On imitation and translation
I talk a lot about imitation on this blog. I talk about how I use imitation in my own work, as well as about artists who imitate my art and artists who admit to copying others and still make a living with their work. I talk about knowing when you’ve imitated too much and about the fears associated with being copied. So imitation is clearly a theme for me, but yesterday I listened to a fascinating Radiolab story that made me think I have it all wrong.
What if none of it is imitation? What if it’s translation instead?
When I made an impassioned defense of imitation in my talk at TEDxGeneva last April, the reaction from the audience that evening was largely positive, but there were many listening who took exception to the way I used the words “copying” and “imitating” interchangeably. For them, there was a huge difference between these terms. They told me that to call something a “copy” when it was actually an “imitation” was outright insulting.
This was an important reminder for me. Copying, imitating, emulating, following, echoing, mirroring, parroting, mimicking, replicating, reproducing: I don’t see any of these as bad. To me, they each describe the driving force behind the evolution of culture—a perspective that I explain in my TEDx talk. I get that these terms have slightly different meanings, but, since I consider the evolution of culture to be good, all these terms are also good.
Still, my encounters in Switzerland made me think, and, after listening to Radiolab’s story about translation, I wonder if viewing all copying and imitating as a kind of translating might not be extremely useful. It might just help us move away from the negative associations—the ripping off and the stealing—and make it easier to see copying or imitating as something with more nuance and potential.