Who Does Translation Service?


A medium of both communication and of misunderstanding, language is part of the difference that separates self and other. Language creates communities whilst simultaneously separating them. The language barrier is a border policed by the spectre of mutual misunderstanding. Translation offers a means of crossing the border, but like all borders, this crossing can be fraught with historically situated political tensions.

In Euclidian geometry, translation is a transformation of a shape or figure that shifts its position from one point to another. The figure remains within the same coordinate system, and unlike shearing or enlargement, the physical shape and dimensions of the figure remain constant. The translation of language—or the translation of meaning from one cultural context to another—is analogous to a shift from one coordinate system to a completely different one and is inevitably accompanied by a distortion of the figure. These border troubles lead to a mutability of meaning which may be used poetically, may cause misunderstanding and alienation or may be manipulated to enforce structures of social, political and economic power.

Ne me quitte pas
Je t’inventerai
Des mots insensés
Que tu comprendras
Je te parlerai
De ces amants-là
Qui ont vu deux fois
Leurs cœurs s’embraser
Je te raconterai
L’histoire de ce roi
Mort de n’avoir pas
Pu te rencontrer
Ne me quitte pas…
(Brel 1959)
If you go away
As I know you will
You must tell the world
To stop turning till
You return again
If you ever do
For what good is love
Without loving you
Can I tell you now
As you turn to go
I’ll be dying slowly
’til the next hello
If you go away…
(McKuen 1966)

Whether we are talking about literary or cultural translation, any translation must balance two poles: How close to remain to the “original”—in rhythm and sounds of language as well as in regard to cultural idioms—weighed against how to make the translated version understood in the context or language into which it is being translated. This is a question of the extent to which it is permissible to adapt or alter the original in order to make it understandable in the context to which it is translated. Herein lies the distortion of the figure.

The trade-off between fidelity to the original and distortion to fit a new context is not merely technical, but has ideological and moral implications. During the planning of the Translation Services show, I became concerned that an early draft of the press release describing a video of mine did not adequately represent it. This led me to thinking about the video—what it was about exactly, and what is at stake in both the translation from video to written description and in the act of this representation.

It has been several years since I made the video, during which time it has had several meanings for me. Originally, the video had been a transposition of the acute sense of powerlessness and depression I had at my inability to communicate during an anthropology conference in Brazil due to my pool level of Portuguese. After producing the work, I wrote about it: “What difference between me and you? is essentially about what is at stake in trying to translate thoughts and feelings into language, how this is powerfully affected by the ‘foreign tongue,’ and the historical-political structures that make the site of expression unsympathetic to the speaker’s ‘foreign tongue.’” In the draft press release, the video was about “British English and the city of London as historically anglocentric.” It is a commonplace that understandings and interpretations of art works are subjective. However, once a particular meaning is inscribed somewhere, it can marginalise other potential meanings. Ideally I would like the work to speak for itself. This is a contentious issue in art and art criticism. Whilst I realise the importance and necessity of translating and contextualising the work in a written description, I can’t help but feel that this act of translation is a transformation of the work. Two of the meanings I have just alluded to were written down at different times and the other is my memory of why I originally made the work which is, in itself, a translation in time and a particular translation that has now also been inscribed on paper.

Knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world [...] the Oriental is contained and represented by dominating frameworks (Said 1978:40)

Anthropology, at least in its early days, was concerned with cultural translation. Anthropologists, usually from the colonial centre, were sent out to learn the languages of the natives in the periphery and were to return with their translations of these cultures so that they could be understood at home or so the knowledge could be used to divide and rule the natives.

Edward Said showed that these accounts—these translations—have a habit of standing in for the thing that they are trying to represent, such that the original cultures, languages and meanings are lost in translation and all that remains is that which the translator said.Traduttore traditore. The representation creates rather than represents.

Anthropology no longer holds a monopoly on cross-cultural translations (if it ever did; Said’s polemic, for example, takes in a broad range of sources). These days the media, NGOs and charities are more often to be found treading the borderlands of cultural and linguistic difference. Even the international art world has ventured there with its biennales of national pavilions, international residencies and various trans-national funding programs. Could this counter the translation problem that Said pointed out over thirty years ago? Nations and artists are free to represent themselves, cutting out the middleman and potential transcription errors.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere […] In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. (Marx and Engels 1967:83-84).

As capital seeks out new markets all over the world, translation becomes not only a necessity, but a vital tool in its armoury.

How does art translate across cultural borders? Is there such a thing as a pure, unadulterated representation or communication? We might begin to answer this question by considering exactly which artists are chosen, by whom and for what purpose. What particular cultural narrative is being served? Since the 1960s it has been well understood that the meaning in a work is contingent upon the space or context in which it is presented.

