My prize-winning failure in #translation

If you follow this blog (thank you) you may recall that the last blog ended with us playing with understanding acts of translation….

Here are some more thoughts on this that should eventually bring us back to art and a/r/tography (or another exciting descriptor for what I do- scholartistry)….

We’re all familiar with the notion that there’s always something lost in translation (yes, thank you Scarlett). Indeed, to believe that a perfect translation is possible we would have to believe that exact correspondences could always be found between two different languages (which operate to encode different cultures, which in turn are different ways of being -in-the-world). In short that two human beings were capable of experiencing exactly the same thing. Direct correspondence is pretty unlikely then (even between two speakers of the same language). The best translation can hope for is not to be perfect, true, direct or accurate but to be successful. But what would make an act of translation successful?

Lately I’ve been pondering the notion that in order to be successful a translation must attempt to re-produce what Barthes called the zero degree (the after-feeling/ resonance) of the source text in the target text, so that the new text can occupy a similar place in the social relations of users of language Y as it did to users of language X. I’m not making a claim here that any translation can achieve this, merely that this is the holy grail of translation, the translator’s Mission Impossible.

It’s important to claim that this can only be an attempt, because despite any translation being similarly intended to the original it must inevitably be differently received.

This gap between intention and reception is a tricky expanse to bridge between any language combination but, I contend, it is particularly difficult when working between a sign(ed) and a written language. (If you want to dangerously stretch the metaphor, what you’re going to end up with is less the Clifton Suspension Bridge and more a rickety and rotten rope bridge).

Words on paper ≠ Signs in space. This may be because a large part of the semiotics of any sign language is not contained within the word (Sign). Since sign languages are visual, gestural and spatial (i.e. operate in 3 dimensions ) they do not need to restrict themselves in this way and can make use of all these semiotic dimensions – and in my book, this accounts for the failure of structuralist linguistic approaches to adequately describe sign languages, but perhaps more on this in a later blog.

Sign language poetry, for example, occupies 3-dimensional space and because of the real-world presence of the poet and viewer, they already and inescapably begin to map their spatial and social relations in the act of telling and receiving. This is not the same set of relations commonly found between printed-word poets and their readers.

This extremity of difference between the materialities (Kress) of the written word poem and the Sign poem [even when the Sign poem is recorded on video]  means that the act of translation can no longer be purely linguistic (and here I’m necessarily adopting a post-structuralist stance- in opposition to Saussurian thought- subsuming linguistics into semiotics). To reduce Sign poetry to a written translation is to attribute a false ‘presence’ (Derrida’s false aura of certainty) to the written, which brings us face-to-face with logocentrism and issues of différance.

To capture the movement of the poem, for example, or its directionality in space, a successful translation must surely co-opt broader semiological practices of interpretation to avoid being overly reductive.

e. e. cummings was a pioneer in this regard; stretching the (re)presentational potential of the written form with his painterly eye (he practiced as a visual artist all his adult life).Taking my cue from him, I thought I’d try pushing the potential of the written word to translate Joanna Mesch’s (sign language) poem ‘Ocean’.

You can view Joanna’s poem here:

To see the InsideArts-Faber prize-winning result of my endeavours, click on this link:Finalised translation

Although this translation may have won the prize (=1st alongside William Reed, who was working between written German and written English), it can only fail to adequately re-present the original for the reasons outlined above. This translation can (I think) only work in conjunction with the original, providing a (partial) key to the source text (i.e. when you read the translation, then watch the original you may begin to access what is going on there). But the translation does not stand alone in the way the original does, and therefore cannot hope to re-produce the zero degree of the original, nor its social relations. We still find ourselves fettered by logocentrism.

As Wittgenstein might argue, we need a different meta-language here. This is where a/r/tography comes back in.

e.e.cummings was on the right lines. His visual sensibilities ensured his poems explored what we might now term the concrete-visual continuum. We just need to be able to take this further (to the furthest reaches of visual poetry?).

If we consider that sign language poetry itself acts as a kind of meta-epistemic to the boundaries of both poetry and visual art, then its translation requires some other, non-logocentric, intermedia-ry (intermedia in the Fluxus sense, combined with the function of intermediary or go-between).

Perhaps the bridging material that is required to successfully translate sign language poetry is visual art after all…..


About nanafroufrou

Nana is currently developing two strands of creative practice; translation art ,and [w]righting. View all posts by nanafroufrou

4 responses to “My prize-winning failure in #translation

  • Fliss Watts

    and perhaps it has to be 3d visual art – occupying the same space as the viewer rather than creating an inaccessible imaginary 3rd dimension beyond the picture plane?

