Last night the New Museum on the Bowery launched its big summer exhibit, “Here and Elsewhere“: a tremendous show of contemporary art from and about the Arab world, with four and a half floors of work by artists from various countries throughout the Middle East (including some who now live and work in other parts of the world). It’s a great show, and also happens to include a high percentage of art that is directly or indirectly translation themed. Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo is represented by a beautiful row of self-portraits in Cindy Shermanesque disguise that predate Cindy Sherman by several decades (they’re from the early 1940s). California-born Egyptian artist Maha Maamoun contributed a video that uses images inspired by Chris Marker’s iconic film-in-stills La Jetée to represent Mahmoud Uthman’s novel The Revolution of 2053. Susan Hefuna translated the skyline of Istanbul into delicate ink-on-paper works. And Lebanese photographer Akram Zaatari turns everything in his studio into photographic images, even the view out his window. Sometimes I think I’ve been thinking about translation so long that everything I see out in the world (including in museums) looks like a metaphor for it.
But translation is also being presented at the New Museum this summer in non-metaphorical ways as well. For the duration of the current show (that is, until Sept. 28, 2014), the glass-enclosed Resource Center on the fifth floor has been given over to what’s being called The Temporary Center for Translation, a display and documentation area that includes not only a mini-library of books about translation, but also projects addressing various aspects of translation and in particular the limits of translatability. One large vitrine is devoted to the hugely ambitious Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles, a massive undertaking directed by Barbara Cassin to catalog words in many languages that are critical for philosophy in one language or another and cannot be translated adequately or completely without impacting the philosophies based on them. An English-language translation of this tome – Dictionary of Untranslatables – appeared earlier this year, and I meant to write something about it months ago; soon. The vitrine includes correspondence between the translators and editors as well as multilingual charts of words (including Arabic) associated with the project.
Across the room, crueler sorts of translation are in evidence including large binders stuffed with translated documents pertaining to Abu Ghraib and other sites where the U.S. military runs detention and interrogation centers. A film by Mariam Ghani, The Trespassers, addresses the difficult position of translators forced to serve as mediators between captors and captives. Translation in one of these “black sites” is not merely fraught, it can mean the difference between life and death. Beside it, a work by Joshua Craze makes an attempt (in the words of the Temporary Center’s co-curator Omar Berrada) at “writing a grammar of redaction, from a corpus of declassified CIA documents.”
Berrada, co-director of library and residency center Dar al-Ma’mûn in Marrakesh, was invited to co-curate the Temporary Center with the New Museum’s Taraneh Fazeli, Education Associate, and Alicia Ritson, Research Fellow, working with Chaeeun Lee, Education Intern. Berrada explains,
The idea of the Temporary Center for Translation is to open up the work of translation on various levels: aesthetically (by showing the process of translating), politically (by exploring contexts where translation is an intervention), etc.
Various undertakings and events are planned for the next two months, including translation projects involving “art critical texts written in overlooked languages” (Berrada) to be carried out on site and virtually, using the TLHUB network (TLHUB is a partner in the Center).
The show is worth seeing, the Center is worth visiting; go have a look!
Postscript: The Center’s closing date has been extended: it’s now Oct. 19, 2014.