MIDWAY : Interpreting texts

Interpretation is the understanding or judgement of a work of art driven by pertinent rationale. The fact that it is as personal as criticism widens its scope. This vastness ensures flexibility in thoughts which is often exploited or misunderstood. And thus the boon turns into a curse.

A new interpretation sometimes turns a mediocre piece of art into a literary masterpiece. Consider this example. While our class was discussing Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, our teacher told us to understand the word ‘sleep’ as a symbolic reference to death. We later learned that Frost had implied nothing of the sort.

Many questions arise here. Firstly, is it the artist, the patron or the critic that makes a work of art a masterpiece? Is there a limit or a rule in interpreting art? How can unwarranted interpretations like the one above be justified?

Susan Sontag’s illuminating essay, Against Interpretation, gives a clearer idea of the practice of such uncalled-for interpretations. In her essay she tells us that this practice is an age-old one. Many texts that were obsolete but still could not be fully discarded were prone to being modified so as to make them more relevant with the changing state of affairs. Surprisingly, these texts included some religious ones we peruse to this day.

Such dubious interpretations cannot be condoned as white lies and forgiven easily. I believe careless and uninformed interpretation is as much a sin as losing something in translation. Perhaps it is a far more serious crime.

One who seeks to defend this act with all his moral blabber must be ready to justify the interpretation of the Koran by Islamic extremists too.

Though Sontag elucidated cases of ‘text-tampering’ while referring to certain stories of the Bible, I personally believe that to this day, no religious work has been meddled with so much as the Holy Koran.

The extremists are interpreting it their own way and all of us are well aware of the consequences. Interpretation is a delicate art and demands much nuance and should be handled with as much care as one would like others to exercise while dealing with one’s own work.