Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings

Thoughts on the project series
4 October – 21 December 2008

Globally there are some 6000 languages, and it is generally assumed that around 90% of the languages still in use will have become extinct by the end of the present century. But it is not only the languages that disappear; along with them, cultures and their accumulated knowledge are getting lost. In a neo-liberal society, which speaks of building a society based on knowledge currently and in the future, the speed of global, market-driven economic regimentations and objectives causes heterogeneous and multifaceted knowledge and education, in a communication-oriented world mediated in the first instance through the medium of language, to vanish.

2008 has been declared the International Year of Languages by the United Nations.
The declared objective of European Union language policy is to strengthen the multilingualism of European citizens: multilingualism fosters the personal development of the individual, it improves vocational mobility and competitiveness (Lisbon strategy), enhances understanding of other cultures (intercultural dialogue), and generates a “real sense of union citizenship”. The newly established Commission for Multilingualism under Leonard Orban declared the following on the EU website: “Languages are fundamental for Europeans wanting to work together. They go to the very heart of the ‘unity in diversity’ of the European Union. We need to nurture and promote our linguistic heritage in the Member States, but we also need to understand each other, our neighbours, our partners in the EU. Speaking many languages makes businesses and citizens more competitive and more mobile.”(1) Given the predominance of economic logic, competitiveness seems to be a key argument, holding more sway than an interest in heterogeneous, polyphonic language communities. In this sense, a knowledge-based society is largely defined by economic benefits.

The language policy of the EU is shaped by multi-linguality: at present there are 23 official languages, and translations on the legislative level alone cost more than a billion Euros. Language policy is always tied to economic conditions and thus also to hegemonic structures of decision-making. Which languages benefit from translation? Colonialist practices have shown – and continue to do so even today – that one official language comes to dominate a diversity of languages and linguistic communities. Decisions like those recently taken in Venezuela or before it in Peru, declaring indigenous languages to constitutional and official languages along with Spanish, are rare. The issues surrounding language policy decisions cannot be separated from exploring the experiences of (post-) colonialism and migratory movements, in particular in relation to concepts of nation-building and official national languages. The transnational research project “translate”(2) of the eipcp.net platform has highlighted this entwinement. Boris Buden, actively engaged in this project, has shown in his “The Pit of Babel. Or: The Society that Mistook Culture for Politics” how the concept of translation has been transposed from its original context of linguistics to other domains of society and so undergone a pronounced change.(3)

In a narrower sense, the act of translation denotes the transcribing of the text of a source language into the target language – it is however simply impossible for the translations to ever fully correspond to the ‘original’. Umberto Eco has pointed out that a translation can only ever be an approximation and not an exact transliteration – it is thus an attempt to say practically the same with other words.(4) This fact raises the question of the difference which arises through the act of translating from one language into another. Inherent to the process of translation is an experience of distance, or the recognition of alterity and the necessity to place oneself in a relationship to the ‘other’. This act of placing oneself in relationship takes place mostly against the background of one’s own language. This ‘classical’ translation model proceeds from the assumption of a binary juxtaposition of two referential systems, which can approximate one another at best. Eco characterises this approximation with the key concept of ‘negotiation’. He advocates a position of the translator as an autonomous subject that can move between the respective languages and may exercise freedom when translating. How this necessary difference in the process of negotiation is handled generates, as Buden emphasises, various approaches and, consequently, modes of (mis-) appropriation.

The theory of translation espoused by the Romantics, primarily by Wilhelm Humboldt, did not consider the purpose of translation to reside in facilitating communication between two distinct languages and cultures; rather, the thrust of translation is to shape and refine one’s own language, for instance by allowing the strangeness of the original language to be clearly discernible, thus extending the reach of the target language. But the concept of cultural translation does not emerge from this traditional theory, but in fact from a radical critique of it, formulated for the first time by Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Task of the Translator” from 1921. Benjamin disposed of the idea of the original and thus the whole binarism of traditional translation theory. The goal of translation is neither communication nor transmission according to Benjamin, and moreover a translation does not correlate to the original text; translation touches the original only at a single point, like a tangent touches a circle and continues its way.(5) Neither the original nor the translation, neither the language of the original nor that of the translation, have an essential quality. As they metamorphose and change constantly, the original is not an essentialist origin. Benjamin’s deconstructionist approach opens the way for the concept of ‘cultural translation’, which was in turn then coined and elucidated by one of the prominent postcolonial theoreticians: Homi Bhabha. Initially his motivation was to formulate a critique of the ideology of multiculturalism, the need to reflect on culture and relations between different cultures beyond the idea of homogenous, essentialist cultural identities and the communities arising out of these identities. According to his theory, the space BETWEEN both may be characterised as a ‘third place’. The inflationary use, spreading and propagation of the concept of ‘hybridity’, which is primarily related to the domain of culture, harbours the risk of supplanting the ‘political’ with ‘culturalisation’, a danger Kien Nghi Ha has pointed out in his “Hype um Hybridität”(6).

Two concerns come into conflict with the diversity of voices and languages: on the one hand, there is the wish to be able to communicate with as many people as possible in the best possible way, a wish channelled into experiments inventing new languages or creating subset languages, for example Esperanto(7); on the other hand, an understanding capable of detecting and appreciating complexity and multilayered meanings requires a decisively detailed command and grasp of the other language so as to be able to develop knowledge and insight into contexts and historical connections and generate culturally diverse voices. Negotiations and agreement talks frequently produce (at times intended) misunderstandings and problem-laden translations, and in turn these are not always solely dependent on ‘understanding languages’ but rather demand communication, solidarity of interests and a reciprocal, long-term exchange of experience.

