Monday 11/17

Lessons on the Paradox of Translation

Cover Image:

Teen Apprentice Program participants with facilitators during the G:Class lesson “Translation: Devoted but not always faithful rewrites,” in the classroom on the fifth floor of New Museum. Photo: Chaeeun Lee

As part of our ongoing series “Translation is Impossible. Let’s Do It!” Education intern Chaeeun Lee contributes an essay framing a lesson on translation done with New Museum Teen Apprentice Program participants in the “Temporary Center for Translation.” Followed by a short interview with G:Class Educator Sasha Wortzel, “Lessons on the Paradox of Translation” aggregates materials related to the lesson and reflective writings from two of the participants in the program, Emme Ko and Suzanne Tang.

One of the central issues addressed in “Temporary Center for Translation,” a multi-platform initiative that occupied the New Museum’s Resource Center from July 16 to October 19, 2014 and that initiated a series of translations and projects that are unfolding this fall in the “Translation is Impossible. Let’s do it!” series on Six Degrees, is the seemingly paradoxical nature of translation—that, while it is impossible to be completely faithful to an original work, communication often requires the creation of likenesses across systems of meaning. While serving as an active space for translation of select artistic and philosophical texts throughout its duration, the Center also presented artworks and documents that make visible the continuous interplay between languages, cultures, and individual authors that underlies any event of translation. The Center’s physical installation and subsequent series on Six Degrees highlight a common aspect of the translation process that is often not visible—that translation involves some sort of compromise, that is, something inevitably becomes lost, added, or created in the process. Accordingly, a lesson entitled “Translation: Devoted but not always faithful rewrites” was developed for the Museum’s Teen Apprentice Program (TAP) and shared with educators working outside the Museum on the G:Class website by two of the show’s organizers: Taraneh Fazeli, Education Associate, and Alicia Ritson, Research Fellow, in conversation with Chaeeun Lee, Education Intern, and G:Class Educators Hanna Exel and Sasha Wortzel. Through discussions and exercises around the ideas, projects, and artworks presented in the Center, the TAP participants were invited to reconsider notions of translation centered on merely drawing equivalences as well as to explore the concept in its complexity via the lens of history, culture, and politics. In the following essay by Lee, she reflects on the lesson in relation to her background in pedagogy and the arts, following up with a short interview with Wortzel about her experience working with the TAP participants around the idea of translation. Their accounts examine the close connection between pedagogical and translation methods and processes and demonstrate how thinking about translation within and beyond the boundaries of language can productively inform pedagogical discourse and structures for the generation of knowledge.


“Temporary Center for Translation” was a pedagogical site established for documenting, exposing, and facilitating an exchange of ideas surrounding acts of translation. As an intern working in the Education Department, I was actively involved in the organization of the Center’s various activities and was also one of the facilitators during the lesson designed for the teen participants of the Museum’s Teen Apprentice Program (TAP), which took place in mid-August. Mobilizing the Center as a space for learning and sharing as well as display, the materials and projects presented in the Center—including artworks, dictionaries, and archives of books and documents—served as prompts for discussion that allowed the participants to broaden their understanding of translation as a mode for thinking, making, and doing.

With a background in teaching English to teens via private language tutoring lessons as well as in middle school language classes in my home country of South Korea, I brought to the Center and the classroom a set of continued considerations around language learning, translation, and education grounded in my own experiences. The lesson provided an occasion for me to draw from my experience as a learner (both student and teacher) of foreign language and culture. As a native speaker of Korean, I spent my youth as a devoted student of the English language; I later studied the history of English literature (from Chaucer to Woolf), linguistics, and theories of teaching English as a foreign language in order to become an English teacher in my home country; and, more recently, after shifting the direction of my study and career to contemporary visual arts, I came to New York to study and work within arts institutions. In short, my educational and professional pursuits have frequently put me in situations in which I have had to navigate the linguistic boundaries between Korean and English and grapple with subtle differences in meaning and nuance that have often left me doubtful about the adequacy of my own translation.

