Tag Archives: acts of translation

All aboard the Tory budget train…

When I was younger I made promises to my future self. Many have been left tattered by life; ‘never allow yourself to become too cynical’ has fared particularly badly.

Developments like George Osborne’s recent budget don’t help (UK, Wednesday, 8th July 2015). I can’t stop my mind returning to the image of an overcrowded train carriage. Instead of supplying more trains, passengers are asked to move further down into the carriage to accommodate more people in the limited space. It’s a risk to everyone on board, of course, but it’s the more profitable solution.

In this first fully Conservative budget since the General Election in May, Osborne led with the introduction of a new national living wage of £7.20 an hour for those over 25. There are a number of obvious and some less obvious problems with this superficially liberal sleight of hand. The first is the conundrum of just who would actually be able to ‘live’ (and where) on £7.20 an hour. And whilst Osborne estimates that 2.5 million people will benefit by some £5,000 over the coming five years, he is surely balancing the budget in his favour with the unspoken calculation of just how many will find their incomes reduced by employers who can relax their standards to the level of this new bar.

The question of what happens to those under 25 is thornier…. If they are unfortunate enough to be born to parents earning the national living wage, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to stay at home long beyond working age; they’ll soon be pushed out of the meager nest by the benefits cap (£20,000 per household outside of London).

They’re unlikely to be able to educate themselves out of poverty, as they will no longer be able to access student grants (now abolished). The deal offered by student loans is not attractive – look at their parents’ impossible debts, now exacerbated by the reduction of working tax credits.

Anyway, given the national living wage and the new alignment of Employment and Support Allowance with Jobseeker’s Allowance, they are unlikely to be able to work enough hours to sufficiently supplement a student loan. The rents demanded by the private landlords will be unattainable now that there is a limited and stagnant supply of social housing. And 18 to 21 year olds will no longer be entitled to housing benefit (you’ve got to ‘earn to learn’ now, fam).

Don’t worry though, this new undereducated, undernourished and homeless underclass won’t be encouraged to reproduce (assuming they can find a park bench somewhere on which to entertain such a possibility) – restricting tax credits and Universal Credits to only two children will ensure the feckless and the lowly won’t be able to occupy their time breeding.

But they won’t have to pay tax, so that’s a positive isn’t it? The personal allowance for tax will rise to £11,000 next year. You’ve got to be pretty lucky to hit that target on a £7.20 zero hours contract.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this is some sort of new Tory benevolence. No, look instead to the simultaneous trial of a fresh approach to non-dom taxpayers. The new rules are that if you’ve lived in the UK for over 15 years, then you have to cough up your taxes like a good old boy. The flaw is that, as we all know, good old boys don’t pay tax. This will be a popular but ineffective fundraiser – if you’re rich enough to qualify for non-dom, then you’ve got a second home to move to when the deadline approaches.

But this is not just a sop to Middle England (where the hobbits live). The real significance of this new bit of legislation is that it sets a precedent. Once established, it will be much easier to suggest that anyone will have had to be resident in the UK for more than 15 years before they can benefit from its welfare provision.

Or that benefits are restricted to UK taxpayers.

Who’s paying tax again? Ah.

So, there you have it. The great divide. The creation of an underclass of non-unionised, disposable, internationally exchangeable, cheap and non-dependent migrant workers.

And what will happen as the underclass ages? While state pensions will be triple locked (dying old people being a tabloid hit any government would wish to avoid), the threshold for tax-free pension contributions has just been reduced, so if you want to stay out of the miasma you’re going to have to pay.

But that’s ok because if you’re already established in salaried, pensioned employment chances are that you’ll benefit from this budget by some small but smugly comforting margin.

So that’s alright, isn’t it?

You won’t mind when the government announces that the train is moving more slowly than scheduled, but if we just uncouple that heavily overcrowded carriage at the back that’s weighing us down…..


The turn to [w]righting

I loved the PhD process – it felt like the best kind of holiday. But the post-doc slump was a limbo where potential only served to paralyze.

