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by Sophie J Williamson

On Cultural Translation

Translation is a skilful yet subjective art. Language is embedded in the culture from which it is formed and which continues to mould it; moving between languages requires a fundamental understanding of the subtleties of each society. Each language has its own system, customs and etymology, and the construction of meaning in one doesn’t seamlessly interchange with that of another. As populism swings to the right, popular discourse pivots not on universal political agendas but on identifying who ‘we’ are: who is included and where the line of the other is drawn. The necessity to understand cultural perspectives other than our own is an increasingly urgent task.

In the 1958 novel Deep Rivers, the mystically whirring rhythm of the zumbayllu, or spinning top, is imbued with the ancient spirits of the Andean indigenous people. Rocks echo centuries of knowledge, rushing water sings of far-off places, and time dances to a different beat. The book’s author, José María Arguedas (1911-1969), though born into a wealthy Peruvian mestizo family, learned about the world through the eyes of the Quechan servants who raised him. For him, the hegemony of the Spanish language—in which he was obliged to write—was incapable of capturing the union of body, mind, nature and spiritual ancestry so embedded in his Quechan perspective. Travelling overland from Iquitos to Lima, the terrain transforms from rich steamy jungle with snaking rivers into the sharp snowy peaks and deep gorges of the Andes, merging finally into the barren deserts that edge the vast South Pacific Ocean. Arguedas was acutely aware of the contradictions, displacements, cultural clashes and turmoil borne in this divided and colonised landscape. In his desire to authentically and intimately depict the life of the Andean people, and overcome the simplistic portrayals and othering of previous indigenismo literature, Arguedas blended language to construct a ‘quechuization’ of Spanish, infused with Andean expression and sensibility, and accentuated with Quechua syntax and vocabulary. Dense symbolism and peculiarities nameless or unfamiliar to the colonial reader, the plurality of nuanced experiences captures the convergence and dispersion of the cultures as he flexes and bends the language. In places, where language’s malleability reaches its limit, Quechua remains in its mother tongue; the void left by the unattainable translation becomes a poignant message left on the page. Revealed in this lyrical duel is not only the mestizos’s struggle to navigate the disparity between the two parts of their identity, but the near impossibility of translating this for a non-mestizo reader.

Though writing in the early 20th century, the uneasy clashes in Deep Rivers and Argueadas’s merging of linguistic approaches to redress the disparate cultural perspectives have particular relevance for our current global identity crisis. As national consciousnesses become increasingly polarized, the process of defining the self seems constantly on the back foot. Those who are identified as friend or foe alters on a daily basis; as I write, President Donald Trump, who leads a vast nation built on a history of immigration, constantly redefines the enemy in his updated list of travel-banned countries, while Marine Le Pen French presidential candidate promotes her slogan ‘Au nom du peuple’ (in the name of the people) and aligns her election campaign with Vladimir Putin. Even those creating the toughest borders seem perplexed as to where their boundaries and affiliations lie. While the arts discourse is broadly liberal, national boundaries nevertheless frame much of our thinking. Exhibition listings, press releases and wall texts commonly announce: British artist so-and-so, Toronto-based such-and-such, or Nigerian artist, living between Helsinki and Berlin, someone-else. Philippe Lejeune, a specialist in the study of biography, describes a book’s paratext as ‘a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text’. Just as a book’s cover image, title, dedication and preface direct the reader’s treatment of a publication, these pithy declarations of the artists we work with invite a process of inscription, erasure and recoding informed by cultural presumption before we have even begun. Surely we know that an artist’s biography cannot be so easily denoted or their practice so succinctly summarised?

The proliferation of biennials in the 1990s led to an anxiety in the 2000s over the biennalisation of art production, which in turn led to a backlash that caused a rush to the local with an explosion of residency programmes once again parachuting artists in for surface-level dialogue. While these initiatives intend to provide a space to demarcate and disseminate difference, the outcome is more often one that flattens into superficial sameness. Under a neoliberal agenda, art is often tasked with initiating and pollinating ‘cross-cultural understanding’ with the ultimate goal of creating a cohesive, multicultural society. But with the rush to understand one another, do we run the risk of razing nuanced individual narratives? As Hannah Arendt points out in her essay ‘We Refugees’, the experience of displacement is not only the loss of home and the comfort of everyday life, or being divided from one’s family and social network, but the loss of one’s language without which ‘the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings’ is also lost. As we face an increasingly migratory global society, including displacement on an unprecedented scale, the urgent cultural concern can no longer only focus of connecting geographic nodes in an attempt to destabilise what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have termed globalisation’s ‘Empire’. Instead we must establish a cultural ecosystem that recognises the geopolitical—and subsequently cultural—clashes and miscommunications implicating our immediate and everyday social climate. If Arguedas’ Peru can be seen as a microcosm for the cultural disparities that exist worldwide, perhaps a similar cultural Esperanto is required in order to articulate its unpronounceable nuances.

