Saturday, January 14, 2017

Iconic Translation & Interpretation of Text


I wanted to share a couple more slides and comments from my new Meaning & Interpretation course.  


This painting by Magritte first appears to be nonsense.  It pictures a pipe but in the print below says "This is not a pipe."  Despite first appearances, however, this initially-apparent nonsense succinctly presents several basic issues facing lawyers using and interpreting text.  I could go on at length but will limit myself to eight brief points. First, why do we consider this as one "text" instead of two?  Why aren't the iconic signifier of the pipe and the symbolic word signifiers entirely separate messages?  We can have, for example, two unrelated poems on the same page so why can't these be separate expressions?  Taken this way, there is not necessarily a contradiction since "This" might then refer to something else. Second, doesn't this first question demonstrate the naivety of overly-simple textualism which simply assumes that texts are merely given and require no interpretation in determining what constitutes the text to be interpreted in the first place?  Third, and along this same line, why not say that "This" refers to the sentence itself and not to the icon? Then of course we have no problem since the sentence truly is not a pipe.  Fourth, should we take it as a basic rule of interpretation that we should read things if possible in non-contradictory ways?  If so, does this mean we should read "This" to refer to the sentence and not the pipe?  But why should we do this--what if Magritte wanted to express mere nonsense?  Fifth, as one of my students has suggested, why assume that "Ceci" means "This" rather than, say, the name of Magritte's dog?  If that is so, then again there is no gibberish here.  Sixth, another student has wondered whether this is a perfectly consistent swipe at ordinary pipes of the type depicted.  Perhaps the message is a snobbish one that "real" pipes are much more expensive and ornate than this simple version.  Seventh, there's always of course the possibility of scrivener's error though "n'est pas" seems an awfully big fumble from "est."  Eighth, I think the work shows how pictures often trump words as signifiers.  If we take the two parts to be in conflict, won't most people "believe their eyes" instead of the words?  Isn't one lesson here that lawyers are better off introducing into evidence pictures of their client's damaged car rather than relying on their clients' testimony alone? 

William Blake's famous illustration generally called "Pity" also provides a fascinating subject for those interested in semiotics, translation, and interpretation.


The work is an iconic (picture) translation of five symbolic (word) lines from MacBeth that I've added above.  Are Blake's images (which can also be non-word symbols) acceptable if not even better signifiers of the message signified by Shakespeare's words?  In asking this, do we evaluate Shakespeare's words and Blake's images on their own and then compare them or do we combine both approaches for a deeper understanding of Shakespeare's message?  For example, doesn't "new-born babe" imply the mother Blake pictures but which Shakespeare omits? Or does Blake's translation effectively change Shakespeare's message by expressly setting out what Shakespeare left unstated?  Or perhaps worse, does Blake actually mistranslate Shakespeare?  Should the horses eyes be closed?  Does Shakespeare use "sightless" to mean that the winds are blind?  Or does he mean that the winds are invisible as Leo Damrosch or Johnson have suggested?  If so, why should any mentioned horses be blind?  To me at least, these are fun and fascinating questions for those honing legal and semiotic skills. And why shouldn't the study of law and semiotics be fun and fascinating?

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