Thursday 10/30

Introducing the series: “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!”

Cover Image:

Miriam Ghani, The Trespassers, 2010–11. Digital video, color, soundtrack in Arabic, English, Dari (an Afghan dialect of Farsi), and Pashtu; 105 min. Translations by Nour al-Khal, Mujib Mashal, Sayed Mirri, Zakarya Sherzad, et al. Courtesy the artist

“Translation is impossible. Let’s do it!” 1 While at first glance this call to action might seem ironic, with knowledge of cultural critic and translator Boris Buden’s work one understands he is quite earnestly and defiantly putting forth the essential paradox that is taken by many in translation studies as a given: Total equivalences are impossible, but translations can and must take place “despite everything.” During linguistic acts of transference, cultivating fidelity is understood to be as much about attention to the “target” language and a new readership’s context as it is to being faithful to the “source” work, with its authorial intentions and original conditions of production. Furthermore, even while translators may strive to act ethically toward a work and its future readers, these agents’ own histories, priorities, positions, and diverse subjectivities must be carefully negotiated in relation to the larger systems of power they function within. If the biblical account of Babel and its aftermath is to be understood as an explanation for the shift from linguistic imperialism to a tricky multiplicity of languages and tongues, the task of the translator then lies in embracing the originary lack in language itself. Arguably, the best translators act as “tender traitors who betray lovingly, intending no harm,” 2 by taking advantage of the space of irreparable difference. When a work is radically reoriented from its original readership and stakes through translation, it asks the original and the translation to account for each other in new ways; going beyond mere reorientation, translation inevitably calls for an accounting of the other. In “Politics of Translation,” philosopher and postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak reflects on the seductive ways identity acts within translation, articulating a shift in focus from equivalence to difference: “It is a simple miming of the responsibility to the trace of the other in the self.” 3

“Temporary Center for Translation,” 2014. Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo: Chaeeun Lee

A multi-platform initiative that occupied the New Museum’s Resource Center from July 16 to October 19, 2014, the “Temporary Center for Translation” took up these concerns and others by initiating a series of translations and projects that will continue to unfold on Six Degrees this fall. The Center’s physical installation—which included the display of artworks and documents demonstrating the continuous interplays between languages, cultures, nations, and individual authors that underlie any act of translation—and subsequent Six Degrees series highlight a common aspect of the translation process that is often not visible: that translation involves some sort of compromise, that is, something is inevitably lost, added, or created in the process. Taking its title from Buden, this series “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!” expands on the Center’s organizing pedagogical impetus of considering “translation as a mode for thinking, making, and doing.”

In response to this tagline, one might ask: Why organize a show on translation within such a pedagogical context? The Center—an initiative of both the Museum’s Education Department and partner organization Dar al-Ma’mûn—began when my colleague Alicia Ritson and I reached out to Omar Berrada to learn more about his work as a translator, supporting translation and education efforts through Dar al-Ma’mûn’s unique residency programs for artists and writers to work together on one text, a lending library (where there are few), community readings, screenings, and literacy workshops. Notably, the Center‘s activities, while drawing from these structures, was conceived alongside “Here and Elsewhere,” the Museum’s exhibition of art from and about the Arab world. The Center’s activities look specifically at the translator’s role—with the complexity of her or his individual and institutional networks, impetuses, and desires—as integral to creating social, cultural, or political meaning in history. With a focus on the inevitable lack in translation, going beyond the old binary of source and target, the thinking was there is much to be learned via contemporary translation discourse and methodologies about how to recognize the “here” in relation to the “elsewhere” in acts of speech, philosophy, writing, and visual art. Furthermore, as curators, educators, and researchers working within the context of art organizations, whether drafting interpretive wall texts or executing tours and walkthroughs, we contribute acts of translation as a part of our daily work in the field. Finally, as humans and global citizens in today’s information-based societies, small and large acts of translation come into play with frequent consistency, be it through deciphering the media around us or Google translating a foreign-language website.

Steve McCaffery, A Little Manual of Treason, 2010. Two translations of a Basho haiku published in the book Expanded Translation; Or, A Treason Treatise/De la traduction étendue; un traité de trahison (Sharjah: Sharjah Art Foundation, 2011)

The three-part series “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!” will unfold on Six Degrees this fall and winter. In Part 1 of the series, three texts emerging from the projects that were on display in the Center will be published. An active space that facilitated the translations of select art and philosophy texts, Six Degrees will also publish a collection of translated texts initiated and supported during the run of the Center. Several translators in residence were invited to work simultaneously on two texts, and the four resulting translations will be published in Part 2; others were encouraged to participate in a modest experiment in facilitating collective translations of contemporary art texts using the online multilingual platform TLHUB, which will be published in Part 3.

