Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lost in translation?

Ernie Lepore has an interesting piece on poetry and meaning at The Stone. I disagree with quite a bit of it, so let me run through these disagreements and then try to reach some sort of conclusion.

Lepre begins by saying that the question "What is your poem about?" has no satisfactory answer. Surely this is not always true. Perhaps this is a small point, and I certainly agree that many poems (and other works of art) are not 'about something' in any simple way, but some are. Larkin's "Myxomatosis," for instance, is surely about myxomatosis, a disease spread deliberately in order to reduce the rabbit population. It is also, therefore, about the way we treat animals. Other poems by Larkin and others are about death, love, and other well known subjects. A sentence like that should not need to be written, and perhaps does not still, but Lepore's claim ignores its truth.

He goes on to explain what Cleanth Brooks called "the heresy of paraphrase" this way:
efforts at paraphrasing poetry into prose fail in ways that parallel attempts for prose do not.
Surely it depends on the poetry and the prose in question. In a long poem, say, the author might write in a certain form just to keep the form going. It might be quite possible to paraphrase part of such a poem into prose with no loss of meaning whatsoever. But I won't insist on this point. More important is the fact that not all prose can be paraphrased without loss. Larkin's poem reminds me (and I want to avoid 'doing a Morrissey' here) of Hardy's phrase "because we are too menny." This is prose, but changing the wording or the spelling would surely affect the meaning. Something would be lost. And if that is true (I think it is, but I don't want to claim more than I need to) then that is because Hardy has chosen his words perfectly. Surely he is not the only writer of prose ever to do so. Instead of contrasting poetry and prose it might be better to contrast literature with the language of the textbook or instruction manual, or else to make clear that 'poetry' is being used in a special sense here. This sense is broad enough to include far more than poetry, but it might not include everything that is to be found in poems. (For reasons that I have already tried to explain, plus the fact that bad poetry is unlikely to be poetic in this sense.)

Lepore goes on to mention
T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” responded, “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.’ ”

Eliot’s implication was that repetition is the best we can hope to achieve in interpreting poetry. Translators of Rimbaud likewise lament that because French is soft, melodious and fluid in cadence, English and other non-Romance languages are unsuitable for translation. The poet E.E. Cummings went further, claiming that even the visual impact of the typography of his poems renders them unparaphraseable.
Perhaps writing a blog post for a general audience is the root of Lepore's problems here, but let me just state a few more (seemingly, to me) obvious truths anyway. Paraphrase, which is what was at issue till this, is not the same thing as interpretation. I would think it obvious that "Ash Wednesday" cannot be paraphrased without loss, but I see no reason why it couldn't be interpreted quite accurately. Allusions can be identified, as can subjects addressed (such as conversion to Anglicanism). What the poem says might not be specifiable in other words (it probably can't be), but what it says those things about might be perfectly specifiable. This would be interpretation, it seems to me.

Second obvious point: Eliot's response is an impatient joke, not a general thesis about interpreting poetry (although he may have held the thesis that Lepore attributes to him).

Third: the unsuitability of English as a medium into which French poetry might be translated is not a fact about interpretation or paraphrase. It does not mean, for instance, that French poetry cannot be interpreted or paraphrased in French.

Fourth: Cummings' claim is closer to being obviously true than it is to being the kind of claim that justifies words like 'even' and 'further.' We all know that how a poem is presented on the page can make a difference. Anyone who has read much poetry written for children, at any rate, has surely experienced visual devices and is familiar with how (and that) they work.

In short, there is a lot to take issue with here, but perhaps none of it matters very much. Lepore then says that:
Contemporary philosophers and linguists have either ignored such skepticism or dismissed it out of hand. The idea that an unambiguous word might mean one thing in a news article or shopping list and something altogether different in a poem is not so easy to embrace.
The skepticism in question, remember, is a series of obvious truths (which really constitute just one truth, a truth "generally agreed upon since Aristotle," in Lepore's words) about poetry uttered by poets. If Lepore means that all contemporary philosophers have ignored these truths then he is surely wrong. The idea that context is relevant to meaning is hardly unheard of in philosophy. But he might be right about mainstream philosophers, in which case so much the worse for them.

