From now until Apr. 2, Gund Gallery is showing a new exhibit entitled Sympathy for the translator. In the show, works by 13 artists across a variety of mediums explore various ways of making and communicating meaning; they wade past the inherent limits of translation, exploring the gap between audience and original intent. In her written introduction to the exhibit, Director and Chief Curator of the Gund Gallery Daisy Desrosiers says, “Each of the artists in the exhibition seems to answer the question: Can (and should) a translation ever be faithful to its original source?”
Renée Green’s Space Poem #7 consists of 28 multicolored flags hanging in rows from the gallery ceiling; each flag contains a decontextualized phrase. The suggestion, of course, is to put the phrases together. I tilted my head up and walked beneath the flags, reading from left to right, treating each successive row of flags like the next line on a page. By the end, I felt that I had read a thought-provoking poem. Then I thought, “What now?” As I turned around, I saw that the phrases had been printed on both sides of the flag. What now? Read it backwards! The resulting poem was just as coherent, if decidedly different.
Having read two poems from the same words, I was left to contemplate not only how that was possible, but why. As I surveyed the flags, I was struck anew by the name of the installation: Space Poem. There were no obvious astronomical references, but there was quite a bit of space between each of the flags and between each row. In my head I imagined rearranging the whole thing, flags floating from one spot to another. It seemed clear to me that Green was taking traditional poetic form and standard gallery space as “sources,” and prompting us to remix those elements. And who could say which meaning was most important?
Christine Sun Kim’s Close Readings achieves a similar effect, though it does so through sharp, witty indictment rather than suggestion. Close Readings is a four-screen video installation that plays scenes from various movies on a loop — only it mutes the sound and blurs out 75% of the image, leaving visible only a sliver of screen at the bottom big enough for captions. While the screens play the same scene from the same movie simultaneously, Kim collaborated with deaf and hard-of-hearing artists to bring unique captions to each screen. Ranging in style and tone from satirical (one caption simply read “SWEAT OOZING”) to contemplative (another caption told a long anecdote), each set of captions goes further than suggesting that alternate interpretations may exist — rather, they give us a glimpse into a world of meaning that has always existed but has been undetectable to those of us who hear. The remixing of form, the interrogation of sonic aspects like music sync and Foley sounds, makes that meaning visible to those who hear.
As with Close Readings, Bouchra Khalili’s Speeches – Chapter 1: Mother Tongue (from a trilogy of such videos) draws our attention to the social power dynamics that decide to whom meaning should be legible. In this video installation, people of various nationalities recite passages from radical texts about liberation by activist Malcolm X, French thinker Édouard Glissant and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
The catch, for a viewer like me who speaks solely English, is that the speakers in the film recite the passages in their respective native languages. English subtitles were included, so I knew what was being said despite not understanding what I was hearing. However, the choice spun me around and made me face that dissonance, a dissonance which must accompany the experience of any non-English speaker trying to access knowledge that has been only belatedly translated, their understanding an afterthought. My access to the film’s conversation, which I had taken for granted, was revoked — as it has been for so many people to whom theories about liberation are directly relevant.
These and other works in the exhibit demonstrate how meaning, and therefore translation, rely on much more than just words. Conversation is a multifaceted process occurring via many intermingled forms at once: To translate is not simply to lay that meaning bare to the uninitiated, but to have yet another conversation about who gets to know what, and why.