative reality that is always beyond the frame, beyond and beside itself in the subjective, the irrational, the mythological, in the unconscious and the ideological. Not only scene, but ob-scene, and never held but in the threshold.

Reality is cinema in nature - Pier Paolo Pasolini

Though we may proclaim and attempt to deploy cinema as that translational dream of a universal language of experience, its true realism will always arise from its equivalence with a reality that also exceeds ontological certainty. Reality, like cinema, overflows the universal precisely because it “lacks” the comprehensive grammars and dictionaries of a formal language system. Pasolini writes: “the cinema author has no dictionary, but infinite possibilities. He does not take his signs, his im-signs, from some drawer or bag, but from chaos.” He may dream of an absolute immediacy between his signs and the thing in itself, but this dream, this very immediacy, is a kind of necessary but futile mediacy, an auteurist sickness and an ethical/aesthetic anxiety that attests to “the fact” that the oneric communication of cinematic poetry is found only “in the state of possibility, of shadow.” The methods of aesthetic and phenomenological negotiation of the cinema text may be the same as those by which we negotiate the Real, but Pasolini reminds us that the “real” poetry of cinema is the stylistic surplus that arises from its systematic failure to match an original, to match a Reality that is equally incommensurable. If in literature, poetry is what is lost in translation, for cinema it is exactly what is found: Its poetry succeeds in so far as it continually empties itself of its own mimetic quest—or, as Francois Truffaut famously proclaims in “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,”—“An honest adaptation is a betrayal.”

—Jon Wagner, Los Angeles, 2014