Performances? Performances!

A published book is a performance.

A translation is a performance.

Actually, I never used to think of either of them that way, but John Talbot and James Harbeck have convinced me.

In JT’s case it was an oral conversation that we had in 1996 or so, when he recommended a particular translation of a work of Ancient Greek literature — probably the Odyssey — and I asked what was wrong with all the other ones. Instead of going into the specifics of the translations, he explained that translations are performances, so it’s analogous to seeing three different performances of Macbeth, performed by different casts. Another translation is another interpretation is another performance. I had never thought of it that way, but it certainly resonated with me!

Then there’s JH. Recently I was reading his essay “The performance of a text,” which I highly recommend. I particularly like his opening:

If someone says “How about some music,” and you say “Sure – Beethoven’s fifth?” do you think they’ll be happy if you just hand them a printed copy of the score?

A musical score is intended to be performed, and you don’t have a performance without musicians and a conductor – and the stage and lighting crew. And any two performances will be different, at least slightly and sometimes significantly.

And what does that have to do with printed books? You should read Harbeck’s short essay to find out, but let me just point out that I often listen to audiobooks in addition to reading lots of books in dead-tree versions and occasionally reading on a screen, and they are very different experiences. Harbeck made me realize that they are different performances, and I had never thought of them in that context any more than I had thought of translations that way. But he goes into more depth than just contrasting these different media, so read the essay!

“The page is a stage,” as he concludes.

Categories: Books, Linguistics