First, in October, writer Joshua Craze has been developing a system of rules from visual and syntactic elements of redacted declassified United States military documents and displayed these grammatical categories and source documents in his contribution to the Center, A Grammar of Redaction (2010–ongoing). Grammar outlines the ways in which certain information is distorted through the process of making documents available to the public. An excerpt of his forthcoming novel Redacted Mind, which builds on this research in the form of fictional narrative, will be published on Six Degrees, and embedded within it are some redacted documents from the archive Craze has been working with.

Érik Bullot, Faux Amis, 2012. Digital video, color, sound; 14:33 min. Courtesy the artist

In early November, in “Lessons on the Paradox of Translation,” Six Degrees will share a lesson plan and related materials that draw upon concepts from several projects presented in the Center, namely “Grammar,” but also Érik Bullot’s Faux amis [False friends] (2012) and Mariam Ghani’s The Trespassers (2010–11). In August, students in the Museum’s Teen Apprentice Program (TAP) worked through exercises planned by Alicia and me that involved redacting parts of a text according to Craze’s categorization. Working with a text from the Museum’s Founding Director Marcia Tucker’s memoir, students examined how words function within a given grammar and language, considering it as one system of meaning that shapes communication with others. More so, departing from the idea that public archives are a way for citizens to monitor the government, they were asked to think critically about concepts of transparency and accountability, leading them to a more expansive understanding of translation through the lens of personal experience, history, culture, and politics. In “Lessons on the Paradox of Translation” Education Intern Chaeeun Lee and G:Class Educator Sasha Wortzel will frame some of the teens’ critical reflections with a discussion of how acts of translation have come to bear on their own work as educators; more broadly, they address the ways in which underlying ideological concerns and methodologies of translation might inform ideas and processes in pedagogy. Close-up of Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014) and “sujet” entry in Ukrainian

Last in Part 1 of this series, we will publish “Towards a Modern Greek Lexicon of Untranslatables: On the Syncretic Language of European Philosophy” by philosopher and translator Alexandra Lianeri. Lianeri is one of the editors embarking on a Greek edition of the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles [European Vocabulary of Philosophies: Dictionary of Untranslatables] (Paris: Seuil/Le Robert, 2004), an encyclopedic dictionary of philosophical, literary, and political terms that defy translation from one language and culture to another. Edited by French philologist and philosopher Barbara Cassin (with contributions by numerous others), Vocabulaire resulted from the labor of over 150 international scholars and language specialists and considered the history of philosophy through the lens of “untranslatables.” Edits, correspondences, and select entries surrounding an English-language version, Dictionary of Untranslatables (Princeton: Princeton, 2014), were presented in the Center, alongside entries from current and forthcoming editions in other languages (select Arabic, Brazilian, Romanian, Spanish, and Ukrainian entries were made available). As Cassin specified in her preface to the Dictionary, an “untranslatable” is not a term that cannot be translated but “is rather what one keeps on (not) translating.” Lianeri’s essay was commissioned around a forthcoming volume dedicated to the collective project of translating the Vocabulaire into numerous languages and a Greek version; in this essay, she addresses how translation is a “historically specific site mediating the diversified and antagonistic routes of philosophizing in European languages” in relation to ancient and modern Greek philosophy and language.

For part 2 of the series, two texts were selected by Alicia, Omar, and myself to be translated by translators in residence: First, “Fi mir’at al-akhar” [In the mirror of the other], an essay on translation by Moroccan philosopher Abdessalam Benabdelali, was translated from Arabic into English by writer and translator Samuel Wilder and also went through another more experimental process of linguistic transformation by poet and translator Christian Hawkey. A short essay from Benabdelali’s book Fi al-Tarjama [Of Translation], which presents philosophical reflections on translation by turning received ideas on their head, “Fi mir’at al-akhar” is a chapter that looks at the relation between languages in contexts of cultural imbalance. It focuses on the status of translation in Arabic culture in the medieval period when it was one of the world’s dominant cultures and, as a contrast, in our contemporary moment in which this culture is less cohesive and more dispersed. This is the first occasion in which Benabdelali’s writing has been translated into English and both versions will be published on Six Degrees in January and February.

