‘Translation Zones’ by Heather Connelly/Library of Birmingham

I’m behind on blogging. I blame PhD land and a work interlude of manning a booth at Art16 art fair, London, on behalf of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts (CCVA). I swear as soon as one thing is over (I’ve just finished a block of teaching at University of Wolverhampton), another jumps in and begins…in fact, this is standard wordgirl practice. I should know by now…

Earlier this week, I attended the afternoon roundtable event ‘Translation Zone(s)’ at the spectacular Library of Birmingham. It is an on-going AHRC-funded research project by friend and CCVA colleague Dr Heather Connelly. As my current (and nearly finishing) PhD research examines the local to global interpretive translation of contemporary Chinese art, this was a must attend. Here are notes, questions and perspectives from a language-filled event on so many levels of communication, definition and representation…

Translation Zones 1


‘Translation Zone(s)’ is a series of events, projects, art works, texts and activities that brings monolingual and multilingual individuals (artists, researchers, translators, linguists, performers, participants and audiences) together to examine art-and-translation as a transdisciplinary practice. The works use text, sound and the voice to explore ‘interlingual’ translation, and draw upon linguistics, intercultural communication and second language acquisition. The projects are responsive, generative and experimental, the nature, form and format of each event/work depends upon particular context, audience and participants. Recent work incorporating issues of language learning. The role that I play in these projects varies: artist, researcher, provocateur, facilitator, director, collaborator, writer, educator, host and others.

Heather introduced the event as a series of dialogues to discuss the potentials of translation, and the relationship between art and translation. She articulated the prefix of “trans” – different to inter and cross, working beyond these – the use of “transdisciplinary” as a methodology, a way of working as a practice that is more dynamic, moving across/beyond/in between and in all directions, bringing together multi-disciplines – theoretical and practical and experiential realms of knowledge.

“The subject – the you – is the “trans” in transdisciplinary – at the heart of translation in this research.” – Heather Connelly

This was central to her PhD research through the standpoint of translation as “This is me”. Heather questioned and stated, ‘Who are you in the process of translation? What are you translating? Everyone translates in a different way, even if you are following strategies. During ‘Translation Zone(s)’ – I see them as encounters – what is gained from and during these encounters? ‘Translation Zone(s)’ create conditions for the meetings to happen…I am interested in the uncertainty, fuzziness and potential of translation in these meetings. Everyone translates in a different way and comes to the table of translation with a different‘ – what I have called as part of my PhD research, an inescapable “before text”.

Her research came from a personal monolingual (and dyslexic – which to me was more interesting and needed to be examined more) perspective where she felt she was missing out on understanding what it means to talk in a first language when knowing another. She stated, this isn’t often discussed or talked about in England – the English standard that would be raised throughout the afternoon – so what happens if we start thinking about this? At a time of internationalising Higher Education, the complexity of translation is reiterated where she cited the book ‘The Translation Zone’ by Emily Apter and designating sites that are specific to translation.

“The word “zone” like translation crosses boundaries and is used in different places, in different contexts…it suggests the bringing together…creating a temporary moment in time…a cluster of transdisciplinary.”- Heather Connelly

Heather went on to cite the work of Russian–American linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson. ‘Interpretation of a verbal sign according to Roman Jakobson can happen in three ways: intralingual, interlingual and intersemiotic. In the case of intralingual translation, the changes take place within the same language. Thus, a verbal sign (word) belonging to a particular language is replaced by another sign (word) belonging to the same language. Interlingual translation on the other hand can be seen as replacing a verbal sign with another sign but belonging to a different language (a rephrasing of sorts). Intersemiotic translation is more than just a focus on the words, emphasising the overall message that needs to be conveyed. Thus, the translator, instead of paying attention to the verbal signs, concentrates more on the information that is to be delivered.’ [Sourced online] These different modes, methods and instances of translation also draw attention to the performativity of language, the performance of translation…leading us into the first speaker’s presentation…

Nicoline Van Harskamp’s presentation related to the spoken word as it already exists, taken from existing transcripts or languages to generate new dialogues of communication – is this interpretation rather than translation? She researches the non-native English development, accents and syntax, ‘Englishes’ and the English standard – “Englishes of the Others” (where the term “other” would come to be a key word throughout the afternoon’s discussions):

“English cannot be seen as a neutral language, we must see it as mobility…mobility is not chosen…English happens not necessarily out of choice…different aspects shape English.” – Nicoline Van Harskamp