I spent three years labouring to construct new paths, only to dither at my own crossroads, punchdrunk and confused. Everyone knows you meet the devil at the crossroads if you hang around there too long.

The recent UK election results were a slap in the face though, weren’t they?

A wake-up. A call to arms.

I’d love to be mistaken, but I have a sense that I’m about to witness the dissolution of many things I hold dear to my homeland, my landscape, my reality.

So what can I do?

I can write. I’ve always written. I’ve never not been able to write.

But I have always taken it for granted.

After the PhD, I trained as an English teacher and have spent time volunteering in classrooms with teenagers and adults who are learning English. They are some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Their stories are inspirational – how brave must you be to leave everything, and perhaps everyone you have loved and begin again in a new and distant unknown?

How inspiring when a thirty year old woman who has never had the opportunity to be literate in any language struggles through her first formal lesson, returning the following week having diligently conquered not only the manipulation of a pencil but all the letters of our Roman alphabet. How not to shed a tear watching her quietly and proudly score full marks in the spelling test?

So now I see the privilege and the power of writing. But how to use it?

I asked a professional writer I met lately. She told me, ‘You have to be selfish to be a writer. You start with competitions online; that’s how you get into it’.

I didn’t have to think about this much to know this is not my kind of practice.

Then I found myself working in a wonderful, integrated but temporary environment. It feels both entirely natural and starkly unusual to work in this little utopia, in this company of people that properly represent the diversity of our society. We are working on a piece about transformation.

It was when I was pouring tea and affirming – “Yes, yes. We must give voice’.

So that’s it then.

This is what I can do. So I will do it. I will gather stories and give witness.

I can use all my scholarship; the languages I have learned, the linguistics I have studied, my Social History degree. I can use the decades of translating and interpreting, the years spent lending my voice to others.

Isn’t this ‘translation art’, after all?

I can use all I learned at CeNTraL (the Centre for Narratives and Transformative Learning) from wonderful women like Jane Speedy, Susanne Gannon and Tami Spry; the Writing as Inquiry, the Narrative Interviewing, the Collective Biography, the Auto-ethnography.

I will wrangle with words until I am a wordwright. I will write, so the weight of the words may help right the imbalances in our homeland, our landscape, our reality.

Nana Froufrou does [w]righting.

So now I’m packing my pencil and heading out. It may take time to develop this practice, but I’ll keep you posted with notes and sketches and voices….

Copyright@2015 Kyra Pollitt


The stars are the map

I recently completed a short residency at the Scottish Poetry Library, and produced this short (3 minute) film poem. The film debuted at the 30 years’ celebration of the Scottish Poetry Library that was held during the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer.

The text below explains the film and the process of making it, and was read at a recent cross-disciplinary discussion of the work, which took place at Hugh Miller’s Cottage in Cromarty.

The Scottish Poetry Library’s own blog pages list further upcoming Scottish screenings. Meanwhile the film is circulating through deaf communities via social media.

I’m hoping to get the film screened at some deaf festivals and various other places. If you’d like to screen the film, please get in touch.

The film is a work of translation art; a synthesis of voices, languages, and perspectives crystallising around a remarkable journey.

It was made for the Scottish Poetry Library during a short residency, funded by Creative Scotland and the National Lottery (as part of the PEP programme), with the aim of extending the Library’s reach to communities beyond its existing demographic.

Having just completed a PhD by research into sign language poetry – that is poetry that is created in a natural sign language – I wanted to bring sign language poetry to the Library’s collection and to introduce these poetic communities to each other.

At this point it is probably important to dispel a few myths.

British Sign Language is one of Scotland’s indigenous languages. It is not, however, merely a pantomimic version of English. Much scholarly work over the past half century has determined that British Sign Language is a unique and intriguing language. It can compound, much like German, uses classifiers much like Swahili or Hebrew, has a mainly Subject-Object-Verb syntax- unlike English- and so on.

