Sydney Seminar > Arts and Philosophy


Seminar 1: Art in (and as) Translation

Seminar 1: Art in (and as) Translation

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Saturday, June 5, 2004,
Domain Theatre,
Art Gallery of NSW, Level 3

Admission Free

The University of Western Sydney in association with
The Biennale of Sydney and the Alliance Français de Sydney present:

Art in (and as) Translation


Anthony Uhlmann (Humanities, UWS)


Marcia Langton (Chair of Indigenous Studies, Uni of Melbourne)
Catherine Rey, (French Novelist)
Andrew Riemer, (Translator and Writer)
Javier Téllez, (Visual Artist, Venezuela)

Marcia Langton is a distinguished thinker, an important voice for Indigenous Australia, who has, among other things, shed light on how Aboriginal art forms and cultural expression can offer a window into Aboriginal thinking. Her work also comes into contact in important ways with questions of translation, in both its positive aspect (via the art which is offered as a kind of gift) and in response to the negative kind of translation mentioned above (as the art offers a kind of retranslation of or resistance to the dominant cultural forms in contemporary Australia).

Catherine Rey is a distinguished French novelist who chooses to live in Australia. In recent times she has begun to set her wo

rks, which are written in French for a French audience, in Australian contexts. She is currently working on a thesis which considers the question of writing and exile. Her work engages with translation, then (that is, the carrying over from one place to another), even while she writes in her mother tongue.

Javier Téllez is a distinguished Venezuelan visual artist who has been invited to Australia to participate in the Biennale of Sydney. His work considers the ways in which audiences interact with works of art. That is, how they translate works for themselves and bring them into relation with their own world views, and what is at stake in this process.

Andrew Riemer, as well as himself writing books, has translated a number of French novels into English. Two of these French novels take Australia as their subject. Riemer is interested in the way in which an Australian context is created for a French audience by authors who (unlike Rey) do not have significant direct knowledge of Australia and how this needs to be recreated through translation.

Convenor’s Introduction

The concept of translation is usually understood to involve a purely linguistic process, with one language being translated into another. In this seminar, the term will be used both in this sense, and more generally, in considering how exchange can be possible between different domains. That is, for example, we will consider how exchange between cultures, between mediums, between world views or forms of experience can be made possible and how art might be understood in relation to this exchange.

A number of theorists have indicated how translation can involve both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, there can be a negative or violent kind of translation, with the possibility that dominant world views (cultural norms, or the languages of those who are most powerful) seek to understand everything only within their own terms, levelling all difference and insisting that the dominant ideas, feelings, and beliefs are the ones by which all other beliefs and ideas are judged. On the other hand, translation can have a positive aspect: it is, in many cases the only way in which a different way of thinking or being can be brought to light and understood by someone outside. While translation is often disparaged because it is considered to always be imperfect, it can, nevertheless be astonishingly powerful, taking us to other times and places and allowing us to feel outside the confines of our habits.

In this seminar, we will consider how works of art can provide means of exchange or allow us to leap over gaps. There are gaps between cultures, between kinds of lived experience, between languages, between different kinds of media, between life and art, the artwork and the audience, but sometimes kinds of translation allow us to bridge those gaps.

Marcel Proust developed a theory of art which suggested that it involved translation in all its phases: on the one hand the lived experience had to be transformed: it is not enough to ‘imitate’ life, you have to create real sensations in the work, the work itself has to have its own life. Then the work itself has to be able to somehow affect or change the audience, and then there is the work of interpretation where the audience has to translate the work for themselves, so that it becomes in some sense their own.

Walter Benjamin, in writing about translation asked what it is in a work which is translatable. How, when there is so much difference, can we be made to understand? There must be something at the core of language or experience that allows an idea expressed in words to be shifted into another set of words and be understood. In language, however, it is not just the ideas that need to be conveyed. Words do more than just express ideas; they also carry their own music, their own connotations, their own history, and their own worlds. Translators need to work on many different levels. Proust, who worked as a translator for a time, suggested that what needed to be translated was the ‘images’ which were being expressed, a word which conveys not just the ideas in the words, but the contexts, forms, feelings, which seep into those words and change them.

So too, it can be argued that translation can occur outside language, with images and feelings conveyed or carried over from one place to another by other forms, such as the visual arts, music, film, indeed all artistic forms. That is, translation does not always only involve language and literature, it can be recognised as being important to our understanding of how all art forms work.

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