Translating Photography, Part III

Another part of the dialogue between J.S. Oppenheim and me on the cultural and technological barriers that keep still photography from being more easily “translatable.”

J.S. Oppenheim:
Without question, the interpretive engine for all that we experience, music included, is the verbal part of language. In college academics, “comparative literature” has been around formally for more than half a century and pursued without being so defined from the moment the first scholar translated an ancient text to a modern language (or the first time a war chief intercepted a message from the enemy camp with the strange language).  At this juncture, it sounds like the field — Eastern semiotics with a branch in photography — is wide open for The English, lol,  at the primary level and ready for translation at the secondary.  I can pull one or two volumes by, for example, writer Yasunari Kawabata from my shelves: why shouldn’t I similarly see the works of Japanese photographers and others on the shelves at Barnes & Noble? I look forward to the day when the world that is becomes the world fully represented on my shelves. The double fate of English fits its people’s political predicament: how to have a dominant distributed tool or two without in fact dominating the diverse language cultures that access them for discourse, diplomacy, and trade.In that XP OS accommodates diverse language platforms, I suspect the search engines able to respond in kind and possibly in response to traffic. However, the greatest suspension of disbelief in the Star Trek shows so popular in the U.S. has been always the convenience of having other species speak English (and enjoying too the tools called “universal translators” that could find equivalence from any grammatical signal from any source in the infinitely multidimensional universe). In reality, it’s a tortuous issue with so much of every culture’s identity and value expressed through its language. We want a world better fit together.  While part of that may entail working through or sharing a common and expedient language–without evidence to the contrary, I believe it is indeed English–we do not want it to have the one outlook, political system, religious faith, or aesthetic drift imbedded in that language.

We are still far from perfect language translators, but they have come a long way. I marvel at what translation engines such as those on Google allow you to do, for instance: you can read through many European-language newspapers and get the gist of the articles. The stumbling block, of course, is that language is living and breathing:
ever changing as we invent new uses for existing words, incorporate slang and import words from other languages. Words, like people, change with context and time. Translation engines don’t yet cut it, because the AI behind them work on fixed meaning and context. (You get the gist, but grammar and nuance are garbled.) Because of those
challenges, we will continue to see friction in our lingual, textual–and it seems visual border crossings.

(I just finished reading Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenbery Galaxy, and one of his themes is that the invention of movable type pushed us into nationalism as language became more easily homogenized (repeatable). Readers and writers–and governments–came to demand standardization. Grammar and spelling became doctrinaire, where they used to change quite flexibly to suit the meaning the writer was trying to convey. The
book gave me newfound respect for James Joyce’s experiments in works like Ulysses. So I guess good literature gets us to think differently, and good photography gets us to see differently?)

What will get us to view images (and text) more readily across such lingual and textual boundaries, I think, is the serendipity that the Internet brings as it pulls us into contact with people who are able to navigate borders with which we would otherwise be unfamiliar.

[See also Translating Photography, Part I] and Translating Photography, Part I.]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s