Close-up of Christian Hawkey’s translation of Abdessalam Benabdelali’s “Fi mir’at al-akhar” [In the Mirror of the Other], 2006

Also selected for translation was “Saving Face,” an essay on contemporary visual culture in Beirut by Lebanese artist and writer Jalal Toufic. It was translated from English into Arabic by scholar and translator Leila Khatib Touma and from English into French by Omar. Toufic’s essay, from his book Two or Three Things I’m Dying to Tell You (2005), is an exercise in and speculation on writing about the art and politics of the Middle East. Peppered with idioms and other forms of wordplay, it focuses on the visuality of political candidate posters during recent elections in Lebanon and opens up to considerations of the face in cinema, representations of martyrs in the Lebanese public sphere, and Saddam Hussein’s appearances at his trial. More broadly, the essay argues that aesthetic innovation in Lebanon takes place more readily in everyday life than in art or literature. The publication of these two translations on Six Degrees early next year will be the first time “Saving Face” has appeared in Arabic or French.

“Temporary Center for Translation,” 2014. Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo: Benoit Pailley

The authors and translators in residence, all of whom participated in the project virtually, were asked to contribute materials around the translation process (including email correspondences surrounding work underway and drafts), which were made available in the Center. This invitation was important in fulfilling the Center’s mission to open up the process of translation; it helped to make visible conversations that are a routine but often hidden part of the translation process, to create space for the translator’s voice, and to enable the reading of one translation against another, as is a regular practice in translation workshops. Having enabled Museum visitors to encounter a variety of translation methods and ideas while translators were in residence, the new language versions of these texts will be published accompanied by short statements and notes from the translators in residence. These statements will point to particular challenges (and attendant epiphanies) they experienced when attempting to reconfigure and recontextualize meaning, to render visible the specific methods used to create equivalences (or not) across languages, or else to indicate some of the cultural and political stakes in their very acts of translating here.

Lastly, for Part 3 of “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!,” to be published early next year, the Center has solicited a variety of texts for translation on the online multilingual platform TLHUB in partnership with a small network of organizational partners—selected for their prior support of multilingual contemporary art discourse, among them Kayfa-ta, SALT, tranzit, Videobrasil, and others. Two types of texts collectively translated by translation studies students and others will be published in multiple languages on Six Degrees late fall and into the winter: first, contemporary art criticism written by critics and artists in languages other than English and, second, key curatorial statements and other critical texts from historically valuable exhibitions or art historical events that have not been circulated widely beyond their language of origin. In this collaborative translation and publishing effort, the Center will work against the dominance of English in international contemporary art discourse. Avowedly modest in scope and tentative in nature, this initiative was conceived to provide greater access to a small set of specialized materials and was intended, in part, to learn what it might take to support a multilingual publishing platform within the Museum.

TLHUB work station in “Temporary Center for Translation,” 2014. Exhibition view: New Museum. Photo: Chaeeun Lee


Below are some of the resources and projects that were made available in the “Temporary Center for Translation” when it was open to the public.

The Center housed a small, specialized resource collection intended for public use that is now available in the general publically accessible library in the Museum’s Resource Center.

You can download the bibliography here.

In artist Mariam Ghani’s The Trespassers (2010–11), a series of documents related to detention and interrogation operations as part of the US’s War on Terror are simultaneously translated into Arabic and Dari in the soundtrack. In the hour-and-forty-five-minute-long video, a magnifying glass moves back and forth across the screen to “read” these texts, highlighting the written words being translated from English. Raising poignant questions about the perceived neutrality of individual translators and translation in relation to public domain documents, the video was shown with an archive of publically available source materials including declassified government reports, memos, emails, NGO reports, media reports, legal briefs, and analyses.

An interview with artist Chitra Ganesh, source notes for the documents used in the Trespassers video, English-language transcripts of portions of documents used onscreen, and the FAQ presented in the installation can be downloaded here.

An excerpt of the video can be viewed here.

In the Center, edits, correspondences, and select entries surrounding an English-language version of Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (2004), edited by French philologist and philosopher Barbara Cassin, were presented alongside entries from current and forthcoming editions in other languages (select Arabic, Brazilian, and Romanian entries were made available). This self-reflexive publication becomes a way of doing philosophy in that it considers each untranslatable as one concept contingent on a network of others within any given language; in turn, it investigates how these networks themselves interact across different languages.

A preface by the three main editors of the English-language version—Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood—can be read here.

An introduction by Cassin can be read here.

The entry for “Polis” can be read here.

