Works in Translation
There are many ways in which to explain what translation entails but even the most varied explanations agree that translation occurs between human languages and cultures. That is to say, languages are a cultural means of expressing what ‘culture’ is. The act of translation to and from languages- and within language itself- has a political aspect, as it represents a culture, nation or perception (ideology). However, languages can also be categorized by disciplines- the language of law, of technology, of art or music. In these translation occurs within the language itself, rather than with another language outside of it. This internal dynamic of translation changes this kind of dialogue from its political aspects, from conducting a discussion between various cultures and nationalities, and it places it between humans and the world they live in.
The claim that language was created not as a means of communication but rather as human kind’s way of conceptualizing the world correlates with the concept of language as a means of expressing the very essence of human existence. This idea is rooted in a religious viewpoint and was developed by German Romanticists, such as Herder (Treatise on the Origin of Language, 1772) and Humboldt (On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, 1836). They investigated the source of diverse languages and the way in which these languages communicated within themselves and with each other. They spoke of the “magic of language”. Walter Benjamin spoke of “the Primary problem of language” (On Language as Such and on the Language of Man). He claims that reducing the human language to a mere vehicle of information between people is a bourgeois concept that belittles its sources and its significance. He objects to the instrumentalists’ approaches to language, expressed by thinkers such as John Dewey, who described language as a contrivance of thought. He claims that although thought and language are not identical, still language is essential for thought and for communication and must be understood through this perspective. (How We Think, Chapter 13: Language and the Training of Thought).
The idea that language expresses the relation between human kind and the world around them is rooted in Jewish tradition, according to which the human language has the power to name all that is within the world. The act of naming mirrors God’s creation of the world with words. This correlation between words and creation can be found in ‘Sefer Yetzirah’ (the ‘Book of Creation’), a book of Jewish mysticism that demonstrates the creative power of letters in forming the world .
And so the story of Creation can be seen as a process where God named all that is within the world into existence and gave human kind a language based on names. The first chapter of the book of Genesis tells the tale of how the world was created with the Word of God, how God spoke the world into being: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light… And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night… And God called the firmament Heaven… And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas…”
The act of creation was then completed with passing on this gift of naming to human kind: “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof”.
In certain Cabbalist traditions this ability of naming and even language itself are manifestations of human kind’s bond with God, as they perpetuate the act of creation- this is also the reason why letters are used in the creation of man from “Golem”. This power safeguards the connection to God and to the world of things, and it provides a continuous translation of things, of a silent language of things, into the language of human kind.
In the expulsion from Eden language played a major role. From that moment onward the direct link between knowledge and language was broken, and language was no longer merely the act of naming. This is the birthplace of human speech. The story of Babel tells us the reason for the multitude of languages. Genesis( chap.11): “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth”.
The biblical stories of the Expelsion from Eden and Babel describe a process whereby language is divorced from the experience of the world; a space is created between words and things, between signifier and signified. Human speech is transformed into a process of translating God’s language; this is the language of things, a language that human kind once knew and used in order to connect with the world, a direct and silent link that needed no words or grammatical content to provide meaning. Words are no longer unequivocally associated with things in the world, but rather refer to them obliquely through their use to express human kind’s views of the world.
Introducing this distancing process into the discipline of linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure claimed that the distance between signifier and signified is arbitrary and that language is a self-contained unit that cannot in any way transfer meaning about the world around us. Consider language under Saussure as a story about reality, a translation of reality- and not reality itself. The story language tells of reality comes from the pages of its cultural contexts, where the words used to describe even elemental natural phenomena, viewed equally from various parts of the world, differ from language to language. These cultural differentiations are reflected in human speech. When Walter Benjamin talks about the task of the translator he tries to overcome this differentiation. In order to arrive at real meaning - a meaning that deals in truth - there is a need to circumvent the culturally dependent content that is the first layer of language and delve deeper into the structure of language, where lie the remnants of that primitive universal tongue, that which conversed directly with the language of things, the words of God, which was the Word of Creation. Signifying words become obstacles that hinder experience and the meanings that language is meant to convey are now found only where language falters- in the silences and intervals, in the places where we are at a loss for words, in facial expressions and paces of breathing.