In the UK, this hybridity has long been discussed in the public sphere by contemporary artists: Rasheed Araeen’s criticism of the exotic other, ethnic stereotyping and the hegemonic discourse of the art world; Mona Hatoum’s sculptures and installations exposing culture’s conflicts and contradictions, displacement, power and politics; John Akomfrah’s epic and enigmatic video essays on identity, migration, history and ecology; Yinka Shonibare’s trademark brightly coloured Dutch-wax, fabric-clad figures exploring the post-colonial condition; and Lubaina Himid’s paintings and installations considering colliding issues of labour, migration, race, gender and class; to name but a few. On an international stage, the reality of ‘sovereign culture’ has been increasingly questioned, a case in point being the Venice Biennale’s criteria for ‘national pavilions’ becoming ever more fluid: the introduction of the pavilion of the Republic of the Seychelles, which is the embodiment of the post-colonial condition, since it has no recorded indigenous population; the Roma pavilion, which has flourishing cultural heritage yet comprises a community that is ethnically heterogeneous and geographically dispersed; and artists representing countries other than those of which they are citizens (for example, Yael Bartana represented Poland in 2011, Liam Gillick represented Germany in 2009, and Chinese artists were dominant at the 2013 Kenyan Pavilion, supposedly reflecting the country’s influx of Chinese workers). Furthermore, this year will see an addition to the Biennale’s national pavilions: the Diaspora Pavilion. Curated by David A Bailey and Jessica Taylor, the exhibition will include work by Larry Achiampong, Barby Asante, Ellen Gallagher, Isaac Julien, Paul Maheke, Erika Tan, Abbas Zahedi and other artists whose practices ‘expand, complicate and destabilise’ our understanding of diaspora as a contemporary and lived experience.

In his essay ‘Patriotism and its Futures’, social-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues that the formula of hyphenation (his examples being, Italian-Americans, Asian-Americans and African-Americans) has reached saturation, where the ‘right-hand side of the hyphen can barely contain the unruliness of the left-hand side’. Despite the legitimacy of nation-states coming increasingly under fire, we nevertheless see diasporic communities remaining loyal to their origin, a ‘delocalised transnationism’. Appadurai, elucidating further, poses the impossibility of the existing conception of—in his case—Americanness containing this spectrum of transnations. As cultural identity becomes increasingly protean, the plausibility of nation-state rhetoric seems ever more redundant. The intricacies of ancient and modern Jewish diaspora, generations of colonisation and the transportation of slaves is now superimposed by contemporary movements of economic migration, forced political exile, widespread refugee crises and environmental displacement. Among the artistic community, it is commonplace to have parents of two different nationalities, to have been born and raised in a third country, and perhaps now to live in a fourth. Subsequently, art production equally tangles these reference points: Chinese-British Dutch artist Jennifer Tee’s imaginary meetings between Hilma af Klint, Wassily Kandinsky and Tao Magic; Korean-Canadian London-based Zadie Xa’s personalised semiotics drawing from Talchum and hip-hop alike; or the profound cultural symbolism found in the work of Vietnamese-born Danish—but Berlin-based—Danh Vō, for example in his use of a Bomann refrigerator received from the Immigrant Relief Programme. This complex geopolitical landscape of contemporary international experience is what Sarat Maharaj has termed the ‘scene of translations’, and it has long been a battleground of negotiation for artists whose practices fall outside of hegemonic spheres. While these practices draw from a complex worldwide network of interrelations, the outcomes are still nevertheless translated through a process of Eurocentric cultural transfer inscribed with Western terminology. Indian author Amitav Ghosh tells the anecdote that, ‘To make ourselves understood, we had both resorted […] to the very terms that world leaders and statesmen use’, a language that according to Ghosh is based on the supremacy of the West. When thinking about this in an art context, there is the risk that the curator’s positioning of an artwork (in the role of the cultural translator) will overshadow the artist’s voice. For those artists who wish their work to be seen independent of their cultural context, this can be a cause of frustration: for example, at 91 years old artist Geta Brătescu still struggles to escape contextualisation in the political shadow of Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime, or to quote from a title of one of Glenn Ligon’s works: ‘I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background’. How then can we position these works in order to circumnavigate the hegemony of Western cultural language and enable what Arendt described as ‘unaffected expression’? James Joyce’s colossal 100-letter invented words to represent experiences indescribable through our language perhaps offer a solution—if an impractical one. A mash-up of ‘thunder’ in numerous languages opens Finnegan’s Wake, a description of transcendent magnitude: Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovar-rhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk.

