Friday, February 1, 2019



A Few Remarks on the Art of Reading

In a former editorial, in a critical essay about the relationship between reading and writing, NilavroNill Shoovro rightly said: “Regular reading is as essential as oxygen for a writer or poet. Without which we can never take our writings up to the next level of excellence.” In the following lines I would like to enlarge upon this topic from the perspective of the reader's reception process.

In August 2007, Luis Camnitzer initiated the project “The Last Book”, a collection of written and visual texts, meant as a legacy for future generations and as a document of the book-based culture of our time. “The Last Book” was intended to be a testimony of how our civilization is mirrored by the printed word, in case this should disappear by catastrophe or for other reasons, or mutate due to the strong impact of the Internet and other media.
Is our book-based culture really in danger? And, if so, is literary reading, as part of it, doomed to disappear or to mutate? Nobody can see into the future, but if the word mutation is interpreted as an aspect of innovation, then we can say that book-based culture with all its facets is, to a large extent, but not in every respect, mutating. We are witnessing rapid development of the media as carriers of information, but the nature of the relationship between humans as receptors and processors of information, and the information itself, be it mundane or artistically sophisticated, remains basically the same. If we consider the realm of art and, within it, the interplay between art consumers and works of art, the statement appears valid that the nature of this interaction has not changed much in the course of time. The same holds true with regard to the relationship between the reader and a piece of literature in the process of its reception. Without doubt, each generation of readers have their own premises when getting involved with a literary work, but reading as a cognitive and aesthetic experience has, in my opinion, been roughly the same across the ages.
A literary work is not a finite product, but a permanent, creative process of encoding and decoding of reality, process which takes place in our consciousness. It starts with the writer, who encodes his own sense of reality generated by his personality, education and environment. The peculiarities of his mother tongue play an important role in this process. The resulting literary work undergoes a further performance in the mind of the reader in the course of its decoding. Again, such factors as education, personality and language characteristics (new ones when readers have other mother tongues) leave their marks on the product in process. A new fictional reality emerges, which is hardly likely to be identical to that of the writer. The more skilfully and convincingly the writer processes his own sense of reality, the higher the probability will be that the reader experiences it in a similar way. Identity of experience is, though, out of the question and actually undesirable, as it would mean that a completed work of art is always and for all readers the same, an end product instead of a living corpus apt to develop new potentialities.

To sum up, the relationship between writer, writer's reality, text, reader and reader's reality can be represented by the figure below. It becomes obvious that one piece of literature will have as many fictional realities as readers. This is a sort of primary type of translation, in which the writer  'translates' and the reader 're-translates' reality according to their own perception of it.

                        reality'                                    reality''
                            ¦                                   ^  
                           v                                    ¦                                                                              
                        text - - - - - - - - - - - > reader          

As indicated above, among the features that make readers different  from one another, turning each one into a unique art receptor, a significant role is played by how the specific structures of the readers' languages shape their views of the surrounding reality. This amounts to saying that people coming from different language communities have diverging approaches to the same verbal contexts, whether in literary or daily use. But when talking about receptors from different language communities, we usually imply that that specific literary text is actually accessed in translation and not in the author's original version. It is, of course, a secondary type of translation, the transposition into a new language of the primary translation. Doubtlessly, a difficult task considering all the mental processes involved in this complex design.

What makes a good translator? Any translator of poetry or prose can only do their work according to their artistic intuition which, in its turn, is the result of years of involvement with literature, culture and the complexities of civilization. In his or her encounter with the poem, he or she is confronted with the end product of the creative process of the poet. But is this really an end product? Yes and no. From the poet's view it is an end product. What starts as an amalgam of feelings, sensations and urges has been grasped, structured, organized and, ultimately, materialized in words and images – an end product. For readers, translators included, this end product is a beginning, a platform for interpretation. They must undergo the opposite process, from the printed words to the mental images, to the depths of whatever urged the poet to write that special poem in that special way – to what Walter Benjamin calls “the unfathomable, the mysterious”.

To what extent the translator can be successful in this endeavor widely depends on the degree to which that, what I would call the primary amalgam, the raw material at the origin of the literary work, especially of the poetic work, has been structured and organized by its author into the end product. The more transparent this structuring of the raw material is, the less demanding the translator's task will be, due to the fact that the author's intention is easier to grasp. Where the author is very parsimonious when putting flesh to the bones of his work, the challenge for the translator is a huge one. An ideal solution to this quandary has yet to be found.

Opinions about the requirements on a good translator are, without doubt, diverse, but I believe that one of the main aspects of this debate refers to the translator being, like every reader, an individual receptor of the work of art. That means that, on the one hand, he himself cannot claim ultimate comprehension of a literary work, and, on the other hand, neither readers nor critics can expect any final or universal translation from him. It is precisely the potential of every piece of literature to be interpreted and, accordingly, translated in more than one way that makes this work vital and durable.

Summing up, reading in general and poetry reading to an even higher extent, are most complex processes which require more than just skimming through clusters of words. I second NilavroNill Shoovro in his assertion that superficial reading is not much worth. Thoughtful reading, on the other hand, may be more time and attention demanding, but in return it can be highly rewarding and enriching.

Dr. Aprilia Zank
From The Editorial Desk



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