In the linguistic environment of South Korea, where conversational English (or any other foreign language) is rarely spoken outside of the educational setting, learning and teaching how to speak a foreign language must begin with acknowledging the inevitable divide between the two systems of language. In other words, language learning, as I encountered it in South Korean public schools, involved, to a certain degree, a constant back-and-forth between two disparate modes of articulation, or a series of conscious deliberations over the choice of translation. In fact, it is not only the education of language but pedagogy more broadly that can be productively compared to the act of translation, for both education and translation begin with accepting and respecting differences, while actively seeking to help encounter and process the unknown. They are intermediary practices whose central task is to constantly negotiate between what is given and what is new, between one’s system of understanding and that of the (potential) other; as such, they both operate in the indistinct space of “in-between-ness.”i

In The Ignorant Schoolmaster, Jacques Rancière revives the “eccentric” pedagogical theory of a nineteenth-century French language and literature professor Joseph Jacotot,ii who asserted the equality of intelligences in all people and their equal capacity to teach others even what they do not yet know. Calling for intellectual emancipation against the conventional notion of a “learned master” imparting knowledge to an “ignorant,” Jacotot argued that, between any two individuals willing to communicate, the same sort of intellectual process is always at work—a process that is centered on both parties communicating their own intellectual endeavors and endeavoring to figure out what the other is attempting to communicate.iii Rancière has described this basic condition of apprenticeship as “the poetic work of translation,”iv explicitly drawing a parallel between the process of translation and that of pedagogical experience. That is, any sort of pedagogical task, at its most basic level, revolves around “translating” one’s thought into a communicable language and “counter-translating” the information received.v

If underlying any form of translation is the most rudimentary re-codification of thoughts into words and words into thoughts, it is evident that translation between languages should start from considering how to think as well as how to express through these languages. It seems sensible that, as an evolving system of signification and communication, language is but one manifestation of the amalgamation of culture, politics, and social environments that have shaped the collective minds of the people.

Barbara Cassin, ed., Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles, along with its English-language version, Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Installation view: “Temporary Center for Translation,” New Museum. Photo: Chaeeun Lee

Indeed, the editors of the Dictionary of Untranslatables (2014),vi one of the core projects that was presented in the Center, are adamant about the impossibility of containing the entire meaning of a word in simple equivalences found in other languages. Originally edited by French philosopher Barbara Cassin and published in French, the English-language version of the Dictionary compiles and expands upon the “untranslatables,” or a collection of philosophical terms whose translation often proves to be inadequate, or, in Cassin’s word, generates a “problem.”vii Acknowledging the difference in the meaning of a single word across various (primarily European) languages, the Dictionary thus devotes itself to mapping the vast network of words and concepts central to philosophical thinking and its history, both diachronically and synchronically across languages, to locate their meaning in their intricacies. Their project demonstrates how the act of translating philosophical concepts is, in fact, a way of “doing philosophy.”viii Another project presented in the Center, Érik Bullot’s video Faux Amis [False Friends] (2012), similarly addresses the semantic difference underlying seemingly overlapping vocabularies in languages by investigating “false friends” in English and French, or pairs of words in these two languages that look or sound the same but actually have different meanings (e.g. “actually” vs. “actuellement”). In so doing, Bullot’s video reminds us of the long histories of languages that have undergone innumerable changes, through internal processes of maturation and transmutation and through external confrontations with foreign languages and cultures, like the Norman Conquest that introduced ten thousand French words to Old English.

These works by French artists and philosophers bring to mind a debate between the two European sinologists Jean-François Billeter and François Jullien, which took place in 2006 and 2007, over their respective methods of translating ancient Chinese philosophy into French. Remarkable in this debate was the pronounced tension between, on one hand, Billeter’s desire to demystify exoticism toward ancient China through the seamless transference of meaning that assumes the availability of rendering the source text into clear and fluent phrases in the destination language and, on the other, Jullien’s firm drive against neutralizing the conspicuous difference between the two cultures, of which the “foreignness” (or “exteriority,” according to his terminologyix) of language is one piece of evidence that might be retained. In other words, the debate testified to the difficulty of balancing a primary goal of facilitating communication against accounting for the firm differences between cultures, whether in translation of words, sentences, or discourses. In this regard, the approach that the Dictionary took in dealing with the problem of “untranslatables” seems a decidedly generative one that not only fully acknowledged the profound differences in divergent systems of meaning, but also strove to establish a common ground of knowledge from which one could begin to understand those differences. As Cassin explains in her introduction to the book, it neither conforms to the universalizing impulse of so-called “global language,” nor upholds what French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Lefebvre termed as “ontological nationalism,” which insists on the insurmountable boundary between different cultures, philosophies, and languages of each nation and thus the absolute impossibility of translation.