Pratchaya Phinthong, whose work has consistently traced the lines of geopolitical and economic undercurrents, attempted to circumnavigate this filtration of the self and other by bringing audience and subject into direct dialogue in his 2013 exhibition Broken Hill at the Chisenhale (Profile AM369). The Natural History Museum in London holds in its collection the homo rhodesiensis skull; hailed as the ancestor of all homo sapiens, it has been instrumental in understanding human evolution. This groundbreaking artefact, discovered in 1921 in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), was stolen by the British Empire, under colonial entitlement. Zambia’s campaign to return the priceless object has to date been in vain, and instead the Lusaka National Museum displays a facsimile copy. Drawn to this story, Phinthong borrowed this replica to present in the gallery space, accompanied by one of the Zambian Museum’s guides, Kamfwa Chishala, to narrate the complex geopolitical history of the skull to visitors, as he does daily to Lusaka locals and tourists. Empowering the work to perform dialogue, and presented through Chishala’s personal subjectivity, Phinthong brings individual agency to the fore. Each visitor’s reading of the work was inescapably different, as each brought to the one-on-one conversation with Chishala their distinct circumstances, outlook and experiences. Phinthong’s approach to art-making is one that pivots on exchange and directly confronts polarisation; relinquishing authorship, his work is performed through the human narrative which constitutes its meaning. Whether presenting stacks of valueless Zimbabwe dollars, amassed debris equivalent to the weight of wild berries collected daily by exploited seasonal Thai workers in Sweden, or a replica prehistoric skull, he does not create objects but rather produces a dialectic flux of ethics, beliefs and values bridging seemingly irreconcilable individual circumstances.

If, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak asserts, translation is the most intimate act of reading, surely this privilege of intimacy should be permitted to the reader, or in the case of visual art, the viewer. But if the translation of visual art beyond hegemonic cultural language necessitates nuanced individual mediation, how can this be feasibly achieved without demanding the personalised experience of Broken Hill? In Marcel Duchamp’s essay ‘Le processus créatif’, he proposed that there are two coexisting elements in dialogue with one another in every creative act: the unexpressed but intended, and the unintentionally expressed. In 1934, he published the Green Box, 94 loose notes relating to the development of his magnum opus The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-23. Disparate attempts to theorise sections of the work have drawn from alchemy and numerology through to Freudian psychoanalysis, Zen, Hinduism and the Cabbala, and yet the work remains, as Duchamp may have said, ‘all things to all men’. The loose leaves posed a translatorary conundrum, and it wasn’t until the collaboration between George Heard Hamilton, an art history professor at Yale, and artist Richard Hamilton, that a meaningful interpretation emerged. While George Heard Hamilton translated between languages, Richard Hamilton took on a role as ‘monolingual translator’; ineptitude in French, rather than being a disadvantage, allowed him to capture the underlying concept. Creating a visual transliteration of Duchamp’s deletions, insertions, highlights and annotations, Richard Hamilton formed a graphic ‘isomorph’ using a language of symbols, varying fonts and typographic layout to capture the spontaneity of thought processes at work in the original. True to Duchamp’s thesis of the coexisting forces in the creative act, Richard Hamilton’s reworking of the Green Box allows for the original’s ambiguity, uncertainty and continual reconsideration. Duchamp praised it as a ‘crystalline transubstantiation’. Richard Hamilton’s success was in the translation of the essence of the work into something new, instigating fresh perspectives about it. While translation aims to directly convert and retain the same meaning, transubstantiation allows for interpretation based on a dialogue with the original.