The act of translation from expression to language – the task of the translator – is then to transfer the heart of language, the mark of things, from one language to the next; one must convey that layer of meaning that is beyond the literal, beyond content. One must impart that meaning within the form and structure of language . The contrast between languages is even more overt in all those experiences that elude verbal communication- in those spaces between things, in the implied and even secret. The interrelations between a language and its non-verbal elements is that layer of communication that cannot be translated from one language to the next and for which one must try to find equivalent counterparts so that hidden meanings are not lost in the process.
Paul Ricœur’s ‘On Translation’ offers a different approach. He portrays the translator as someone who must accomplish his work by abandoning the fantasy of the language of Eden, of a universal tongue. The translator performs a work of remembering, where he duplicates a reality that is unavailable but still exists in perception as a discrete object. This remembering involves effort and like the translation itself, it is flawed, and so begins the translator’s mourning. The translator acknowledges that he may never produce a perfect counterpart, that he must surrender the perfect translation. This space between source text and translation which holds an inkling of universality, this very place that must be discarded- this is the rift between content and structure that provides non-verbal significance; this is the avenue for interpretation and reprieve, the place that holds more meanings free of cultural constraints. The artwork in this exhibition examines this space in different ways.
Adriana Garcia Galan (Colombia) deals in the political power of words and language. In her work “Government Program” there are two beat boxers reciting speeches of the two French presidential candidates: Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy. Coming from the hip hop scene, beatboxing holds to the tradition of dealing in social and political questions. By inserting a rhythm and a beat, Garcia Galan undermines the content of the two candidate’s speeches. Her use of music, facial expressions, and body language give power to form over content and transform it into a more conceptual, more universal language. This merge of content, belonging to the political establishment, with form, belonging to political protest, questions the significance given to political propaganda and its influence, and it implies that the political propaganda of today is merely form hollow of content.
The starting point for “Approach” by Eva Koch (Denmark) is Dante’s The Divine Comedy, written in the 14th century. Koch uses the third part, “Paradise”. In these verses Dante is led by Beatrice into the divine light of Paradise where he sees beauty and perfection that cannot be described in words and he realizes that any attempt at description would be lacking because human memory and human language are just fragments of the divine language. In Koch’s work one sees an assembly of people using sign language and hears a resounding voice reciting text. The signing and the voice quote Dante as he asks for the gift of remembering and the ability to give words to the experience he has undergone in Paradise. Koch holds the viewer in the space between the spoken and the heard, the heard and the seen. She allows us to compare the meaning within words and the meaning within form and presents an ongoing simultaneous translation of a text that speaks of the constraints of language. This work of translation from one language to the next allows for varied interpretations and makes language as elusive as the very experience Dante describes in the Divine Comedy.
In the work “The Whisper Heard” Imogen Stidworthy (UK) presents Severin Domela, aged three, who is in the process of learning to speak, and Tony O’Donnell who has aphasia, a condition following a stroke that affects the language faculty of the brain. Stidworthy recites a text for both of them and they are asked to repeat it. O’Donnell voices his thoughts while trying to give meaning to the words he hears. He can understand the meaning of the story but not the individual semantic expressions. As he listens he translates the text and finds new words for this meaning. Domela repeats what he hears and because he is in the process of learning he can engage with whatever linguistic meaning he can grasp and sometimes also the form or sound of the language. For both of them language is not necessarily connected to content, but rather to form and sound, to Stidworthy’s facial expressions and voice.
The text Stidworthy recites to O’Donnell and Domela is an excerpt from Jules Vernes’ ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, the story of a hero, Axel, who goes on an adventure with his uncle, a scientist, into the heart of the earth. In the chapter that Stidworthy recites Axel has just woken from unconsciousness and he must now navigate a path up and out of a labyrinth of underground tunnels. He loses contact with the outside world and no longer trusts his senses. He hears his uncle calling out to him but eventfully loses his way entirely. In ‘The Whisper Heard’ language loses its ability to determine meaning. Language is disassembled into sounds and voices through O’Donnell and Domela’s translation and imitation, as they emphasize the gap between it and the world it describes. It becomes a source of uncertainty because of the process it undergoes with each of the participants. ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ also shows how the uncle’s voice, the voice of authority and knowledge, loses its ability to describe the world and how Axel must rely on his own powers to translate what he sees and give it meaning.
