Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings
[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]
Text and concept: Sønke Gau / Katharina Schlieben
Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings, Part 1
Thoughts on the project series
4 October 21 December 2008
Globally there are some 6000 languages, and it is generally assumed that around 90% of the languages still in use will have become extinct by the end of the present century. But it is not only the languages that disappear; along with them, cultures and their accumulated knowledge are getting lost. In a neo-liberal society, which speaks of building a society based on knowledge currently and in the future, the speed of global, market-driven economic regimentations and objectives causes heterogeneous and multifaceted knowledge and education, in a communication-oriented world mediated in the first instance through the medium of language, to vanish.
2008 has been declared the International Year of Languages by the United Nations.
The declared objective of European Union language policy is to strengthen the multilingualism of European citizens: multilingualism fosters the personal development of the individual, it improves vocational mobility and competitiveness (Lisbon strategy), enhances understanding of other cultures (intercultural dialogue), and generates a “real sense of union citizenship”. The newly established Commission for Multilingualism under Leonard Orban declared the following on the EU website: “Languages are fundamental for Europeans wanting to work together. They go to the very heart of the ‘unity in diversity’ of the European Union. We need to nurture and promote our linguistic heritage in the Member States, but we also need to understand each other, our neighbours, our partners in the EU. Speaking many languages makes businesses and citizens more competitive and more mobile.”(1) Given the predominance of economic logic, competitiveness seems to be a key argument, holding more sway than an interest in heterogeneous, polyphonic language communities. In this sense, a knowledge-based society is largely defined by economic benefits.
The language policy of the EU is shaped by multi-linguality: at present there are 23 official languages, and translations on the legislative level alone cost more than a billion Euros. Language policy is always tied to economic conditions and thus also to hegemonic structures of decision-making. Which languages benefit from translation? Colonialist practices have shown and continue to do so even today that one official language comes to dominate a diversity of languages and linguistic communities. Decisions like those recently taken in Venezuela or before it in Peru, declaring indigenous languages to constitutional and official languages along with Spanish, are rare. The issues surrounding language policy decisions cannot be separated from exploring the experiences of (post-) colonialism and migratory movements, in particular in relation to concepts of nation-building and official national languages. The transnational research project “translate”(2) of the eipcp.net platform has highlighted this entwinement. Boris Buden, actively engaged in this project, has shown in his “The Pit of Babel. Or: The Society that Mistook Culture for Politics” how the concept of translation has been transposed from its original context of linguistics to other domains of society and so undergone a pronounced change.(3)
In a narrower sense, the act of translation denotes the transcribing of the text of a source language into the target language it is however simply impossible for the translations to ever fully correspond to the ‘original’. Umberto Eco has pointed out that a translation can only ever be an approximation and not an exact transliteration it is thus an attempt to say practically the same with other words.(4) This fact raises the question of the difference which arises through the act of translating from one language into another. Inherent to the process of translation is an experience of distance, or the recognition of alterity and the necessity to place oneself in a relationship to the ‘other’. This act of placing oneself in relationship takes place mostly against the background of one’s own language. This ‘classical’ translation model proceeds from the assumption of a binary juxtaposition of two referential systems, which can approximate one another at best. Eco characterises this approximation with the key concept of ‘negotiation’. He advocates a position of the translator as an autonomous subject that can move between the respective languages and may exercise freedom when translating. How this necessary difference in the process of negotiation is handled generates, as Buden emphasises, various approaches and, consequently, modes of (mis-) appropriation.
The theory of translation espoused by the Romantics, primarily by Wilhelm Humboldt, did not consider the purpose of translation to reside in facilitating communication between two distinct languages and cultures; rather, the thrust of translation is to shape and refine one’s own language, for instance by allowing the strangeness of the original language to be clearly discernible, thus extending the reach of the target language. But the concept of cultural translation does not emerge from this traditional theory, but in fact from a radical critique of it, formulated for the first time by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Task of the Translator” from 1921. Benjamin disposed of the idea of the original and thus the whole binarism of traditional translation theory. The goal of translation is neither communication nor transmission according to Benjamin, and moreover a translation does not correlate to the original text; translation touches the original only at a single point, like a tangent touches a circle and continues its way.(5) Neither the original nor the translation, neither the language of the original nor that of the translation, have an essential quality. As they metamorphose and change constantly, the original is not an essentialist origin. Benjamin’s deconstructionist approach opens the way for the concept of ‘cultural translation’, which was in turn then coined and elucidated by one of the prominent postcolonial theoreticians: Homi Bhabha. Initially his motivation was to formulate a critique of the ideology of multiculturalism, the need to reflect on culture and relations between different cultures beyond the idea of homogenous, essentialist cultural identities and the communities arising out of these identities. According to his theory, the space BETWEEN both may be characterised as a ‘third place’. The inflationary use, spreading and propagation of the concept of ‘hybridity’, which is primarily related to the domain of culture, harbours the risk of supplanting the ‘political’ with ‘culturalisation’, a danger Kien Nghi Ha has pointed out in his “Hype um Hybridität”(6).
