Translations and changes of state

Blog post
Published: 13.05.2009

Miaowwwww . . . miaow . . . miaaaowwwwwwwwwwwwww . . .

Matilda, now seven months, is finding her voice. Burmese cats are talkative, she more so than I, but she coerces me into response. How to converse with a feline? Imagine. Talk sense. Non-sense. She responds. Perhaps she likes the sound of my voice. She enjoys listening to music; sits close to the speakers and watches them attentively. I used to talk to my big poodles in French and read them poetry. They liked Lorca, especially my theatrically inept attempts with Spanish.

How does miaow translate? How does thing translate into word; word into thing and how do we know which is the original and which is the translation?

In his essay The Task of the Translator, Walter Benjamin alleges: “A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine all the more fully.” He speaks of the kinship of languages, hence: translation. But for us, as makers of jewels, the kinship between word and (imagined) thing is more tenuous, and the shift is not so much one of translation as one of transformation, transmutation.

Perhaps here I can invoke the scientists’ change of state, where gas condenses to become liquid and liquid freezes to solid, casting gas as idea or concept, liquid as word (or sketch), solid as thing. Are our jewels then, frozen ideas? (At times they may threaten to melt into puddles.) And could this explain the elusive and vaporous status of ideas, which can vanish so perturbingly?

Philosophers and psychologists have long debated whether or not we can think without words. As an artist, I say: yes. We can. We do. I do. Although as mentioned previously, I also write in order to draw towards a concept, thematically. As I sit, walk, garden, cook, I think my new brooches; but I am not thinking the words: flower, bone, ash, marble, cut, shape, engrave, scratch, ink, marble, edge, light. (The words austere and sumptuous arise; that’s another story). I have an emerging picture of the brooches, as individual notes or memoranda of concepts, as an opus; not so much their appearance, but their timbre and cadences, their reverberations, their atmospherics.

miaow . . . miaaaowwwwwww
Hungry? Like a sardine? Want to play? Sit in the sun? Need a cuddle? (Yes, cuddles are necessities.) It’s often possible to hazard a guess; but I am at best an inept though inventive translator of “Matilda speak”.

Not so strange. All of life is translation. Everyone uses words differently, imbues familiar expressions with their own inflection. From birth to death (and possibly excluding only those primal experiences) everything we undergo is mediated by translation, most often into words. Dialogue, discourse, cultural practices, cultural products: all depend upon translation of the concept, thought, emotion, inspiration, calculation, to be manifested in some material, in some form: movement of body, sound of word, shape of word, timbre of voice or instrument, deployment of line, tone, colour . . . I could go on . . . (I could also ponder on whether those experiences are partly formed by the very media of their translation: language, sound, movement, matter, form. . . .)

The jewel is a material manifestation, which stands for the transmutation of an idea or word from one form (the immaterial) into another (material). More than a translation or an adaptation, it is a new thing in its own right and may sometimes bear little relationship to its original conception. The novel, the poem: they are also material, but the idea is translated into words which are both sounds and shapes with particular resonances and reverberations; and the ideas are fed by and grow with the words as they appear; and the paper and ink are apparently less significant than we (as object makers) may think. Witness the advent of i-books.

But we jewellers work with matter, with the stuff of the world, and the transmutation of our ideas into objects is fed by the understanding we have of the aesthetic, emotional, structural potential of our materials; by their poetic material language. And, while I am drawn to muse on the significance of the transformation of concept into thing (jewel), I also inquire into the translation of word into thing or thing into word, and on which comes first in this catch 22 of chicken and egg. I’m thinking of titles.

I often mull over this, considering the relationship between the names I give my own works, which are sometimes long and may appear obscure, and my jewellery, which generally inclines to succinctness. As mentioned, when developing work I tend to write, rather than draw. Sometimes this writing takes the form of a poem, although it seldom relates specifically to the studio work I’m developing. With this as my rather oblique working process, I’m often provoked to reflect on the essential incommensurability between words and things, and their coincident adherence each to the other, moderated by our experience of them.

In my previous blog (14.4.09) I shared some titles with you, accompanied by images of brooches. I wonder how the translation appeared to those who were not in my head as I worked on the pieces and gave them their names. Did they aid, abet, confuse, or unduly intervene in the reading of the pieces (insofar as they can be read as images on a screen: yet another translation)?

Matilda gets her teeth into naming

Matilda dreams up names

Matilda toys with names