I know a few people who are expert at relating stories and summarizing movies and books. They can realistically sell me any plot, and they’d do it better than the actual paid marketing departments for said movies and books. On the other hand, there are those like me, who try to condense some fantastic story into a few sentences but then occasionally have to end it with “but it’s so much better than it sounds.”
“One Hundred Years of Solitude is about a fantastical village which exists in more or less a capsule of time and features one huge family tree with about seventeen people named Aureliano and there is magical realism and it’s just about their lives… but it’s so much better than it sounds.”
Every time something like this happens, I feel terrible for the gross misrepresentation, and always come up with a better summary after the dialogue (and the selling opportunity!) is over. It makes me wonder how many shades and versions of famous, excellent, acclaimed stories there are out there. People re-interpret and re-tell, and it is in this act that content is invariably added, destroyed, or altered. Is this okay to do?
Take, for example, translators. They re-interpret across languages. With their work, we are able to enjoy a broad range of classics, and a broad range of viewpoints. For instance, the Napoleonic wars have a terribly vast array of observations. Reading an account from an American writer (Moscow 1812) is very different from reading a novel by a Russian writer (War and Peace) – and yet, both are widely considered to be fair and unbiased accounts. In this way, bridging languages is invaluable.
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are a pair of translators of Russian, Italian, French, and Greek literature. They won my respect (and since I love Russian literature, complete and total lifelong loyalty) because they write without judgement and keep true to the style, humour, expression, and rhetoric of the writer. I don’t even know their opinion of Tolstoy’s insistence of transcribing the German and French accent into his characters’ speech. But they loyally preserve it in its every instance. (I am thankful because my opinion is that it’s hilarious.)
Even so, Pevear mentions that “translation is a dialogue between two languages.” This is because there is no way to portray the exact same thought in two languages. There is always just a shade of a difference. Who decides a good re-telling? A good re-telling depends so much on one’s interpretation of the material. The words might not match up for one person, creating a skewed and uncomfortably off-beat story, nothing like the original. But for another, the words are exactly what she was thinking when she read the original. The rhetoric matches up and the effect is true to the intention of the original.
To translate is to re-tell. Are we adding more content to the universe by re-telling? Is War and Peace in English a different book from War and Peace as Tolstoy wrote it? Yes, in many ways it is. In many ways Pevear and Volokhonsky are authors, though it may truthfully be more correct that they humbly call themselves translators instead.
Artists re-tell, photographers re-tell, and lyricists re-tell. Is Herbert Kretzmer’s musical version of Les Miserables different from Victor Hugo’s novel? Absolutely. I haven’t read the book yet, but anybody can tell you that the songs are content that is original from the book.
And there is a philosophical extrapolation to be made here, though it is a disenchanting one. It appears that with all the re-telling that we do, there is nothing wholly original in this world, as there is always a base that we draw content from. We are, ourselves, walking collections of experiences and images. Our mind is shaped by our years in this world, and our mind itself projects content and thought into it. This filter of experience, this feedback loop of content that we take and that we give back – these things mean that nothing is one-hundred-percent new and pure.
Perhaps originality, much like happiness, is an ideal and a direction, and not quite a destination that can be arrived at. And that, like the action of re-telling, is okay.