Lost in translation
English versions of writings in French by and about Le Corbusier seem to have presented problems ever since the architect Frederick Etchell's mistranslated Vers une Architecture as Towards a New Architecture, thus removing the subtle reference to a timeless or basic canonic architecture in the original.
The title of this English edition of a new book on the master by the French architect Dominique Lyon, Le Corbusier Alive, appears equally inaccurate, not to say meaningless, since Corb is very much dead. Presumably it is Le Corbusier Vivant in French, which, despite the contemporary cliche, would translate better as Corb Lives! However, it is in the main text that problems of translation really abound.
The book revisits Le Corbusier's most famous (and some not so famous) buildings in Switzerland, France and India, each section starting with highly informative and factual background information and a few original plans and sketches. The main text consists of attempts at poetic or subjective interpretation, extensively illustrated, written in a kind of parody of Le Corbusier's declamatory and exhortatory manner.
This is bizarre enough, but the translation appears to be virtually literal, by someone who has no knowledge of architectural terminology - with hilarious consequences. A typical example: 'The Cite de Refuge, in all freedoms, does away with the system of streets . . . It is not, however, a question of disappearing. If one disdains the decorum of the street, one is obliged to provide a substitute spectacle.' This is clearly a literal translation with no attempt at an English interpretation. The French words decorum and spectacle have quite different meanings to the English and to translate the French on as 'one' makes the whole thing read like a speech by Prince Charles.
The text is so appalling that it exerts a morbid fascination as one (it is catching) tries to work out what the original might have meant. There are also a few gems of truth amid the dross, as well as one or two resentful criticisms of the master's social and political stances.
The question is: who is this book for? It is fairly large format (A4 plus), if not quite coffee table, with more than 170 colour photos of the buildings as they are today.
The introduction by Olivier Boissiere claims that they wanted the pictures (by Anriet Denis) to be 'new, fresh and unaffected, without the heroics produced by the use of unlikely angles or magical filters'. Good intentions, but the photographs seem no different from the standard architectural fare, mostly devoid of people or context, and with little indication of the effects of time on the buildings.
For my generation, who made pilgrimages to Corb's new or recent works in the late 1950s to be inspired and exhilarated, it is fascinating to revisit them today with the perspective of what has happened since.
This informative but sloppily produced book goes some way to communicating that, but not far enough.