As part of the residency, the Library’s staff were given awareness training, introduced to British Sign Language, to Scotland’s deaf communities, and to the basics of poetry created in a sign language. Most of this behind-the-scenes work was completed before the film was made. In addition the Library held an evening of sign language poetry performances, and a workshop for aspiring Scottish sign language poets led by eminent practitioner, Paul Scott.

In many ways, then, the making of the film marked the end of one journey and the beginning of another; the end of my residency and the beginning of the Library’s new relationship with sign language poetry.

The original proposal for the film – entitled ‘A Vispo Billboard for the Scottish Poetry Library’ –  grew to envision two short films that could be projected onto public buildings in Scotland.The idea was to create two companion pieces- one which took a sign language poem as a source text, the other which worked from a poem by a published Scottish author. Both pieces would be made accessible to both communities.

The subject of each piece was carefully considered, with the intention of offering both communities an insight into each others’ cultures and allowing these communities to speak to each other through poetry.

Gerry Hughes’ solo circumnavigation of the globe via the five great capes was a feat later recognised with an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. But at the banquet held in the weeks following the sailor’s safe return Gary Quinn – in the true bardic tradition of British Sign Language poetry – honoured Gerry in verse.

Gary’s original poem witnessed Gerry’s life, his struggles, his determination and his triumph in a full fifteen minutes of flowing creativity.

In the year that passed between its first performance and the making of this film, Gary had been asked to recite the poem so many times he was grateful for the opportunity to commit it to record, despite the necessary dramatic reduction in its length. A kind and generous soul, Gary took news of each further cut squarely on the chin, acquiescing with a gentle nod of his head.

Gerry Hughes lent his support by generously allowing us access to his personal photographs.

Securing the BSL source poem was merely the first step, however. The question remained of how to translate the poem, and how to demonstrate some of the beauty of its poetic form. Gary’s piece, like most BSL poetry, takes its language beyond the everyday, creating arrestingly unusual and beautiful images.

Of course the Scottish Poetry Library famously holds the Edwin Morgan Archive, and in honour of his work I wanted to allow any translation to ‘emerge’, rather than seeking a more direct or literal linguistic translation. And after two decades of working as an interpreter and translator it is the inevitable spaces between languages that interest me – the gaps that are filled with our cultures, our selves, our imaginations.

Enter Christine da Luca.

The Edinburgh Makar greeted the idea of this project with honest excitement. To start the ball rolling, she and I looked over the rough edit of Gary’s poem and discussed the loosely descriptive content notes I had provided. I pointed out particularly creative lexemes and phrases and explained the significance of Gary’s poetics from a BSL perspective.

Over a Skype connection between Lothian and Shetland we giggled as her own poetic imagination conjured words that captured Gary’s metaphors and laced his work with her own fingerprints. A new work ‘emerged’.

And Christine did her homework; researching all she could of Gerry’s journey she noted those in whose wake he had sailed (‘Odysseus, Chichester’), alongside the facts of his voyage (‘8 months, 32000 miles’).

In her native Shetlandic, the flow of the verse changed again – eddies catching around yet other moments (‘smeddum’, ‘aber, foo o sea stories’).

The results were no more a set of literal translations than Gary’s original verse was a literal translation of Gerry’s journey.

Yet despite Christine’s beautiful texts, the majority of people coming to this film BSL would still find the niceties of the BSL difficult to appreciate. An audience might need further guidance to unlock some of the BSL poem’s visual treasures.

David Bell’s kinetic typography, therefore, represents yet another layer of translation.

As we sat in his Appleton Towers office, in Edinburgh University, I explained the significance and particular beauty of Gary’s expressions, handshapes, movements, tempos and spatial placings whilst David harnessed his technical and artistic abilities to bend Christine’s English to the service of these properties.

The technicalities required a little further editing of the source (BSL) poem.

In the final, finished version, you will find elements in the Shetlandic that are not fully represented in either the English or the BSL, elements of the BSL that escape both written (or spoken) languages and so on. I hope, too, that you will find different elements of beauty in each.

