Translation and Image

As of late, I have been delving into the possibilities found in translating word into image, and vice versa. I think the fact that two creative forces such as writing and painting can correlate in a host of different ways and collide through the act of translation is very exciting and is something I aim to explore further in the coming months. As Horace states…

“as is painting, so is poetry.”


One of the first ‘translating from image’ tasks I completed was only a few months ago, where I decided to take a photograph and ‘re-write’, or ‘tell the tale of’ the image. The photo I selected was the following:

Robert Doisneau, 1950

I simply took in the image and wrote what came to my mind as I explored the different elements of the photograph. It is a very striking image that poses several questions, for example, who are the bride and groom in the photograph, and why are they here, in this place at this time? These are questions that I attempted to explore within my writing, creating a ‘story’ from my own reading or interpretation of the image. 

Following on from this, I visited the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia in order to write from a painting. For this, I chose Three Quarter Head by John Davies. For this exercise I decided to incorporate this current writing from painting, into the writing I previously did based on the photograph, creating a palimpsest of writings from different sources. Like the above photograph, this portrait of a woman could be placed anywhere spatially or temporally, it all depends on the audiences reading of the painting. The woman’s gaze is directed towards something in particular, and her reaction to whatever it is she is looking at seems to be concern or worry, yet her eyes still appear to be slightly passive, almost separated from her emotions. I placed the woman spatially into the cafe pictured in front of the bride and groom who appear in the photograph I previously ‘translated’ by Doisneau, therefore, temporally into my story. In doing so, I intertwined my readings of these pieces of art together to create a new piece of art, using a new medium. 

In the past, there have been a number of debates on whether the artistic forms of poetry or prose and painting or photography can be compared or translated intersemiotically. I believe the two can absolutely be compared and as a result translated between. The way in which a reader experiences a text is very similar to the way in which a spectator views an image or painting. This quote from Gilman sums it up perfectly…

“Much is lost if we refuse on principle to consider the activity of reading, the process of interacting with a book. The experience of painting is in an important sense the same. The witness sees the painting as a pattern but does not understand it fully until he ‘reads’ it. The ‘reading’ is not primarily the interpretation of iconic imagery, though that act is often part of the experience […], but rather the general process of moving from one detail to another overtime – of perceiving the interrelationships of light, colour, form, gesture, surface, space, point of view, and so on. The order of experience in painting (seeing first, then ‘reading’) is superficially the reverse of literary experience, except that the final painting, which, having been seen and ‘read’ is finally known, is no longer identical with the square of the canvas we happened to notice as we first walked into the room. It is seen again, inwardly revised. Like the literary dianoia, this painting occupies a portion of our mental space and contains not only a visual memory of the canvas, but an understanding of its significance. That understanding will be formed in part by each person’s needs and desires, rechanneled through the convolutions of an individual consciousness that projects its own identity into a work of art and extracts from its own psychic urgencies and comforts.” Ernest Gilman, The Curious Perspective

Just like a painting offers its spectator only a snapshot of what the painter wishes to portray, a text offers its reader only a part of what the writer wishes to portray, the rest of the story behind the painting or writing is up to the spectator or the reader to paint or write. The space around a painting or text is space in which the spectator or reader is free to explore and interpret bringing their own ‘reading’ to the art. One can certainly say that just as we can identify patterns, lines, and movement in images, we can also do so in a literary text.

… after all, as is painting, so is poetry.

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