Two concerns come into conflict with the diversity of voices and languages: on the one hand, there is the wish to be able to communicate with as many people as possible in the best possible way, a wish channelled into experiments inventing new languages or creating subset languages, for example Esperanto(7); on the other hand, an understanding capable of detecting and appreciating complexity and multilayered meanings requires a decisively detailed command and grasp of the other language so as to be able to develop knowledge and insight into contexts and historical connections and generate culturally diverse voices. Negotiations and agreement talks frequently produce (at times intended) misunderstandings and problem-laden translations, and in turn these are not always solely dependent on ‘understanding languages’ but rather demand communication, solidarity of interests and a reciprocal, long-term exchange of experience.
In view of the ‘necessary impossibility’ of constituting a ‘citizenry in Europe’ as a way of generating a shared democratic European public sphere, Étienne Balibar has emphasised the importance of language as a medium of communication and understanding: “The ‘language of Europe’ is not a code but a constantly transformed system of cross usages; it is, in other words, translation.”(8) Balibar explicates “that the ‘community of translation’ is also not that in which everyone speaks or understands everyone else’s language but, on the contrary, that in which the role of the ‘interpreter’, depending on the situation and configuration of exchange, is capable of falling on anyone in turn, passing from the ‘majority’ to the ‘minority’ position.”(9)
The issue of language diversity/multilingualism, so decisive for the process of European integration (grasped as not being limited solely to the economy and security), is also relevant in smaller dimensions within Switzerland, evident in the discussion about the status of Rhaeto-Romanic: Switzerland has four official national languages, and according to swissworld.org German is spoken by 63.7% of the population, French by 20.4%, Italian by 6.5% and Rhaeto-Romanic 0.5%. The remaining 9.9% is spread across a variety of languages. Rhaeto-Romanic is in fact not a language but a family of several dialects, which vary from valley to valley. There are five written dialects: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Vallader and Puter. The Zurich-based linguist Heinrich Schmid presented the standardised version of Romantsch Grischun in 1983, a compromise between the various idioms that shall function as a unified (written) language. In 1993 Romantsch Grischun was recognised as a national language(10) and is an official language in the canton of Graubünden; since 2007/2008 it is the language used in schools in 23 municipalities.
The project series “Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings” is divided into three chapters. As its starting point (October - December 2008) it shall take linguistic-political considerations on ‘multilinguality’ on the one hand, while investigating on the other to what extent this also affects the ‘polyphony’ and if the affects are similar or vary. This line of approach is necessary because the translation problematic, translation paradoxes and inventing languages are not only prevalent when bridging linguistic divides, but are also evident within languages themselves. Furthermore, when exploring translation we shall not just proceed from spoken language, but look into the modus of translation in itself, which is inscribed into intersubjective understanding/conflict as well as in transcontextual and intermedia relations. Artistic works and films will be shown which explore the question of the (im-) possibility of translation as well as (un-) productive misunderstandings. As part of a commentary level, authors or scientists proposed by the participating artists were asked to write a short text about the contents and questions of the respective work in their native language. Besides the interpretative/mediating aspects, a double translation movement is already at work on this level: on the one hand, artistic work is translated into the medium of writing, while the texts will be translated from the languages in which they are written into English on the other.
A following exhibition shall specify the issues sketched out in the first exhibition. A more detailed consideration of the multilingual Swiss situation and micro researches about minority languages and regions in Europe is in discussion (February - April 2009). In a further step we would like to bring the crux of and the question about curatorial translation into play. We aim to conclude the series with an international conference and exhibition devoted to this field of practice and discourse (June - July 2009).