Amid the tide of Western modernization and the rise of American hegemony as a result of globalization, South Korea in the 1990s and 2000s (which was the period I grew up there) was heavily invested in teaching the “advanced” science and knowledge of the West, and so, the emphasis within the educational field on learning America’s and Europe’s dominant languages and cultures soared. Despite a lingering resentment against what was understood as “American imperialism” among many South Korean youths (in most cases provoked by various sorts of controversies resulting from American military troops stationed in South Korea since the Korean War in the ’50s), a widespread desire for individual financial success, boosted by the newly adapted logics of capitalism, led English to be quickly solidified as the language of power. Fluency in English soon became a quintessential qualification for South Koreans to have in order to “move up the ladder” in all aspects of social life. In art and culture too, American precedents were widely circulated, adapted, translated, and otherwise made accessible to Korean audiences through channels of education and the market.

While translation and language learning themselves are tricky processes that omit, distort, and invent content, the question of which texts get chosen to be translated, into which languages, and which languages are taught in schools are further factors that reveal how power gets distributed by language. As I noted before, the emphasis in South Korea around the millennium on American culture was a largely one-way flow of information, with language, literature, art, and popular culture from the US heavily consumed by Korean readers through widespread translation and English education. The demand and availability of the inverse, on the other hand, was very low. To me, this illustrates the way that economic and political interests can mold the seemingly neutral act of translation—the very visibility (let alone accessibility) of content is more often than not determined by the political and economic predominance of the particular group or nation that produces or endorses it.

Writer Joshua Craze’s A Grammar of Redaction (2010–ongoing)—a system of rules he has been developing from visual and syntactic elements of redaction in declassified US military documents around the War on Terror—addresses a similar question of the effect of in/visibility of language and information and its relationship to institutional power. Mariam Ghani’s Trespassers (2010–11), in a similar spirit, debunks any perceived neutrality of translation by highlighting the divergent subjectivities of translators whose choices are inevitably inflected by their particular backgrounds and interests. In her video, a magnifying glass traces redacted US military documents line by line, while a soundtrack of two different translations—one into Arabic and the other into Dari—is superimposed, revealing discrepancies between the written text and the two speaking voices. The translations throughout the video were done by a diverse pool of translators—many Afghani, Afghani-American, or Iraqi—whose personal distance to the source materials as well as methods of translation varied, highlighting the effect of individual agency in translation.

Both of these works made available in the Center resonate my concern with reassessing the seeming purity of the act of translation, placing the individual translator (and their choices) within various systems of power and meaning. The works raise a number of related questions: What is obscured by removing certain parts of language and what meaning is newly created or revealed in this process? Who performs translation and with what kind of preconceived knowledge and experience about its content? How do political interests of the state and the individual determine what we see and what we know?

The Trespassers (excerpt) from Mariam Ghani on Vimeo.

These were some of the questions and experiences I brought to the lesson with the TAP participants; each of the lesson’s facilitators and teen participants drew on their personal stories, backgrounds, and knowledge to reflect on their routine acts of translation—the diversity of which led to extensive conversations about translation’s meaning and usefulness. One particular shared experience recurred throughout the lesson as a common point of reference among the TAP participants: their recent meeting with teens from an educational program at the Inhotim Center for Contemporary Art in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, who visited the Museum to participate in an international exchange centered on pedagogy, contemporary art, museums, and social justice. I asked Sasha Wortzel, the educator who had organized and led the TAP program throughout its duration of six weeks, about the group’s engagement with translation prior to the lesson. I also took this opportunity to ask about how her own role as an educator informs her understanding of acts of translation.

