On Cultural Translation
In an era when identity politics is being co-opted into wider nationalist agendas and diversity increasingly embroiled in ethnic division and separatism, how have artists such as Simon Fujiwara and Pratchaya Phinthong engaged with cultural translation to open up the act of interpretation?
First published in ArtMonthly, Issue 406, April/May 2017
Yinka Shonibare , Fake Death Picture (The Suicide – Manet), 2011
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
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 has 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 artists’ biography cannot be so easily denoted or their practice so succinctly summarised?
John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea (2015)
Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background), 1990
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 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
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. 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 of 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.
Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even [The Green Box], 1934
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 identitythrough pseudo-documentary, scriptwriting and anthropology, Simon Fujiwara’s recent work involves a move away from his previous preoccupation with indeterminate truths, instead employing a
Simon Fujiwara, Lactose/Intolerance, 2015
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.
This research was developed out of the Gasworks Curatorial Fellowship, hosted by Bisagra, Lima.