Art envy

I recently read an article about Picasso’s Blue Period by American art critic Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post March 31, 2022 issue. Not impressed with his interpretation of Picasso’s mindset regarding his paintings during this period, I read a bit more about it in a Spanish website. Jesús Zatón‘s commentaries (in Spanish) seemed more comprehensive and better documented. Two thoughts: either the first critic is monolingual and hasn’t read previous reviews of Picasso’s blue period in Spanish (or Catalan) or he prefers to offer his own opinionated take on the subject.

A third thought tugged at me: Do I wish I painted such pieces like Picasso? I don’t even know how to paint, but I admire his skill. I had the pleasure of visiting the Picasso Museum in Barcelona a few years back, which gave me time to consider what his skills expressed. Since I am no painter, I have no desire to envy Picasso. However, there’s an overlap between admiring a painter, a composer, an singer, etc. and feeling a certain degree of envy for their evident abilities. On the other hand, what translator hasn’t heard a nontranslator wish he or she could write in French, Polish or Spanish after seeing our work?

Is this mild-mannered envy we mix with admiration a character flaw? I think not, since that vibration between admiration and envy draws a path for our own desire for excellence, our own drive to achieve a degree of craftmanship as translators. One could take a piece of sculpted wood, a bust, and admire the artist’s attention to detail, how polished the piece is. All I have to admire is the product of the artist’s work, in the same way users read a poem or subtitles in their own language. The user can only discern the author, as if he were a ghost who left a distinctive imprint on the wood or the page.

The experience is different when we witness a musical performance. That’s why I feel more enriched when I see a live or video performance of a piano or orchestral recital; the artist (understood, he or she is interpreting the composer’s piece) moves his fingers across the keyboard or slides his arm over the cello as he glides the bow on the strings. Listening to the same work on CD, vinyl or a streaming platform is not the same, regardless of how beautiful the composition is. In fact, the composer’s brilliance in music is enhanced and complemented by the musician.

Since translators do not perform for an audience, do they still admire other translators? You bet. Many, many times in my career I wished, with a tinge of envy, I could have rendered that particular phrase so elegantly, and I look at my own attempt as insufficient, rough on the edges, forgettable output. Fear not, I don’t feel tormented by the shadows of better translations haunting me at night. Even an imperfect translation is its own reward in our solitary offices.

Picasso Museum, photo furtively taken in 2017.

We admire beauty and elegance in works of art and marvelous musical compositions, among other artistic expressions. Self-expression is not nearly enough to constitute beauty. That’s why excellence and craftsmanship are so central to works of art, the well-known and the unknown. To admire a translated text of any kind, the text has to be beautiful and elegant to some degree, besides fulfilling its utilitarian mission. If a text is only utilitarian or functional, bereft of a sliver of elegance or neatness, it doesn’t deserve much admiration, let alone envy. A translator only becomes a craftsman (or craftswoman) after realizing this truth.

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Filed under Business of writing, Cultural awareness, Public image of translators, Translation as art, Translation as writing, Writing skills, Writing skills

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