He goes on:
How do we figure out what a poem means if its words do not carry familiar learned meanings? And further, isn’t this skepticism vulnerable to the following simple refutation: take any expression in any poem and introduce by fiat a new expression to mean exactly what the first one does; how could this practice fail to succeed at paraphrase or translation? Though such substitutions can change the aesthetic, emotive or imagistic quality of a poem, how could any of them change meaning?

Despite the simple refutation, the heresy of paraphrase remains compelling.
The expression "figure out" seems telling. Do we calculate meanings? Maybe with some of Eliot's works we do something like that, looking up "Shantih" and so on, but normally we read and understand without having to do any figuring out. How do we do that? Well, effortlessly, but if you want more of an answer you would have to explain whether it was the neurological basis of language that interested you, or something more anthropological, or what.

The "simple refutation" is more interesting, at least to me. It seems like a joke or an exercise in surrealism, but apparently we're meant to take it seriously. So I can stipulate that f means the same thing as Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Now, isn't f a great piece of writing? But it isn't a piece of writing. It's a letter. Is its meaning great? Its meaning has been stipulated as being the same as that of a great piece of writing. But maybe it isn't the meaning of that writing that is so great. Maybe it doesn't even have a meaning, at least in the relevant sense of 'meaning.' Lepore is talking about meaning in a sense that is independent, after all, of aesthetic, emotive, and imagistic qualities. I am confused at this point. If it is a fact that "What is your poem about?" has no satisfactory answer then why assume that poems have meaning in this technical sense? (In Lepore's defense I should note that he goes on to reject the simple refutation, but I still find all this rather confusing.)

I get more confused as I read on:
typing the word “brick” in italics (as in “brick”) obviously draws attention to a particular presentation of the word, not to the word itself. But it is one of many. The word might have been spoken, rendered in Braille or even signed. Surprisingly, in this instance, a moment’s reflection ought to convince you that no other articulation could have been used to make this point in this way. In short, that “brick” is italicized cannot be said out loud or signed or rendered in Braille. In effect, the practice of italicization allows the presentation of a language to become a part of the language itself.

If poems too can be (partly) about their own articulations, this would explain why they can resist paraphrase or translation into another idiom
At the risk of sounding (or being) snarky, can I draw attention to these words?: "that “brick” is italicized cannot be said out loud." Yes it can. I can say "'brick' is italicized" and "that 'brick' is italicized." I can also emphasize the word 'brick' when speaking in much the same way that it is emphasized in writing by putting it in italics. A playwright who wants a word to be spoken with emphasis would know to italicize or underline the word in the script. There is nothing one cannot do here.

But wait. Can I italicize spoken words? No, there is no such thing as literally doing that. So is Lepore right that the presentation of language can be part of the language? I think there is something to this, yes. How you express your meaning affects that meaning. Speaking in a sarcastic tone obviously affects the meaning of what is said, for instance. The form of communication affects the content of the communication, i.e. what is communicated. But Lepore wants to deny this, as we shall see.

Are poems partly about their own articulation? Surely not usually. Let's say I write a love poem and shape the words to look like a heart. Pitiful, true, but the kind of thing that people (though perhaps not poets) do. Is my poem then in any way about its own articulation? No. The articulation belongs to the form of the poem, not its content. Didn't I just say that form affects content? Yes, and the shape of this poem does influence its message. It makes it more childish and sentimental, for instance (unless it is clearly a joke). But this does not mean that the poem is about childishness or sentimentality. It is still about my love. Form shapes content, but it is not content. The medium is not the message.

Speaking of form and content, one last quotation from Lepore:
This explanation of the heresy of paraphrase differs from the New Critics’ quasi-mystical invocation of form shaping content. Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur, but in poetry (as in other forms of mentioning) the medium really becomes the message. From this, however, it does not follow that the language of poetry is magical or even distinct from the languages of other discourses; they are identical. The words in a Cummings’ poem mean exactly what they do in prose. But because a poem can be a device for presenting its own articulation, re-articulating Cummings while ignoring his versification fails.
"Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur"? Hard to dispute the first six words of that, but the implication of the last three suggests that context is irrelevant to meaning. What about metaphor? When Tracey Thorn sings that her lover "brushes sadness from [her] eyes," doesn't 'sadness' here mean tears? She might protest that if she had meant tears she would have sung 'tears', and I would happily concede that 'sadness' means sadness, but it isn't straightforward. There is also a pretty obvious sense in which she means tears. That song might not be well known, but I assume I don't need to give other examples.

