Two Adventures in Translation

Simon Lewty

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The following texts, one revised for Asymptote and the other written specially, represent decidedly unorthodox explorations of the art of translation.


"... 2. Convey, introduce, (idea, principle) from one art etc. into another." - OED


In 2006 I was invited by Clare Cooper to take part in a mixed summer exhibition at her gallery, Art First, to be entitled Translations. Eleven artists were asked to create "new work in response to masterpieces in the National Gallery, London". I remember that summer as a time of sunlight in London, and my visit to the National Gallery was to see one picture which I first encountered as an art student in 1962—Claude Lorrain's Cephalus and Procris—I found my way to the French 17th century room and in the peace of the afternoon I encountered, once again, the painting that I had last seen half a century ago.

I came with an idea in mind: to 'translate' this picture into words, using French words. This is the statement I wrote in 2006 for my gallery's catalogue:

Claude Gellée, le Lorrain. Landscape: Cephalus and Procris Reunited by Diana, 1645

"I have known this painting, one of the great poetic masterpieces of Western Art, ever since I used to visit the National Gallery, almost every weekend, in the early 1960's. Seeing it again, a few weeks ago, its magic seemed only to have increased. I have not tried to use it directly, as I feel quite unable to add to or take from it, or to change or vary it in any way... Claude's treatment of space and light can induce a state of reverie in which the landscape becomes, almost literally, the space of myth, the site of dream. I had to find out what the myth was (there are several different versions) and try to 'hear' it as Claude (from all accounts the least 'verbal' of artists) might have done. I have long wanted to do something in French, and this seemed the ideal opportunity. I used a number of different sources, including a French translation of Ovid and various things I found on the internet (one, strangely enough, from an article about Procris and her husband's jealousy in a popular French 'Mother and Baby' magazine). I mixed my own words into the repetitions and variations of the French. The larger work, 'Mythe', is concerned with the totality of the myth, and the smaller picture (I made two) echoes the dying words of the mortally wounded Procris.

I would like to thank Siân Miles, of the University of Warwick, and herself a distinguished translator, for her help with the translation and for some most interesting discussions en route. It goes without saying that any shortcomings are mine and mine alone."

The picture, written on tissue paper, is about 1m square, and I used several different shades of blue acrylic ink, blue being a colour I associate with France. The 'hand' I used was close to my usual combination of Italic and Roman, and I threw in some fairly florid large capitals, which look almost as though they had strayed in from someone's idea of a Parisian menu! My version is in modern French, it goes without saying, although my French is not very good. It is interspersed with fragmentary bits in English, so there is a kind of rhythm between the different sounds and movements of the two languages, rather like a formal dance.

I felt that what I was doing was a valid work of translation. It is not art history, of course, it is art. I hope my piece lives its own life, in a kind of parallel relationship to the painting - a remote echo of Claude's timeless universe resonating into the present.



The story of how I came across an ancient system of shorthand is a perfect example of serendipity, which has always served me well: of how you can find something when you are looking for something else.

A few years ago I was given a small 'charm' by a friend (which I am wearing as I write). It bore six tiny letter forms, to which the only clue given in the shop was that it was an inscription relating in some way to Vedic astrology. I tried to find out something about the significance of the letters, and to this day have drawn a complete blank. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language offered many illustrations of writing from all over the world and all periods, but nothing in the examples of ancient Indian scripts fitted my charm. Then I came on a page whose illustration showed some writing which did seem indeed to have a strange resemblance. It was completely fortuitous, for I was looking at the opening page of Samuel Pepys's famous diary, written in shorthand.

Thomas Shelton's (1601-1650?) chief claim to fame is that Pepys, the greatest of all diarists, used his system for most of the 1.25 million or so words of the diary, save for names of people and places and the occasional noun or adjective in longhand. Shorthand was very popular in the 17th century. It was a fashionable accomplishment among 'top people' and a useful skill to possess for the more humble individuals who used it for business matters. Pepys was a man of fashion and a virtuoso of learning, with a great relish for all things of life in an exciting and turbulent age. His diaries make wonderful reading—sheer energy bounces off every page, as he paints a never-ending succession of vivid word-portraits of the society of his time, as well as the personal minutiae of day-to-day. As a high ranking civil servant he may well have wanted to conceal things from prying eyes for security reasons—to say nothing of the 'amours' of his private life. Pepys left no key to the system, although several of Shelton's books were in his collection at his death. The diaries were not deciphered and published until the beginning of the 19th century.

The extraordinary visual impact of the page I was looking at was for me immediate. Here was a written surface after my heart, which seemed to me quite beautiful and totally opaque to all guesses as to its meaning. Nobody could read it now... What could I do? Helped by Wikipedia I was able to get the rudiments, and I managed to acquire a reprint (1970) of Thomas Shelton's book, Tachygraphy—a tutor for his method.

The word 'Tachygraphy' seemed in a crazy way to invite a link with the Tachisme of our own time: the two words share a root. Shelton and Pepys meet Hartung and Michaux! Art and Literature... Perhaps I should try to teach myself Shelton's 'short writing', rather than just make an imitation of the look of the script. Although the shorthand marks and symbols would not be bearers of meaning for anyone, in a literal sense, I felt that to try to 'get it right' would make a difference for me. And perhaps the conceptual clarity of the system might conceal a mysterious beauty. I sat down with the book...

Thomas Shelton's system was not all that hard to learn, although to work up any good speed would require a good deal of practice, such as a trainee shorthand secretary has to put in. But I was interested in it primarily as a kind of calligraphy. Shelton uses reduced letter forms for consonants, dots for vowels placed in various positions along the stems of the consonants, various abbreviations and contractions, and around 250 arbitrary symbols for often used words such as 2 for 'to' (as in text-messaging); 5 for 'because'; 6 for 'us' etc. The system, like all things, is not perfect, not nearly as sophisticated as its modern descendants, Pitmans and Gregg, but much easier to learn. One of the newest, Teeline (1968), which I looked at recently, does seem to have some similarities to Tachygraphy, one of the oldest. Plus ça change?

I found learning the system was a pleasure, as I began to see how I could use it in my pictures. I spent hours and hours practising this useless, obsolete art. Even the list of 250 arbitrary marks was not much of a burden; they can be learned gradually and some need not be learned at all. It has taken me about three years, off and on, to get anywhere, and I have used it in a number of works, sometimes juxtaposing it with longhand. It is a kind of translation. There are, I suppose, a few people who understand Shelton's shorthand today. William Matthews, who died some years ago, was a distinguished scholar who co-edited the new editions of Pepys, and he was familiar with the system. I owe him a debt as he wrote the introduction to my reprint of Tachygraphy, signing off mischievously with his own name—in shorthand.

Simon Lewty, November 2012

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