Sentence and Solas

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If you didn’t see it this weekend, Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, wrote an astonishingly incisive op-ed about the myriad ways in which literature is a product of translation.

Cunningham suggests, borrowing, ostensibly, from T.S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that almost all contemporary work is some sort of veiled translation of previous, canonical/mythical work.  We are the inheritors of a dialectical tradition that alters our work as our work alters it.

Apart from this ineluctable specter of precedence, there is the problem of getting down on the page what we actually mean to say.  We set out to write, Cunningham says and, in our mind, the novel is “transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth.  It is vast and mysterious and awe-inpiring.  It is a cathedral made of fire” and yet, by the time we finish, it barely resembles the initial idea we had in mind, whatever its etiology.  As Cunningham says, this journey, from ideal genesis to flawed final product, is a species of translation (and something of a parable).  How does one best transpose the topology of thought into language?

Additionally, Cunningham addresses the relationship between writers and their readers.  He emphasizes the need for literature to be worthwhile, “We have large and difficult lives…What the writer is says, essentially is this: Make room in all that for this.  Stop what you’re doing and read this.”  As a result, Cunningham says that we should always remember that we are writing for someone else and that that someone is looking to be entertained and inspired.  They are not only looking for what Chaucer’s host called “sentence and solas” (didacticism and pleasure) but they function as as active players in its construction.  Cunningham says, “One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book.”  The reader translates the book into his/her “own lexicon,” gleaning whatever content is relevant to his/her life and discarding the chaff.  Whether or not meaning is immanent in the text or the reader (cue post-structural vs. structural debate), the role of the author, in Cunningham’s opinion, is to get as close to producing beauty and truth as possible.  We exist, Cunningham says, under that “condition of hope” – forever translating; forever pursuing whatever idealized and true-hearted vision we might have, at the best of times, in our head.


Daniel Gumbiner is a student at UC Berkeley. He has lived in Chile and Argentina. He blogs with his brother, David, at smartwool.tumblr.com More from this author →