Lesson: Translation: Devoted but not always faithful rewrites

  • Grade Level: High School (10-12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Creative Writing, Film and Video, and Visual Arts
  • Cover Image: Érik Bullot, Faux Amis, 2012. Digital video, color, sound; 14:33 min. Courtesy the artistCover Image: Érik Bullot, Faux Amis, 2012. Digital video, color, sound; 14:33 min. Courtesy the artist
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”
  • Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”Redaction Exercise based on Craze’s “Grammar”

INTRODUCTION

 

Lesson generated by Taraneh Fazeli, Education Associate, Chaeeun Lee, Education Intern, and Alicia Ritson, Research Fellow, in consultation with G-class educators Hanna Exel and Sasha Wortzel

The “Temporary Center for Translation,” an exhibition in the Resource Center of the New Museum from July 16 to October 19, 2014, is dedicated to the exploration and facilitation of discourse surrounding the seemingly paradoxical nature of translation—that, while it is impossible to be completely faithful to an original work, communication often requires the creation of likenesses across systems of meaning. While serving as an active space for translation of select artistic and philosophical texts throughout its duration, the Center also presents artworks and documents that make visible the continuous interplay between languages, cultures, and individual authors that underlies any event of translation. Recognizing that this process is generative in that it requires numerous priorities and positions to be negotiated, the Center provides the opportunity for devoted—though, in some cases, not so faithful—rewrites. In this lesson, based on ideas and projects in the Center, students will be guided to reconsider a notion of translation that is based on drawing equivalences, and explore the concept in its complexity via the lens of personal experience, history, culture, and politics. 

The lesson is based around two of the artworks presented in the Center. The first is Érik Bullot’s Faux Amis [False Friends] (2012), a fourteen minute video in English and French that explores the concept of “false friends,” or pairs of words in two languages that look similar but have different meanings. After watching an excerpt of the video, students will reflect on how similar yet distinct aspects of two languages may affect communication and how histories of national and cultural encounters have influenced the development of language systems.

Writer Joshua Craze’s Grammar of Redaction (2010-ongoing) is a system of rules he has been developing from visual and syntactic elements of redaction in declassified military documents, which outlines the ways in which certain information is lost/distorted as the documents become available to the public. Through an exercise of redacting parts of a source text according to Craze’s categorization, students will think critically about the relationship between power and language, as well as question the idea that accountability happens through transparency of information. It will also bring into focus the ideas of language and translation in a broader sense, i.e. how language functions in the transference of information from one state into another. 

OBJECTIVES

  • Students will explore the concept of translation. Going beyond the traditional notion of it as simply drawing equivalences between systems of meaning (e.g. written and spoken languages), students will have conversations around how to communicate across difference, and how something new is created in process of translation when clear equivalences are not possible. 
  • Students will draw from their personal experience—whether it be studying other languages or attempting to communicate across languages—to investigate various ways of developing language comprehension (e.g. the difference between learning via reading or writing, speaking and listening, etc.). Students can also discuss how migration, cultural difference, and identity have influenced their own language knowledge and use.
  • Students will think about particular similarities and differences between linguistic languages (e.g. true friends/cognates, false friends/cognates) and how they may help or complicate communication.
  • Students will think about how languages have a history, i.e., how they continually change and are affected by global migration, conflict, and cultural exchange. 
  • Students will think about what language is: how it is a system of meaning that allows one to communicate with others; more specifically, how words function within a given grammar.
  • Students will better understand elements of grammar by doing an exercise that allows them to investigate how language functions with parts removed.
  • Students will investigate spatial elements of language by working with text on printed page in the exercise.
  • Students will consider how language can help serve as historical document.
  • Students will consider the role of archives and documents in creating history, particularly the role of public documents as a way for citizens to monitor the government. Students will investigate concepts of transparency and accountability in government, particularly in representational democracy.

