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Lesson 6: Translation

This lesson explains how artists are translators of some kind when they are working with notions of inequality, oppression and power differentials and what questions they should ask themselves.

The questions in this lesson are based on the essay 'Can Translation Do Justice? ' written by Sruti Bala. To read the essay, click here.

Who is entitled to ‘translate’ others, to represent their voices and viewpoints and on what terms? What makes a good translator? Good intentions are not enough; in fact, they can often do more harm than good. Translation is as much a deeply artistic as well as a deeply political issue.

In the To Do’s, by Barbara Collé, you are invited to work with the concept of translation in relation to your own practice.
Artists working with questions of inequality, oppression and power differentials often feel the need to ask themselves if they are ‘doing justice’ to the subject they are engaging with. Are the marginalised standpoints they are concerned with represented adequately?
Reflecting on translation is a way of reflecting on modes of encounters across differences, on self-reflection and self-transformation as resulting from the attempt to cross over to a standpoint or time entirely different from ones own.
Sruti Bala

To do A

Writing assignment about your own art practice (individual)

Write a text about your current art practice. About your way of working, your inspiration and themes, materials, ways of telling etc. Write it in the I-form and try to express how you experience and propagate your artistry. (About 300-400 words.)

Write a text that will be printed on a flyer announcing a new work of yours. A visual work, book, performance and think about how the institution that will distribute this flyer wants to convey your work. How would the museum, gallery, theatre, etc. summarise your practice in order to communicate your work to the public in the most 'clear and unambiguous' way? (Approximately 300-400 words)
Now compare the two texts. Do you notice any differences? Did you use a particular translation in the first or second text? Can you say something about the people you address with your first text and the people you address with the flyer text? If you would magnify the differences, which words and concepts would you use in text 1 and in text 2?

Finally, ask yourself if you have different versions of how you tell people about your work. Do you use different terms and perspectives when you tell, for example your family, or at the academy or to fellow artists? And do you feel that in these translations, desirable elements are gained or lost?
Legacy, Nadia Beugré. Phot by Dylan Piaser.
Legacy, Nadia Beugré. Phot by Dylan Piaser.

Legacy by Nadia Beugré


The performance Legacy deals with a moment in the decolonization struggles in the former colonies of French West Africa. It indirectly references a solidarity march that took place in December 1949, wherein hundreds of women – according to historian Henriette Diabete (1975) it was a multi-ethnic coalition of more than 2000 women – marched peacefully, walking 49 km to Grand-Bassam in the South of Ivory Coast.

Scroll down to see a trailer.

Via this link you can read Sruti Bala's text in which she writes about Legacy.


To do B

Concepts and terms in your own practice: asymmetry and incommensurability

Sruti Bala uses the concepts of asymmetry and incommensurability in relation to translation. Can you formulate these concepts in your own words? And can you identify aspects of asymmetry and/or incompatibility in your own work?

What is incompatible between the stories you tell and the people you tell them to? What exchange takes place in your work? And can you imagine that people with different backgrounds need different translations? Do you sometimes decide to adapt your work so that the current audience can understand it? Or can you find your own form?

Without translational practices, it would not have been possible to turn development into teleological progress, or nature into resource, or woman into commodity, or God into an excuse.
Sruti Bala

To do C

Descriptive versus non-descriptive (in pairs)

Often a descriptive way of (re)telling a story is also a form of translation in which much is lost. As an artist you have access to other (audio)visual, spatial resources to tell a story.

Sruti Bala in Can Translation Do Justice?
Think about an experience you had recently. Stories in which something happens whereby you gained an insight or experienced a certain emotion, work best. Take 10 minutes to formulate an experience and then tell it to each other.

Now you are both going to give the other's story a purely descriptive form in a work. It can be any form that suits you; text, image, dance, voice. But make sure you think of the descriptive way of telling a story, like Bala describes in her text. Take again 10 minutes and present this form to each other.

The next step is to create a work based on the same experience, but in a non-descriptive way. Again, you can use anything you like and you will have 10-15 minutes for this as well. Present this work to the other person.

Name the salient points together. Both as a creator and as an observer of the various translations of your story by the other.

Lesson 7: Precarity