Reflections on Thinking For An Audience

Public Intellectual.— Your mind shrinks to the size of your audience. The more frequently you accept the artificial self-reduction of speaking to please the smallminded — or rather the more you invite the spiritual diminution of needing to please them — the more likely it is to become a permanent condition, such that you gradually become less able to expand your thoughts back out to their natural limits. The worst thing is that to the extent that your mind becomes habituated to its shrunken state, you will inevitably lose any awareness of the sacrifice you have made; at last, you will respond with indignation at the very suggestion that you have changed. After years of sating yourself on low-lying fruit, those exotic extremes that you could previously touch — albeit ever so rarely and insecurely — with your outstretched fingertips, cease to be within reach at all, until your hands lose even the memory of that which had once seemed to be their defining goal.

The Translator’s Challenge.– All thought worthy of the name is private, for it is pre-linguistic. To speak or write is to translate the private rumination for the sake of communication. Language thus stands to thought as a picture to a landscape. The painter or photographer, however amateurish or artistic he may be, has difficult choices to make, and whether or to what extent he appreciates their difficulty is part of the measure of his artistry. He knows, above all, that he is losing much from the outset, for he is seeking to present the three-dimensional in two dimensions, and to present that which he knows to have many angles from just one limited perspective. He must choose where to place the focal point, and therefore indirectly which objects will be reduced in emphasis. In the simple act of composing the frame, he is actively severing a portion of his awareness from its real and defining context, and showing it as a complete being in isolation, which he knows to be a false representation.

At all times, however, the translator’s challenge, assuming the communication of thought is his goal, is to find a way, through all these inescapable falsehoods and artificialities, to suggest something of what was most real in the original. In effect, he must try to set in motion, in the listener’s or reader’s mind, a sort of reversal of the process of translation itself, such that the other is left with an impression less like the artifice he is actually observing, and more like the incommunicable truth that lies behind it.

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