An ignorance of context seems almost a precondition for artistic appreciation. In this object system a tribal piece is detached from one milieu in order to circulate freely in another, a world of art – of museums, markets, and connoisseurship (Clifford 1988:200)

The history of attempts at integrating non-Western art objects into Western museum exhibitions illuminates the difficulty of cross-cultural translation and communication. James Clifford has argued that there is often an unequal power dynamic behind such exhibitions, in that they privilege a particular view of modernity that is firmly rooted in the West. In ethnological exhibitions, attempts to contextualise the objects on display against descriptions of their function within a particular society can in fact decontextualise them by fixing cultural products and the producing cultures in time. The meaning of these objects as part of a living, changing culture is not recognised and often formal qualities of the objects are ignored. Conversely, in art exhibitions, such objects have been valued merely for their aesthetic qualities or displayed as sources for the creative potential of Western artists, rather than on their own terms. Clifford’s example is of the 1984 “Primitivism” In 20th Century Artexhibition at MOMA, where tribal artefacts were chosen based on their perceived affinity with modern Western paintings and sculptures.

two film pieces of any kind, placed together, inevitably combine into a new concept, a new quality, arising out of that juxtaposition (Eisenstein 1943:14)

Instead of imposing a universal aesthetic by which a judgement is made, instead of translating the meaning of an object from one value system to another or trying to create spurious meaning by explaining its cultural context, what if we were to foreground incompatibility and difference? (Thomas 2001). Might this offer a way around the impasse of cultural translation or even provide a model for the translation of language? Instead of trying to paper over the cracks, we may find that it is in the disjunctures in communication that the meaning lies. Sensitive juxtaposition of cultural objects and contexts could, in fact, highlight rather than hide the incommensurable differences between cultures and the entangled histories that lie behind such differences.

Somewhere in the world, a man fashions an ear adornment from a flattened corned beef tin. A woman sweats in the heat and stench of a meat packing factory because she needs the money to feed her kids. Her husband is alcoholic, can’t hold down a job. She finds solace in the evangelical church which has recently moved into town, translated the bible into the local language, and has a prohibition on drink. Six hundred thousand miles away, underground, a miner risks his life to scratch tin out of the mountainside, and at the end of each day leaves an offering for the devil, whom he believes lives deep in the mines. In London, England, a boy of 15, on Saturday afternoons stacks supermarket shelves with tinned meat so that he can save money to buy his first electric guitar.

In the mid 1990s I spent several months in Mexico. I arrived in the Southern state of Chiapas several months after the Zapatista uprising (which, at its height, had posed a serious challenge to the Mexican state). Part of the initial success of the movement—and perhaps one of the reasons why it was not immediately wiped out by the military—came down to the way in which the movement was presented to the media by its leaders, which was to open up a space in the world’s attention for this otherwise remote part of rural Mexico and its troubles. A successful translation.

One of my most striking memories of a visit to the Mayan Indian mountain town of San Juan Chamula is of how the global brand Coca-Cola appeared to have insinuated itself into the heart and soul of this community—from the bright red logo emblazoned on the sign on the road into the village through to the use of Coca-Cola as part of shamanistic curing rituals in the church. Whoever I tell this story to has trouble understanding that Coca-Cola just has a completely different meaning to the Chamulans than it does to Naomi Klein.

“Coca-Cola-ization” has become shorthand for a particular view of globalization which sees the ubiquity of the US soft drink as a metaphor for the global export and imposition of American culture. Whilst I could see some global economic opportunism going on in San Juan Chamula, I saw no cultural imposition. Meanings are not hard and fast. They are culturally contingent. Objects have a different meaning depending not only on their context, but also on who is looking and where they are looking from.

If only everyone recognised Coca-Cola as a symbol of global economic exploitation and cultural colonization, then we could all understand one another. Meaning would be agreed upon, pinned down and immutable. This is the globalization nightmare. Fortunately, the evidence shows that this is never going to happen. In the case of the Coca-Cola as prayer-aid, the fact that the Chamulans are able to give their own meaning to the object allows them some measure of resistance to global cultural imperialism.

The title of this series of shows, Translation Services, implies an economic transaction. We might read “services” as a noun but it could also be a verb. Yes, translation services. But who and what purpose does it serve?

Brel, Jacques (1959) Ne Me Quitte Pas. Warner-Chappell.
Clifford, James (1988) The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Eisenstein, Sergei (1968/1943) The Film Sense. London: Faber & Faber.
Klein, Naomi (2001) No Logo. London: Flamingo.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1967/1888) The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
McKuen, Rod (1966) If You Go Away. RCA.
Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism: Western conceptions of the Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Sontag, Susan (2003) Where The Stress Falls. Vauxhall: Vintage.
Thomas, Nicholas (2001) Indigenous Presences and National Narratives in Australian Museums in Culture In Australia (eds) Bennett, T & Carter, D. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Translation Services: Accompanying Texts

This text was first published on September 8, 2012 in