The languages and translations of the film do not exactly echo each other, but sometimes follow each other, sometimes travel alongside each other, sometimes cross paths and sometimes divert around the invisible obstacles of language, culture and modality.

I had wanted to make a piece that placed BSL – one of Scotland’s indigenous languages – alongside some of its siblings, that demonstrated how these languages live alongside each other everyday, forming the rich weave that is Scotland.

And I had wanted to create work that might in some way allow those who do not sign to begin to encounter the beauty of sign language poetry.

Sadly the second piece, which would have seen a work of Christine’s translated into BSL, remains on the drawing board. But perhaps its time will come.


Found poem #1

Nana has been feeling guilty for not posting any thoughts here in some time.

In her defence she has lately been occupied compiling and submitting a doctoral thesis.

Since her energies are currently directed towards preparing for the viva examination, she hopes you will accept this small token of her continuing devotion.

Perhaps you might even play along?

Here are the rules:

Create a poem from snatches of talk overheard during any journey. Your poem must record the utterances in the order in which you heard them and you may not edit or otherwise alter them. Record when and where you found your poem, the distance you covered when capturing it, and the number of speakers who created it. It would be lovely if you then posted your poem here.

Bonne chance!

Found poem #1

(3 speakers, 200 yards on foot, Corn Street, Bristol, 20.3.2014)

You’ve got to get up

Get down

Jump up

And put it on the shelf

 

By the way, if you are interested in poetry you would most certainly enjoy the Scottish Poetry Library’s website  and if you are also in Bristol the fabulous Poetry Can is about to unleash the Bristol Spring Poetry Festival (17–19 April 2014). If you’re a fan of walking, perhaps you might try sideways walking and other altwalking adventures, with guidance from mythogeography.


Learning lessons in public

This post first (and recently) appeared on The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project blog, as the first of a series of three posts written before, during and after a planned event. Take a look to see what other contributors are up to. 

Here’s Nana’s ‘before the event’ blog:

Of course I think my PhD is interesting. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, I would say that wouldn’t I? But I don’t foresee a queue forming outside Waterstones’ in eager anticipation of the submission of my thesis. So when I came across artsmethods@manchester’s Research to Public strand, offering guidance on making my research public-facing, I was immediately excited. After all, what’s the point of research if it’s not meaningful to reality?

Research to Public offered two structured and intensive full day workshops at the University of Manchester, supplemented by documentation and an online presence designed to prize open the rusty doors of the ivory tower and let the daylight of practicality flood in.

Eager applicants to the scheme were initially subject to a selection process before being invited to the first workshop. Then, after considerable input, we were sent forth into the big wide world and told to come back with an institutional partner- a gallery, museum or other public institution interested in our proposal and willing to play host. The second workshop honed our ability to co-operate with our partners and the resulting carefully budgeted and considered proposals were then submitted to a panel charged with distributing prize funding.

I am very fortunate to have had my proposal selected, and I write this on the eve of the first of the two events that I proposed. As you can imagine, the whole process has been challenging in lots of ways; some anticipated, some unexpected, but all very, very useful. So here are some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far. I apologize if you already know them, but some of us are slower on the uptake.

Lesson 1:  Don’t be precious

There’s wisdom in that there Kenny Rogers song about knowing ‘when to fold ‘em’ and ‘when to hold ‘em’. There may be some ideas that are worth being deeply precious about, but these are rare. Actively seek the opinions and contributions of others. Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment to the idea as it stands, and give due and respectful consideration to the tweaks others propose. Every contributor (from the gallery curator to the chatty passenger sharing your train journey) brings different expertise; learn to harness it.

Lesson 2: Network

Contributing to as many networks as you can effectively manage is good for your creative soul. It’s also kind of karmic. I had cold-called a number of institutions who were all enthusiastic but already committed to a schedule, before a network connection yielded an introduction to an institution that wasn’t even on my list. It turns out the institution was looking for something that would reach beyond its usual remit and demographic, and I could propose just the thing. Who knew?

