In the November 4-5, 2006 issue of the Wall Street Journal facing pages present a lovely couplet of articles. The right hand page carried a piece by G. W. Bowersock on Fagles recent translation of Vergil’s Aeneid; the left hand page carried a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon on graphic novels. The right hand piece speaks to the numerous difficulties of rendering the terse Vergilian Latin prose into 21st century English text. The left hand piece bemoans the decline of reader ability and inclination attendant to graphic novels; though an end thought hopes that the graphic novels would lead readers to richer verbal works – a form of gateway medium!
Both pieces touch on the edges of a problem without addressing that problem. Verbal language may not be the most appropriate way to render some concepts and narratives. One might suggest that elaborate prose may be required to overcome the inherent limitations of the verbal text. It might well be that one image could supplant the numerous words required to describe a texture, a spatial relationship, a temporal relationship.
Recently I was listening to a recording of Homer’s Iliad. I was stricken by how many lines were required to describe the look of one hero in a combat – size, visage, nature of armament and protection; then to go on and do the same for the other combatant. Then more words were required to describe their physical relationship, their places on a Cartesian grid of the landscape. Then, perhaps most strikingly, words describing the hurling of a spear and describing its ark and whether or not it met its mark had to be followed by another set of words describing the reaction of the second combatant. That is, the verbal descriptions of simultaneous actions could not be presented simultaneously!
Yes, there are lovely words that attempt to regain the simultaneity, to put the readers mind back in time, but there is no way around the linearity of language – the two descriptions cannot be given together. Yet, a graphical piece with limited words – even if they happen to be presented in “thought bubbles” – could present the simultaneity.
The difficulties of describing some aspects of life with words should not be mistaken for some form of quality of representation. The greater effort of decoding and reconstructing should not, in and of itself, be taken as a sign of higher quality or inherent superiority of a medium. This is not to say that the graphical medium is necessarily superior either. However, we might do well to think of the degree to which any particular medium or set of media might best represent a set of concepts.
The piece on the Aeneid makes specific mention of a line that has posed difficulties for numerous translators because it is not clear just is being spoken of or what is being impacted. Perhaps if Vergil had embedded graphic elements, these would be more evident.
We might even put this into terms of the complementary binary relation between a documents structure and the meaning that any individual holds from the document. It is essentially self-evident that if a person does not read Latin (does not have the decoding ability) any meaning derived by that reader will have little to do with the story. In part this is because verbal coding is a two-stage process. Symbols that bear no one-to-one relationship with their referents must be decoded, then a set of images, relationships, and commentary have to be woven together. The symbols with closer relationships to their referents require less decoding. This does not mean that either symbol set is priviliged, only that different systems are at play and will likely have differing results with differing viewer/readers.
Diomedes wounds Aeneas in the Trojan War, while Aphrodite rushes to support her son.
Museum Collection: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, USA Catalogue Number: Boston 97.368 Beazley Archive Number: 202631 Ware: Attic Red Figure Shape: Calyx krater Painter: Name vase of the Tyszkiewicz Painter Date: ca 490 - 480 BC Period: Late Archaic