Yours and Mine

yours and mineYours and Mine – written by Peter Geißler. Ilustration by Almud Kunert, English translation by Anthea Bell, first published in German under the title “MEINS UND DEINS”.                                                © Carl Hanser Verlag München Wien 2000

Geissler and Kunert’s magical story about two children describing their imaginary friends got me thinking about the individuality of imagination.  How the same thing can feel or appear very different to two people, even two people who are friends, perhaps living in the same place, sharing the same experiences and culture.

Mine’s big, yours green as leaves in spring”.

The two descriptions suggest two completely different ways of classifying information and painting mental pictures; two children telling stories from completely different points of view.  Perhaps with two different commands of the language.   One friend is just “big”. The other is “green as leaves in spring”.  By setting off from different starting points, their respective journeys with their imaginary friends will undoubtedly take them to very different places. Or they may end up in the same place, but via two very different routes. Who knows? As the Italians love to say, “mica siamo tutti uguali”? and “la vita e’ bella perche’ e’diversa”. Basically life wouldn’t be as much fun if we were all the same. I wonder if I can collect as many different versions of this in other languages? Anyone willing to post theirs?

we never see the worldThe next question that springs to mind though, is: what would the imaginary friends be like for two children from different countries, speaking different languages and with different cultures? Now there’s another idea for a school diversity project.

I know this is probably stating the obvious, but the lives we lead and the cultures we are born into shape our personalities and our ways of thinking. Add to that the individual personality differences we are born with, and the potential for diversity of thought and interpretation is pretty amazing.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot recently. With the onset of middle age (!) I’ve realized that other people don’t actually see things exactly the same way I do.  The penny dropped a little late in life methinks.

This issue has surfaced at more than one level of experience for me. There’s the “little picture”, those little everyday occurrences that have no significance to anyone but me; situations that make me realize that no matter how much factual evidence you present someone with, if it doesn’t fit their mental schema, they are never going to attribute it the same value, or even the same meaning, as you.

Then there’s the “big picture”. The current political situation in Italy, my adopted country and oftentimes home for example. I’ve been following the wave of unrest and anti-establishment feeling that is gripping the country, and how the Five Star Movement has responded to this, carrying people with it on a crest of rage and frustration at the corruption strangling the current political system, and the country at large. Looking in from the outside and from the viewpoint of the different culture I carry within me, even as I spend year after year in Italy, it’s easier to be objective and see the pros and cons of every side of an argument. Detached to some degree (they won’t let me vote!!!), I can think about the movement, its policies and its people with less invested emotion.

The one thing that I suddenly became aware of (why has it taken me so long to notice this? What have I been doing for the past forty years???), as I read and sometimes comment on the fierce criticisms hurled at both the popular protest movement and the current political class, is how slanted people’s judgements are, how their interpretations are influenced almost exclusively by what they think and want for themselves. Not only their emotions and their experiences, but even their own personal interests, completely indifferent or perhaps unaware, of the greater good that a particular action may serve, to someone else, or to a community as a whole.

I regularly ponder over how people, groups, institutions, portray what they say and what they write, as a universal truth. By then sharing their version of events on social networks for example, they have the power to shape or even bias (often intentionally) the opinions of others. Perhaps we are all guilty of the same thing to some extent. So where do we draw the line? Do we need to draw a line? Or maybe it’s just important that we are all aware, and we teach our children, that what we hear and see is always someone else’s interpretation of it.

Moving on.

colpodaria copyClearly strength of conviction and associated bias applies to everything in life, from religious belief to the certainty amongst Italians that the (in)famous “colpo d’aria” really can kill you! I’ve been in Italy for more than 15 years, and the air hasn’t knocked me out yet!

Whilst the power of personal belief and experience over “objective” opinion may be patently obvious to most, it’s actually quite surprising how quickly we forget it as we go about our everyday lives.  The more something means to us personally, the more convinced we are that this is the only possible interpretation.  And unfortunately this also closes our minds to the possibility that there may be other interpretations.

So, how we see the world is subject to personal slant; but that’s not all.

How we see ourselves is not always the way other people see us.

I came across a really interesting installation this weekend at the Alviani Artspace in a pretty stunning building in Pescara.  (http://aurum.comune.pescara.it/).  The AURUM building, also known as “the idea factory”, was once a distillery.

Lucky for us, the “Ideas for Sale” exhibition opened that day.


One object in particular caught my eye: a suspended coin purse made of lots of tiny little origami shapes joined together.  I was intrigued about what had inspired the artist to create it.  What did it mean?

origami purse

The answer was pretty interesting too.

Installazione, tecnica Origami.

I decided to write to the artist, http://hisakomori2.blogspot.it/ I asked her if she minded if I tried to convey her words in English to share her creation and her thoughts with English-speaking readers.

She told me that the installation is called “”è la mia metà” (the other part of me) and it’s part of a collective exhibition called “come sto”. I wondered about this. Did she mean it as a question – how am I? – to portray the interior dilemma and search for an identity that maybe she was struggling with? Or was it an affirmative, ” the way I am”? so not the search for, but the statement of, an identity? How could I make sure my interpretation was faithful to the author’s intention?

I had to learn more.

The artist then told me that, for her, the bag represents the way society thinks we should look, and the way it expects us to be. Society demands we fit in with social and commercial ideals that are set by someone else. Hisako Mori is Japanese and lives in Italy. Inside her origamo bag she used Japanese newspapers to represent her identity – her past or what she was – which she then contrasted with Italian newspapers on the outside – her present or where she is now. This wasn’t immediately apparent from the installation in Pescara, from the way the purse was supsended. I was happy that I’d decided to go looking for some context and to speak to Hisako herself. It helped me to understand that her artwork was the visual expression of her search for an identity, and of the feeling that the Italian part of her life was swallowing up her Japanese heart. I’ve felt these same things too. I felt like I understood.