Chaeeun Lee: Sasha, as part of the TAP session we watched Bullot’s video Faux Amis with the TAP participants. In this artwork, students at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo read a list of “false friends” in a studio that was set up to resemble a classroom. Interestingly, analogous to the situation we were in, this meta-moment created something of a parallel with the Center as a pedagogical site for thinking about translation: Pedagogy, translation, and art all came together in Bullot’s work, and, in a way, mirrored our lesson taking place in the physical space of the Center. Can you describe some of the conversations that came out of watching that video together and, perhaps, how the formal elements of the artwork and its content became a productive departure point?

Sasha Wortzel: Bullot’s piece takes place in a classroom-style setting and is composed within a single camera wide shot. For me, this broad perspective created the sense that, when we viewed the projected video as a group that day, we were fixing our gaze on a teacher at the head of the physical space we occupied, which, in our case, also happened to be a classroom. At the same time, the actors in the video were themselves emulating students reading a given text, while their gaze was occasionally directed back at us through the camera lens, creating the feeling that they are speaking directly to us as teachers. Throughout the video, it seemed to me that we were continuously exchanging gazes, making us and the actors both students and teachers in a pedagogical environment. The inclusion of educational props around the readers in the video such as books, newspapers, flashcards for studying vocabulary, and background music that was reminiscent of that of a children’s educational television show all further enhanced our experience of the work’s pedagogical kitsch.

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

After watching the video, the TAP participants unraveled the video’s formal elements and attendant conceptual complexities, reflecting on how the construction of meaning in translation might appear to be straightforward, simple, and immediate but is actually much more complicated. The video became a departure point for sharing the participants’ personal experiences of communicating with others who speak a language different from their own and the kinds of complications that arise when doing so. They discussed how they learned language at home and in their daily lives through immersion and imitation, but how they never considered how language actually is constructed until they began to learn about grammar at school. For the students, discussions around Bullot’s video provided an opportunity to reflect on the hidden complexity of language and language construction. In the video, this is demonstrated when a series of similar-looking French and English words are presented in succession, seemingly identical in meaning, but as the montage continues, it is unclear what words overlap in meaning or just in appearance.

CL: I was surprised by the range of experiences the TAP participants drew on in response to the video, particularly to the examples of “false friends.” It seemed to me that it really got them to think about the difficulties involved in communicating meaning adequately across languages and about whether their past attempts at doing so—at home, at school, or even over the internet—were successful. One interesting experience that surfaced quite frequently during our discussions was their meeting with a group of teens from Inhotim and the difficulty of communicating with them, considering none of the TAP participants knew Portuguese.

SW: As you mentioned, the TAP participants had a very specific and recent experience to draw upon for these discussions. A group of Portuguese-speaking teens (ages twelve to fourteen) and four adult educators from Inhotim had just visited the Museum as part of an international exchange program. While at the Museum, the two groups worked on a variety of different projects, from preparing and running our annual Block Party—a daylong event featuring activities and performances that is designed for visitors from the local community—to a day of conversation and gallery activities centered around the themes emerging from the recent exhibition on and about art from the Arab region, “Here and Elsewhere.”

A few of the educators from Inhotim spoke English and were able to act as translators, allowing for an ease of exchange and comprehension between our groups that might otherwise have not been possible. But the Inhotim educators could not be physically present in multiple spaces simultaneously, so often Inhotim and TAP participants found themselves having to navigate their own forms of communication and translation. At first the two groups turned to gesture, facial expression, and/or drawing on paper to “speak” to each other, but this was only so productive and, therefore, only lasted a short time.