VOCABULARY

Aesthetics refers to a set of principles or philosophical ideas about beauty or art. In a broader sense, the word is used to indicate the artistic or beautiful qualities of something.
Archive is a term meant to describe a collection of historical documents, or the physical place in which they are collected. For example, New Museum’s archive contains images, audio and video recordings, and publications related to exhibitions and events that took place at the Museum. They are currently housed in a physical space next door to the museum; some documents are also digitally archived on our Digital Archive.
“True friends” [Vrais amis] are words that are identical across particular languages, not only in looks and/or sound, but also in meaning. Examples of “true friends” between French and English include “intelligence,” “instinct,” “situation,” “absent,” and “accident,” which appear and mean exactly the same in both languages, and other pairs such as “diplomacy/diplomatie,” “adventure/aventure,” “address/adresse,” whose looks have only changed ever so slightly.
“False friends” [Faux amis] are words that look or sound the same in two different languages but have different meanings. Examples, again between French and English, are: “actually/actuellement,” “surname/surnom,” and “raisin/raisin.” Because these pairs look the same but mean something different, they are called “false friends”: they give the illusion of being the same when they’re actually not.
Freedom of Information Act is a US federal law that gives citizens the right to access information from the government. It is based on the assumption that citizens should be able to keep an eye on how government runs, i.e., that the accountability of the government is ensured through transparency.
Grammar is the rules for using any given language. It dictates how words, clauses and phrases are put together. In English, grammar is based on eight parts of speech: the verb, the noun, the adjective, the pronoun, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction, and the interjection.
Interrogation usually takes place in police or military situations, when the officer questions the detainee to extract a confession or useful information. While regulations apply to guide the use of interrogation methods, the often inhumane treatment of the detainee during interrogation processes continues to be the subject of controversy.
Object in a sentence is an entity that is acted upon by the subject. E.g. in the sentence “Mackenzie put the headphones on,” “headphones” is the object.
Public archive is often organized around the principle of preserving materials for historical purposes and keeping them accessible to all. 
Redaction is the obscuring of parts of a text, often by blocking words out with black. Usually this is done for legal privacy reasons/protections. For example, a witness’s name might be removed from a transcribed testimony in a court case before making the document available to the public.
Subject in a sentence is an entity performing an action or being described. E.g. in the sentence “Mackenzie put the headphones on,” “Mackenzie” is the subject.
Translation changes writing or speech from one language into another. The dual ideals that govern the process of translation are “fidelity” (being faithful to the source text) and “transparency” (to be read natural in the target language), which are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but are often hard to reconcile. 
“War on Terror” is an international military campaign by the US government after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on NYC’s World Trade towers to try and eliminate militant groups such as Al-Queda. In this “war,” the US government has utilized interrogation techniques that have been perceived by some, including human rights groups, to be questionable and unnecessarily violent.

MATERIALS

  • Visit to the “Temporary Center for Translation” (optional)
  • Érik Bullot’s 14 min video Faux Amis [False Friends], 2012. Available on Vimeo. → 
  • Joshua Craze’s A Grammar of Redaction, 2010-ongoing. Available to download on Craze’s website here.  
  • Black markers/sharpies
  • Projector 
  • PowerPoint presentation describing sections in Craze’s “Aesthetics of Redaction,” with sample documents from archive and related terms. Available to download here. 
  • One-page printout (8 ½ x 11”) from a source text for each student
  • In the original lesson, an excerpt was taken from A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the Art World [Oakland: University of California Press, 2010] by Marcia Tucker, the New Museum’s founding Director. When choosing a source text to use in this exercise, it would ideally be: Narrative and descriptive of things happening between people, of people using objects, and occurring in a clear location, so that the grammar sections can be implemented. It should also be quickly digestible (i.e. not heavily theoretical). Ideally, it should be tied to the context students are working in, a text they’ve worked with previously, and/or an official document.

LESSON STRATEGY

 

PART 1: Ideas from the “Temporary Center for Translation” Approx. 30 min 

Goal:

  • Have students begin to think about what translation has meant historically and to them personally.
  • Guide students to consider how they’ve personally come to their own language skills.
  • Raise questions about how migration, cultural difference, and identity may influence language use. 

Opening discussion

Students can personalize the issue of translation through sharing stories/family background in relation to their foreign language skills. Teachers can model this by sharing stories about their own language skills and how they learned them (via family, school, cultural immersion, writing or speaking, etc.). Relevant issues of ancestry and immigration can also be discussed. 

