Made of linguistic forms and failures: inquiry in times of isolation
If translation is like a table, then it is either, or can be alternately, the thing itself and the configuration of persons and relations around it.
–Kate Briggs, This Little Art (2018)
Décalage resists translation and embodies it.
–Chantal Akerman, My Mother Laughs (2013) (trans. by Corina Copp)
Let me start with the obvious and the premise of my proposal as a guest critic for the Rail; I’m not a translator nor a translation expert. This isn't a professional take on the discipline that is translation even though I admire it from afar. L'anglais n'est pas ma langue maternelle. (trans.: English is not my first language.)
Invitée à écrire en anglais, les idées me viennent en français. (trans.: Invited to write in English, I can only think about the content in French.) I hear in French. I understand sounds in my native (and contracted) French Canadian, with a hint of my father’s melodic French from the Caribbean. Je te parle dans ta langue mais c’est dans la mienne que je te comprends. (I speak to you in your tongue but it is in mine that I understand you).1 This quote from Caribbean poet, writer, and philosopher Édouard Glissant couldn’t be more fitting in introducing the multifaceted point of departure of this proposal which possibly inhabits (literally, conceptually and symbolically) the works of all the contributors I invited as the Guest critic for the May 2020 issue of the Brooklyn Rail. Perhaps the safest place to start is by admitting that I’m still searching for the “right” word. I don’t know if translation is the good one either but, it stuck with me. Thinking about the role of translation in various aspects of my life, it felt like a compelling point of entry for what I imagine this invitation could encompass. To that extent, my definition of translation may be closer to the one of scholar Rey Chow,
I am not adhering strictly to the common definition of the translator as a professional word worker who carries meanings from one language into another. Instead, I would like to explore translation and translator by way of something (ap)proximate—namely, the notion of an arbiter of values, as embedded in disparate cultural literacies or systems.2
In my experience, translation is many things including but not limited to, negotiations between languages, a power dynamic within communication, the re-composition of thoughts, the re-contextualization of cultural specificities, the Untranslatable3, the experience of languages (or silences) in many forms, a slippery attempt, a weaving process, a No Man's Land, a shared and ongoing exercise, a cultural muscle, a communal table, the relics of a process, a way to someone’s tells, a system of exchanges and much more.
The impulse and direction of this proposal is hybrid. As I live and work in the field of visual culture that is the art world, it was natural that I would turn to artists to think about translation as much as it relates to invisible, verbal, or conceptual languages. This inclination is also the result of time spent with the work of Glissant as a personal investment in exploring my Caribbean heritage through his Poetics of Relation and, most recently, reading Kates Briggs’s exquisite book, This Little Art. The encounter of both materials, at different times—Glissant having been a conceptual companion for the past years and Briggs’s work being a new and exciting discovery—reveals and guides a great deal of my thinking about this project. Built from the heart of the post-colonial Caribbean experience, Glissant’s words have been and still are a way towards my Black-Caribbean self. His writings may be the reason why I feel so strongly about the connection between the means of translation and who it serves. In other words, in the back of my mind always lingers Glissant’s opacity,4 an alterity that defies the limitations of representation embedded in hegemonic power. For Glissant, opacity is a constructive and ever-growing site of self-determination. The relationship between translation and learning languages is extensively developed in his writings as it relates to the post-colonial condition. In regards to this project, translation is considered as an opaque analogy that highlights new forms of understanding. It underlines what Glissant has identified “as the always evolving opacity of the author or the reader”5 and, in this context, the artist and the viewer, but also the artist and its sources. While speaking Haitian créole may have been a way to part of my own opacity, not speaking it is probably where this project emerges on an intimate level. My need for translation during many family encounters and social occasions asserts my curiosity for the process. I’ll admit still longing for what couldn’t be conveyed, parts of the stories that were left behind because they live beautifully and maybe solely in créole. I think of translation and, equally, of mistranslation as embodiments that resist absolute renunciation. In the words of Gayatri Spivak, “This, after all, is one of the seductions of translating. It is simple miming of the responsibility to the trace of the other in the self.”6 This is also something that the Glasgow-based research collective Mother Tongue touches upon in their essay, “What Sound Does The Blk Atlantic Make?—on translation in the work of artist Alberta Whittle.” Thinking about the role of translation through the works of artists but also in conversation with them has been an uplifting way to understand the centrality and complexity of its potential. For some, like NYC-based artist Jesse Chun, it means understanding translation as it refers to memory; forgotten and, sometimes, retrieved. She points out in our recent correspondence that part of her interest with language as a conceptual format comes from her childhood memories. As a child, moving from South Korea to Hong Kong, she did not fully understand English at school and did not understand Cantonese either. Home was then the only place where she would be able to fully articulate her thoughts and communicate. Today, her Korean vocabulary has deteriorated to the extent that she cannot communicate on deeper levels with her parents. They also do not have the depth of her English to answer back.