She questioned, what is English into the future? What is the global link language? What could it sound like? She then went on to cite her works including ‘Her Production’ (2014), an audio-video piece examining the linkage of words through a visual phonetic; ‘She put me in the complexity of words’ (2014) where four women artists from Korea, Cuba, Serbia and Iran spent three days in an isolated house in Sweden, a ‘place without language’ to learn each others ‘Englishes’. In turn, they speak out each other’s phrases in an unusual range of interpretations, not attempting to correct them into a more accurate English, but instead attempting to stay true to the original sentence – a mirroring of language?, and ‘A romance in five acts and twenty-one Englishes’ (2014/15) a live translation, publishing and theatrical staging project based on ‘Pygmalion – a romance in five acts’ (1912) play by Bernard Shaw. 21 translations of the play were collected and native speakers of each of  these languages – from Turkish to Japanese, from Farsi to Czech – to take it in turns to translate it back into English, in an 8 hour session for a live audience at the London project space Kunstraum.

“The situation is neither blurry nor sharp…not eureka, not a miracle…a feeling of not being able to complete what you are saying. For non-native English, it is hard to produce work in this language.” – Nicoline Van Harskamp

Pierre-Alexis Mével from University of Nottingham spoke of the varieties of language and linguistic variation in fiction, how dialects and sociolects are represented in films, stretching fictional boundaries of a languages to make “alien” languages, questioning, how do you create a fictional language for films? 

“Entertaining and exotic to my ears” (Ben Burtt, 2001: 132) – sound designer of Star Wars movies

By listening to a different memory of a language – a memory trained for language, a memory trained to look for meaning and patterns. These languages represent “foreignness”, “otherness” and “anteriority”…the domestic and the foreign, the self and the other (all examined in my PhD thesis). He spoke of the notion of cultivating languages and linguistic ‘difference’, and (like Nicoline) the use of standard English as a benchmark where ideology plays a huge part in linguistic variation. Language becomes a yardstick for social order…”shortcut characterisation”.

“You are the way that you speak”

He went on to speak of languages never being monolithic, the influence of accent tropes, and the translation of languages for subtitling – recounting the original with discursive elements as a form of “constrained” translation.

Curator Martin Waldemeier discussed his recent curatorial project ‘The Translator’s Voice’ (2015), which took places at three different European arts organisations – FRAC Lorraine; MARCO, Museo de Arte Contemporánea de Vigo, and SFKM, Sogn og Fjordane Kunstmuseum. Developed from the hypothesis ‘Is everyone a potential translator?’, it presented work by thirteen artists representing different generations and backgrounds to examine and rethink the place of translation in the age of globalisation.

“Translation is used here in the broadest sense of the word. It encompasses attempts at communication in a language other than one’s own, regardless of whether it is spoken fluently or just enough to get by, or if it’s heavily accented. Will the language of the future emerge from this hybridization?” – Martin Waldemeier

Translation Zones 6

  • What is the relationship between the language(s) we speak and a globalising present/European present?
  • What do our languages mean to us during a time of unprecedented migrations, of people living in other cultures for wanted or unwanted reasons?
  • Do they reduce an artist to mere visual or discourse?
  • Artists travel incessantly…what can artists tell us about language, cultural difference, about how meanings of things change as we travel?
  • How can we make translation more visible as it takes place in the margins?
  • Why are certain languages learned more than others and where does the desire to learn a language come from?
  • Does the acquisition of language act as symbolic capital?
  • This is language as a field of experimentation…

“Translation appears where everything circulates.” – Martin Waldemeier

Martin cited the book ‘The Translators Invisibility’ (1995) by Lawrence Venuti and the Anglo-America ideal where the act of translation is deemed invisible. He also spoke of the idiosyncrasies of translation where each translation reconstitutes a rewriting of the text – the text is re-written.

“The life of a translator is not just a profession, it is a hybrid identity, where you can make those connections.” – Martin Waldemeier

He saw the exhibition as a way to make the process of translation visible, using translation in a metaphorical way, and question the use of the term in the cultural field. Also to look at the linguistic cross fertilisation that is currently happening due to migration, “slippages” (i.e. Chinglish etc) and the linguistic experiences of people who live in foreign contexts. (This immediately resonated with my research and more specifically the instigating premise of my curatorial exchange platform ‘The Temporary’.)

Martin stated, language was the basis of understanding nation and nationhood, yet delineating spheres of conversation between us and them – what he called a “cultural chauvinism”. Globalisation creates new linguistic realities where there are now other worlds beyond the languages of the art world. English serves as a language to communicate across cultural boundaries, and on the other hand there are vernacular languages that are no longer viable – what happens to those languages (referencing Susan Hiller)?  What happens to the loss of cultural tradition and of an oral history?

