In August 2014, the Teen Apprentice Program (TAP) were invited to examine the complexity of translation via the lens of history, culture, and politics. Specifically, they looked at the New Museum's Resource Center presentation Temporary Center for Translation and participated in a few exercises and discussions to better understand the ideas, projects, and artworks presented in the exhibition. To learn more about the lesson, look here.
In the below essays, Teen Apprentices Emelia K. Ho and Suzanne Tang reflect on the seemingly paradoxical nature of translation through the lens of the Center and their personal exchanges with a visiting group of youth from Inhotim, a museum and contemporary art center in Brazil.
Emelia K. Ho is a senior at the Bronx High School of Science where she founded the school's first ever film club.
Suzanne Tang is a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School and is an expert on the food landscape of New York City.
Emelia K. Ho
A translation is thought to be an expression of something in another language. To put it simply, translation is saying the same thing in a different way. Yet, this seemingly elementary act is in many ways its own art form. When explored further, translating is a meaningful and arduous task; it is something that requires not only an extensive understanding of words themselves, but also a firm grasp of the way words interact in various languages. The idea that translation is more complex than it appears to be is one that the New Museum took interest in. By launching the Temporary Center for Translation to compliment the summer 2014 exhibition “Here and Elsewhere,” the New Museum created a sanctuary for the appreciation and exploration of the ideas surrounding translation. This “mini exhibit,” curated by Taraneh Fazeli and Alicia Ritson, was a way of starting a conversation with Museum visitors about different translation practices and common themes and misconceptions that arise during the process of translating.
As part of the Museum’s Teen Apprentice Program this summer, I was lucky enough to be introduced to the Center by Fazeli herself. Our whole group gathered in the small exhibition space, and began to discuss our experiences with translation. While each of us teens had a different anecdote or personal background to share in relation to the concept of translation, we all shared one common experience: Having worked with a group of Brazilian teens from Inhotim Contemporary Art Center earlier in the summer, we each understood the difficulties of communicating across language barriers.
This exchange with the Brazilian teens helped us relate to the first piece we examined in the Center, a video by Érik Bullot called Faux Amis [False Friends]. Faux Amis focused on words that sounded or looked similar but had different meanings in French and English. Misunderstanding, confusion, and jumbled translation had all occurred during our interactions with the Inhotim youth group, so in watching Faux Amis I connected with the concept of simple miscommunications. While small inaccuracies may generally be considered unimportant, misusing pairs of words that only appear to be similar can completely deplete the value of a thought, phrase, or sentence that is trying to be relayed or translated.
This idea of losing the significance of words, especially in text, was highlighted further in “A Grammar of Redaction,” a project developed by writer Joshua Craze from redacted military documents from the “War on Terror.” We analyzed different types of redaction that were made before the documents were released to the public, which Craze named as Hidden City, Subjects without Objects, and Actions without Words. Ultimately, it was clear that by taking out key subjects, locations, and actions, the texts lost their meaning and no longer served their purpose to inform the public. We then all proceeded to do an activity that helped us better understand the transformation that takes place when words and phrases are blacked out. Working with an excerpt from Marcia Tucker’s memoir, we each chose a category and applied its rules, crossing out text until some documents were left with only a few remaining words. It was interesting to consider this act as its own form of translation; it left me questioning what criteria there is, if any, that a process of altering a body of work must meet to qualify as a “translation.”
Overall, the pieces we viewed and discussed were eye-opening in that they raised an important point about how undefined translation truly is. Not only is this shown through the many conventional and unconventional tactics of translating, but it may also be interpreted to signify how much grey area exists in the realm of translation. While there is indisputable value in translation that it allows us to explore the unknown and connect with people and places to facilitate cultural and intellectual exchange, it is important to question how much is lost in the process. To what extent does a statement or text retain its original message and intention after it is translated, and how does one evaluate the quality of a translation without being able to speak multiple languages? These are crucial points to consider—but at the same time, if translation is to be thought of as an art, there is value to the idea that there can be diverse interpretations.
There are so many languages spoken in the world and translating between them can be difficult. Sometimes words from different languages that look similar might not have the same meaning. At other times, words are translated correctly by definition but not by context. That is to say, not everything can be translated; each language has its own idioms and phrases that are specific to it. The translated version may get a similar point across, but its effect won’t be identical to the original.
During the lesson around the Temporary Center for Translation, the Teen Apprentices watched Érik Bullot’s Faux Amis [False Friends], a video about pairs of words in English and French that look similar but have different meanings. We then shared stories about times when we have been fooled by “false friends.” My very first experience with them was in my middle school French class—the word pain in French means bread, not suffering and discomfort like it means in English. It made me realize how tricky and complex language really is.
Through an exercise based on writer Joshua Craze’s “A Grammar of Redaction,” we learned about the three types of redaction that he had organized: Subjects without Objects (the “who” is taken out), Actions without Words (verbs without nouns), and Hidden City (no definitive location). Each approach takes away an essential part of a story (the subjects, actions, or geographical setting), which changes, and perhaps deprives the initial meaning and opens it up to one’s imagination. In the activity that followed, we took a passage from New Museum’s founding Director Marcia Tucker’s memoir and applied one of the forms of redaction to black out text. I chose to apply Hidden City because the passage was very descriptive and consisted of a lot of details about the setting so it seemed like the obvious choice. These details were essential to understanding this particular passage so by using Hidden City it’d throw off the reader from its intended purpose. Prior to the activity, we had looked at some examples of documents the government had redacted and most of them had a lot of blacked out text. The message of the documents couldn’t be distinguished anymore, so I thought I’d do the same with this passage. After crossing out every part that mentioned Miami or Florida, I read through the passage again and decided to get rid of anything associated with a tropical climate. My intention was to eliminate anything that could remotely hint at a geographical location. In the end, my redaction piece became a bunch of subjects with actions in a place that couldn’t be distinguished. Because of this, the text no longer had any meaning; the remaining text didn’t make any logical sense when put together. The author’s original intendment had been completely obliterated which is the whole objective of redaction. Redaction is primarily used to cover up the crucial information needed to understanding the text: the subjects, actions, or setting. Without these the reader can’t really put together exactly what happened in the passage. It goes to show that the meaning of something can be manipulated simply by taking fundamental parts out of it.
It was interesting to see how different everybody’s pieces were even between those who used the same method. Some people blacked out so much of the passage that it became a whole other story, and some barely changed it. Each person had their own idea of how they wanted to apply redaction. Some intended to throw off the reader completely and some wanted to try to preserve the original meaning of the passage. With the Hidden City redacted pieces, some only blacked out any suggestion of Florida because that was the initial idea that came to everybody’s mind, but that still maintained a setting. My understanding of Hidden City and redaction was to erase any mention of a setting and distort the reader’s understanding of the text. Like translating between languages, redacting texts is particular to the individual doing it. A passage about visiting Miami with the family can easily be turned into a space moon adventure.