Lesson 3: Refining is a lived process

Like most other things in life – and unlike the fairy tales I’m still addicted to – perfect proposals don’t just appear fully-formed, ready-sprinkled with magic dust. Business proposals, academic theses, paintings, life – all require adjustments and rewrites.

Lesson 4: Plan and anticipate

Like the archetypal mum checking before her child leaves for school in the morning- Homework? Packed lunch? Gym kit? Keys? Hanky? Umbrella? It was quite fun spending time just thinking about all the possibilities and unlikelihoods surrounding the events I’d proposed. It was even more fun when the gallery curator was able to identify a few more.

Lesson 5: Make it real

Isn’t there some great quote from a famous person about the number of brilliant ideas that lie gathering dust in obscurity? Despite what I hope (with some effort) is a bubbly public persona, I’m actually ‘a bit behind the door’ so the process of taking an idea and making it real has been quite exhilarating. It’s both humbling and inspiring when other people believe enough in your idea to lend themselves to it. Ok, so I may have had to gather myself a little before plastering my event all over Facebook and Twitter but the whole R2P process has given me renewed confidence in my ability to communicate to others through writing, talking, thinking and sharing, and ultimately performing. I think it’s no coincidence that my painting and sculpting, as well as my academic writing also seem to have received a bit of a boost.

I’ve spent today having final meetings with the artists involved, gathering the hardware I’ll need for the space, making a Blue Peter style audience contributions box, monitoring the Twitter publicity spread (currently standing at 45 RTs, 7 mentions and 3 favourites), and checking the Bank Holiday weekend weather forecast (chance of rain, 13˚C).

What are we planning?  Will it work? Will anyone care? These tales will be told in the next blog. For now, let’s see what new lessons tomorrow brings…

 


Painting in the spirit of Catherine?

Being in a museum after-hours invokes a childish thrill- it’s naughty, daring, clandestine. So the opportunity to sit in the Grand Gallery of the National Museum of Scotland after-hours and be entertained by an auditory-visual spectacular featuring the percussion of  Evelyn Glennie, with Philip Sheppard and Canty, and the art of Maria Rud, was irresistible.

The audience awaits in the Grand Gallery..

I wondered who would be the star of the AniMotion show. Evelyn Glennie is undoubtedly an accomplished percussionist; she certainly knows how to bang her own drum. In the programme notes she boldly claimed to have taken “the lead musical role in the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Ceremony” and indeed to be “the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist.” One wonders whether, in Ms Glennie’s world, the beginning of ‘musical history’ serendipitously coincided with the launch of her very own career.

I am perhaps being a little harsh, but my hackles were raised by her claim to have been “on a mission to overcome barriers and stigma”. I once met Ms Glennie at an occasion in London, where she was far from the most celebrated of guests. I was with a deaf friend and colleague who is a native BSL user. As we moved into the conversational circle containing Ms Glennie, she physically launched herself across the space proclaiming “You don’t need to do that. I don’t Sign”, whereupon I was obliged to inform her that I was not signing for her benefit. Instead of apologising to my friend or blushing at her error, she merely tossed that lifeless mane of hers and sniffed, with ne’er a nod to my friend. So I have witnessed Ms. Glennie acting to overcome barriers and stigma.

But I digress. The evening was not about politics, but le spectacle. It was organised by the ever-capable Clare Allan to augment the Museum’s current exhibition Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress. The exhibition is truly stunning: Nana was sorely tempted to break out her inner Pink Panther and make off with a horde of goodies on that gorgeous sleigh. *sigh*. But beautiful objets aside, I learned that Catherine’s banqueting hall was at one time fitted with chalkboard placemats. Guests wrote their order on their placemat and- get this- the placemat then spun down through the table on a winding mechanism to the kitchen below, whereupon said dish would be placed on the mat and reappear as if by magic in front of the diner. I mean, come on! This lady knew how to rock. In her menopausal years she managed to kill off her 20-something ‘favourite’ du jour, who suffered from a weak heart. (She kept a special wing of one of her palaces in which to install her succession of ‘favourites’). On the wall at the entrance to her party palace (oh yes) she had displayed a list of house rules, which bound guests to be playful and to join in. Breaking these rules was punishable by forfeit- such as drinking a glass of water (as opposed to Champagne, one assumes) or reciting a particularly tedious poem of Catherine’s choosing whilst everyone else partied on, laughing at your expense. With each breach of the code of conduct, more water and more verses were added to the forfeit. It was with this glamorously playful spirit in mind that I took my seat among the excited throng.

