A scholar renders a stream-of-consciousness thought from a French novel into English. A chemistry-savvy artist heats two compounds to produce a new pigment for paint. An editor touches up a scribbled missive of a poem for the public eye. What parts of each substance change? And which ones—in the most literal sense of the word “translate”—carry over?
Read on and learn what Ava ’23, Kendall ’23, and Grace ’23 discovered as they pursued each of these topics in their senior capstones: the year-long research projects that send Commonwealth students into new intellectual territory.
From French to English
There’s a moment in Swann’s Way, the inception of Marcel Proust's monumental seven-volume series In Search of Lost Time, that Ava lingers over. Charles Swann, a society man, has been captivated by a sonata as the unlikely guest at a gathering. “This specific piece of music,” Ava explains, “will have a lot of resonance later in the novel pertaining to him and a love story he has. It’s a motif that keeps resurfacing.“
An open-sourced English translation of the French describes the “mass of the piano-part” trying to “surge upwards in a flowing tide of sound” above “the narrow ribbon of the violin-part.” But, Ava says, that misses a quality of Proust’s original language: the fluidity that mirrors the two instruments in the piece, or ripples in water.
“There’s one word in French, clapotement, which means the sound of a wave hitting something,” Ava elaborates. “And I suppose a direct translation would say ‘a lapping of waves’ or something like that. But the way it’s put in the sentence makes it really tricky. In French, it says un clapotement liquide. A ‘liquid lap?’” She laughs at the jarring literalism. “It makes no sense! It sounds terrible!”
This is just one of the puzzles Ava encountered throughout her capstone: reading Swann’s Way in French, then composing a close analysis and literary English translation of the gathering scene. Even among seasoned bookworms like Ava, reading part of In Search of Lost Time—a text infamous for its winding prose and semi-autobiographical references—is enough of a challenge in translation. But Ava had already embraced the experimentation of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. “Even though the form of their writing was really wild, some parts of it felt like, ‘Oh, this is life as I know it,’” she remembers. “I found it very neat, moving, and beautiful.” When she first encountered Proust, another Modernist, in Jérémie Korta’s French class, a capstone proposal swiftly followed.
That’s not to say it was love at first sight. “At that point,” Ava says, “my French still felt a bit wobbly. Even if I understood the individual words together, they felt like they hardly made sense. I’d read a passage three times or so all the way through before I really understood the meaning.” Gradually, though, as she spent more time with Proust and embarked on her capstone, she began to grasp the deeper significance of the language—in fact, she didn’t read any portion of Swann’s Way in English until she’d finished with the French. She avoided consulting others’ translations, too, knowing that their efforts would inevitably color her own (though she reviewed them later when making revisions for technical accuracy).
As Ava translated, she examined Proust’s literary technique, “things like imagery, diction, sentence structure, and looking at the etymologies of different words, trying to parse the meaning of certain complicated metaphors.” Reading the novel in its original language also made her more attuned to its auditory dimensions, which don’t always come through in translations; in English, sonorous French syllables become “clipped and sort of bounded, because you have consonants that I think are more pronounced.” No English translation fully lived up to “clapotement,” in Ava’s view (phrases like “surging and swelling in a sonorous clap” fell flat). But, in Ava’s hands, other mellifluous French phrases like “comme la mauve agitation des flots que charme et bémolise le clair de lune” retained their beauty as “like the mauve agitation of waves lulled and tempered by the light of the moon.”
For Ava, the capstone is “less about producing a really good translation and more about experiencing what the process is like firsthand”—paralleling the way that In Search of Lost Time allowed Proust to document moments from his life through the process of fiction writing. “The memories that he describes are very specific to him, but I think they're also very universal—like the attachment you can have with your mother, or your first crush, or walking around your childhood hometown,” Ava says. “Translating Proust really gave me a space to reflect on that.”
From Science to Art
More than one thousand years ago, artisans in China’s Yuan dynasty used a distinctive cobalt blue color on exquisite cups and vases. Several centuries later, French chemist Louis Jacques Thénard identified the properties of the color’s pigment. And in 2022, cobalt pigments transformed yet again, this time right before Kendall’s eyes in her Art and Science of Materials class at Commonwealth.
“We were synthesizing different pigments, and the cobalt violet pigment that we had made was pink, and turned pink or purple, depending if it was on plaster gesso or different canvases that we used,” Kendall recalls. “No one could figure out why that was”—including usually unstumpable chemistry teachers John Wolff and Rebecca Jackman. “I was really fascinated by that,” she says, “and thought, ‘If they can’t, then I will.’”
As Kendall soon discovered the chemical processes behind pigments don’t just stymie Commonwealth’s science scholars: they’re a mystery to painters, too. “It’s really hard to synthesize these pigments on your own,” Kendall explains. “For a lot of artists, it makes so much more sense to use pigments that have really been tested. If you're just buying a pigment online, it’s fine, and it works. But for myself and the art that I do, and from what I’ve heard from the artists I've talked to, it is really cool to be a part of the whole process and make the paint, rather than just buying it.” The aim of Kendall’s project, then, would be not only to comprehend the chemical workings of pigment synthesis, sharing experimental findings in lab reports and an academic paper, but to create a recipe she could hand off to another artist.