Artists and commentaries by authors
We have asked the participating artists to invite a writer, theorist or person researching in this contextual field to compose, from their own perspective and in their native language, a short text on the respective work or the issues the work discusses. These texts are integrated into the exhibition on a commentary level of interpretation and presented here in German translation. In this way, we can speak of a double translation movement already on this level: a translation of artistic work into a textual medium takes place while simultaneously the texts were translated into German.
Pierre Bismuth, Chiapas Media Project, Beth Derbyshire / Ilari Valbonesi, Esra Ersen / Miya Yoshida, Patricia Esquivias / Cristián Silva, Lise Harlev / Boris Boll-Johansen / Leila El-Kayem 1 / 2, Farida Heuck / Kien Nghi Ha, Susan Hiller / Sonja Lau / André Siegers, Andreas Künzli, Wolf Schmelter, Pavel Medvedev / Alexander Komin, Praga Manifesto / Dietrich M. Weidmann, Khanh Minh Nguyen / Andrea L. Rassel, Raqs Media Collective / Ravi Sundaram, Volker Schreiner / Kristina Tieke.
3 http://translate.eipcp.net/strands/01/buden-strands01en; this is a shortened English version of: Boris Buden: “Der Schacht von Babel. Ist Kultur übersetzbar?” Berlin 2005.
4 Umberto Eco, “Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation”, London 2003.
5 Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator, in: “Illuminations: Essays and Reflections”, New York 1969, p.80.
6 Kien Nghi Ha, „Hype um Hybridität. Kultureller Differenzkonsum und postmoderne Verwertungstechniken im Spätkapitalismus“, 2005; for a shortened English version, see „Crossing the Border? Hybridity as Late-Capitalistic Logic of Cultural Translation and National Modernisation”: http://translate.eipcp.net/transversal/1206/ha/en.
7 The state councillor Gisèle Ory and the national council member Francine John-Calame have proposed the Universala Esperanto-Asocio, UEA, as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008.
8 Étienne Balibar: Difficult Europe: Democracy under Construction, in: “We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship”, 2003, p. 155ff.
10 Article 70, paragraph 1 of the Swiss constitution: “The official languages of the Federation are German, French, and Italian. In communication with persons of Romansh language, the Romansh is also an official language.”
Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings, part 2
Opening: 27 February, project presentations 7 pm
Exhibition: 28 February 26 April 2009
Kristina Ask/Christian Hillesø/Mads Rasmussen/Mia Rosasco, Alexandra Croitoru, Rainer Ganahl, Lise Harlev, Christoph Keller, Thomas Korschil/Eva Simmler, Uriel Orlow, Ingrid Wildi
Text and concept: Sønke Gau / Kataharina Schlieben
Drawing on a formulation by Gottfried Keller, the preamble to the Swiss Constitution claims that Swiss people are to “live our diversity in unity.” A key element of this diversity is the country’s official quadrilingual status. Unlike other countries, Switzerland does not define itself on the basis of one language and culture, but four: “The national languages are German, French, Italian, and Romansh” states Article 4 of the Swiss Constitution. But this official quadrilinguality is seldom evident on an individual basis; for the most part it is spread territorially. Aside from a few cities and towns, the respective “language territories” are largely “monolingual” and display different “cultural” characteristics, observable for example in voting behaviour. One expression of this territorial multilingualism is what is known as the “Röstigraben”, the lack of understanding between German- and French-speaking Swiss.
Only the official quadrilinguality is expressed in this image of multilingual Switzerland; beyond the “official four”, up to 50 further languages are spoken. Around 20 percent of the population is made up of people without a Swiss passport, plus those persons who have meanwhile become naturalised citizens. Immigrants have brought other languages to the country more people now speak Albanian, Portuguese or a Slavic language than Romansh. As the fourth most spoken language of the residential population in Switzerland, amounting to 9%, the Federal Statistics Bureau employs the vague category “remaining languages”. This grouping is only surpassed by German, French, and Italian, and is greater than Spanish, Croatian, and Serbian. The most spoken “remaining languages” includes Tamil, Arabic, Dutch, Russian, Chinese, Thai, and several (west) African languages. There is a specific reason as to why each of these languages is represented in Switzerland, and behind each reason is a history which the sweeping categorisation of “remaining languages” is simply incapable of reflecting. The official quadrilinguality has thus long given way to a diversity of languages.