Marcus Coates (UK), along with Geoff Sample (birdsong expert and wildlife sound recordist) used fourteen microphones to record birds in their natural habitats for two weeks. Each song was slowed down up to 16 times from the original recording speed. Human participants were then asked to listen and mimic the birdsong while being taped. Then the human recording was speeded back up to its original recording speed and thus human voices are transformed into birdsong. This is how ‘Dawn Chorus’ was created in a process of technological dismantling and reconstruction. Besides the similarities between human and bird voices, there are also similarities of behavior and body language. In order to emulate the sound and melody of birdsong Coates and Sample needed to slow it down, to warp it into human range, in order to take it apart and build it back up again. The translation at work here is purely technical and has no interest with content.
Artur Zmijewski’s (Poland) work is the second part of a project called “Singing Lessons”, created with the help of deaf teens. It was recorded in 2002 in the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig where Bach spent so many years and where he is also buried. Deaf or very hearing impaired boys were asked to sing Bach cantata 147: ‘Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben’. It includes a text asking Jesus to hear their voice as part of their Christian confession. Similar to other works by Zmijewski, there is a struggle to overcome disability, to ignore it, but this attempt is doomed to fail and it is the viewer-listener who is finally asked to overcome social norms that define the boundaries of normalcy and to accept the disability. In a conversation with Sebastian Cichocki, Zmijewski describes the conditions under which people with no disabilities accept the disabled as “the terror of normality” and the disabled only get a ticket into the ‘non-disabled’ world when they try to imitate normal behavior.
The work blurs the clarity of the sung text and the failure of the singers to sing it, makes it incomprehensible, but the significance of the original work is still present in the physical effort, the real attempt to correctly sing expressed in the singer’s facial expressions and body language. Sound and image together create meaning that is impossible to express, such that lies between the original text of the cantata and a new text but understood.
In ‘Other Words’ Romi Ahituv and Orit Kruglanski (Israel) documents the reading of stories in sign language and adds its translation in subtitles (short texts written by Orit Kruglanski- ‘eleven short notes to my psychopathic lover and several other nights’). The work deals in the limitations of language as a tool for expression and hearing. It demonstrates the gap between the building blocks of vocal language- sound, the silences between the words- by presenting text simultaneously in two languages, in written Hebrew and signed Hebrew. Viewing the work is a deciphering process that operates on each axis of interpretation- between written and signed words. The translation between languages is minimal in terms of semantics and presents an almost perfect set of physical parallels for each written expression. And so the viewer must unravel meaning in that space amid words and the form that shapes them, the physical expression that represents them and the gap between them.
In all the artwork presented in the exhibition “Works in Translation” there are processes of breaking apart, of delay, of translation and transference, and finally of building that deals in the way in which language can convey content. Through this exhibition we also ask whether and how language expresses that which is impossible to express and pass on. In these artworks language is stripped to its foundations, it is broken down into notes, syllables, words- into the raw form of sound where lies the form of language, which is in itself also an avenue to communication.
In the framework of the ‘Ha’Pzura’ project we have asked Yossi Mar-Haim and Michal Naaman to exhibit the work “The Loudest Points” as a special collaborative project.
“The Loudest Points” is comprised of enlarged prints of Michal Naaman’s works done in 1977, entitled “The Bird’s Gospel” (“the fish believes in the bird”). In this collage a photograph of a bird’s head is paired with a photograph of a fish body, creating a new, hybrid image- a kind of ‘siren’. The original work is made with photographs taken from the Natural Life Encyclopedia and decadry lettering that is pasted on a plywood board painted with black acrylic (the work belongs to the Tel Aviv Museum)
The motivation for this joint effort stemmed from the artists’ disappointment that the ’siren’ is silent, that it would be possible to equip her with a voice, and so we have helped engineer a soundtrack by Yossi MarHaim. The soundtrack is broadcast by a strip of magnetic tape that travels along the enlarged body of the fish-bird image. And so the sound, as manifested in a physical object (the tape strip), passes through two loudspeakers located at both ends of the installation thus creating a recurring loop that is then heard through the two loudspeakers; the vocal repetition gives the siren her voice. The soundtrack is made up of recordings of voices of the groans and efforts expelled by first rate female tennis players (in this case, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova) during their tennis match. Their voices were digitally processed in various ways, but the work is analog in nature. It is a product of the actual friction of the tape strip and the magnetic playing pin, a technique that is no longer used as tape recorders are becoming obsolete.