As an artist, her practice is so deeply rooted in exposing the untranslatable by poetically re-formatting learning software or exposing the inefficiencies of translation tools. Even more so to the potency of these questions as she wrote to me, in these times more than ever, does it seem that translation and vital communication makes you remember how translation is intrinsically linked to the survival of diasporic bodies. The role of translation is also the channel through which a colonial systemic agenda and strategies of resistance have been notable. The stories of our travels and displacements also act as the sites of contested versions of one’s self. I think of the words of theorist and artist, Trinh T. Minh-ha, “I am the one making a detour with myself, having left upon my departure from over here not only a place but also one of my selves.”7 In my case, hearing Créole, always brings me to a familiar place and yet, still quite foreign, it becomes lyrical. As a French Canadian and French Caribbean, these two singular histories have carried me to listen with an acute depth of gratitude for my own histories of languaging.8 When I pause, in search of a word or trying to self-translate,9 I am also interested in what is to be solved or left unresolved in this process. Grieving everything, I will not be able to convey either because I’ll keep searching for the exact word to better attest of the intimacy of this process or, because I know I am not a translator myself and my voice may be better serving as I borrow cherished and found words from others. In the process, everything that will be lost is something I will keep trying to retrieve, even if only in fragments. Those elements being contained as much in words as they prevail in the silence is something that is beautifully explored in the conversation I had with artists Azza El Siddique and Sahar Te, “The losses we carry across: an afternoon with Azza El Siddique and Sahar Te” as well as in Te’s work, “Khaarej no. 3” (2019). On many accounts through this project, the masterful work of the poet, critic and editor, Divya Victor, reverberates. In an interview around the writing process for her book, Kith, Victor noted, “The way we write ourselves into being and into memory matters a lot. It matters especially now when there is an ongoing hegemonic battle for cultural memory.”10 As this project developed, I, too felt the vehemence of memory as a shared denominator. It informs translations of any kinds and the ways in which we bear them.
In ongoing conversations with artists, I am interested in how the process of constructing and deconstructing translation exists within artistic research and studio practices. Is translation a motor to action and/or the action itself? To me, its potential speaks to an intimate relationship intertwined with the capaciousness of languages. Translation as a continuum of re-construction is something that painter Ambera Wellmann reflects upon in her essay titled “Catachresis” which explores the questions and values embedded in the need for translation in this time of pandemic such as what is worth translating and for whom.
She also ponders on the inadequacy of languages—material, experimental and emotional. Translation, a word that moves between languages but more importantly, situates us between sets of “languaging” conditions. As a site of projection and dislocation, “The Space between languages” an essay by the poet, novelist, and essayist, Herta Müller explores from this tangent,
It is from the space between languages that images emerge. Each sentence is a way of looking at things, crafted by its speakers in a very particular way. Each language sees the world differently, inventing its entire vocabulary from its own perspective and weaving it into the web of its grammar in its own way. Each language has different eyes sitting inside its words.11
That liminal space is one where nothing can be presumed, taken for granted and yet, needs to be consistently sought. Traduire est un entre-deux mouvant qui ne s’arrime jamais complètement. (trans.: To translate is to be in an in-between that never really is a singular thing.)