Finally, Ricarda Vidal spoke of her on-going project ‘Translation Games’, which brings literary translators, artists, designers and academics together to explore translation in a ludic programme of workshops, symposia, public exhibitions, performances and publications. Citing work from the project, it raised questions around the subject of the translator’s gaze and the translation of text into the visual.

The closing panel discussion and Q&A began by speaking about visibility and exposing the process of translation (speakers names are initialed here)…

PAM: Visibility is always there. It also makes you very vulnerable. Good subtitles they say are invisible – discourse is more than a reality.

NVH: Translation is a conscious act that you choose to do. In my practice…the production of language whilst speaking…it’s not translation as process necessarily. I wouldn’t want to make translation fixed.

RV: You have to focus on translation to make it an act…even if you can talk two languages, it doesn’t mean that you can translate. The idea of footnotes are helpful to the process of translation – signposting to other readings, artworks, films to inform translation…

“How is translation different to adaptation? Say from a poem to a film?”

Steve Dutton: Nicoline, you talk about the idea of “neutral” and “neutral English”, the idea of the standard…what is meant by neutral?

NVH: I use it between brackets…by using the voices from different countries, flattening it out again so they spoke the same type of English, they had a problem with that…how do I flatten a language? It was finding the middle between them. I wanted them to level out the class difference and it came down to intonation.

SD: Is it an acting trope?

NVH: In someway it is…it’s not just acting, it is about public speaking…

Audience: It is important we remember those filmmakers who create characters with extreme accents – the reliance on accents is a trope in itself…the standard as a pole of reference….there is nothing linguistically that makes any dialect inferior to standard English. It is a social judgement not a linguistic one. Tropes create novelty, where they can become tropes of their own. Compensated in the register…formality of language…

Audience: The culture of non-native Englishness then put of a stage, which is them immediately seen as cultural. Visibility as an artist and as a translator has now come into my art…ethics and codes as an interpreter, and how you can use this in art…visibility of using a language that is mine, theirs or no-ones…

Audience: What is the boundary you have to cross to go from art to translation, or translation or art…or to be a translator?

MW: Language is a subject people talk about…understanding-misunderstanding…the challenge of managing different linguistic realities…the idea of translation…it has allowed us to talk about those experiences…the term is attractive as it allows you to address issues that we don’t have other terms to deal with it…

HC: How have you found today…has it made you look at translation differently?

“Translation is an art, like writing is an art…”

RV: Are there restrictions on artists through translation?

“You have to be respectful to the original…otherwise you damage or belittle the original…in turn, you are also restricted by the original…”

SD: There must be a dividing line between where something is something else?

MW: Is a more suitable word is interpretation…a transference…?

NVH: There authorship in any work that you put your name on…it is an illustration, it is authorship…it is the different ways in how translation can be perceived…

RV: Translation is always an interpretation…

Audience: Translation as being attractive…and the ubiquitous use of the term translation. People need to reflect on the lingual term of translation before it becomes loose…do other disciplines really want that?

MW: Translation as an observation of phenomena…encounters…slippages…changing meanings. I haven’t come across another concept that is as reductive, rich with a historical theoretical and practical material. There are words like representation, communication, interpretation…they are seem more limited that translation, we all need to come to terms with the fact as to what it is or designates.

SD: Translation as a productive methodology towards something else, it isn’t an understanding of what translation is…

NVH: With translation you are going from one system to another one…I’m not sure what this means for the art system? I find this difficult with art. The system is different. It shouldn’t be explained as the same thing as translating between languages.

Audience: Hold things to account by using some of the basis for language translation. Translation offers yardsticks and concepts to give rigour to it…you have to take account of the source…using those terms of translation as the rigour…a lot of writing about translation is an account of process…

Source versus original “text”

SD: For anyone that speaks art – that’s its lingua franca…

Audience: Artists are very nomadic with peripatetic practices…concerned by the cultural capital these artists are creating around translation and language.

MW: In the context of international exhibitions and festivals…translatability of artists is one of the most important parts for them to be included. Artists who translate…artists from the point of creation who can address a foreign audience…

SD: Then there is the problem of the universality of art…

MW: Globality and universality of art uses English and this is problematic as it only works in certain places and countries…it only introduces works into certain contexts…

SD: Is there a sub-structure in those works that is part of an English-speaking world?

MW: Who does the work address itself to? For an artist to address an international audience versus one of its own culture is a different mode of address…is translation incorporated into the work itself?

NVH: You cannot say that English inserts a certain mindset to art…if you look at visual culture now, no visual culture exists without written or spoken language…the two cannot be separated anymore…


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