Multilingualism in Switzerland fans out even further when we take a closer look at the individual categories of the official quadrilinguality. For instance, the majority states that German is their main language, but further differentiations exist within this grouping: firstly, between “written German” and Swiss German, and within the latter category between the various regional dialects. According to a statistical report compiled by the canton of Zurich, over two-thirds of those polled stated that they speak solely dialect in their private life, and even in working life and at school the number is almost 70%. In addition to what is known as the diglossia, a bilingualism where the standard or high-level language is one form while the other is the language used in everyday life and informal texts, and so covers the acquisition of both written and Swiss German, there are often marked differences between the respective dialects. Due to this diversity the everyday life of scores of people in Switzerland is shaped by permanent translation processes.
This is where the second part of the project line Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings would like to begin and specify questions concerning the Swiss situation which were already outlined in the first exhibition section. A series of “micro researches”, video works and an extensive audio installation explore multilinguality, phenomena of Swiss language regionalism, the problems it causes and the resistance it generates in everyday life, and the various structures affected by the politics of language. We characterise these artistic works as “micro researches” because they sketch an intermediate result of research undertakings, present a visual form for negotiating and discussing issues, but at the same time invite further questions and possible more detailed inquiries.
In his artistic practice Rainer Ganahl has been engaged for some time in exploring language and its influence on identity as well as social and political contexts. For his new work Züridüütsch he has conducted more than 25 interviews, asking people about their introduction to the local dialect and how it is has influenced them. Ingrid Wildi also examines language, cultural identity and social affiliations. The project Muertos Civiles is the continuation of her previous investigation into so-called illegal immigration. In a workshop with sans papiers, they analyse together Bruno Ulmer’s film Welcome Europa. Emphasis was placed on filmic representation and the everyday situation of the immigrants in Zurich. Uriel Orlow has looked closely into the communicative ensemble of the legendary coffeehouse Odeon and brought together guests and others involved in the Odeon from different generations for a discussion, where they reflect on the location itself as well as the conversations in and about the Odeon. At the same time, this approach generates something like a kind of “translation into the present” of the Odeon. Lise Harlev has pursued the traces of the Helvetica typography in Zurich and explored the locations and functional contexts of this font. Helvetica can be understood as a font that is “democratic” in the broadest sense, because its applications are universal and multifunctional and has thus been employed with great versatility worldwide. The font is thereby also a medium of communication, which translates for and in contexts. Alexandra Coituro has explored the question of the motivation for translating from Romansh into Rumanian and vice-a-versa. In the vein of a fictionalising and constructivist historiography, she looks into the connections which go beyond the linguistic level and, thanks to their associative power, prompt further historical archaeologies.
The “micro researches” are supplemented by a selection of already existing artistic works: the film Artikel 7. Unser Recht! by Thomas Korschil and Eva Simmler is a documentary on the chequered history of the minority conflict in Carinthia, which was sparked, amongst other factors, by the erection of bilingual place-name signs (German/Slovenian). DICTIONARY is a collective attempt to define words, languages, expressions, meanings, views, and idioms, an approach that means its format is that of an anarchistic dictionary. Christoph Keller explores the performative dimension of interpreting. His video installation Interpreters shows that this activity has more to do with interpretation than mere translation because the person doing the interpreting has to see things from the perspective of another person. Expressing thoughts in language encompasses and continually shifts between the poles of “self” and the “other”.
In addition, audio commentaries by the participating artists, translated and recorded in different Swiss German dialects, are presented at a round conference table and provide intermediary information on their research. The entire exhibition is framed, or more precisely underlaid, by an audio installation, which highlights the situation of multilinguality in Switzerland.
Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings, part 3
Opening 22 May, Project Presentation, 7 pm
Exhibition 23 May 19 July 2009
Lieven de Boeck, Katharina Cibulka / Eva Jiřička, Josef Dabernig, Saskia Holmkvist, Nina Katchadourian, M.A.Numminen, Stefan Römer, Sean Snyder, Szuper Gallery, Gitte Villesen, Barbara Visser
Text and concept: Sønke Gau / Kataharina Schlieben
Film recommendations and commentaries / “Personal Translation” from
Rael Artel, Brent Klinkum, a. titolo, Olivia Plender, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus
The third and final part of the project series Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings concludes the fourth project series and at the same time, marking the end of our five-year curator ship at the Shedhalle, provides an opportunity to reflect the question of translation paradoxes, which invariably also have an impact on the intersubjective level.
