Coming to Terms - Jackman Humanities Institute

Coming to Terms
Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay
James Clar
Simon Glass
Nicoline van Harskamp
Carl Trahan
Haegue Yang
Thea Jones
curated by John G. Hampton
Produced by the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
Hart House, University of Toronto
Presented at the Jackman Humanities Institute 170 St. George Street, Tenth Floor, Toronto, ON
Coming to
n act of translation in art is
something other than the types of
translation we are most familiar with.
When semiotic meaning is transferred
interlinguistically (between written or
spoken languages) there are usually
directly correlating categories against
which meaning can be compared:
morphological, phonetic, rhythmic,
syntactic, and so forth. Artwork,
however, works more often through
intersemiotic translation, where meaning
is carried across less similar semiotic
systems: novel to movie, painting to
sculpture, or abstract inquiry into
observable—and perhaps legible—forms.
The last example here presents some
unique problems. For one thing, it
opens up the potential to apply the term
“translation” to any conceivable process
(i.e., translating thought to action),
which would void any real meaning in
the term (even if the concept could still
retain its usefulness). This problem is
easily avoided simply by using the term
with precision (although in practice, it
seems this is not so simple for some).
The other, more complex problem with
the translation of abstract inquiry is
its very abstractness. Translation is a
task most easily carried out on stable,
identifiable meanings, and although
it can be argued that there is no such
thing, critical or abstract thought must
be among the least stable forms of
meaning making. Fortunately, however,
retention of ambiguity is hardly a new
problem for translation studies, and it is
a comfortingly familiar goal for artistic
hile channelling the words
of Walter Benjamin into the
English-language version of “The Task
of the Translator,” literary theorist
and translator Harry Zohn wrote,
“all translation is only a somewhat
provisional way of coming to terms
with the foreignness of languages.”
This sentence could be called a creative
mistranslation if one were to gauge the
efficacy of a translation purely on its
retention of meaning—neither adding
nor subtracting from an identifiable
and quantifiable source of information.
Zohn’s “coming to terms,” you see, came
from Benjamin’s “auseinandersetzen,”
which is variously defined by the Collins
German–English Dictionary as “to have
a good look at,” “to have a critical look
at,” “to tackle the problem of what/why,”
“to talk or to argue with,” and “to take to
court,” and is most commonly translated
as “dealing with.” None of these phrases
carry quite the same meaning as the
reconciliatory resignation implied by
“coming to terms.” Zohn’s translation,
however, is not a direct one-to-one
transference of meaning. His decisions
portray a privileging of subtext and
potentiality over literal determinacy.
Rather than moving semantic content
from one language to another in any sort
of objective manner, this decision allows
for Zohn’s indulgence of word play. He
inserts a pun that dramatically broadens
the potential for meaning, rather than
narrowing viable interpretations under
the guise of objective neutrality.
oming to terms with the
foreignness of languages” elicits
a myriad of potential interpretations: it
is a literal description of the process of
translation, where one presents a series
of terms derived from an interpretation
of foreign languages; it describes an
always active negotiation between
languages, perpetually coming toward
an agreement, but never arriving; it
expresses a heavy-hearted acceptance
of the heterogeneity of human
communication, a sort of post-Babelian
challenge to monolingual idealism; it
evokes a negotiation of boundaries along
the lines of international diplomacy;
it offers a sympathetic nod toward the
artificiality of all human languages; and
it points toward the generative force of
translation—how an act of translation
impacts its target language, not only
by the introduction of its source text,
but also through the inevitable traces
and foreignness of its source language
trickling into its target language.
he potentiality implanted into
this poetic misarticulation felt like
an accurate descriptor for the form of
translation being embraced by the artists
in Coming to Terms. Having produced
their work within Canada, the United
Arab Emirates, Germany, Korea,
the Netherlands, Romania, and the
United States, these seven artists work
across a myriad of cultures, influences,
and mediums, employing numerous
forms of translation—interlinguistic,
intralinguistic, intersemiotic, formal and
dynamic equivalence, and so forth. But
they also move beyond the boundaries
traditionally associated with the process
of translation.
rtistic inquiry into translation
opens up the exact territory that
translation studies has taken on as a
key area of inquiry: the (supposedly)
untranslatable. Most discourse within
translation studies accepts a certain
degree of untranslatability; not all words
can travel from one language to another
and remain intact—perhaps no word can
do so. And despite an awareness that no
text is fully translatable, nor anything
fully untranslatable, we often still work
within the boundaries of a translatable/
untranslatable binary (even when
expressing the dichotomy as a spectrum).