    • nanafroufrou

      I’ve been pondering that, but I’m not sure I agree. I’m coming to think it’s less about a direct reproduction of the form than the visual and physically embodied processes of realising the form….In this sense painting fits the bill despite being 2D because -although one might argue the physical processes of committing to canvas are the same as those of committing to paper, the resources available (from the realm of visual imagery/ symbol) are far greater than in the restricted code of writing. So I think although maybe 3D could be more successful because it ticks 3 boxes (embodiment, space, visual resources), 2D art still carries advantages over translation into written form…Hmmm…

  • stephanie jo kent (@stephjoke)

    Dear Pondering Nanafroufrou,

    Thank you for introducing me to Barthes’ zero degree, and to your sense of how this concept might be a guide for successful translation, by focusing on the after-feeling/resonance such that the new text can “occupy a similar place in the social relations of language Y as it did to users of language X.”

    You’ll have to fill me in on the extent to which Barthes applied his concept of the zero degree to translation per se, and how much this is your borrowing and application. What captures my attention is a question raised by Bakhtin about historical inversion. I’m just wondering if the whole profession hasn’t been a bit off the mark by even pretending we can create such a replication? Not only are the social relations inherently different (hence how could they possibly receive any text in the same way as any other audience/viewer?), but the delivery literally occurs in a different time. Even if it is a simultaneous interpretation the timing – its pace, rhythm, phenomenology – is altered.

    But Bakhtin is talking about something else entirely – the idea of a chronotope. Our talking – be it speech or sign – invokes a relationship with time. Implicitly, subconsciously, and probably beyond controllable grasp even when we seek to engage it consciously. It is this relationship that is chronotopic, and what Bakhtin says is often reversed or transposed in artistic endeavors. Specifically, as translated by Michael Holquist, Bakhtin says:

    “…a thing that could and in fact must only be realized exclusively in the future is here portrayed as something out of the past, a thing that is in no sense part of the past’s reality, but a thing that that is in its essence a purpose, an obligation” (1981: 147).”

    Now (I’d love to thrash this thoroughly!), it seems to me that in regard to language, the “thing” is meaning. As translators and interpreters we have been trained to chase “the” meaning that was (supposedly, ideally, mythically) created/conveyed in a particular utterance, passage, poem and FIXED there to be referred to over and over again. But (it seems to me) this keeps us (interpreters/translators) always looking to the past for something that was probably never quite so set in stone to begin with.

    • nanafroufrou

      Hi Steph,
      Now that IS thought provoking, isn’t it?
      First I should say that I haven’t come across any literature applying Barthes’ notion to translation per se, though I haven’t looked. Off the top of my head I’d be surprised if someone like Venuti hasn’t referenced it somewhere.
      Your introduction of the Bakhtin is fascinating. My initial reactions are that it is- of course, now its revealed- precisely this chronotopia that permits the false notion that there is a single meaning ( at once both fixed and transcendent of time). I wonder whether this is only sustained by the simultaneous assumption of time as linear? (Is this what Bakhtin is describing?).
      But I then started to wonder about this in relation to visual arts and quickly felt that the visual arts have to a greater extent freed themselves from that notion of chronotopia- that for example we don’t need to understand the male nude of the Renaissance as challenging our relationship to God in order to appreciate them. We recognise that their ‘meaning’ is an act of co-creation between artist and viewer that is susceptible to time (that this is an added ingredient that not only affects but enhances our ‘reading’).
      This is not necessarily afforded to our understanding of (written) language. This has consequences for translation (and confirms the difference I was seeking to illustrate in my post).
      I’m left wondering about the damage done to language as a ‘form’ by its co-option by the State and religion (the ten commandments, the word of law etc), in contrast to the more frivolously viewed ‘art’. Interesting what social function adds and takes away, huh?

      Thanks for the post. Very stimulating. Keep ’em coming….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

sheila sea

like thalassic velvet

Sage Brice

Socially and environmentally engaged art - developing collaborative approaches for a changeable world.


Just another site

DoubleU = W


Elan Mudrow



A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.

Keep trying

Just another weblog

Globe Drifting

Global issues, travel, photography & fashion. Drifting across the globe; the world is my oyster, my oyster through a lens.

Investigate | Create

involve, surprise, enthuse


visual & sound treasures

%d bloggers like this: