Translation by Patrick Leonard
Original Text: "Masks" by Shel Silverstein She had blue skin, And so did he. He kept it hid And so did she. They searched for blue Their whole life through. Then passed right by– And never knew.
Translation is an imperfect art. Almost to the point that translation might be more appropriately called interpretation. My experience in translating Shel Silverstein’s “Masks” has taught me that, if nothing else. Novel to film has rarely ended well in my experience, especially looking at Ender’s Game, for example, but I felt as though poetry might end better since poems tend to be a little more interpretation based. The ideas of self-identity and conformity are prevalent throughout “Masks,” which is a very broad topic that can be fit to many different mediums. Translation is in the eyes of the creator, which means the creator can develop a new idea or a new context for the work they are translating.
“Masks” approaches individualism explicitly though the diction, but implicitly using rhythm, and rhyme. Each line of the poem contains 4 significant syllables, except for “They searched for blue,” and “Then passed right by” which ends up sounding as though it has four when read out-loud, creating a very mechanical and strict syncopation. The rhythm highlights the lack of individualism the “he” and “she” conform to when they keep their “blue skin” hidden. The first four lines of the poem have an abcb rhyme scheme, while the last four lines have an AACA. Like the rhythm, the rhyme is very simple and really emphasizes how significant the conformity is in this poem. Although the rhyme is rather mechanical, the expected rhyme scheme for abcb would be abab. The two off rhymes signify a breaking away from the conformity and a return to the individual. The last four lights have an aaca rhyme, where one line stands out from the others to denote an individual deviating from the crowd.
The climax of the poem is when the two people pass by each other, but because they are pretending to be something they are not, they end up passing right by without knowing. These last three lines stood out the most to me because it changes the tone of the poem completely. “Their whole life through,” can be read as if they were searching through their whole life for someone like themselves, as well as their lives being over. Suddenly this simple message about being yourself takes a very serious and dark turn. In deciding to create a video interpretation about this poem, I had to choose whether to keep the same dark ending Silverstein imposes, or create my own. Instead I attempted to create a new emotion to add to the experience of being someone else through disruptive rhythm, extreme close-ups and a totally disjointed and unsatisfying ending.
Film is a medium that can be expressive through the cinematography, music, costume, and any other element you may see or not see on screen, making it ideal for translation. This flexibility was extremely liberating. I started out with such a broad idea of what I wanted to do, toying with a single camera angle watching people print their hands walls, as well as a noir style investigative drama. I don’t own a movie studio with fancy lighting equipment, microphones, and cameras, which cornered me when looking for location, or recording sound. The parking garage I chose to film at had very even lighting, which was convenient for the movable lighting I didn’t have, but I was unable to find a substitute for a microphone so I either had to record my voice on what I had or just include text in some form. The recordings I made reminded me of a thousand chalk boards being scratched all at once, so I decided to include the poem all at once in bright blue text.
There were obviously some road blocks in my film translation, but I felt as though I could successfully translate the ideas I wanted to. I attempted to mimic the boy and girl being blue, hiding their faces, and eventually crossing paths. The most significant and easily noticed deviation in my film versus the poem was the exclusion of a concrete ending. This was extremely intentional and plays into the idea being uncomfortable when trying to be something you’re not. The unbalanced, off-beat syncopation of cuts create elements of slight unease. These cuts ramp and the screen warps into halves as the boy and girl put on their masks to become someone else entirely. In my translation, I deviate from the mechanical rhythm, and the conclusion of Silverstein’s poem, and instead focus on my personal view of individuality and pushing against the crowd.
Through this journey of translating “Masks,” I learned that translation isn’t easy to define, and is very difficult to quantify as good or bad. I translated “Masks” into Spanish, a drawing, and even a poem containing no letter e. Where my Spanish translation was very literal, it lost the meaning from the form. My drawing was very abstract and complimented the poem well, but wasn’t very successful in suggesting the story in “Masks.” My film translation holds onto the base of the story, but adds unease to the themes. Just like my other translations during the year, meaning is lost and found, and I found myself more attracted to calling my translations interpretations. My film is how I view Silverstein’s poem, so whatever I make out of it will include some part of me. Every time something is translated something is lost, but the translator will inevitably leave their mark on the medium, making their translation an interpretation of the work.