In the arts, do we have to tell our own stories?
“For only being truthful about how we got here can we begin to imagine another way”
~ Austin Channing Brown, best-selling author, speaker, & producer
Just yesterday, I taught a workshop for younger musicians. The topic was, “Creative Expression through Musical Storytelling.”
There are lots of directions you can go with such a topic. At this point in my journey as a teaching artist, I encouraged them to explore telling their own stories through creative work.
But as creatives, does it have to be about our own stories?
A simple answer is, of course not. But in asking these questions, I’m reminded of the similarities between performance and translation.
In classical music, you aren’t supposed to see the performer. It isn't about them, the specifics of who they are & where they came from. It’s about the transcendental, alternate realities they’re communicating through music.
Similarly, in translation, the translator is literally invisible. When the final product rests in your hands — a text written in a language you can understand — you don’t see the translator. You can’t see the intricate network of decisions they had to make, choosing one set of words over another.
Sometimes, you aren't even told their names.
Yet translators have tremendous power. They transfer meaning from one language (and culture) to another, and in doing so, they actually recreate the original work.
For a while, the ideal of “faithfulness” to the original work has dominated the field of translation*. However, through the lens of feminist translation, "faithfulness” is seen as a patriarchal, systematically-privileged paradigm. In deviance from this paradigm, a feminist translator deliberately rewrites the original text, so that her translation becomes an assertion of her own expressiveness and agency.
When I read about this in May, I felt a surge of excitement. "That’s exactly what I’m doing with 'Poems in Practice Rooms'!” I thought.
In “Poems in Practice Rooms,” I let the audience see me practicing. They see the labor that goes behind an experience they’re used to receiving on a silver platter. Not only that, but they see the struggles I go through, as I talk about the many ways I don't fit in as a classical flutist.
One of these ways is a lack of obsessiveness towards perfection. Perfection dominates classical music, as faithfulness has dominated translation.
To deliberately deviate from these ideals becomes an act of resistance, expressing one’s agency as an artist or translator. It’s a way of saying, “I’m here. My journey & my labor, which allows you to experience this (piece of music or writing), deserves to be seen — on its own terms.”
A feminist translator might say, “Being a translator isn't about disappearing, so that the readers can hear 'directly' from the original author, just in a different language. I am actively re-creating this work into another language. My presence matters, and my decisions are my own.”
Similarly, I would say, “My presence — my creative decisions, my body as a performer — carries its own story. And that story deserves to be told, just as much as the timeless, transcendental stories within a Bach sonata or a Beethoven symphony.”
Is that a presumptuous thing to say? Pretty much. But feminism seeks to locate power, truth, & authority outside of historically, structurally-privileged spaces. Outside those spaces, we learn to see & listen to people who have been systematically quieted or erased — like a translator, or like me, a not-always-perfect, brown-skinned woman who plays the flute.
So, is it necessary for every artist to tell her own story through her creative work?
I don’t think so. But when artists are vulnerable about how their histories shape what they create, we're invited to engage with their work as existing, not in a bubble from the world & its problems, but in conversation with those problems.
In fewer words, art can be an escape. Playing flute certainly is for me. But at the same time, it’s woven into who we are, where we come from — so as to imagine, where do we go from here?
* from Introducing Translation Studies: Theories & Applications by Jeremy Munday