The artwork presented in Coming to
Terms, however, helps us find potential
ways outside of the artificial dichotomies
of translatable/untranslatable, fixed/
unfixed, and stable/unstable.
he translator’s task requires one
to navigate spaces of intuition,
approximation and rearticulation,
relying on a deep understanding of the
internal structure of a given text in order
to creatively transmute it into a form
that produces an analogous effect on
an audience. This is a familiar working
process for artists, particularly for those
who work at the limits of language, who
accept the unresolvable with anticipation
rather than resignation.
oming to Terms presents
contemporary artworks that
unpack the process and politics of
translation with an emphasis on issues
that are specifically relevant for the
Jackman Humanities Institute’s role
as an international interdisciplinary
institute. The exhibition is structured
around three overlapping themes:
hegemonic anglophonization and its
effects; deconstructionist translation;
and intersemiotic translation. When
navigating through this territory, these
artists highlight the concessions and
accessions made when meaning is
exchanged across disciplinary, cultural,
linguistic and material borders. Their
process deterritorializes the field of
translation studies by embracing its
untidiness and lack of stability, and
presents an active attempt at coming to
terms with the foreignness of languages
in the broadest possible sense.
Carl Trahan – “Dérangement” (2013), chalk, 12’ 4” x 5’
Carl Trahan
arl Trahan has contributed
two pieces to Coming to Terms,
“Doppelgänger” and “Dérangement.”
In “Dérangement,” Trahan has created
a translationary diagram for the French
word dérangement. For his diagrams,
Trahan follows a simple procedure: he
looks his source word up in a bilingual
dictionary and writes down each word
listed as an acceptable translation, then
continues this process with each new
word written down until he reaches
the edge of his working space. Trahan’s
simple task quickly becomes a nebulous
web of branching nodes and chains of
slowly deviating meaning.
rahan’s work relies on reference
tools created for translators or
students of multiple languages. He
employs guides designed to assist the
movement of semantic content between
languages through formal equivalence,
using them in mechanical tasks that
result in the splintering of terms into
parallel representations of themselves.
Following any particular branch of
Trahan’s translationary diagrams would
reveal a slow shifting of meaning akin to
an intercultural game of telephone. The
evolution of meaning portrayed in these
oppelgänger” is a wall
intervention that presents twin
equivalencies for one word. On the top
part of a grey wall, plaster relief letters
form the German word Doppelgänger.
Underneath, black-on-black raised letters
spell the French words “double” and
“sosie”—the two “proper” translations
for the German word. The letters of the
German word have been slightly sanded,
leaving a fine layer of dust covering the
French words below, rendering them
visible from the accumulated dust.
Carl Trahan – “Doppelgänger” (2008), paint, plaster
Nicoline van Harskamp – “The New Latin” (2010), DVD video, 30:23
Simon Glass – “On the Tower of Babel” (2013), vinyl lettering with letterpress chases
installed behind Plexiglas. Nine verses installed throughout the space.
diagrams mimics the evolution of an
arborescent (tree-like) model of Western
philosophy, where branches diverge and
build off of what came before while also
supplanting some of the source meaning.
Rather than zeroing in on any one of
these arborescent limbs, however, Trahan
presents a proliferation of potential
courses of deviation. The potential
multiplicities that exist before and after
any translation are made visible in one
interlocking web of words and meanings
that are, like translation, simultaneously
derivative and heterogeneous.
Simon Glass
imon Glass’s “On the Tower of Babel”
is a new, site-specific installation of
his carefully annotated translation of
Genesis 11:1–9. Rather than painting
a crumbling tower, as many artists have
done (and continue to do), Glass chooses
to represent the Tower of Babel in its
most relevant medium: written language.
Glass’s translation of the story is
fragmented into its constituting passages,
which are cut out of vinyl, dispersed, and
adhered to the walls. Inset into the text,
Simon has arranged found, hand-carved
letterpress type into Hebrew words,
similar to how a printmaker would.
lass’s annotated translation is the
result of years of research that began
with the discovery of a strange decision
(and potential error) glossed over by
Jacques Derrida in “Des Tour de Babel.”
Derrida’s argument centers on a specific
portion of André Chouraqui’s translation
of the Bible into French, where he inserts
the English word confusion after the
name Babel. Inspired by this strange
translationary confusion, Glass began a
fastidious translation of the story, with a
focus on trying to convey (through both
the translated text and the structure of
the footnotes) the sophisticated use of
alliteration, word play and proper names
found in the story of the tower of Babel
he rigour Glass invests into
his translation is indicative of
contemporary artistic investigations
into linguistic and theoretical concepts
using experimental methodologies, and
his method of display responds to, and
elaborates on, the architectural and
metaphysical space of the academic
institute it occupies. In a direct reaction
to the linguistic turn in artistic practices,
which has critics and viewers reading
exhibitions and all their contextual
elements as they would a text, Glass’s
installation literally transforms the walls
of the institution into a text, surrounding
us with one of the most prevalent
contexts hanging over discourse within
translation studies: the monolithic story
of the tower of Babel.