As an independent curator, I am invested in the conceptual approaches inherent to the process of translation as a form and a motif that is consistently explored by artists. Like the metaphoric qualities of language that comes to me in French but takes an edited form in English, I want to experience the space where ideas and forms coexist before they part ways. The concept of “lost-and-found” as articulated by Martha J. Cutter is one that is very dear to me in this sense,
Where is the lost-and-found, we ask, if we have left something somewhere? Where, indeed, but in translation? Translation as trope finally constellates a lost-and-found—a locale that holds items/languages until such time as they can be reclaimed, exchanged, or claimed by another user/speaker? The lost-and-found of translation represents a site of simultaneous linguistic loss and gain, of reduction and reimplication of codes, of both the destruction and the resurrection of languages.12
It is with the concept of “lost-and-found” that I believe the conceptual translation between ideas and form can be understood in the work of Berlin-based artist, Shannon Bool and our conversation titled, “Marble benches, Anatolian weavers and Madonnas.”
It also prevails in a much more transient aspect in my correspondence with curator Frances Loeffler and in the excerpt presented in this issue of Marie-Michelle Deschamps’s “The Twofold Room.” I have come to understand how my own process of self-translation may have been a blueprint to some of my artistic relationships and projects. While some artists define themselves as strongly intricate with world literature and translation, I’ve witnessed others who build upon the absence of translation, a reappropriation of words and a form of implicit narration. The work of Montreal-based artist, Sophie Jodoin attests of the latter through repetition, retraction, or erasure. The act of transfer is embedded in found material such as books, found letters, collections of images, and punctuation marks that she extracts from different sources.
A testimony that proves to be ongoing, slippery, and never completely closed. It exists and survives through the presumption that it can be understood but not all can be conveyed. In Daybook, the artist Anne Truitt circles around similar thoughts as it partakes to the understanding of her formal approach and the external read of it,
No one questions the fact that verbal language has to be learned, but the commonplaceness of visual experience betrays art; people tend to assume that, because they can see, they can see art. So in the end my ability to convey my experience of the sunrise would depend, first on my having mastered an abstract language and, second, on someone else’s having mastered it too.13
Translation contains similar promises. The language that emanates from these singular methodologies is one’s own to make sense of and to offer. In remembering past conversations, triggering new ones or in sharing anecdotes, this invitation allows me to also think about the elusive parts of translation. In an email exchange with Berlin-based artist, Christine Sun Kim, I was reminded of the idea of mother tongue as an instinctive impulse inherent to communication. Kim remembered this quote for the ether of Instagram, “i speak two tongues; my colonizer's better than my mother's. this is the first problem.” She wrote back to me, “i thought it was ironic because it’s actually the opposite in the deaf community. For decades, they have been denying our natural language and making us mimic spoken words…” Something that is fought simply based on the hegemonic premise of an “asserted” tongue over another and, as such, compromising access to education while adding complicated layers by means of unified communication. This thought brings me back to Glissant with even greater depth, “I speak to you in your tongue but it is in mine that I understand you.”14 The incredible proposal of Jesse Darling, Letter to the Translator (2018), published as part of the last Sharjah Biennale also comes to mind as a powerful reflection on the politics of translation. Written in English while being simultaneously translated in Arabic through Google translate, this work, first presented online, also ponders on the limitation of translation and its porosity. As she writes it,
Translator, in the spirit of debts and exchanges, I would like to ask you to collude with me. Inevitably, you have already done so; no one writes alone in a foreign tongue, and by now there are two of us here, each with their own ideas of where this is going. Let’s say that somewhere in this text you have placed a few words of your own. Hiding in plain sight, nobody will ever know. 15
I could describe what I imagine as translation, in the same way—it is elusive, sentimental and yet, impossible to fully leave at a distance. Kathleen Ritter’s series “Manifesto” challenges interpretation and the toll of the reader.
Translated in shorthand, “Manifesto” re-contextualizes the Feminist Manifesto (1914) of poet and writer Mina Loy which was written in reaction to Marinetti’s misogyny. The work relies on the now very rare form of shorthand for readers who were (and are), for the most part, women and the performativity of its visual rendering.