Questions might include:

  • How can family members raised in different cultural backgrounds learn to communicate with one another? Is there a particular language used at home? Is there a specific way that it is used? Do you first communicate in other ways when you don’t have a shared language—by pointing to objects or using gesture—and then come to know the spoken word?
  • How does immigration affect the language s/he chooses to use, either voluntarily or involuntarily? What are some reasons people may want to keep their native tongue when immigrating, even if it is only spoken in the home (e.g. cultural heritage)? What are some possible reasons that might cause people to choose not to use their native language or learn that of their parents (e.g. pressure to assimilate)?
  • What are possible methods/sources of learning a foreign language and how do they differ depending on different circumstances? Discuss how language was often taught via writing exercises, but now spoken practice and cultural immersion is emphasized.

Walkthrough the “Temporary Center for Translation” [optional]

In discussing the projects within the Center and the methods being used to translate various texts by the translators-in-residence, the teacher can introduce some historical and contemporary ideas around translation.

Questions might include:

  • What is translation? Why is it important and what roles has it played historically and in contemporary society? 
  • What are some of the difficulties we face in translation? 
  • How has technology affected the way we communicate across languages?

 

 

PART 2: Watch Bullot’s Faux Amis [False Friends] Approx. 20 min

Goal: 

  • Open up a conversation around communication across difference; in particular, how something new is created in process of translation when clear equivalences are not available.
  • Have students think about how languages have a history—how they continually change and are affected by global migration, conflict, cultural exchange.

Introduce Faux Amis [False Friends] 

About the work

- 14 min video by French filmmaker Érik Bullot
- Soundtrack in English with French subtitles and English intertitles
- Three texts read within: Panopticon (2011) by Steve McCaffery (1984); Trompe-l’oeil (1978) by Georges Perec; and Vacation by Karen Mac Cormack

What are “false friends”?

- Pairs of words in two different languages that look/sound the same, but have different meanings e.g. actually/acutellement (“currently”), surname/surnom (“nickname”), raisin/raisin (“grapes”).
- In looking at a number of different forms of writing that refer to, or are made up of “false friends,” Bullot’s video explores the visual, semantic, and grammatical ambiguities that arise from the similar yet distinct aspects of English and French. 

Screening of video excerpt

Discuss formal elements of video

Questions might include:

  • How does the particular soundtrack/setting/actors influence the way we experience the work? What do they connote? Why is this filmed this way?
  • Is this video reminiscent of videos you may have seen previously, perhaps in an educational setting? 

Share students’ own experiences of communicating with others using a foreign language 

Questions might include:

  • What are some possible ways of communicating with speakers of languages you do not know? Technology, gesture, and facial expression can all be cited.
  • How can similarities between languages help/complicate communication across languages?
  • What are examples of "true friends" or "false friends" that have come across in your own experience of communicating with foreign language speakers?
  • What happens when there is no exact equivalence to translate a word/phrase?

Talk about the history of languages that share common or similar words 

e.g. influence of colonialism and governance: 

While both English and French belong to the Indo-European language family, English originates from Germanic dialects spoken by German settlers in Britain (Angles, Jutes, and Saxons) whereas French derives from Latin language spoken in the Roman Empire. Following the Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, however, English was put under a heavy influence of French language. French displaced Old English as the language of the ruling class for the next two hundred years, during which about ten thousand French words were adopted into English. 

 

 

PART 3: Language: Communication and Transparency: Grammar of Redaction Exercise Approx. 45 min

Goal: 

  • Understand elements of grammar by seeing how language functions with parts removed.
  • Investigate spatial elements of language by working with text on a printed page.
  • Raise questions about how language can help serve as historical document.

 

Part A: Introduce Craze’s “Aesthetics of Redaction” Approx. 15 min

[A PowerPoint presentation describing sections in Craze’s “Aesthetics of Redaction,” with sample documents from his archive and related terms is available to download here. →]

Introduce “Aesthetics of Redaction”

- Who is Joshua Craze? Writer Joshua Craze has been developing A Grammar of Redaction from declassified United States military documents in relation to his forthcoming novel Redacted Mind.
- How did the project start? He started to search archives of US official government records for clues to the disappeared/suspected terrorists in “War on Terror.” The archive of documents begins from around 2006.

Definition of keywords: aesthetics, archive, grammar, public archive, redaction, and “War on Terror” 

In addition to giving definitions using PowerPoint, ask students about their experiences with each concept and expand on the conversation drawing on specific examples (e.g. redaction in court cases with protected witnesses is often witnessed via police procedural dramas on television). Based on the definitions, teacher can ask students to parse what an “Aesthetics of Redaction” might mean.

