top of page

Found in translation

Opening remarks for the Composition Studio recital on December 9th, 2017. Many of the works on the program involved the conceit of translation in one way or another, be it translation between musical styles, instrumental techniques, or from language into music and music into language.


We typically think of translation as an imperfect medium for expressing ideas, perhaps because of the ambiguity that accompanies it. Or we might think that the intangible but important human elements get lost in translation. But I like to think of what Jorge Luis Borges has to say about the question. He tells us that “the original is unfaithful to the translation.” What could he possibly mean by this?

A good translation teases out many hidden meanings, associations, feelings, images that get lost when we focus too hard on the literal meaning of linguistic and musical utterances. This shows us that no word, no thought, no sound exists in isolation. Every idea is incomplete. A sensitive translator points to this incompleteness in such a way that it illuminates innumerable openings into the infinite possibilities of poetic meaning and suggestion. Translation shows us that no one is entirely self-reliant, but we are not isolated either.

In The Paper Menagerie, science fiction writer Ken Liu puts it this way:

“Who can say if the thoughts you have in your mind as you read these words are the same thoughts I had in my mind as I typed them? We are different, you and I, and the qualia of our consciousnesses are as divergent as two stars at the ends of the universe.

And yet, whatever has been lost in translation in the long journey of my thoughts through the maze of civilization to your mind, I think you do understand me, and you think you do understand me. Our minds managed to touch, if but briefly and imperfectly.”

bottom of page