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". .