And so it began.  As the voices of Canty- “Scotland’s only Medieval music group” looking rather well for their great age – took flight, the great vaulted glass ceiling reflected the black sky beyond and the sparkling lights beneath and the diminutive Maria Rud began to daub oil colours on to the surface of her light box. Seen in projection, the tangle of her hair and the silhouetted movement of her hand and arm embodied and enhanced the performative. I pondered whether the singers’ process was equally transparent in their performance and why I rarely thought of it in those terms. As colours and shapes appeared, merged and disappeared into white, I found myself comparing Rud’s activity to that of a sign language interpreter. Both work at speed, creating a visual product from an auditory stimulus. And she was working quickly and efficiently enough to make the grade as a fully qualified ‘terp’. But something was not quite right…

Rud at work

I once returned from a long maternity leave and in literally the first hours of my first day back was filmed interpreting -without preparation – a presentation on French culture. I was then filmed reflecting on my experience, during which I acknowledged that I had identified a single underlying theme (comparing English to French) and whenever I began to be overwhelmed by the unfamiliar I had reached for and re-iterated this theme. It wasn’t my best day’s work, but that was the point since it was being recorded as a learning tool (Three Interpretations: Sign Languages International).

Back in the Museum, after only the second piece of music, I began to feel that Maria Rud was using exactly the same coping strategy. No sooner did the audience began to discern unintentional Cubist figures, Van Goghian skyscapes and fabulous Monetian garden scenes in the richly coloured abstracts emerging before us, than they were brushed, wiped and sponged into yet another hooded figure with arms or scimitar upraised, yet another Christ, tree, bird, house or fish. Whenever a percussive burst heralded a change in tempo, a red sun could be relied on to appear.  It brought to mind the MC One Tzu, who recently told me the Edinburgh-based Sketch the Rhyme (where MCs are expected to compose on the spot in response to the output of a visual artist) was quite a difficult exercise since “everyone always draws faces”. Back in the Museum, my inner Nana was about to imperiously call for a glass of water when the interval arrived.

Aha! Something different!

I spent much of my twenty minutes, wine glass in hand, gazing upon a finely carved 18th Century Chinese ivory lantern, longing to see it lit and wondering what intricate filigreed shadows it might cast. How would this evening be , I mused, if the likes of Tim Noble and Sue Webster had been allowed to let rip in the space, doing some live construction of shadow art. Now wouldn’t thatbe something….

Oh to light the lantern

As the second act unfolded much like the first, we again appreciated the indubitably confident, skilful and occasionally rhythmic dynamism of Rud’s work but my eye was drawn to the Museum’s beautiful Chronophage. Whenever I peeped over, its giant insect was eating time at a different pace- now speeding, now slowing, now pausing, now seeming to reverse and again or not. Its movements wove in and out of the music around it. And that’s when I understood the second problem with the evening: Tempo. Rud clearly felt an urgency to produce, such that whenever a sound was ringing out, she felt obliged to respond. What I longed for was what I see when a good sign language interpreter is working well, transforming sound into really visual sign language (not a visual version of a spoken language, like SSE); for what I could see in the Chronophage as it sometimes aligned, sometimes counterpointed, sometimes wilfully ignored the insistence of musical rhythm.

The Chronophage dances

I wanted Maria occasionally to step back from her canvas, to pause, to duck, to weave around the musical stimulus rather than be simply directed by it. If this was an act of translation-in-process, I wanted to feel the relative spaces between the two forms. I didn’t want Rud simply to paint to a tune; I wanted her to allow the paint to dance to it, from it, with it, against it.