Nicoline van
icoline van Harskamp’s thirtyminute video “The New Latin”
(2010) documents a scripted discussion
between the artist and fictional
Romanian curator/linguist Alexandru
Dima (portrayed by Daniel Popa).
During the talk, which was titled
“Alexandru Dima and Nicoline van
Harskamp on Expressive Power in
Contemporary Cultural Production,”
an appeal was made to emancipate
English from its roots in the British
and American empires. Performed on
the opening night of the 4th Bucharest
Biennial, the script for the discussion was
based on conversations van Harskamp
had with various international artists and
curators. The English script was then
translated into Romanian, which van
Harskamp memorized and rehearsed
with the assistance of a language coach,
so she could convincingly perform in a
language she had not otherwise mastered.
an Harskamp takes a particular
interest in non-native English
speakers (such as she herself is). She
acknowledges that regardless of one’s
mastery of a language, one’s first
language inevitably has an impact on
subtle choices of syntactic structure.
Consequently, the English of nonnative speakers differs slightly from
that of native speakers. She suggests
that the end result of using English as
a global lingua franca (trade language)
could be the emergence of new, postEnglish dialects—in a process akin to
the fracturing of Latin into the romance
languages. This suggestion would imply
that the consolidation of languages is
part of a self-effacing cycle of Babelian
futility. New dialects would emerge
for every new language brought into
the fold of the dominant tongue, and
rather than securing cultural dominance,
as it spreads, the English language
would merely continue the zero-sum
construction of a perpetually crumbling
monolingual monolith.
James Clar – “Global English” (2011), 6 illuminated signs, 43.5” x 12” x 4” each
James Clar
ames Clar’s illuminated signs, “Global
English,” phonetically transcribes the
series’ titular phrase into non–Latinbased languages. The phrases, when read
aloud, are pronounced “global English,”
regardless of which writing system they
use. The six signs included in Coming
to Terms are Arabic, Chinese, Japanese,
Hebrew, Russian and Hindi.
resented within the halls of the
Jackman Humanities Institute and
taking into account the linguistic politics
of international interdisciplinary practice
and this institution’s own inscription in
English, the signs act as slogans for the
supposed universal accessibility promised
by the proliferation of English as a world
language. But their utopic promise of
intercultural communication is rendered
ironically ineffectual through their
two-fold inaccessibility. The phonetic
imitation of English that arises when one
reads the text is meaningless to those who
do not understand English, and thus the
multi-lingual inscription has no function.
Meanwhile, monolingual anglophones
are unable to read the English words
describing their own language’s
universality. While the phenomenon of
hegemonic anglophonization privileges
those whose native language is English,
Clar also subtly reminds us that speaking
English alone does not give us immediate
access to the globalized world promised
by a global tongue.
ike Carl Trahan, Yang uses a daisy
chain of formally equivalent
translations. But unlike Trahan, who
is working interlinguistically, Yang is
working intrasemiotically, transferring
the experience of one photograph into
a semiotically similar one. And rather
than using “formal equivalence” only in
the traditional sense of translating one
word/object at a time, Yang’s formal
equivalence also describes a process
of equivocating formal characteristics
in terms of shape, size and framing.
There is little written scholarship on the
mechanisms of intersemiotic translation,
but Yang’s work works as a visual primer
on the subject by simplifying the process
and stretching it out into an observable
process. The subtle changes, brought
about by slow cross-fades, offer a gentle
glimpse of this form of translation,
rather than the potentially jarring cut of
jumping from one semiotic system into
Haegue Yang
aegue Yang’s “Three Kinds in
Transition” is a loop of 473
photographs slowly cross-fading between
each other. Photographed by Gunter
Lepkowski, the objects depicted move
from origami, to spheres, to globes,
slowly changing form and colour one
image at a time. Yang’s images go
through sometimes imperceptibly small
changes, creating a hypnotically fluid
journey through aesthetic movement.
Geographical separation is reduced to
a subtle formal distinction, blurring
national borders as globes spin and
transmute into other spherical objects.
a drastically different one. And through
this lullingly hypnotic movement onto
new territory, each utterance in Yang’s
chain, like those in the individual limbs
of Trahan’s diagram, holds the imprint
of those that come before it, revealing
the coexistence of legacy and revision
undergone in every translation, citation
or recontextualization.
