What is Lost in Translation?

(A Brief Analysis of Two English Translations of the Opening Paragraph of Heinrich Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas)

            A few months ago I was introduced by the love of my life to the German writer, Heinrich Von Kleist. I immediately became obsessed with his work. I read everything he wrote, including a biography and all his letters, and I consider him a literary friend who will always be there for me from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death gives me the chance to schedule a rendez-vous with him in hell.

            But I was lucky. I had encountered a magnificent translation of Kleist’s work by David Luke. You can read all about David Luke and his life in this Independent article. But here’s an excerpt:

           “His [Luke] verse translations all render into English not only the sense of the original with meticulous accuracy but make as close an approximation as is possible to the verse forms of the German, of which there are a huge range, even within Faust. All are remarkable achievements; the very best of them succeed magnificently in conveying the great beauty of the German language in the hands of the finest writers. For decades, reviewer after reviewer (including poets such as Stephen Spender and D.J. Enright), praised David Luke’s acutely sensitive ear and his tremendous linguistic dexterity. In 2000 the German-British Forum presented him with a medal in honour of his contribution to cultural understanding between the two nations.”

            I became so obsessed with Kleist that after finishing his masterpiece, Michael Kohlhaas, for the third time, I ordered a hard copy of the book on Amazon, to give my burning retinas a rest and to have a physical child I could actually hold. When the book arrived in the mail my hands were trembling. I tore open the package, jumped on to the coach to go for ride, and began reading…

            And while reading the first paragraph I was filled with a rising, sickening sense of revulsion. In my hands was a different book. This was not Kleist. This was not Michael Kohlhaas. After three pages, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was reading garbage, an airport novel full of clichés and detectives; a shit book with a hack title like: Jack Knish Hunts For Redemption. I threw the book across the room and stormed out of my apartment. I collapsed in the middle of the street, cars honking and speeding by (Qu’est-ce que vous faites, connard !), and wept bitter tears at the horrible mediocrity that pervades so much of this finite and imperfect world…

            A few days later I began to wonder why I had felt such disgust reading Frances A. King’s translation of Kleist. What was it about the translation? So I began to compare King’s translation with Luke’s translation. Below is what I discovered and the conclusions that I’ve made concerning the art of translation.

            To be a great translator, you must keep three ideas in your head at all times while translating a work:

  1. Who was the writer? 

Who was Henrich Von Kleist? The answer is complex, of course, but there are some adjectives we can use: intense, tortured, curious, adventuresome, lonely, hyper-sensitive, extremely intelligent, and wild. His first tutor described him as having a “mind of undampened fire.” Kleist was known for having shattering episodes of depression. His heart had been broken by his first love. His parents were dead before he was 15. He was a prisoner of war. His only remaining family (sister) abandoned him. He felt like he should have been living in another period of human history. He loved to travel, but he also desired to settle down in the wilderness and write. He committed suicide with a lover (or perhaps a close friend, biographers aren’t certain, Kleist was mysterious) at age 34. All these details and parts of his personality must be kept in mind as the translator engages in word choice, the rhythm of phrases, and the expression of complex ideas.

2.) In what period of human history was the writer working in?

Kleist was writing at the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s. He was a contemporary of Goethe. Goethe expressed horror and disgust after reading Kleist’s prose, calling Kleist’s writing “diseased” because it showed “the unlovely and frightening in Nature.” He condemned the violence of Kleist’s theories and for finding life “a labyrinth to which reason, faith and feeling were uncertain guides.” Kleist was writing during the romantic period of literature in Germany. Enlightenment ideas were on the rise (rationality, objectivity, reform movements, etc.). In 1793, the execution of the French king and the onset of The Terror disillusioned the Bildungsbürgertum (Prussian middle classes). Around 1800 the Catholic monasteries, which had large land holdings, were nationalized and sold off by the government. Europe was racked by two decades of war. All these events and more must be known by the translator so they can have a sense of the writer’s setting. But a great translator must also read other books written during the same time period (and their best translations), to get a sense of what words and phrases are being chosen.

3.) What is the context of the story itself? Who are the characters and what do they stand for?