In relation to the archive that Craze works with, it is important to note that the need for secrecy or removal of information in public documents works against the idea of transparency in a representational democracy. This is why it is often understood as potential abuse of power, or something “wrong” having been covered up. Talk about concepts of accountability and transparency in government.

Describe three categories from Craze’s “Grammar”

1. The Hidden City

These types of redactions are geographical: the part of a sentence containing a location for activity is obscured, thereby becoming a “black site” in the text. A black site is the term used in the “War on Terror” for a location where things that may fall outside of law can happen—like the interrogations of suspected terrorists at secret prisons. In becoming secretive, the activities that happen there cannot be monitored by the public eye.

In the first document, “HC1,” the text details how suspected Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubydah “was transported to a ‘black site,’ a secret CIA prison facility.” After this, the text detailing this location is removed. 

Craze also finds examples of these disappearing locations in more mundane (everyday), potentially-less violent situations, such as when politicians meet each other. In “HC5” John Yoo (the then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General) informs someone by email: “let’s plan on going over [to the White House] at 3.30 to see some other folks about the bad things opinion.” The meeting details about the interrogation program are then redacted. A reader is left to wonder what “the bad things opinion” is.

In this archive, redactions create two withdrawn sites: the White House, where the political decisions about the interrogation program are made, and the interrogation rooms at the black sites, where these decisions have an effect. Through these examples, we see that when the text describing locations is withdrawn, we also don’t have the best understanding of what exactly transpired there. 

2. Subjects without Objects

These are redactions of proper nouns that identify individuals. We can see that a subject (person) is still present in these texts, but we can’t understand them as a particular person. They are not any one individual, but in some senses, a very “general” idea of a person.

Usually objects are the parts of a sentence that a subject acts upon. For this category, Craze is thinking of a specific subject as being a kind of object; he wants us to think about what happens to a subject when you take away their objectness, or their ability to be uniquely identified.

Subjectivity (or the conditions of being a subject) changes once a name is redacted: One’s accountability or responsibility diminishes; there is no way to summarize, map, or predict any individual’s behavior; and the person becomes more representative of an idea, a character trope, or an institution than a specific human being. The redacted subjects can almost be interchangeable.

It’s important to notice that not all proper nouns are redacted, but only some. In document S1, for instance, we can see that any information that might reveal the identity of interrogators is removed, whereas the names of the detainees are present. We could ask why some people’s identities are obscured, and others not. 

Questions may include:

  • How does this removal of individual subjectivity serve as a necessary protection? In a court record, for instance, can a witness’ name be rightfully removed before it is made public to ensure his/her privacy? How about the identities of interrogators who exercised violence to fulfill their role as part of a larger organization? Is it necessary to remove their individuality, or does this facilitate the perpetration of excessive violence? 
  • Who has the authority to decide whose identities are obscured? How does it reflect power relations? How does it serve the interest of the government, interest groups, or the public? 
  • Can you find examples in pop culture where the faces or names of certain party or individual are obscured? What do those situations tell us about the importance of individuality or identifiability of an individual in various circumstances? 

In document S5, the names of both detainees and their military abusers are redacted; someone has identified the names redacted with special codenames. These codes are not official codes used by the military, so there is still no way for us, or Craze, to find out who they are. It’s still a very top secret code that is being used.

3. Actions without Words

These redactions leave us with information only about what activity took place. How, where, and who is largely made invisible, so it becomes impossible to determine the original context of the action. (The action is decontextualized.)

The examples Craze gives are two pages of a CIA report on the raid, capture, and waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah. The remaining words in A7 (page 6) (“Zubaydah,” “subjected to,” “the water board.”) only reveal that an activity of waterboarding took place, but not exactly in which place, or who did it, since the seemingly connected sentence (which is not exactly a full sentence) is made from disconnected words in two or more sentences. Similarly, page 8 only tells us that some unknown people briefed government officials (HPSCI Chairman and Ranking Minority Member).

The pairing of two documents here draws attention to the two types of action that are distinct yet closely related. Page 6 implies an actual act of violence taking place, whereas page 8 points to the bureaucratic processes that may lead to/follow such a violent act.

Being heavily redacted, these examples actively involve the reader to make sense of the fragmented information. They also demonstrate how separate words in two or more sentences can be rendered as a single sentence through redaction, connecting potentially unrelated information. This misinformation, or the lack of information due to the removal of contextual information, often obscures the problematic and complex nature of the particular action. Craze’s examples show how this type of redactions generates new stories that are often distorted from the original.