I also learned that a cleverly placed piece of tinfoil inside the bag was her way of showing how we ourselves don’t always know who we are. We may see ourselves in the mirror and know what’s on the outside, but are we actually capable of recognizing who we are on the inside?

This fascinated me, as I think it’s a pretty good metaphor for translation. To be able to step into a writer’s words, you have to be able to step back from who we are, and become what the writer is for a while. But to do that, you also have to understand the writer’s identity, which means looking beyond the words, behind the mirror, to understand what he or she has inside their bag.

Here’s the written text that should have accompanied the exhibition… but unfortunately didn’t.

“Come sto?
Guardo me stesso. Forse gli altri mi vedono in modo diverso.
Nonostante cio’, cerco di farmi forza per diventare uguale a come in realta’ gli altri mi vedono.
Per tranquillazzarmi, cerco di mantenere l’apparenza che emerge all’esterno.
Non mi rendo conto se la mia superficie si sta confondendo con la mia sostanza naturale.
Non posso separarmene. Le tengo come una borsetta che porto sempre con me.
La mia origine e’ influenzata dall’ambiente.
Provo sempre a cambiarmi, provo ad integrarmi.
Il tempo scorre sempre piu’ veloce.
Un giorno e’ stata scoperta.
Tante cose che volevo mantenere gia’ le ho perse.
Confusamente guardo il mio viso dalla borsetta.
Mi guardo nello specchio, ma lo specchio non specchia la vera me.
Non mi vedo realmente come sono.
Ormai non so nemmeno come devo essere.
Cosa mi sta bene di me stessa? Posso chiederlo consigli a qualcuno?ma cosa posso chiedere?
Qual è il senso dei valori della società?
Con cosa sto misurando la mia felicità?
Se non so più l’origine del mio cuore,come posso rendermi conto della vera felicità?
Chiedo a me stessa “come sto?”
Sono ancora in tempo per saperlo?”

“How am I?
I see myself. Perhaps others see me differently.
Still, I try to push myself to be what other people think I am.
To stay strong, I try to keep up the image that I project.
I never fully understand if my outer layer is getting mixed up with my inner self. The real me.
I can’t separate myself from them both. I keep them wrapped up, like a little bag that I carry with me all the time.
Who I am is influenced by the environment. I keep trying to change, trying to fit in.
Time goes by quicker and quicker.
One day it got out.
I’ve already lost a lot of the things I wanted to keep.
Confused, I look at my face from the bag.”
I look at myself in the mirror, but what I see isn’t the real me.
The reflected image is not what I really am.
I don’t really know what I should be anymore.
What do I like about myself? Can I ask someone’s advice? What should I ask?
What meaning do values have in society?
What am I basing my happiness on?
If I don’t know what is in my heart, how can I ever know what true happiness is?
I think to myself, “how are you”?

The English version is my interpretation of Hisako Mori’s words.

Beware. It’s my first interpretation. With works of art, it’s interesting to explore the initial effect a text has on us. Quite often it will be different from the second one; once we’ve had time to think about the context, the meaning and the techniques used. Maybe I’ll come back to this in a few days, and see if I would change anything.

If you’re reading this and you’re an IT>EN translator too, I’d love to hear how you would have written it in English. You’ve seen my interpretation. What’s yours?

Talking about translation, the mine/yours thing can be tricky sometimes.
The translation obviously starts in the translator’ head and ends in the translator’s words, but to really recreate the magic, to be faithful to the voice that an author speaks with, a trip into the author’s world along the way is essential. I like to think of it as “detaching the mind from the self” as Boshu’ said, and stepping into the author’s shoes for a while. You have to turn the whole “Yours and Mine” thing around.

Well, that’s what I think.  How about you?

The way I see it, to be the voice of someone else, you either have to share similar ideas and experiences as them, in other words,  be “on the same wavelength”, or be able to clear the decks, and park your personal experience, bias and interpretation elsewhere….sometimes even your  ego too.  Not everyone is capable of that.  Is anyone truly capable of that?

Since I can’t answer that question, to be on the safe side, I like to work with people that I feel I can identify with. That makes the Yours / Mine thing a kind of non issue. The closer I am or the more I understand you, your story, your motivation for writing it, and the more I understand what the story or the writing is about,  from fairytale, to travelogue or fashion blog, the better I will be able to recreate your words and your stories.

After all, I’ve always got this blog when I want to have it all my own way!

If you enjoyed this (it’s ok if you didn’t, I don’t mind your opinion being different from mine), then there’s something else you might find interesting:


An evening with Perihan Magden and Neel Mukherjee.

Presented by English PEN, Free Word

Mon 15 Apr 2013, 6:30pm

Free Word Lecture Theatre

“Your Voice, My Voice”

“Writers Perihan Magden (Turkey) and Neel Mukherjee (India/UK) discuss their writing and how it relates to the countries and cultures that shaped their lives.  While their work describes different realities and explores distinct imaginary worlds, both writers share the urge to give a voice to the unheard: the marginalised characters in their novels, the subjects of their journalism and the voice of the writer themselves.”

machecose david mcneil
I’d like to leave you with a book I found in a book shop last week. I thought it was amazing.  and a fabulously illustrated way of getting children talking about how things are not always what they seem.

Machecosè  Mcneil DavidMercié Tina, published in Italian by Gallucci Editore.
David McNeil, son of artist Marc Chagall, is a composer, singer, and author of children’s books. His amazing illustrations, hiding unexpected surprises, are accompanied by short, cheery and very musical texts. He also plays some very interesting words games, making the book a treasure trove of surprises on all levels.

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