Michael Kohlhaas is based on the 16thcentury story of Hans Kohlhase (a merchant whose grievance against a Saxon nobleman developed into a full-blown feud against the state of Saxony, thus infringing the Eternal Peace of 1495). Kohlaas himself was tough, rugged, fair, and strong. Here is a trailer for a movie made about Michael Kohlaas, released in 2013, to give you an idea:

Again, the time period (16thcentury) must dictate word choice, and the characters and the plot (which in this case contain violence and a wild, powerful quest for vengeance and justice) must determine how the translation is rendered.

            I could write 100 pages meticulously dissecting both translations. But I won’t waste your time. Here is just the first paragraph of the great translation by Luke with the shit translation [King] in parenthesis. Analysis and justification below. 

            About the middle of the sixteen century there lived beside the banks of the River Havel a horse-dealer called Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, who was one of the most honorable/[upright] as well as one of the most terrible men of his age. Until his thirtieth year this extraordinary man could have been considered a paragon of civil virtues/[model of a good citizen]. In a village that still bears his name he owned a farm where he peacefully earned a living by his trade/[quietly supported himself by plying his trade]; his wife bore him/[presented him] children who he brought up in the fear of God to be hardworking [industrious] and honest; he had not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness/[nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice]; in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursed one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer./[In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue – his sense of justice, which made him a robber and a murderer.

  1. Honorable as an adjective is a 100x better than upright. The word is stronger, fits the century, and connects with a theme of the story and with Kohlhass’ character (honor). Upright evokes somebody trying to fix their posture, and is physical and limited rather than epic and spiritual.
  • A paragon of civil virtues also has an epic quality, subtly revealing the power of Kohlhass, and the sound of “civil virtues” is pleasing to hear in English. Model of a good citizen is bland and weak, a product of the 20thcentury, and makes one think of “doing their small part” for society as they recycle, vote, and follow the rules. 
  • Peacefully earned a living by his trade evokes the image of a someone working hard in peace. The verb “to earn” is powerful and implies independence and pride. Quietly supporting himself by plying his trade implies that “himself” needs to be supported and that he is meek. Michael Kohlhass could survive any obstacle and doesn’t need, in a sense, to support himself. On the other hand, he is intensely “living” and desires “peace.” And the verb plying, is extremely weak, sounding close to playing and being synonymous with handling, using, operating, and feeling.
  • His wife bore children is 1000x better than his wife presented him children. To verb, “bore” is raw and suggests how difficult and painful the act of childbirth is, especially during the late 1700s. What does “present children” to Kohlhass even mean? It evokes an image of a woman nonchalantly putting children on a table as a gift and saying, “Here they are!”
  • Hardworking and honest is a pleasing alliteration. Industrious and honest are two words that rhyme, and intense prose shouldn’t rhyme (because it jars the ear and flow if it’s unintended). In addition, children aren’t taught to be specifically industrious, like machines or employees, they are taught to be hardworking, a subtle difference but all these differences add up.
  • “Not one neighbor who was not indebted to his generosity or his fair-mindedness,” reveals that Kohlhass had a respected and revered place in the community. They were indebted to him. Compare this to: “Nor was there one among his neighbors who had not enjoyed the benefit of his kindness or his justice,” puts the emphasis on neighbors enjoying Kohlass as if he was an entertainer. Kohlass was not an entertainer. And the sentence clumsily uses the word justice, tacked on at the end. Justice is the most important theme in this story, and it shouldn’t be used lightly, as it is in King’s crap translation.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, Luke breaks up the last idea into two sentences: as Kleist does in the original German. Luke writes, “in short, the world would have had cause to revere his memory, had he not pursed one of his virtues to excess. But his sense of justice made him a robber and a murderer.” Making the last idea two sentences adds force and power to the second sentence: his sense of justice making him a robber and murderer. It punches the reader in the gut and makes them want to keep on reading. Compare this to King’s run-on, choppy sentence: “In short, the world would have had every reason to bless his memory if he had not carried to excess one virtue – his sense of justice, which made him a robber and a murderer.” It’s as if the last idea were just tacked on at the end haphazardly, “oh yeah, Kohlhass also became a robber and a murderer.” The phrase, “the world would have every reason to bless his memory” is also stupid and sloppy. Why focus on the world in this sentence, when the story of Kohlhass is him against the world (as Kleist was against his world). Why use the verb “to bless” which evokes religion and the image of a priest calmly leaning over a pious worshiper. The world did not consider blessing Kohlass’ memory. The world either hated or revered him: a divided intensity that Kleist lived by.