 

Part B: Hands-on Activity Approx. 30 min

Introduce text students will use

We used page 4 of A Short Life of Trouble: Forty Years in the Art World by the New Museum’s founding Director Marcia Tucker. Whatever the choice of text, note that it is a different type than the one Craze used. Although not an official document, this memoir can be considered as a kind of historical document, as it is meant as a record of the history of the New Museum.

Students will choose one out of the three categories they are most interested in and implement it on a photocopied text. Ask them read the text first and think about its content before implementing the redaction category. This way, students can think about what they are doing to the meaning communicated in the original text via the process of redaction.

Partner share Approx. 10 min

Partner each student with another; ask them to swap texts and read the other student’s. Ask them to explain to each other which section they implemented, what kind of process they went through, and what particular goal they had in mind when transforming the text. They can also discuss what questions came up for them during the exercise.

Group reflections on A Grammar of Redaction Approx. 10 min

Come back into a large group and cluster everyone’s exercises by section heading. Start by discussing the original content of the text, and compare different ways that the same category of redaction was applied. Ask students to read theirs aloud, and to reflect on the process.

Note: Sample exercises from the 2014 Teen Apprentice Program can be viewed on the side bar of this page.

Questions may include:

  • In applying section rational, were you trying to take away/dramatically revise the original meaning or retain as much as possible?
  • How does your redaction exemplify potential loss or distortion of meaning?
  • How will your choices of removal of information affect the reader? 
  • What happened to how the way words are laid out on the space of the page and how we normally read them?

Closing questions and reflections Approx. 10 min 

Questions may include:

  • How did today’s lesson make you think differently about translation? 
  • What are aspects of language, art, politics, history, popular culture, etc. that you found particularly interesting today?

EXTENDING THE LESSON

Reflection Papers

Students can write a reflective journal text expanding on their experience of working on the redaction exercise. Ask students to reflect on the exercise and then expand on their own thoughts about translation and its usefulness. 

Prompts may include:

  • What was each category of redaction about? How did each remove information? What was lost or gained in the removal?
  • Which particular category did you choose to apply? What were you aiming for while doing the exercise? Did you intend to alter the meaning of the text, or retain as much as possible? Why?
  • How was your result similar or different from others? If you found differences among the results in a same category, what do you think was the reason for this? Does it say anything about the nature of translation?
  • How did your thoughts about the purpose of official document or public archives change, if at all? 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

By comparing languages with similar characteristics, linguists have been able to reconstruct, to varying degrees, about fifty “proto-languages,” a term used for the latest common ancestor of a group of languages. Yet the search for the origin of human language has always been a daunting task for linguists, since hardly any trace can be found of the languages spoken before the writing system was invented. Read more about the comparative method employed by linguists and the challenges they face in “Do All Languages Derive from a Single Common Ancestor,” by Gretchen McCulloch on Slate here.  

One of the most significant changes from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language to the Proto-Germanic (PG) language is the shift in sound, whereby the PIE sound *p, for example, became sound *f or *b in the PG. This three-part educational video on Verner’s Law and Grimm’s Law, the two sets of rules explaining the sound change, gives us a sense of how divergent languages may have evolved from a common ancestor.  

In the 1980’s, a group of Nicaraguan deaf children were brought together in the country's first school for the deaf. Without having previously learned any systematic sign language, the case study of these children who were isolated from language in early years serves as an important example in the search for the origin of language. Originally communicating across disparate, rudimentary “home signs,” when brought together, the young children began to form generalized rules, eventually developing a full-fledged sign language. Read an article by Gretchen McCulloch on Slate, “What Happens if a Child is never Exposed to Language?” with links to a PBS documentary on Nicaraguan Sign Language here.  

In Mariam Ghani’s The Trespassers (2010-11), a series of documents related to detention and interrogation operations as part of the United States’ War on Terror are simultaneously translated into Arabic and Dari. In the video, a magnifying glass “reads” the text, highlighting both the words being translated and the information that has been blacked out or omitted by the translator. As part of the “Temporary Center for Translation,” Ghani’s video raises poignant questions about the perceived neutrality of translators and translation in relation to public domain documents. Watch an excerpt here.  

Lesson Plan: Translation: Devoted but not always faithful rewrites

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