Commonwealth labs are known for their high level of hands-on activity, and for Kendall, the capstone project presented the perfect opportunity to continue that experimentation beyond the class block system. With limited background information to draw from, and no clear conclusions known in advance, Kendall (along with her mentor Mr. Wolff) was eager “to step into the shoes of the scientific researcher and think of the questions that I want to answer, and come up with the hypotheses and procedures that I'm going to use.”
Throughout the year, Kendall’s laboratory teemed with a palette of colors to rival a painter’s: green and turquoise cobalt varieties; black and white powders (of cobalt oxide and titanium dioxide, respectively); and the “purpley green” outcome of heating cobalt (II) chloride hexahydrate and titanium dioxide together. To test each potential pigment reaction, Kendall first tried pulverizing one of two cobalt variations alongside other chemicals and heating the mixture in a Bunsen burner, testing for the optimal rate of reaction. When that didn’t yield her desired results, she continued testing new methods until she reached a finished product: chunks that could be ground into a fine powder and used to produce paint.
Unlike a literary translation, Kendall’s pigments “cross over” into entirely new substances during reactions—but her capstone also points to a broader artistic and cultural history. Kendall hopes to use the paint formed from her synthesized pigments to create a piece that commemorates her time at Commonwealth. And long before she entered the lab for her capstone, the pigment knowledge she gained from Art and Science of Materials changed how she walked through each museum along the route of the Spanish class trip to Peru.
“I was trying to use what I learned about cobalt” when examining paintings, Kendall says, considering questions like: “‘Could I do these paintings? Could they have cobalt pigments in them?’ Using the date when they were made, you can do detective work, which is fun. It’s given me a deeper appreciation of the process of how they got there.”
From Private to Public
If you’ve encountered a poem by Emily Dickinson, there’s one element you may remember, even if you’ve forgotten all it had to say: the dashes. A trademark of her style, they compel the reader to halt and ponder, line by line…
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
…but Dickinson’s poems, which won her her own immortality in the pantheon of American writers, didn’t always appear this way. If you were to travel back in time to the late 19th century and acquire a newly published edition of Dickinson’s poetry, you would’ve found commas in place of those dashes, among other stylistic changes, made at the hands of family connections. And, Grace ’23 contends, that matters.
“[Dickinson] has a very fraught publication history,” Grace explains. “She sits among this larger culture of New England literary figures and people like Alcott, Thoreau, and Emerson. Dickinson was never celebrated [in her own lifetime], and now she's one of the most celebrated American poets, and perhaps the most famous female American poet, in history. So the big question for me was: why is this disparity there?”
Grace was drawn to Dickinson as a fellow New Englander and poet (throughout her time at Commonwealth, Grace was honored at the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and Poetry Out Loud competition for her works). “She has very mysterious and hefty images,” Grace says, describing Dickinson’s works, “oftentimes of death and loss, and that spoke to me.”
Dickinson’s marginalia, stored in archives through Harvard and Amherst College, also spoke to Grace. The collections include poems scrawled on envelope scraps and over handmade books. “[Dickinson] created really personal, private art, oftentimes addressed to specific people,” she says, and those private notes would become the backbone of Grace’s capstone as she wrote comparative analyses of Dickinson’s original manuscripts and their final published forms.
According to Grace, alterations to Dickinson’s writing were made following her death. Mabel Loomis Todd (the mistress of Dickinson’s brother Austin and a prominent Amherstian) and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, responding to calls for help from Dickinson’s sister Lavinia, took up the project of publishing the poet’s works. Compiling select poems into volumes, where they were separated by categories like “Life,” “Eternity,” and “Nature,” Todd and Higginson made rounds of edits that transformed the original, sometimes fragmented, works.
“A lot of the time, Todd's changes are grammatical, and they’re standardizing [Dickinson’s] form for an audience,” Grace says. “Famously, all of or most of Dickinson's dashes are removed. Words are changed—Dickinson's manuscripts were not left in a really finished state, so sometimes there are variations on a word or suggestions for edits at the bottom of the page as footnotes. Then there are a few examples where stanzas are taken out or removed.” This standardization may have helped Dickinson’s work reach a larger public, but Grace ponders whether it came at the cost of the intimate quality she identified with: ”They cleaned and purified her work for an audience, which I think gives a lot of people [now] a bit of an icky feeling.”
A look back at Dickinson’s private writings, Grace suggests, can pierce the distant “mystique” she sees in popular discourse around the poet. “Oftentimes,” she says—speaking from experience—“poetry is a more direct way of expressing an emotion or an experience and a real desire of the speaker to convey it.” Grace’s research illuminates the task before editors and translators everywhere: to judge when conveying that urgency calls for bending traditional editorial rules.