Translation problems can be explored linguistically and culturally. Often enough though, translation paradoxes begin for us in our personal everyday lives or in intersubjective communication. How come I understand something one way or the other? Why do I feel misunderstood? Who translated this like that? What do the intersubjective translation processes look like? Last but not least artistic and curatorial practice is shaped by subjective and personal translations, or at least often takes its starting point from them. Therefore the crux of translation is being brought into play: both the personal and intersubjective translation paradoxes of everyday life as well as the artistic and curatorial modes of translation. The artistic works shown revolve around following issues: how specific content is to be conveyed and how can we speak about it, how communication or for that matter non-communication represent acts of translation, which media can play a role in this, and to what extent misunderstandings influence or indeed generate communication.
The drawings and building plans by Lieven de Boeck pursue the architectural “idea” which features a museum for contemporary art could be given, or ideally should be given. In this way artistic and curatorial problems are approached according to their spatial conditions, interrogated, scaled down and observed from a different angle. In their video Gratis Punsch Katharina Cibulka and Eva Jiřička give away hot punch at the Christmas markets in Vienna. This supposedly generous gesture triggers strong reactions and misunderstandings amongst the stall-keepers. In the film Hotel Roccalba by Josef Dabernig twelve people spend a Sunday afternoon side by side in silence, each person goes about their own business and it is unclear what connects them. Despite the intimate atmosphere, there is a lot of room for interpretation. Professionally conducted conflict and negotiation talks, which are apparently familiar, take sudden unexpected turns in the two films by Saskia Holmkvist, Role Control and In Character. We begin to realise just how much we try to pigeonhole what we see and experience and interpret it to fit in with what we are already familiar with. The parents of the artist Nina Katchadourian, both of whom have migrant backgrounds and whose accents are clearly discernible, even if their origin is difficult to locate, call on a language trainer in an attempt to lose their accents, while the artist embarks on a contrary undertaking, practicing to speak just like her parents and so explores a part of her own background and identity. The singer, composer, entertainer, writer and filmmaker M.A. Numminen sings the famous and much-quoted sentence from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work Tractatus Logico Philosophicus of 1918: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” This should not be construed to mean that certain truths or specific circumstances are not to be stated, but that speaking and thinking per se have set limits, which in turn imposes a limit on the actual speech act. In Tomorrow is another day (Die gespielte Kunstkritik) by Stefan Römer, the 1996 exhibition of Rirkrit Tiravanija staged at Cologne Kunstverein, which has already long entered the annuals of art history, is “taken apart” and criticised polemically. Sean Snyder’s film Exhibition looks into art reception and the resulting discourse. Snippets from the Soviet documentary Noble Impulses (1965) by Israel Goldstein are rearranged, creating a reflection on the conventions and rituals of reception within art. Together with students from the postgraduate programme in curating at the Zurich Arts Academy, Szuper Gallery (Susanne Clausen and Pavel Kerestey) explore the question as to how the image of the curator compares to everyday reality. The result is a series of individual performative sequences which try to stage the curatorial process. Gitte Villesen gives “DJ Willy” an hour to play her favourite music; the video made of the session shows the highlights. The music played arouses memories of things experienced and past longings and becomes a communication medium. In her video Last Lecture Barbara Visser mixes several temporal levels of a lecture presentation, which she herself speaks as well as having another person speak for her. It thus becomes increasingly unclear as to who has authorship over the spoken word and when.
The artistic works are arranged spatially and visually to allow a dialogue. We welcome you to follow the speakers’ perspectives and at the same time undertake your own personal translations.
In the video lounge Personal Translation we would like to give different perspectives an opportunity to express themselves and so open and extend the discussion field. We have invited Rael Artel, Brent Klinkum a. titolo, Olivia Plender and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus to each present a film. For this purpose they have prepared personal commentaries which explain why they have chosen the films they have and to what extent they interpret translation misunderstandings.
All contributors with whom we have worked together at the Shedhalle have been invited to send their thoughts and experiences on translation misunderstandings via a self-designed postcard. These responses, which at the same time are a retrospect on our diverse collaborations, comment the exhibition.
In the three-part event series “Some more misunderstandings to discuss!” at the lake we would like to continue in lectures, discussion rounds and film screenings the dialogue begun with you on 18 June, 9 July, and 16 July.
... And we would like to use this opportunity to invite you to our summer party on 26 June!
"Some more misunderstandings to discuss": Lectures, discussions and film