– Spring 2015

Translation’s Gradient

Marcus Verhagen

Lana Lin, Taiwan Video Club, 1999, SD video, colour, sound, 14min, still. © the artist


Many artworks today move constantly, from studio to gallery, from fair to private home, and so on, but how well they travel is an open question. How does a work made in one location speak to viewers in another? If, as some commentators maintain, innovation is rooted in local conditions and conversations, then works may suffer when shown in contexts that are remote from their places of genesis, alongside pieces that respond to other social and political circumstances and draw on different formal and discursive resources.1

In his most recent book, The Radicant (2009), Nicolas Bourriaud takes issue with the view that artworks unavoidably struggle to impose themselves in alien environments. According to Bourriaud, ‘the idea of judging each work according to the codes of its author’s local culture implies the existence of viewers who have mastered each culture’s referential field, which seems difficult to say the least’.2 He identifies this view with the identity politics of the 1980s and 90s (his ‘multiculturalism’) and a declining postmodernism, which, as he sees it, treats the cultures of diasporic communities and faraway peoples as ‘essentialist theme parks’.3 Bourriaud views a now-institutionalised multiculturalism as a constraining force that works

  1. See, for instance, Ralph Rugoff, ‘Rules of the Game’, frieze, January/February 1999, p.48: ‘But the problem … is that art isn’t always made in an international context. Local scenes … are often hothouses of groundbreaking innovation. Through shared responses to their immediate surroundings and to each other’s work, neighbouring artists can create a feedback system that intensifies their production and marks it with a specific community of concerns.’

  2. Nicolas Bourriaud, The Radicant (trans. James Gussen and Lili Porten), Berlin and New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2009, p.29.

  3. Ibid., p.34.

  4. Ibid., p.43.

  5. Sarat Maharaj, ‘Perfidious Fidelity: The Untranslatability of the Other’, in Jean Fisher (ed.), Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts, London: Kala Press in association with the Institute of International Visual Arts, 1994, p.34.

  6. George Steiner, ‘The Hermeneutic Motion’, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp.296—413.

  7. To be fair to Bourriaud, he recognises that ‘one always loses something in translation’ (N. Bourriaud, The Radicant, op. cit., p.68), but the point is never developed.

  8. Barry’s original statement reads: ‘During the exhibition I will try to communicate telepathically a work of art, the nature of which is a series of thoughts that are not applicable to language or image.’ This becomes ‘in this image the way of expression of reactions of the soul’s attempts to come close to a work of art’.

  9. Lawrence Venuti, ‘Translation, Community, Utopia’, in L. Venuti (ed.), The Translation Studies Reader, 2nd ed., New York and London: Routledge, 2000, p.485.

  10. James Elkins, Zhivka Valiavicharska and Alice Kim (ed.), Art and Globalization, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010, p.25.

  11. The voice-over captures the translator’s thoughts as follows: ‘…but he feared that in the void of a translation Cassar [the German scholar] must have concluded that what he thought to be Zen had finally presented itself. Had Sato [the translator] been there, he would have been able to translate The Master’s embarrassment as something any archer would have felt, having damaged his own equipment.’

  12. See, for example, Yamada Shōji, ‘The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery’, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, vol.28, no.1—2, 2001, pp.1—30.

  13. Edward Said, Orientalism, London and New York: Penguin, 2003, p.52 et passim.

  14. G. Steiner, ‘The Hermeneutic Motion’, op. cit., p.296.

  15. Ibid.

  16. The work is discussed at length in Pablo Lafuente, ‘For a Populist Cinema: On Hito Steyerl’s November and Lovely Andrea’, Afterall, issue 19, Autumn/Winter 2008, pp.72—79. Steyerl has herself written about translation; see H. Steyerl, ‘The Language of Things’, Transversal [online journal], available at eipcp.net/transversal/0606/steyerl/en/print (last accessed on 2 February 2014). Her concern here is not with translation as conventionally understood, but with documentary as a means of translating from what Walter Benjamin called ‘the language of things’ into the language of humans.

  17. ‘In Other’s Words’ (S. Maharaj interviewed by Daniel Birnbaum), Artforum, vol.40, no.6, February 2002, p.109.

  18. ‘Indeed, today translation may represent that “basic ethical effort” that has been mistakenly associated with recognition of the other as such.’ N. Bourriaud, The Radicant, op. cit., p.30.