I noticed that the TAP participants quickly abandoned these creative attempts at communication, and instead would locate a translator from Inhotim to do the work for them. As they realized the inefficient nature of this method (time lagged between the desire to share and the involvement of the translator), they often turned to the Google Translate app on their smart phones in order to bridge the gap. While this tool sometimes led to animated exchanges about Demi Lovato’s music or Brazilian football and American soccer, it also left the students with inaccurate translations and strange grammatical errors that fractured the kind of seamless and spontaneous exchange that they appeared to crave. What I understood from observing these exchanges and from our subsequent conversations about these experiences was a desire for direct and immediate access to meaning across language, which was met by a surprise to find that clear equivalences were not always possible.

Teen Apprentice Program participants with facilitators during the G:Class lesson “Translation: Devoted but not always faithful rewrites,” in the classroom on the fifth floor of New Museum. Photo: Chaeeun Lee

CL: If Bullot’s video raised an important point about the difficulty of locating exact equivalences across languages and the complexities that underlie seemingly “friendly” relationships between languages, Craze’s Grammar made it clear—by manipulating visual and spatial elements of language on printed paper—how translation (in this case, translation of information from one state to another) often results in omission and distortion of certain parts. As part of our lesson in the Center, TAP participants performed redaction by applying categories of Craze’s Grammar to a printed excerpt from the Museum’s Founding Director Marcia Tucker’s memoir. I heard that TAP participants, together with the participants from Inhotim, did a similar exercise prior to the lesson, blacking out parts of a given text to create poetry. Can you explain how that exercise differed from the one we did, and if the creation of poetry from English language texts got the participants to think about ways in which language communicates and can be reconfigured?

SW: Prior to the lesson about translation, the TAP participants took part in a blackout poetry exercise in the Museum’s galleries. For this assignment, the two groups created poems by blacking out words and sections of curatorial wall texts (in English) from the “Here and Elsewhere” exhibition, and then writing out the words that remained on the other side of the page, thus creating new meaning out of the original text. When asked to complete the exercise, teens from Inhotim took an entirely different approach as a result of their lack of familiarity with the language the curatorial text was written in: Instead, they circled English words that looked similar to ones they knew in Portuguese and then translated these words into what they assumed would be their Portuguese equivalents. At the end of the exercise, both groups read their poems out loud. The participants from Inhotim produced poems comprised of a stream of Portuguese words that very much resembled words that the TAP participants recognized in English.

I felt that it was the first time that TAP participants really fully and intentionally listened to the words being spoken by the teens from Inhotim, rather than waiting for a translator. I believe this was because no translation was provided to them by educators or otherwise, so they were instead forced to listen carefully in order to comprehend what the Inhotim participants meant via their own interpretation. The Inhotim participants may have felt heard in a way they hadn’t been previously since, as it seemed to me, it was the first time that the entire group felt a more immediate connection and understanding of one another. But the words shared were not clear equivalences: Some were cognates or “true friends” (words that look and/or sound the same and have the same meaning), while others were “false friends” (words that look and/or sound the same but don’t have the same meaning).

CL: As an educator who had already spent several weeks interacting with the group and had this particular experience of working between languages before the translation lesson, did you have expectations coming in about how the TAP participants might adhere to the concepts and did you notice any shift of thought after the lesson?

SW: I think that prior to the lesson there was a sense among the teens that there was a hard-and-fast set of procedures around translation that a translator should adhere to and that the results would be standardized—or, in other words, that there is ultimately one correct translation. Considering the conversations that came after the lesson, I believe that that idea was disrupted for the TAP participants, who were able to experience translation as a subjective process and to see how there are multiple possibilities for a “correct” translation. Furthermore, they came to understand that clear equivalences are not always possible and that sometimes when communicating across difference, some things are lost and others are added. Sometimes something entirely new emerges. One TAP participant, Suzanne, found it particularly notable that, even though some of the students utilized the same method for redacting words in the memoir, their results varied widely. She observed, “like translating between languages, redacting texts is particular to the individual doing it. A passage about visiting Miami with the family can easily be turned into a space moon adventure.”

CL: One of our aims in organizing the “Temporary Center for Translation,” and the lesson around it, was to think of translation in expansive terms outside the limits of language. For instance, in the curatorial wall text we considered its value as “a mode for thinking, making, doing.” I’m curious how thinking about translation in this manner may have been productive for thinking about your role as an educator and, conversely, how this role has informed your own understanding of what translation means.

