Foreign Affairs: Diplomacy and Translation

Following on from the projects developed by Art by Translation since 2016, we propose to dedicate this year to a strand of research that we have called "Foreign Affairs." The aim will be to examine the forms and specificities of diplomatic action and language, and more generally the stakes of translation and translatability in inter-linguistic, international and intercultural relations.

Our reflection begins with what we consider to be the paradox of diplomatic language: it is both transparent and opaque. Involving countries with different cultures and languages, diplomacy uses a highly codified language in order to convey messages with as little ambiguity as possible in order to avoid any conflict. However, the "unspoken" and the "implied" are necessary conditions for diplomatic exchanges. While diplomatic discourse is subject to overt linguistic and protocol procedures, the complex relationships between sincerity and duplicity, revelation and concealment are part of the strategic arsenal of hidden negotiations. In order to accurately interpret the words of the other, of the foreigner, diplomacy takes into account idiomatic and cultural differences. On both sides, teams of interpreters analyze and decode the diplomats’ intentions and the supposed cultural sources that have motivated them.

These distinctive characteristics represent exciting challenges for translation practices because how can we decode hidden meanings, stakes or strategies, especially in a context that over-interprets signs (words, gestures and attitudes)? The fact that diplomatic language is characterized by a logic of vagueness in a formal framework makes us experience to the extreme the irreducible multiplicity of meaning and therefore the impossibility of a univocal and closed translation (despite the use of conventional expressions). In other words, diplomatic language reveals what is in fact inherent in any attempt at communication: there is always something that escapes understanding, a certain “strangeness/foreignness” in the relationship to the other.

Moreover, the language of diplomacy is obviously marked by questions of power, not only because the diplomat strives to not “lose face” but also because diplomatic language itself is a "lingua franca", i.e. a vehicular language allowing communication between speakers of different languages. Historically, vehicular languages are dominant languages imposed by the great empires. The hierarchy between languages reflects a hierarchy between cultures and nations. In diplomacy, French replaced Latin in the 18th century before it was itself replaced by English in the 20th century. Even today, only six languages are used as official languages of the United Nations.

In La langue mondiale. Traduction et domination (The World Language. Translation and Domination), Pascale Casanova underlines the role of language and translation as instruments of domination. She demonstrates how the translation of literary, scientific or political texts belonging to other cultures served the "enrichment" of the dominant language, in the linguistic as well as in the economic sense. Here, Translation appears as a tool for the conquest, the ingestion of the Other. Conversely, the notion of translation (but also that of “ingestion”, for example in the Anthropophagous Manifesto by the Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade) has been used to account for the processes of appropriation and transformation of the dominant language and culture. In this context, translation undoes any idea of universality and becomes a practice of relationality, hybridity and reciprocal transformation. "A savoir-faire with differences", to use Barbara Cassin's expression. Since the notion of diplomacy is inseparable from the idea of a “sphere of influence”, this research will also consider the colonial and post-colonial history of France and Portugal through the prism of diplomacy and translation. In addition, we will extend the notion of diplomacy beyond the very defined context of international relations to consider other modes of negotiation and conflict resolution, for example between humans and non-humans (see for instance Baptiste Morizot’s book Les Diplomates: cohabiter avec les loups sur une autre carte du vivant). This will lead us to examine how cooperation and symbiotic relations are much more common in ecosystems than competition and rivalry.

Historically, the arts—this cultural domain of high symbolic value—have themselves been involved in the diplomatic efforts of nations in more or less explicit ways. We can think of diplomatic gifts, of course, but also, for example, of the well-known way in which abstract expressionism was widely promoted by the CIA to serve the interests of the United States in the cultural Cold War. Rather than considering culture as a competitive "soft power" (one that is often instrumentalizing and acculturating), the project asserts the role of art in the processes of cultural translation, with all that translation implies in terms of multiplicity, hybridity but also incomprehension and friction. More precisely, certain works presented in the exhibition take up the very specific forms of diplomacy, thus inviting to rethink modes of negotiation and mediation devices very often marked by Western-centered attitudes and assumptions.

The title "foreign affairs" insists on the need to take into account the complexity of historical and contemporary interconnections, thus resisting any attempt at unilateral action as well as any fantasmatic belief in the autonomy of countries or cultural eras. More broadly, "foreign affairs" emphasizes the encounter with the other and the ways in which translation processes preserve an element of “strangeness/foreignness”.


The Processes and Political Stakes of Translation in the Arts

Translation issues have been a central topic in the history of 20th century art. Various fields, such as linguistics and literature, psychoanalysis, philosophy, politics and technology, have engaged in issues of translation. Much is at stake in the subject of translation for interactions between various art forms, for our ways of relating to the work of art, of interpretating, comprehending, and presenting art, and for its inclusion into art history.

Starting with the Babelic myth of a unique and global language which can be found in the correspondence theories that paved the way for the dream of a universal language popular amongst the historical avant-garde to the more recent positivist ideology of an adequate translation allegedly offered by the algorithm, the fantasy of transparent communication has informed every era. In opposition to this “telepathic impulse", we are interested in the history of a very different aesthetic and ethical stance based on the acknowledgment of inadequacy and discordance in the process of translation.

As early as the beginning of the 19th century, philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher asserted that where transmission was concerned, incomprehension must be considered to be the rule and comprehension to be the exception. Nonetheless the greater part of aesthetic theories are still based on a hermeneutics of reception and signification. Yet since Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and later Jacques Derrida, new conceptions of our relation to the work of art have acknowledged untranslatablility and a fundamental disjunction between what one "says" and what one "means to say".

“Doesn't disjunction open up the very possibility of otherness?" Derrida suggested, thus establishing a relation between aesthetic and ethical issues. The production and analysis of art do not exist outside of this relation. In various texts, Derrida uses the expression "double bind" to describe the fact that translation is at the same time necessary and impossible. This is a paradox that extends to the translation of an idea into its expression, to the transmission involved when one being addresses another, to the shifts from one medium or historical period to another. Translation issues enable us to analyze and differentiate the aesthetic and ideological stances underlying the history of art – for example, the striving for transparent communication of meaning by form. What is at stake in the positivist history of translatability between art and technology? How have artistic practices worked through this since the historical avant-gardes?

20th Century critics frequently proclaimed that artists could no longer be considered the universal interpreters of some unattainable truth. Michel Foucault expressed the desirability of deposing the "authoritarian" figure of the artist, and establishing a new artistic constellation where the work of art would leave "spaces for possible subjects.” Following Foucault, Jacques Rancière identified situations in which the spectator "plays the part of a participating actor, who elaborates his/her own translations in order to appropriate history and turn it into a personal history".

The research focus of the first session of Art by Translation will provide the opportunity to question the implications of such an "emancipated community" where subjects – artists, curators, critics, spectators - become "storytellers and translators". .