It might have been that everyone else in the audience felt the same, it might have been a response to having been instructed on the etiquette of applause at the start of the evening, or it might simply have been that this was an Edinburgh audience, but I didn’t feel a swell of joy rising from those gathered. Catherine might have felt this was not the most swinging party her palace had ever held – although it was engaging and thought provoking for a’ that.

So – a couple of renditions of pretty long poems for Dame Glennie, perhaps a small glass of water for Maria, but a large crate of champagne for the Museum, which stole the show.

And for the real party-goers don’t miss the upcoming Museum Late. Nana regrets most sincerely that she is unable to attend, and for that she is already reciting her verse….


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…..


#Frieze,#KatySiegel, materiality, representation, translation

Listening to Katy Siegel’s talk on ‘The Luxury of Incommensurability’ at Frieze ’11 caused me to ponder a little further on acts of translation (the ‘t’ element of a/r/tography to followers of this blog).

The mainspring of Katy’s fascinating and informed lecture was the relationship between material and representation. Katy argued for an analysis of art history that embraced the influence of politics and social cultures; such that defenders of a dichotomy between material and representation were themselves products of the dichotomous Cold War era (think good/bad, black/white, them/us, material/representation). She argued that the ‘Luxury of Incommensurability’ was the (post?) postmodern ability to hold “two thoughts in mind at the same time” (i.e. to listen to the materiality of paint, canvas et cetera, whilst at the same time comprehending the represented). She argued that contemporary greats such as Richter, Freud and Twombly were masters of this luxury, and that this demonstrated a separation between art and the political and social spheres.

I found myself disagreeing on a few points. To take the latter first, I think it rather more likely that contemporary artists are still reflecting political and social influences in their works (how could they not?). It’s just that the politics of our day is diverse, post-structural, multi-perspectival, eclectic and a tad more unmasked. This is what is reflected in Richter’s appropriation of the photographic and its disruption, and in Freud’s and Twombly’s communication of the qualities of the represented through materiality.

Secondly, I’m not convinced that there ever really was a dichotomy between material and representation in the eyes of anyone other than a few art critics and theorists. Confronted with a Michelangelo, despite his uncanny mimetic abilities, has anyone ever been duped into forgetting the material of what is represented? And there are many examples of more ‘unfinished’ or deliberately imperfect pre-Modernist artworks which would seem to be intended to draw the viewer’s attention to the ‘incommensurability’ of both material and representation, and deny the restriction of art to mimesis.

David in all his materiality

David in all his materiality

Surely the popularity of contemporary art is premised on an enjoyment of the suspension of disbelief (which the artist must persuade is worth the effort), and/or the marvel of the mechanics of the artist’s technical achievement, and/or play on contrary positions, as in Found Art. It is this latter move that demonstrates the more sophisticated, multi-perspectival position that is reflective of our socio-economic times.

'Rug',MadeIn Company, 2011, at Frieze 2011

'Rug',MadeIn Company, 2011, at Frieze 2011

Darren Lago 'Mickey de Balzac' (grand) 2009-11. Self-coloured cast glass, reinforced plastic, Frieze 2011

Darren Lago 'Mickey de Balzac' (grand) 2009-11. Self-coloured cast glass, reinforced plastic, Frieze 2011

Siegel is right to refer to this as a luxury, since I’m not sure this postmodern turn has been so wholeheartedly understood by other audiences. Take the case of languages/linguistics. Since the 1950’s linguists such as J.L. Austin, Searle and their followers have argued for an understanding of the gaps between material and representation (the signified and the signifier if you’re a fan of Saussure). These gaps are vital to an appreciation of what may be lost and gained in communication, and more so in translation. Yet not a decade ago I prompted a storm of protest by referencing these gaps in a paper presented to a conference of legal translators and interpreters at the United Nations. One woman screamed at me that there were of course direct equivalents between languages; that water was l’eau was agua et cetera, and that consequently the act of translation was as pure as a mountain stream. (And these are the professionals!)