Conclusion: If I had encountered King’s translation first instead of Luke’s I might never have befriended Kleist. How many times has this happened before with other translations? It’s better not to think of this question.

      If you get one thing out of this essay, I hope it is that you should read Michael Kohlhass as soon as you can. But please read David Luke’s translation. I believe it’s better.

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Porter Post-Postmodern: “The Next Artist”


In six new canvases, Porter Post-Postmodern uses raw, organic means – his spit – to improvise a variety of motifs. The pieces of paper he spits on represent things that can be spit on, providing a cerebral, one may even say existential, field on which Porter scatters fragmentary drops of liquid…just like water splashing unpredictably on the spiritual shores of your reality and dreams and space and protons and stop reading I’m erudite.


The works’ shared title: “I’m spitting on a piece of paper…my rich aunt has connections in the art world and I need something to do,” is consistent with this incoherent show’s look and feel, reminding one of the surrealists’ conversations behind closed doors (when not spouting bullshit about the unconscious mind and chance): how the fuck are we getting away with this?


“Man puts his head into a megaphone and at the end it comes out a dinosaur head screaming” by Richard Dingleberry recently sold for $10 billion to a Russian Oil Magnate


The art has a child-like, can’t communicate or shit properly in a toilet yet, feel, with cartoonish shapes, scenarios, and more shapes depicting a complex world of messy undergrowth, dirt, parasitic plants, and trash.


While there is a lot happening here, bullshitwise, Porter’s denial of explanation or context ensures that the works formal elements are at least as significant as their ostensible subject matter. What does that mean? Shhhhhh, poor sucker, shhhh, give me money and massage your idle ego, shhhh. In every case, the playful action takes place on a piece of paper, which is the background, on which the artist juxtaposes liquid forms (big spit, little spit, is that spit? No that’s the glare from the fluorescent light. Are you sure? No, why are we having this conversation? Because I want to understand this-There’s nothing to understand, it’s just a waste of-), and space on the paper. (Space, ah, space.) Surrounded by empty space, the droplets of spit engage the imagination, while making sure your faith in the world remains broken, distorted, and tainted.


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Murals of Bedsty

For a journalism reporting assignment I was given the neighborhood: Bedford-Stuyvesant. I walked every street in this community. Here are my 14 favorite murals:

Frida Kahlo


Biggie Smalls


21st Century’s Rosy the Riveter


Malcolm X


Mother with Baby


Mario Tripping




Native American Man


Native American Girl


Crazy Light Bulbs


Color and Detail


Allison Ruiz and Basquiat (@call_her_al)


Do The Right Thing


Catalyst for Change

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Jimbo Bimbo’s Modern Art Exhibit Receives Glowing Reviews from Bored, Rich People and Causes the Working Man to Lose Faith in Humanity

“Art is what you can get away with.”

-Andy Warhol

Among other things, childhood is about learning to conform to a preexisting social narrative that necessarily limits cultural free will. The previous sentence is essentially meaningless, but it was published in a reputable art magazine, so it must be profound. The idea which you don’t understand is ostensibly the theme of Jim Bimbo’s art show.

Born in 1988, Bimbo grew up the child of strict parents in suburban Baltimore, and like many upper class American children, he lived in two places simultaneously: the one in a house with rules (make your bed, be kind to the maid, stop crying) and the one outside of it with less rules (here’s some money, we don’t really love you, go have some fun). This sort of dichotomy often prompts a young mind to retreat into a world of its own – a dissociative state evoked here by mixed-media pieces that go into a recondite, defensive crouch. Did you not understand a word or phrase in the previous sentence? Good. Now I seem intelligent and knowledgeable of what I’m talking about.