Thea Jones
hea Jones’s series of embroidered
forms, “Restitching II,” depicts a
linear narrative of the reconfiguration
of intersecting lines. Starting from an
abstract form, Jones traces the backside
of each piece, using this typically hidden,
complimentary structure as a pattern
for the next composition in the series.
By repeating this process, Jones shows a
continually evolving form reconfiguring
itself based on representations of its own
creation. Rather than oscillating between
two mirror images, as we expected
from this type of process, however, new
compositions arise out of the intuitive
decisions made when Jones’s focus is
directed at the front (visible) side of the
image and not the backside—until she
begins to trace it for the next iteration.
Haegue Yang – “Three Kinds in Transition” (2008),
473 images, 30-inch Apple Cinema Display on loop,
21.5” x 27”. Photographs by Gunter Lepkowski.
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Wien Lukatsch, Berlin
ike Haegue Yang’s process, Jones’s
demonstrates the elegance and
complexity present within even the
most simplified translationary models.
Following one simple rule, difference
emerges through repetition, and her
continually reworked form evolves to
reveal the flexibility of her process.
If she were to begin from the same
form again, new forms would emerge,
revealing an entirely new process of
translation and simplification. The
repeated translation and reinscription
Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay – “Zachary’s Cue Cards” (2013), 12 A4 sheets dusted with glitter
Thea Jones – “Restitching III” (2012), 14 embroidered drawings
also doesn’t simply demonstrate a
degradation of form or loss of meaning,
as is sometimes demonstrated in tasks,
like feeding a passage of text through an
automated translator dozens of times;
each composition in Jones’s series is as
poetically evocative in its own right as the
“original.” The “origin” however appears
not to be a definitive starting point,
but is instead an arbitrarily interesting
moment within the potentially infinite
iterations of this mechanical process.
enny Nemerofsky Ramsay’s “Portrait
of a Young Man” is an exercise in
translating the subtleties of a rare and
beautiful voice. The sonic qualities and
political properties of countertenor
Jimmy Somerville’s unique, high-pitched
voice are translated into three non-vocal
semiotic systems: flower arranging,
astronomy, and American sign language
(ASL). Nemerofsky doesn’t rely on
translating the physical experience of
vibrations on his eardrum, but instead
attempts to transmit the psychological
and emotional experience of listening to
Somerville’s music.
hen working with spoken, written
or signed languages, one relies
heavily upon the work of linguistic
pioneers who have already done the work
of finding correlative signs between each
language. But while each of Nemerofsky’s
source and target languages have semiotic
categories and modes of classification
and articulation, only ASL has seen
development in terms of translation
processes. The lack of previous work on
translating sonic properties into floral
arrangements requires Nemerofsky
to rely more heavily on creative and
intuitive decision making, finding
equivalents for pitch, timbre and lilt
perhaps among thrust, line and colour in
floral design. Nemerofsky’s constellation,
meanwhile, maps the political properties
of Somerville’s music by charting
equivalencies through various other
pop icons. This constellation becomes
an icon in its own right, creating an
interconnected form that could stand as
a beacon for the embracing of effeminate
qualities in queer cultures, as well as
becoming an “icon” in the sense of
a “sign of similarity”—an accurately
translated equivalence of a semiotic
a deep understanding of the semiotics of
the art form. The poetic elegance of the
gestures made by Nemerofsky’s signer
portrays the beauty of Somerville’s voice
even to those untrained in American
ne does not need to be familiar
with all of the icons Nemerofsky
traces in relationship to Somerville to
build an understanding of the political
importance and emotive power grasped
through associative tracing. Similarly,
The beauty of Nemerofsky’s floral
arrangement can be appreciated without
Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay – “Portrait of a Young
Man” (2012-13), video, 12 minutes ∞
Sign language, and the occasional
subtitles provide a glimpse at what is
being communicated. Through these
three elements, the sense of hearing is
no longer a necessity for experiencing
the tragedy, strength and defiance
expressed by this transcendental voice;
it certainly does not give the impression
that something is lost in translation.
Experiences that may not be accessible
to some (music and queer identification
with cultural icons) are translated
through a seemingly impossible
process—and through this homage to a
pop icon, Nemerofsky shows us a way
out of the double-bind of translation’s
simultaneous necessity and impossibility.
Thank you
Barbara Fischer
Robert Gibbs
Kim Yates
Dax Morrison
Rebecca Gimmi
Christopher Regimbal
Monica Toffoli
Nicolas White
Kitty Scott
Amber Christensen
Jessica Wyman
Susan Schelle
Ann Macdonald