In view of the ‘necessary impossibility’ of constituting a ‘citizenry in Europe’ as a way of generating a shared democratic European public sphere, Étienne Balibar has emphasised the importance of language as a medium of communication and understanding: “The ‘language of Europe’ is not a code but a constantly transformed system of cross usages; it is, in other words, translation.”(8) Balibar explicates “that the ‘community of translation’ is also not that in which everyone speaks or understands everyone else’s language but, on the contrary, that in which the role of the ‘interpreter’, depending on the situation and configuration of exchange, is capable of falling on anyone in turn, passing from the ‘majority’ to the ‘minority’ position.”(9)

The issue of language diversity/multilingualism, so decisive for the process of European integration (grasped as not being limited solely to the economy and security), is also relevant in smaller dimensions within Switzerland, evident in the discussion about the status of Rhaeto-Romanic: Switzerland has four official national languages, and according to swissworld.org German is spoken by 63.7% of the population, French by 20.4%, Italian by 6.5% and Rhaeto-Romanic 0.5%. The remaining 9.9% is spread across a variety of languages. Rhaeto-Romanic is in fact not a language but a family of several dialects, which vary from valley to valley. There are five written dialects: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Vallader and Puter. The Zurich-based linguist Heinrich Schmid presented the standardised version of Romantsch Grischun in 1983, a compromise between the various idioms that shall function as a unified (written) language. In 1993 Romantsch Grischun was recognised as a national language(10) and is an official language in the canton of Graubünden; since 2007/2008 it is the language used in schools in 23 municipalities.

The project series “Translation Paradoxes and Misunderstandings” is divided into three chapters. As its starting point (October – December 2008) it shall take linguistic-political considerations on ‘multilinguality’ on the one hand, while investigating on the other to what extent this also affects the ‘polyphony’ and if the affects are similar or vary. This line of approach is necessary because the translation problematic, translation paradoxes and inventing languages are not only prevalent when bridging linguistic divides, but are also evident within languages themselves. Furthermore, when exploring translation we shall not just proceed from spoken language, but look into the modus of translation in itself, which is inscribed into intersubjective understanding/conflict as well as in transcontextual and intermedia relations. Artistic works and films will be shown which explore the question of the (im-) possibility of translation as well as (un-) productive misunderstandings. As part of a commentary level, authors or scientists proposed by the participating artists were asked to write a short text about the contents and questions of the respective work in their native language. Besides the interpretative/mediating aspects, a double translation movement is already at work on this level: on the one hand, artistic work is translated into the medium of writing, while the texts will be translated from the languages in which they are written into English on the other.

A following exhibition shall specify the issues sketched out in the first exhibition. A more detailed consideration of the multilingual Swiss situation and micro researches about minority languages and regions in Europe is in discussion (February – April 2009). In a further step we would like to bring the crux of and the question about curatorial translation into play. We aim to conclude the series with an international conference and exhibition devoted to this field of practice and discourse (June – July 2009).

Artists and commentaries by authors
We have asked the participating artists to invite a writer, theorist or person researching in this contextual field to compose, from their own perspective and in their native language, a short text on the respective work or the issues the work discusses. These texts are integrated into the exhibition on a commentary level of interpretation and presented here in German translation. In this way, we can speak of a double translation movement already on this level: a translation of artistic work into a textual medium takes place while simultaneously the texts were translated into German.

Pierre Bismuth, Chiapas Media Project, Beth Derbyshire / Ilari Valbonesi, Esra Ersen / Miya Yoshida, Patricia Esquivias / Cristián Silva, Lise Harlev / Boris Boll-Johansen / Leila El-Kayem 1 / 2, Farida Heuck / Kien Nghi Ha, Susan Hiller / Sonja Lau / André Siegers, Andreas Künzli, Wolf Schmelter, Pavel Medvedev / Alexander Komin, Praga Manifesto / Dietrich M. Weidmann, Khanh Minh Nguyen / Andrea L. Rassel, Raqs Media Collective / Ravi Sundaram, Volker Schreiner / Kristina Tieke.

1 http://ec.europa.eu/commission_barroso/orban/index_en.htm
2 http://translate.eipcp.net
3 http://translate.eipcp.net/strands/01/buden-strands01en; this is a shortened English version of: Boris Buden: “Der Schacht von Babel. Ist Kultur übersetzbar?” Berlin 2005.
4 Umberto Eco, “Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation”, London 2003.
5 Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator, in: “Illuminations: Essays and Reflections”, New York 1969, p.80.
6 Kien Nghi Ha, „Hype um Hybridität. Kultureller Differenzkonsum und postmoderne Verwertungstechniken im Spätkapitalismus“, 2005; for a shortened English version, see „Crossing the Border? Hybridity as Late-Capitalistic Logic of Cultural Translation and National Modernisation”: http://translate.eipcp.net/transversal/1206/ha/en.
7 The state councillor Gisèle Ory and the national council member Francine John-Calame have proposed the Universala Esperanto-Asocio, UEA, as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize 2008.
8 Étienne Balibar: Difficult Europe: Democracy under Construction, in: “We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship”, 2003, p. 155ff.
9 Ibid.
10 Article 70, paragraph 1 of the Swiss constitution: “The official languages of the Federation are German, French, and Italian. In communication with persons of Romansh language, the Romansh is also an official language.”


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