On view in the Center were selections from Expanded Translation; Or, A Treason Treatise/De la traduction étendue; un traité de trahison (2011), part of the “Manual for Treason” series, from the Sharjah Biennial 10 (2011). Editors Omar Berrada and Érik Bullot proceeded with the concept that any act of translation is fundamentally treasonous in that it involves misunderstanding and unfaithfulness, and this should incite creative joy rather than regretful melancholy. They invited contributors who are experts in visual or textual transformation (rather than professional translators) to adopt an expanded notion of translation and “betray knowingly.” With images and textual contributions in French and English, this “falsely bilingual” book—one that utilizes both languages, without making clear where one starts and the other ends—draws on doubling, mistranslation, false friends, homophonic transformations, and word-and-image conflations.

View select spreads from the book here on the designer’s website.

Joshua Craze’s “A Grammar of Redaction” was developed from declassified military documents that included redacted verbs or subjects, or instances where the redactions give rise to new, composite sentences. In addition to the main categories of this typology—“The Hidden City,” “Subjects without Objects,” “Actions without Words,” and “Objects without Subjects”—which were presented within the “Temporary Center for Translation,” he also made available the archive of redacted documents he worked with.

Read about the categories of Craze’s typology here

View the archive of redacted documents sourced primarily from CIA files (as well as the Government Accountability Office, International Committee of the Red Cross, and the United States military) in “A Phrasebook” here

Lebanese artist, filmmaker, and writer Jalal Toufic who, when citing his origins, references being the “son of an Iraqi father and a Palestinian mother,” is a key actor at the core of a group of Beiruti artists and intellectuals making critical work about political and cultural life in Lebanon. Throughout his texts and videos, Toufic’s subjects range from sleeplessness, as in Phantom Beirut: A Tribute to Ghassan Salhab (2002); distraction and aphoristic writing, as in Distracted (1991; 2nd ed., 2003); sacrificial death and martyrdom, as in The Sleep of Reason: This Blood Spilled in My Veins (2002); the dead and undead, as in : An Uneasy Essay on the Undead in Film (1993; 2nd ed., 2003); and the availability of culture and tradition in sites of continued trauma, as in his most widely cited text The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (2009). This concept of withdrawal—the condition of “those who are not contemporaneous with the time in which they historically live”—is located in both the vessel of meaning itself—Toufic, in the past, has intentionally abstained from writing in Arabic—as well as in his written thoughts on the concept.

Translated into Arabic and French within the Center, the essay “Saving Face” from Toufic’s book Two or Three Things I’m Dying to Tell You (2005) was accompanied by videos, posters, and images that illuminated aspects of his this text not otherwise immediately available and can be viewed on his website here.

Emily Apter, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at New York University and one of the key editors of Dictionary of Untranslatables, has written extensively on the politics of translation. In the Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), Apter offers “a series of propositions that range from the idea that nothing is translatable to the idea that everything is translatable…Apter emphasizes ‘language wars’ (including the role of mistranslation in the art of war), linguistic incommensurability in translation studies, the tension between textual and cultural translation, the role of translation in shaping a global literary canon, the resistance to Anglophone dominance, and the impact of translation technologies on the very notion of how translation is defined.”

Read the first chapter, “Translation after 9/11: Mistranslating the Art of War,” here.

Hear Apter speak about her subsequent book, Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (New York: Verso, 2013) which reconsiders the field of comparative literature in light of the idea of “untranslatables.” You can view the video of her talk for “Great New Books in the Humanities: New Directions in Comparative Literature” at NYU on September 11, 2013, here.

Omar Berrada, as part of Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum 7, on February 17, 2013, spoke about translation as hallucination, or what he called, “translucination.” He asked “What is translation after translation? Is translation a kind of hallucination, of seeing and hearing what is there and isn’t there?”

Listen to the talk here.

1 Boris Buden, “Translation is impossible. Let’s do it!” Nov. 2006, European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies (accessed Oct. 21, 2014).

2 While this quote originates from Omar Berrada and Érik Bullot, they are presumably drawing upon the well-known expression amongst translators, “traduttore, traditore” meaning “translator, traitor.” Expanded Translation; Or, A Treason Treatise/De la traduction étendue; un traité de trahison (2011), part of the “Manual for Treason” series, from the Sharjah Biennial 10, 2011. (accessed Oct., 11 2014).

3 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation,” in Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993), (accessed Oct. 21, 2014) 179.

4 Barbara Cassin, Dictionary of Untranslatables (Princeton: Princeton, 2014), xvii. (accessed Oct. 23, 2014)

Get Updates

We want to hear from you!

Help us improve our website by taking a 5-minute survey with a chance to win $100!

Take Survey
Back to mobile site