SW: For me, translation can mean the process of moving something from one place to another. As an educator, I find this definition quite useful when thinking about the work I do. I see myself as someone who is a conduit for information between objects and words, bodies and bodies of knowledge. I build connections with, and for, learners. And as a youth educator at a contemporary art museum, I am a firm believer in the capacity of museum experiences to teach young people how to be critical participants in the complex worlds they inhabit.

Selections from the implementation of Joshua Craze’s A Grammar of Redaction by TAP participants as part of the G:Class lesson “Translation: Devoted but not always faithful rewrites”


Lesson Plan on the G:Class Website

The New Museum’s Global Classroom (G:Class) is an interdisciplinary art education program that supports visual literacy and critical thinking skills in and out of the classroom and is geared toward youth (ages fifteen to twenty) and educators. G:Class programs include school partnerships, professional development workshops for teachers, teen nights, and the Experimental Study Program, an after-school program designed around artist collaborations. The accompanying website features resources and activities related to and developed around the Museum’s exhibitions and programs, including lesson plans, artist files, and reflective writings and interviews by program participants. The lesson plan “Translation: Devoted but not always faithful rewrites” is housed on the website and can be accessed by following the link here.

Reflective Writings by the Lesson’s Participants

Two of the TAP participants who took part in the lesson, Emme Ko and Suzanne Tang, authored personal accounts of their experience in the following reflective writings, also published on the G:Class website. Along with detailed descriptions of the activities that took place, both of their writings discuss their newly gained insights on the complicated nature of translation.

“While there is indisputable value in translation, in that it allows us to explore the unknown and connect with people and places to facilitate cultural and intellectual exchange, it is important to question how much is lost in this process. To what extent does a statement or text retain its original message and intention after it is translated, and how does one evaluate the quality of a translation without being able to speak multiple languages? These are crucial points to consider—but at the same time, if translation is to be thought of as a kind of art itself, there is value to the idea that there can be diverse interpretations…” Read Emme Ko’s full text here.

“There are so many languages spoken in the world, and translating between them can be difficult. Sometimes words from different languages that look similar might not have the same meaning. At other times, words are translated correctly by definition but not by context. That is to say, not everything can be translated; each language has its own idioms and phrases that are specific to it. The translated version may get a similar point across, but its effect won’t be identical to the original…” Read Suzanne Tang’s full text here.

Applications of Craze’s Grammar by the Lesson’s Participants

Part of the lesson involved the implementation of Craze’s Grammar categories onto a printed excerpt from the Museum’s Founding Director Marcia Tucker’s memoir. Following an introduction of three of the categories—“The Hidden City” (geographical information is removed), “Objects without Subjects” (identity of a person is obscured), and “Actions without Words” (contextual information surrounding an action is removed)—the TAP participants chose one category to apply to the given text. Through this exercise, the participants were guided to think critically about concepts of transparency and accountability in historical documents and to examine how elements of language function in the production and communication of meaning. The entire collection of the blacked-out texts can be found here.

1 TLHUB’s presentation at “Found in Translation” at a conference on the topic of translation that took place on October 18, 2013 at NYU also discusses the state of “in-between-ness” as a defining trait of translation. An excerpt of the presentation was made available in “Temporary Center for Translation” at the New Museum.

2 Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” Artforum International 45 (March 2007): 271.

3 Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 63.

4 Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator”: 275.

5 Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster, 63.

6 Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (2014) is an English-language version of Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles (2004), edited by French philologist and philosopher Barbara Cassin. The English translation is by Steven Rendall, Christian Hubert, Jeffrey Mehlman, Nathanael Stein, and Michael Syrotinski and was edited by Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood.

7 Barbara Cassin, Introduction to Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), xvii.

8 Barbara Cassin, Introduction to Dictionary of Untranslatables, xx.

9 François Jullien, Chemin Faisant, Connaître la Chine, Relancer la Philosophie (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007), 32-33.

10 Barbara Cassin, Introduction to Dictionary of Untranslatables, xvii–xviii.

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