What truly is the purpose of translation? Eliot Weinberger explores this question in his novel, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, as he analyzes different translations of the same poem. The reader gets to experience the same poem over and over again within fifty-four pages, but one will eventually raise the question: “why would I read the same poem over again with a different translator’s version?”
Weinberger purposely created this novel to bring to light the beauty of translation. A work is supposed to be interpreted hundreds of different ways, because each reader gets something out of it in their own unique experience. Yes, the famous Wei poem “Deer Park” can be analyzed nineteen different ways, but each version is it’s own work.
Some translations are inaccurate, less successful, and translated by those whom English is not their first language. However, it is important that the reader understands to not completely trust the translator, but rather see the work from their own point of view. We will never officially know the original version of Wang Wei’s poem, but we can build from past translations and transform them into our own poetic illustrations.
So why not have only one translation that everyone can refer to? When a poem is not translated multiple times, it becomes two-dimensional. The more versions, the more creativity and alive the poem becomes among an individual. Art is not seen in one particular way; each individual is supposed to have their own personal experience.
Even though this novel takes less than an hour to read, Weinberger will open up your mind and allow you to find the beauty and purpose of translation. It is not about making each word as accurate as possible, but rather the emotional experience you personally feel with the work. The point of translation is more than intellectually reading another’s art; it is allowing yourself to encounter the art with your own interpretation.