Of course, at one level, water is eau, but at many others it is not. When I think of water, it is British water. It comes from a tap, is a certain chilly temperature, it is derived from the limestone hills around where I lived as a child and has a slightly chlorinated taste. This is my prototypical water. When I encounter the word, this is what I taste. My prototypical eau is salty, comes from a bottle that has been purchased and is quaffed in the dusty, yellow-infused heat of France. I’m sure both your water and your eau differ from mine.

Language, and therefore translation, simultaneously represent and can never account for all these personal understandings and nuances. Yet I think the vast majority of people expect them to, and naively believe that they do. They are unaware of the materiality of the representation. Even in our multi-lingual, multi-cultural (post) postmodern society. But an understanding and acknowledgement of the lacks, gaps and unintended gains inherent in communication and in processes of translation are necessary in order to move towards the luxurious position of embracing and understanding the incommensurability of language.

This is why I recently entered the InsideArts poetry translation competition, with a translation of a sign language poem into written English. My interest is in the huge discrepancy between material and re-presentation in this case. The materialities of source and target texts are so different that the gaps, cracks and additions inherent in the act of translation cannot be smoothed over (even by a UN translator), and we are forced to address incommensurability head on.

What emerges? More in the next blog……


Can someone please tell me how to write # art?

Thanks to the gorgeous Howard Hardiman (http://www.cutebutsad.co.uk/ and http://www.thelengths.com/), I cycled to the Post Office depot this morning to collect my pristine copy of John Berger’s ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’. (http://www.versobooks.com/books/982-bentos-sketchbook)

To my mind anything by John Berger is at least worth a sampling, but this time I’m particularly looking forward to lapping up crumbs from the master’s table because the premise of his book is Berger musing on Spinoza’s philosophical writings by re-imagining and re-drawing his lost sketchbook; an undertaking akin to a/r/tography, in short.

Just to briefly recap (for those who missed my last blog), a/r/tography (or at least my version of it) stands for art/research/translation and the writing thereof, with the ‘/’s representing the folds and pleats created when these usually separate disciplines are brought together.

My a/r/tographic practice- and current doctoral study- is (to paraphrase Jim Cohn) translating the pictorialism inherent in the visual language of British Sign Language poetry into objects and artworks in the plastic arts, in order that the art and image of BSL poetry can be more widely understood, and differently appreciated.

So I’m working to produce art, but as Rita Irwin argues, in a/r/tography:-

“The processes and products are aesthetic experiences unto themselves because they integrate three (or possibly more) forms of thought.”

In Bento’s Sketchbook, I’m hoping to find Berger not only engaging in ‘illustrative’ drawing practices (i.e. giving visual form to existing ideas), but also using drawing as a process to investigate, extend, reflect on and respond to Spinoza’s original thought (what I call ‘contributive’ practice).

But what I’m really salivating about is the prospect of examining Berger’s writing and picking up tips on just how to describe these multiple yet conjoined forms of thought, the spaces his drawing practices uncover. This is not a case of constructing an exegesis (detailing inspiration, intention, ideation, creation, processes and materials, et cetera) or writing a description or critique of a finished artwork.

Irwin, in a line that conjures the darkest vampire flick, suggests

“There are spaces between and spaces between the in-between”

I can see them….but just how do I capture them in the written word? On second thoughts forget the crumbs; Mr. Berger, I offer you my jugular…….

Irwin, Rita (2004) A/r/tography: A Metonymic Métissage, in Irwin, Rita L. and Alex de Cosson, eds., (2004) a/r/tography: Rendering Self Through Arts-Based Living Inquiry (Vancouver, Canada: Pacific Educational Press) pp.30-31

Cohn, Jim (1999)-discussing Ronsard’s contribution to poetics in- Sign Mind: Studies in American Sign Language Poetics (Boulder, Colorado: Museum of American Poetics Publications), p. 69


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