Text to Images: Captioning Proust's Combray with Paintings

Michele Rosen
ATEC 6390 Translation in the Digital Age
Spring 2011

This project is based on the juxtaposition of two ideas: Roland Barthes' concept of captions in his essay "Rhetoric of the Image" and on the book Paintings in Proust by Eric Karpeles. The result is a two-minute long multimedia presentation. I chose 25 keywords from the opening of Proust's Combray, and searched for paintings whose titles included those keywords (in English). I then created a video file in iMovie in which the paintings appear at the moment the translated word is spoken in the original text (with many thanks to Prof. Dufour for his recording of the text).

Image Captions for Combray multimedia presentation

The multimedia presentation includes 25 works from 21 artists. To fit into Proust's time period (he began writing A la recherche du temps perdu in 1909; the seven books were published betwen 1913 and 1927), I tried to find works that had been painted in the late 19th century or the early 20th century (up to 1920). Sixteen of the works fall into this category, the remainder are Western European paintings from the 14th through early 19th centuries. All of the works were painted by European or American painters. Of the 21 artists, seven are French; the others hailed from eight other European countries and the United States.

List of paintings with related French word, painter's name, and date

I had hoped to overlay the keyword in both French and English onto the painting at the moment when the word was spoken, but my time and skills were lacking (which certainly also accounts for the less than stellar production values). I think that adding this additional layer would make this project into a sort of translation of the text into English, since the viewer could use the English word and the painting to draw certain conclusions about the original text. As it is, the project is more interesting, I think, if one can understand what is being said.

In this latter case, the painting becomes an inverse representation of Barthes' idea of captioning. Barthes wrote that "all images are polysemous" (274), but that the addition of a caption "helps [the reader] to choose the correct level of perception" (275). In this project, the image provides a sort of visual caption for the text, which, as we have discussed in class, could also be considered polysemous.

Conclusion and New Translation

This project helped to establish the mood of the text more than it helped me to change my original translation. As such, it did not prompt me to make many changes to the translation. Not counting differences in number, only three of the paintings do not include the exact English keyword in their titles: "thinking" (réflexions) is represented by Thomas Eakins' The Thinker; "me" (moi-même) is represented by Jacques Emile Blanche's portrait of Proust; and "rebirth" (métempsycose) is represented by Giovanni da Milano's Raising of Lazarus. I did change the translation slightly to match the title of one of the paintings I found, however: the word ésprit is now translated as "psyche" instead of "spirit."

Note: The words that match the paintings are shown in red. Changes made after the sound project are indicated in italics; changes made after this project are indicated in bold. Since I only addressed the first three sentences in the Text to Music project, I broke the selection into two paragraphs.

For as long as I can remember I have gone to sleep early. Sometimes, just after putting out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not even have time to say to myself: "I am falling asleep." And, a half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to go to sleep woke me; I wanted to put down the book that I thought I still had in my hands and to blow out the light; while asleep, I had not stopped thinking about what I had just read, but these thoughts had taken a rather odd turn, in which it seemed to me that the work was about me: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V.

This belief lingered for several seconds after I awoke; it did not shock my reason but weighed like shells on my eyes and prevented them from realizing that the candlestick was no longer lit. Then it began to become unintelligible to me, just like thoughts of a previous existence after rebirth; the subject of the book detached from me, I was free to apply it to myself or not; my sight recovered shortly thereafter and I was quite surprised to find myself surrounded by darkness, soft and soothing to my eyes, but perhaps even more so for my psyche, to which it seemed as a thing without cause, incomprehensible, like something really obscure. I asked myself what time it might be; I heard the whistling of the trains which, more or less far away, like the song of a bird in the forest, indicating distance, made me aware of the expanse of deserted countryside where the voyager rushed toward the next station; and the little path that he followed would be engraved in his memory by the excitement of new places, unaccustomed actions, recent conversations, and by the farewells under the strange lamp that followed him still in the silence and the night, to the upcoming sweetness of homecoming.