All in all, Lepore seems to be very wrong. But so wrong that I can't help wondering if I haven't missed the point. If so, that could be because I have read him badly, or perhaps because he has translated his ideas into a popular idiom unsuccessfully.


  1. the argument there about the 'simple refutation' repeats one he makes here -


    but, unaccountably, omits his actual reasoning, which is that it follows from searle's principle of expressibility that a poem's meaning must have some equivalent. the locution about stipulating that it be that meaning (without specifying what it is) makes the 'refutation' sound even worse, since he sounds like he's saying, 'let P mean whatever i say. then surely i've paraphrased it!'

  2. Thanks, j. Yes, that's what I thought he was saying. Maybe, since he ends up rejecting it anyway, he didn't care about making the argument seem plausible. Or maybe he thought the reasoning involved would be too hard for Stone readers to follow.

  3. I think I'll have to read that article carefully some time. According to Searle (according to Lepore) "any meaning whatsoever can be given exact expression in language." This sounds OK to me, except that it talks about meanings as if they were conceivable unexpressed in language. Surely to give the meaning of something is to put that thing in language. So Searle's principle seems both necessarily true and meaningless. It's like "any fish whatsoever can be got to survive in water." There aren't any that can't, but what would the getting involve?

    Lepore goes on to try to show that the simple refutation is not a refutation of the heresy of paraphrase rightly understood. And that is because an alliterative poem, for instance, is partly about its own alliteration. Surely this is just false (in most cases). I realize that's not an argument, but how could anyone think that poems are normally about themselves? It seems to me it could only happen to someone who was trying to save this or that theory.

  4. well, i think in searle the idea is that since there are senses in which what someone means by what they say (what the meaning of their speech act is) sometimes depends on non-linguistic factors (availability of bearers for indexical expressions, etc.), one might question whether the meanings of utterances could always be given more explicitly (when they're detached from the circumstances and time of utterance, possibly to be delivered into the hands of someone ignorant of them?). but it does bother me, like lots of things in searle—seems hard to argue against but one suspects its unintended consequences are not that innocent.

    i think that an idea like lepore's is not uncommon in less philosophically-narrow circles (he's just trying to ground it as a philosopher of his stripe would). charles altieri, to take a somewhat wittgenstein-inspired example, often reads poems in that reflexive way. richard eldridge reads e.g. wordsworth that way too. it may be that it's more apt to consider modernist poems that way. but then again, since the speech of the poet, the occasion of speaking, and the presence of the audience or reader are all complicated or concentrated in poetry, i think you could probably find similar effects common even in ancient lyric. (bits of sappho that explicitly call attention to the act of speech of the poem, e.g.)

  5. I agree about Searle and the danger of unintended consequences. Thanks for the extra explanation of his view.

    I should look up what Altieri and Eldridge say. I have no doubt that some poems refer to themselves or call attention to themselves in some way. But I really doubt that all poetry does this, and that this is why it cannot be paraphrased without loss.

  6. there's a bit in altieri's recent book on 20th c. american poetry, or probably in his older 'act and quality' (though i've never been able to read that book properly). i think you might find his reading of w.c. williams 'this is just to say' on jstor or someplace like that.

    something perverse in me wants to say that all good poetry does it, just to hear you defend the counter-view. in a way i'm kind of mortified by too much emphasis on reflexive games—there always seems to be something sophomoric about them, especially when they're jumped into with the kind of relish with which young philosophers learn to immediately apply a view or a principle to itself (and usually thus find that they can reject it)—but it does seem to me that i have found a lot more poetry opened up to me by becoming more automatically receptive of anything in it which could be construed as 'about itself' (or, second-best, about poetry).

    but i've never been way into poems that are about stuff.

  7. I'll try to look that up (after I've got to Winch and finished re-reading Lerner, I guess). Thanks for the reference.

    Googling 'reflexive poetry' led me quickly to this, and this is only about poems that talk reflexively about turns. But if we bear in mind that unparaphraseable writing includes a lot of prose (would it really be going too far to say that all (good) literature is in this category?) then I think it's pretty clear that it isn't all self-referential. Even though, yes, a lot of writing is in one way or another about writing.

    But I have to read more before I say more with any confidence.