One sculptural tableau features a pair of formless piles of trash made of aluminum foil and discarded diapers. Both piles wear animal masks rendered in frozen cow dung to resemble fabric hoods, and both are posed by a carved lion (like one you’d find guarding a building) without its head – evoking, perhaps, a vision of childhood fantasy burdened by the demands of acculturation. Do you not know what acculturation means in the previous run-on sentence? (I didn’t know before I wrote this article.) Good. Now I seem even smarter.

Daydreaming interrupted also seems to be the subject of a video fixed on a school entrance as gray, static blurs the image. You can’t make out details of what you’re looking at, so you stand there for a minute and ask yourself why the fuck you just bought a $15 ticket.

So deep.

Bimbo returns to adulthood with small, crystal shelves shaped like the balcony of his Manhattan apartment. Yes, can you believe it, he lives in a spacious two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan with a balcony, a fireplace, and a disgruntled doorman who has three children, a used car, and an unpaid mortgage. In another part of the show, a model of an abandoned detergent factory in Bedstuy, Brooklyn being redeveloped as condos offers a view of gentrification undermining artistic agency. It also makes Bimbo feel less guilty about his status and wealth.

Like a lot of millennial artists, Bimbo makes work that risks being about everything and nothing all at once. In other words: complete and utter bullshit. His show takes a lot of explaining, but that doesn’t detract from its cerebral appeal. It simply makes other working artists living on the edge want to kill themselves. •Middle aged rich man attempting to meet a deadline for a reputable art magazine (Bimbo’s exhibit located on 11 Prince Street through Oct 23)


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The Artistic Revolutions and Optical Illusions of the Mona Lisa

Last night I a dream about the Mona Lisa involving a Pope hat and tears. Here is my attempt to decipher and educate my corroded and gutter-infested subconscious:

The Mona Lisa is the most widely-recognized, discussed, and studied painting in the history of human civilization. Leonardo Da Vinci created this 30×21 inch masterpiece between 1503-1517 at the request of Francesco de Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant in Florence. The image is of Francesco’s third wife, Lisa Gherardini, and was commissioned for their new home and to celebrate the birth of their second son. (Although some scholars believe it is either Leonardo’s mother or Leonardo himself disguised as a woman. I believe it is a subtle blend of all three.) The painting never reached the patron’s new home. Leonardo kept the painting until his death, constantly revising the portrait and traveling with it to show off his talents (the picture is neither dated nor signed). Later in life, Leonardo is said to have regretted “never having completed a single work.” He is considered one of the most diversely talented individuals to have ever lived.

The official, Italian name for the painting, “La Gioconda,” is a pun. Gioconda is the feminine form of the patron’s last name (Giocondo) and also means jocund (happy, jovial). The rough translation is: “a light-hearted woman.” My question is, how has this light-hearted woman been able to remain riding on top of the art world (pun intended) for the last 500+ years?

First of all, at the time of its creation, Leonardo revolutionized portrait painting.

Here’s how:

1a.) Before the Mona Lisa, portraits were mostly profiles. They looked stiff and contrived:

Small Female Portrait by Angelo Da Siena (c. 1450)

Na. She prude. Fuck that.

La Gioconda was the first image (in Italy) to show a relaxed, informal, three-quarter pose, welcoming the viewer:


Yea. What’s up. That’s better.

Leonardo established a new style of portrait painting which has become the standard today.

1b.) Pyramidal composition of the portrait

The painting has a “wide base” appearing heavier at the bottom because of the darkness and the crossing hands. The crossed hands form the base and your eyes are naturally drawn to the apex: the face…where all the “mysterious action” is happening.

1c.) Cropping

Most images of people at the time were “full length.” La Gioconda’s cropping creates a more intimate and “close” atmosphere.

2.) Almost all portraits during this time period rocked bling-bling. Necklaces, bracelets, rings, tight clothes, etc.:

Portrait of a Young Woman by Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1475)

The Mona Lisa was radical in that she “wasn’t that hot,” (comparatively speaking) and exemplified simplicity and modesty (Freud believed she combined the two, major female traits: motherly tenderness and alluring seductiveness.) Even though she was supposedly a rich merchant’s wife, she “didn’t have a ring on it,” and was wearing loose, poor clothes. Yet her modest crossing of the arms suggested chastity (some scholars even think covering up pregnancy).