Through the transfer, Ritter questions the politics of legibility and the hierarchy of languages. Ritter’s essay for this special invitation, titled “Babble” revisits some of those ideas in the light of motherhood. More to the point, it is a crucial reminder that languages, of any forms, await singular and, most importantly, continual forms of interpretation such as, translations.
In this moment of deep isolation where proximity is sorely missed but where communication is crucial, this invitation, for me, was an attempt to bring people together. I started with my own lingering thoughts and called upon friends and allies that happened to be artists, writers, curators, and dear collaborators. In some cases, I could only quote them, some wrote or shared excerpts of ongoing projects, others openly tapped into personal experiences, practices, memories, and ideologies. I am utterly thankful for their willingness to join me in this process. My utmost gratitude goes to Marie-Michelle Deschamps, Kathleen Ritter, Jesse Chun, Sophie Jodoin, Frances Loeffler, Christine Sun Kim, Shannon Bool, Azza El Siddique, Sahar Te, Mother Tongue (Tiffany Boyle and Jessica Carden) and Ambera Wellmann. Mes remerciements vont également à Joanie Lavoie et à Megan Bradley. Special thanks to T for our mispronunciations. En d’autres mots (et c’est là que réside le paradoxe), traduire est une affaire trop personnelle pour être livrée à elle-même. (Trans.: In other words, translation is too much of a personal affair to be left alone.)
1. Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, 1990, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, p. 199 / Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (trans. Betsy Wing), 1997, University of Michigan Press, p. 47.
2. Rey Chow, Not a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience, 2014, Columbia University Press, New York, p.65.
3. Emily Apter’s Against World Literature explores this untranslatable in depth. For the purpose of this introduction I’m tempted to share this brief and short definition (of many) offered in her book,
Perhaps it would be more accurate to understand the Untranslatable, not as pure difference in opposition to the always translatable (rightly suspect as just another non-coeval form of the romantic Absolute, or fetish of the Other, or myth of hermeneutic inaccessibility) but as a linguistic form of creative failure with homeopathic uses.
Emily Apter, Against World Literature:n the Politics of Untranslatability, 2013, Verso, London and Brooklyn, p. 31. Note that the title of this essay is inspired by this definition of the Untranslatable.
4. Opacity is here understood as part of Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, “Agree not merely to the right to difference but, carrying this further, agree also to the right to opacity that is not enclosure within an impenetrable autarchy but subsistence within an irreducible singularity. Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.” Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (trans. Betsy Wing), 1997, University of Michigan Press, p. 190.
5. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (trans. Betsy Wing), 1997, University of Michigan Press, p. 115
6. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in Sophie J. Williamson et al., Translation, 2019, Whitechapel Gallery (London) and 2020, The MIT Press (Cambridge, Ma.), p. 26.
7. Sophie J. Williamson et al., Translation, 2019, Whitechapel Gallery (London) and 2020, The MIT Press (Cambridge, Ma.), p.152.
8. Languaging, as explored by the scholar Rey Chow in Not like a Native Speaker and borrowed from A.L. Becker, “For Becker, the term language refers to a system of rules or structures, whereas the term languaging refers to an open-ended process that combines attunement to context, storing and retrieving memories, and communication.” Ibid., p. 125.
9. (…) author and translator happen to be the same person taken from Rainier Guldin, “‘I believe that my two tongues love each other cela ne m’étonnerait pas’”: Self-Translation and the Construction of Sexual Identity,” p. 195.
10. Mg Roberts, On how and Kith: An interview with Divya Victor, Entropy magazine, October 22, 2018.
11. Sophie J. Williamson et al., Translation, 2019, Whitechapel Gallery (London) and 2020, The MIT Press (Cambridge, Ma.), p. 103.
12. Martha J. Cutter, Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity, 2005, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, p. 360-361.
13. Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, 1982, Pantheon Books, New York, p. 133.
14. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, (trans. Betsy Wing), 1997, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, p. 47.
15. Sophie J. Williamson et al., Translation, 2019, Whitechapel Gallery (London) and The MIT Press (Cambridge, Ma.), p. 51.