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The humblest communication can’t interpret itself

February 13, 2015

A while ago I posted about Masha Gessen’s review of Anna Karenina and Russell Scott Valentino’s response to it. RSV has thoughtfully replied. He clarifies his position by saying, as I understand it, that it’s fine for specialists to compare translations to the original and look at specific examples among themselves, but that this is not the best line to take in writing a book review for general readers who don’t know the source language.

Besides this, he talks about the intentional fallacy. In my first post, I tried to say pretty explicitly that we can’t know what was in the mind of the author of a book. We can’t know what Tolstoi’s intentions were, even if we believed that Anna Karenina meant only what he intended it to mean, which I don’t.

I think RSV and I agree that we all create our own partially idiosyncratic reading in our mind when we read a book. I’d add that part of this process is creating an idea of an author, a storyteller, a speaker, some human being that these words are coming from.

RSV says “The text is what we have. The author’s intention is what we imagine.” I agree. Only I think the imagining in that second sentence is a big piece of what we do with the text, while I suspect RSV means it in a pejorative way — the author is a mirage, banish the phantom from the land of interpretation. But a text just sits there until someone tries to make sense of it, and almost any attempt to understand a piece of writing is going to treat it, explicitly or implicitly, as something written by someone, not a collection of words that grew by itself.

And, with no way to confirm our hypotheses, we ascribe motives to this speaker. When I notice that the Trollope novel I’m in the middle of implicitly contrasts the marital decisions of four women, one with beauty and money, one with just beauty, one with just money, and one with neither, I understand this pattern as having a purpose. I don’t think it’s likely that these four women are naturalistic depictions of randomly selected real women, and I don’t think four different authors made them up and their separate creations were accidentally bound together into a book. I imagine a single intelligence doing something with these elements of the novel.

Keep in mind that I don’t have to be right. I may not even know who the author of a text was, or I may be mistaken, or tricked. There are anonymous texts, collective pseudonyms, texts corrupted by additions made after the original writer’s death, controversies about attribution, all manner of possibilities. But we hear the story as having a teller. (And for now, at least, it really does come from one or more people. I doubt anyone has ever read a 700-page novel written by a Markov chainer.)

RSV: “Translation combines interpretation and writing in really interesting ways, but it makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication, especially when the author of one’s text has been dead for over a hundred years.” This is where we part ways.

I continue to see every kind of literature as an act of communication related to other uses of human language. Otherwise, where do you draw the line? Going up the scale from a one-sentence practical note to Anna Karenina, when do the words stop being interpersonal communication and start being Text, Writing, Narrative that is subject to an entirely different kind of Interpretation? Someone could tell a joke, improvise a bad poem, tell a friend about their day, tell a group of friends a story around a campfire, record such a story and type it out the next day, read a Zoshchenko story and retell it as if it happened to them… I don’t think good criteria exist.

And why does it matter if the author is dead, or for how long? If I leave a voice mail message for someone, that probably counts as interpersonal communication, and it would remain interpersonal communication even if I died before anyone heard it, or if a future historian used it to reconstruct daily life in 2015. If for some reason ten different people listened to it, they’d construct different interpretations of it in their mind. Three would be sure I’d made a reference to a TV show; one would be sure I hadn’t meant to; six wouldn’t notice the possible allusion. They’d split on whether I meant something ironically or not. The future historian would be so unfamiliar with Minneapolis street names c. 2015 that there would be (what I would consider, if I could hear them) wild misreadings.

This is pettier in scale but not qualitatively different from interpreting Shakespeare or Tolstoi, who wrote things for other people to read. The things they wrote remain acts of communication even though the authors couldn’t and didn’t anticipate all the recipients (eavesdroppers, if you like) their messages would have. That remains true even if an underappreciated post horse of enlightenment tries to receive one of their complex linguistic messages and retransmit it to others in a different linguistic code.

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