Here is a note found in Da Vinci’s, Treatise on Painting, years after his death:

“As far as possible avoid the costumes of your own day…costumes of our period should not be depicted unless it be on tombstones, so that we may be spared being laughed at by our successors for the mad fashions of men and leave behind only things that may be admired for their dignity and their beauty.”

3a.) Paintings at the time used an equal level of detail in the foreground and background:

by Mainardi ca. 1480
by Mainardi ca. 1480


La Gioconda, instead, has a background which gets hazy and out of focus as the distance increases. Just like life.


3b.) But despite the life-like perspective of the background, La Gioconda was the first to use an imaginary landscape. The landscape at the left is noticeably lower than the landscape on the right:

So much anaconda

And the twisting roads and jagged mountains add to the “other-worldly” feel.

3c.) Leonardo was one of the first artists to use an aerial perspective in the background. The Mona Lisa seems to be sitting in an open loggia (balcony) with dark pillars on either side (scholars are fairly certain the picture was cut off, at first, based on Rafael’s sketch when he was apprenticed to Leonardo in 1504):


 This adds again to the mystical feeling of the background image.

3d.) The horizon is on level with the eyes, connecting the subject with the landscape but also emphasizing the mysteriousness of nature.


4.) Contrasting with the shrouded, misty fantasy background is an unprecedented realism in the foreground. In the human figure there is a compete lack of discernible brushstrokes. The anatomy of the hands is perfect. Da Vinci studied over 30 cadavers before beginning this work.

Look at those soft, gentle hands. That’s better than a goddamn photograph.

5.) Combining all of the previous points, the Mona Lisa is intensely human, intensely alive. “On looking at the pit of the throat one could swear that the pulses were beating.“-Vasari. You don’t feel like you’re looking at a picture. You’re drawn in and consumed by her face.

But even if Leonardo revolutionized portraiture, how did La Gioconda last the test of time? After Leonardo’s death, he was greatly respected in the art world, especially by Rafael, who continued his legacy.

But it wasn’t until 1864 that La Gioconda became well-known outside of the art world. And when the “general public” became aware of The Mona Lisa their attention was maintained over generations by one of art’s most enduring traits:


The illusion: the enigmatic smile and gaze. Is she smiling? Is she looking at me?

The smile:


Last year British Art historians “discovered” La Bella Principessa (1496) by Da Vinci:


It is clear from this picture that Leonardo worked on his enigmatic smile technique before the Mona Lisa. A study of La Bella Principessa revealed that people believed that she was smiling, or not smiling, based on their distance from the canvas. So Leonardo’s enigmatic smile was intentional.

The gaze:


She sees…everything

The eyes seem to follower the viewer. So how did Leonardo accomplish these illusions?


The definition of form in painting without abrupt outline by the blending of one tone into another. It gives the image a translucent, smoky feel which provides depth and movement. Leonardo blends colors and shades to get gradual transitions between different shapes. No other artist has been able to pull it off as successfully. No one is exactly sure how he did it.

People overestimate the precision, ability, and clarity of their eyesight. Numerous studies reveal that we actually view reality in fragments and piecemeal, while our brain fills in the gaps. Leonardo was somehow able to take advantage of this distortion so that we can’t say for certain whether the Mona Lisa is smiling or where she’s looking.

Side note: La Gioconda used to have eyebrows and eyelashes, but they were removed through overzealous cleaning.

Lastly, La Gioconda has had a tumultuous past which has only added to her fame. Napoleon had the painting in his bedroom, it was stolen from the Louvre (Picasso was suspected, arrested, and thrown in jail), people have thrown acid, a ceramic tea cup, stones, and sprayed red paint at it.  But through it all she has survived…

Will someone ever paint a portrait comparable in its revolt and mystery? I hope so. I’ll keep waiting. I’ll keep looking.

Until then I’ll just have to be satisfied with my absurd and sacrilegious dreams.

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