Monday, January 09, 2012

Lost in Bad Translation (or, Visual Art as Shibboleth)

In some European country I visited once, there was a sign outside a barber shop, clearly aimed at English-speaking tourists, that read "Haircuts While You Wait."

Even though I can't remember which country it was, I do recall my imagined narrative of the author of that sign, rather pleased with him/herself, at having found such a sophisticatedly colloquial way of communicating that walk-ins were welcome. My fellow travelers and I couldn't stop giggling, though, as we explored the more literal alternatives to having one's hair cut while you wait...quite a convenience for wig wearers, no doubt, but I would imagine it being a bit of a complicated experience for anyone else.

Traduttore, tradittore, the Italians say ("translator, traitor"), but sometimes I think that nationalistic admonishment rather misses the mark. Indeed, the ultimate reader of imprecise translations generally suffers far more than the communicators or devotees of some cherished original.

Take for example a recent spambot comment I rejected from a thread that had gone cold many months ago. The comment's real purpose is to lead the readers here to a website for an escort service in India (yes, I realize several of you would much rather indulge in that offering that this diatribe, but you'll have to find it yourself). You'll find similar comments littered across the blogosphere, with generic enough phrasings to seem plausibly sincere contributions to the dialog, but they will always give themselves away via their links to some commercial, and usually risque, website.

I've become a bit of a fan of these efforts, watching as they evolve into increasingly credible comments (I have been fooled a few times), and especially delighting in the variations as they enter the stream from different parts of the world (this is the first that I know of from India, for example). What they reveal about how English is translated or spoken in their country of origins often provides a chuckle or two, but the constantly shifting approaches to fooling the moderator is always interesting.

It was the almost sophisticated English in this comment that tickled me initially:
I am very glad with your blog. It’s really very interesting post full of valuable information very well written by u. The key part of this post is its descriptive way to define anything. I liked it with my heart. This post is a excellent example of such kind of thread.
Beyond the charmingly bad English, though, this one captured my attention for its sublimely ridiculous paradox in which the author attempts to convince the thread's moderator he/she's just another well-versed blogger via the (singular) use of the txty abbreviation "u" while attempting to come off as learned enough to put together the academic sounding (although ultimately gibberishy) third sentence.

Where all this comes back round to art is in one of the central issues of the increasingly global art market and cross-cultural misinterpretations. There are those who feel the market will never really become smartly global because not enough people will ever truly comprehend the subtleties of great art from another culture.

There are assumptions, convictions, and unspoken "truths" that are really only
universal to a subset of the species. Visual art carries these along for the ride whether it means to or not. Indeed, I would submit there are shibboleths we are barely conscious of in most visual art. Something as simple as a color (like red, for example) carries emotional and/or political connotations that vary per postal code. To use some simpler examples, consider: "Is there a secret socialist agenda behind that artist's use of a red background, or is the artist expressing joy (red is generally associated with good luck or a long life in Asia)?" "Is that black cat in the corner of that painting a good omen or a bad omen?" Depends on where you grew up.

Grasping these cultural connotations/associations separates the artist's intended audience from his/her potential wider audience, often despite him/herself. That, in turn, must impact appreciation on some level, and that would eventually have to impact desire for the artwork in other parts of the world.

There are of course artists with a global vision, who will create work intentionally with the whole world as their audience. But even with them, as with our India escort service commenter, there generally are giveaway signs that they're not as sincere as they're pretending to be.

While on the subject of unintentionally hilarious mistranslations, don't miss this: "I Am A Woman, Not A Test Mouse"

Labels: art appreciation, art viewing


Anonymous Gam said...

interesting how grammar can affect vocabulary

Your post here and last weeks news of yet another physical attack on a painting made me wonder if we ever actually see paintings? Maybe we dont see what is there, but only what our memories are associated to - as in your red for some is associated to a political agenda, where for others red it is keyed to if an apple is ripe or not.

What if we never see art, but only our memories? I still can't figure what caused that viewer to attack a painting. It kind of hints at that intentionality is only part of the meaning in an art work, regardless of Louise Bourgeois's adamncy that the artist alone knows the arts meaning.

i had to look up shibboleth!

1/09/2012 10:01:00 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

So, in a Ron Paulesque sort of way, should artists not stick their fingers in the art of regions of the world they know little about? Is regionalism gaining credence? It sort of makes sense to me but so does making a sincere effort to understand the visual universe of another culture. I'm currently working on a Western translation of painting based on Persian folklore. In many ways it is absurd because I'm a novice appreciator rather than a scholar. But I'm drawn to it.

1/09/2012 07:23:00 PM  
Blogger findingfabulous said...

I am very glad with your blog. ... I liked it with my heart. This post is a excellent example of such kind of thread. .. touché another great post.

1/09/2012 10:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I don't feel that it at all suggests artists shouldn't dabble in whatever they want to. Hybrids of any nature can lead to breakthroughs and are often very interesting to both cultures. I'm looking at it more from the art viewing (rather than art making) point of view. I, as a Westerner, should be aware that symbols and associations that I interpret through the lens of my life experience and worldview most likely don't translate the same way to the folks in another culture, and as such, not being the artist's intended audience, it behooves me to suspect (at least) I may not fully understand/appreciate what the artist feels he/she is communicating.

1/10/2012 08:16:00 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I entirely appreciate your point. I do worry though about the unintended effects of working from a superficial understanding of a foreign culture. The mystery of it is part of the draw but it seems an above average amount of humility is in order. An intent to illuminate can easily appear to trivialize.

1/10/2012 12:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

it seems an above average amount of humility is in order

rarely a bad idea in my experience :-)

1/10/2012 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Ariel Baron-Robbins said...

What does everyone think of Hirst's attempt at being in multiple countries through the simultaneous showing of his dot paintings? The dots don't carry too much psychological weight or reference any one particular culture (although I'm probably wrong, not a Damien Hirst scholar).

1/10/2012 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Quick, unscholarly thought concerning dot paintings at Gagosian: is the divide between wealth and poverty greater than the divide between two very different cultures? I'd say it is.

1/10/2012 10:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

I think it intriguing that a "painting" is only seen in part, never the whole, and if you see the whole you have to move/change your environment/diplay of the painting.... so it's a painting that you never see the whole of, and if you do it all, you never see it all under one circumstance ...

I find that aspect fascinating - do we ever know a person under one circumstance, or the whole of their personality , to wmbody that in a painting is really something. Maybe it's more a collection of works then a painting but considering it as a painting that is distributed like our digital world of cloud computing is really something else,

-polka dots are always a fashion statement

1/11/2012 09:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Damien Hirst he is a genius , a Damien Hirst Show is a economic event. Next up for the world inflation or deflation???. I like the pickled shark that's about it. I would buy a Christmas snow globe with the shark, Baby Jesus and The Mother Mary and Joseph. Out of the Power 100 Who do you think would have your back in a Bar Room Brawl ??? Damien Hirst thats who!! or perhaps Matthew Barney yea he has got those viking eyes, stone cold badass.

Then you have Larry G. Damien's Dealer . He is a riddle wrapped in a enigma, he is the Federal reserve, Jp Morgan, General Patton the Wizard of Oz, Don Corleone all in one person.

You Know why he is so succsessful ? He never sleeps and eats kittens for Breakfast.

1/11/2012 12:51:00 PM  

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