Translation historian and theorist Lawrence Venuti rejects the idea of the author’s singular genius and instead proposes translation ‘as a work in its own right’ and the need for readers to have ‘a more practical sense of what a translator does’. In his seminal 1995 book The Translator’s Invisibility, he proposes the increased visibility of the process of translation, allowing readers to register and confront the works’ foreignness rather than have it concealed from them. In the field of translation studies, the pejorative term translatese refers to the awkwardness of unidiomatic translation, such as clunky language or over literal conversion of idioms or syntax: exposing the translator’s capacity to authentically translate the meaning of the original. Having exhaustively investigated his own biography and identity through pseudo-documentary, scriptwriting and anthropology, Simon Fujiwara’s recent work involves a move away from his previous preoccupation with indeterminate truths, instead employing a type of aesthetic translatese to instigate a productive disjuncture. Lactose Intolerance, 2015, is a series of seven large oil paintings commissioned by Fujiwara from Mansudae Art Studio, the state-run art and propaganda manufacturer in North Korea. All depict the same glass of milk, each painted by anonymous artists in a different character according to Fujiwara’s selection from the factory’s style options, from nostalgic through to hyperrealist and early Pop. Closed off from the outside world, the circumstances in which the paintings were made is as unfamiliar to the Western art-going public as a glass of fresh milk is to the unnamed artists who painted them (there is no dairy production in North Korea). The works take on a superficial mimicry, a fictitious familiarity of both the art history and the subject matter they imitate. Drawing attention to the work’s divergent audiences—in turn the products of global economic and political forces—by deliberately withholding the fluency of translation, Fujiwara’s visual translatese registers the geopolitical chasm of cultural interpretation.

This is not to endorse a perspective of cultural opacity: the dangerous doctrine of an absolute ‘epistemic barrier’ between self and other underpinned the institutionalised ethnic and cultural separation of Apartheid. However, translation implies an understanding about understanding; what it means to know a language—and what it means not to know it. As poet and translator Alastair Reid writes: lo que se pierde what gets lost / is not what gets lost in translation but more / what gets lost in language itself lo que se pierde. Concerned with conflict—both in profoundly sensitive cases, such as the Rwandan genocide, and within everyday contexts—Christian Nyampeta’s long-term artistic-philosophical inquiry ‘How to Live Together’ (derived from Roland Barthes’ 1977 lecture series of the same name) seeks to offer alternative forms of exchange. Informed by ancient Western asceticism and contemporary Sub-Saharan African philosophy, his current research explores the impulse to write. Bringing together refugee groups and places of sanctuary, a collaboratively written script—based on a fictional narrative about a novelist working in a time when all words are copyrighted—will explore the boundaries of language in their diasporic cultures and the possibilities of articulation beyond formal linguistics. If we can admit defeat in transparent translation, is there then instead something to be gained from recognising and embracing a lack of understanding? Can we transcend languages, whether linguistic or visual? If contemporary hybridity is infinitely nuanced, plural and porous, perhaps creating a framework within which a multitude of collective voices can be heard is the only plausible solution. As Maharaj asserts, hybridity is ‘the triumph over untranslatability’: while we embrace the international space as the meeting ground for a multiplicity of languages, both linguistic and visual, these do not so much translate into one another as ‘translate to produce difference’.

It seems apt then to end with a reference to religious scripture, the disparate readings of which have been cause for bloody clashes throughout human history and continue to agitate modern society. John Steinbeck’s 20th-century ethical exploration East of Eden is a contemporary rendering of the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Running through the novel, Steinbeck’s characters unpack the words spoken by God to Cain when exiling him in the hope of properly understanding their meaning. According to one translation of the Bible, God orders Cain to triumph over sin, while according to another, God promises Cain that he will defeat sin. The original word’s meaning and its subsequent implication shifts throughout the book, until a Hebrew word offers a conclusion: ‘the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice.’ The ambiguity this translation allows and the impossibility of concrete direction it poses instead offers the characters the opportunity to interpret and act with free will.

Perhaps this is the most appropriate approach to take with the conundrum of heterogeneous cultural translation: allow art the potential to remain indeterminate and its interpretation undirected.


Sophie J Williamson is Programme Curator (Exhibitions) at Camden Arts Centre, London. This research was developed out of the Gasworks Curatorial Fellowship, hosted by Bisagra, Lima, and was first published in Art Monthly in May 2017, Issue 406.

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Issue 35

Decolonizing Art Institutions

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Dorothee Richter & Ronald Kolb

by Shwetal A. Patel

by Shwetal A. Patel and Shaheen Merali

by Dorothee Richter

by Michelle Wong

by Binna Choi & Yolande van der Heide

by Sophie J Williamson