Meaning is differential

Language is for conveying meaning, of course.

But it is not that straight-forward. As Elina Löwensohn says in Hal Hartley’s short, Theory of Achievement, “Meaning is differential”. How much more so when we start to translate text into other languages?

That was the central theme of an interesting discussion on Storytelling and Translation, part of the LSE Literary Festival 2012. An engaging panel of Marina Lewycka, Jeremy Sams, and George Szirtes talked around the issue, especially as it relates to the more tricksy business of poetry and opera, where words are always much more than meaning. Sams talked about the relative importance in opera of retaining vowel sounds as opposed to maintaining meaning: most singers apparently prefer the high notes to land on ‘-aah’ sounds, and could care less about the semiotics. The implication seemed to be that prose, and by extension novels, were (relatively) easy.

Then Szirtes (for me, one of the most interesting writers around when it comes to the subject of language, of writing itself) crystallised the topic with some reflections on bread. Bread is a simple word, signifying an almost universal object (not even a universal concept, but a solid lump of something). Yet even here, language is slippery, not to be trusted – it is, as Szirtes put it, always evanescent. The translation of ‘bread’ into the ‘kenyér’ of his native Hungarian is simple enough, but should you ask for ‘kenyér’ in a bakers in Budapest, you will receive something that looks and tastes different to what you would find in Bridport.

Which then is the real bread? ‘Bread’, ‘pain’, ‘brot’, ‘chleb’, or indeed ‘kenyér’?  The meaning even of bread is subjective (shaped by the bread of your childhood, just as the first window you see is the template for every window thereafter). And that is before we even start to consider the wider cultural and linguistic resonances that the word holds. Of course, you do not need to travel across national borders for words to become unreliable: you only have to move across generations, classes, and communities, sometimes just across town, before the ground beneath you becomes less certain.

Of course, words are no that slippery. If they were, none of us would understand anyone else (as in the case of the Metropole in which a professor of linguistics finds himself stranded, the local language resolutley impenetrable). But while words are not meaningless, there is a sense in which they mean so much more than their meaning. The richness of their ambiguity is a cause for celebration rather than regret: bread is more than a cooked paste of ground-up grass seeds in any language.

Jeremy Sams, sometime translator of operas and the key figure behind the enticing new Baroque opera mash-up, The Enchanted Island, made the point with the best joke of the day. A few years before, he had been sitting in a Berlin café, working on a translation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. A local asked what he was busy with; after Jeremy had explained his task, the German expressed his admiration and added: “When you’ve finished, can you translate it into German?”

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