Made of linguistic forms and failures: Inquiry in times of isolation


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] here is an excerpt from Daisy Desrosiers’ “Made of linguistic forms and failures: Inquiry in times of isolation” (The Brooklyn Rail). Interdisciplinary art historian and independent curator Daisy Desrosiers is the inaugural Director of Artist Programs at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College.

If translation is like a table, then it is either, or can be alternately, the thing itself and the configuration of persons and relations around it.
–Kate Briggs, This Little Art (2018)

Décalage resists translation and embodies it.
–Chantal Akerman, My Mother Laughs (2013) (trans. by Corina Copp)

Let me start with the obvious and the premise of my proposal as a guest critic for the Rail; I’m not a translator nor a translation expert. This isn’t a professional take on the discipline that is translation even though I admire it from afar. L’anglais n’est pas ma langue maternelle. (trans.: English is not my first language.)

Invitée à écrire en anglais, les idées me viennent en français. (trans.: Invited to write in English, I can only think about the content in French.) I hear in French. I understand sounds in my native (and contracted) French Canadian, with a hint of my father’s melodic French from the Caribbean. Je te parle dans ta langue mais c’est dans la mienne que je te comprends. (I speak to you in your tongue but it is in mine that I understand you).1 This quote from Caribbean poet, writer, and philosopher Édouard Glissant couldn’t be more fitting in introducing the multifaceted point of departure of this proposal which possibly inhabits (literally, conceptually and symbolically) the works of all the contributors I invited as the Guest critic for the May 2020 issue of the Brooklyn Rail. Perhaps the safest place to start is by admitting that I’m still searching for the “right” word. I don’t know if translation is the good one either but, it stuck with me. Thinking about the role of translation in various aspects of my life, it felt like a compelling point of entry for what I imagine this invitation could encompass. To that extent, my definition of translation may be closer to the one of scholar Rey Chow,

I am not adhering strictly to the common definition of the translator as a professional word worker who carries meanings from one language into another. Instead, I would like to explore translation and translator by way of something (ap)proximate—namely, the notion of an arbiter of values, as embedded in disparate cultural literacies or systems.2

In my experience, translation is many things including but not limited to, negotiations between languages, a power dynamic within communication, the re-composition of thoughts, the re-contextualization of cultural specificities, the Untranslatable3, the experience of languages (or silences) in many forms, a slippery attempt, a weaving process, a No Man’s Land, a shared and ongoing exercise, a cultural muscle, a communal table, the relics of a process, a way to someone’s tells, a system of exchanges and much more.

The impulse and direction of this proposal is hybrid. As I live and work in the field of visual culture that is the art world, it was natural that I would turn to artists to think about translation as much as it relates to invisible, verbal, or conceptual languages. This inclination is also the result of time spent with the work of Glissant as a personal investment in exploring my Caribbean heritage through his Poetics of Relation and, most recently, reading Kates Briggs’s exquisite book, This Little Art. The encounter of both materials, at different times—Glissant having been a conceptual companion for the past years and Briggs’s work being a new and exciting discovery—reveals and guides a great deal of my thinking about this project. Built from the heart of the post-colonial Caribbean experience, Glissant’s words have been and still are a way towards my Black-Caribbean self. His writings may be the reason why I feel so strongly about the connection between the means of translation and who it serves. In other words, in the back of my mind always lingers Glissant’s opacity,4 an alterity that defies the limitations of representation embedded in hegemonic power. For Glissant, opacity is a constructive and ever-growing site of self-determination. The relationship between translation and learning languages is extensively developed in his writings as it relates to the post-colonial condition. In regards to this project, translation is considered as an opaque analogy that highlights new forms of understanding. It underlines what Glissant has identified “as the always evolving opacity of the author or the reader”5 and, in this context, the artist and the viewer. While speaking Haitian créole may have been a way to part of my own opacity, not speaking it is probably where this project emerges on an intimate level. My need for translation during many family encounters and social occasions asserts my curiosity for the process. I’ll admit still longing for what couldn’t be conveyed, parts of the stories that were left behind because they live beautifully and maybe solely in créole. I think of translation as an embodiment, in this case, one that resists absolute renunciation. “This, after all, is one of the seductions of translating. It is simple miming of the responsibility to the trace of the other in the self.”6 This is also something that the Glasgow-based research collective Mother Tongue touches upon in their essay, “What Sound Does The Blk Atlantic Make?—on translation in the work of artist Alberta Whittle.” Thinking about the role of translation through the works of artists but also in conversation with them has been an uplifting way to understand the centrality and complexity of its potential. For some, like NYC-based artist Jesse Chun, it means understanding translation as it refers to memory; forgotten and, sometimes, retrieved. She points out in our recent correspondence that part of her interest with language as a conceptual format comes from her childhood memories. As a child, moving from South Korea to Hong Kong, she did not fully understand English at school and did not understand Cantonese either. Home was then the only place where she would be able to fully articulate her thoughts and communicate. Today, her Korean vocabulary has deteriorated to the extent that she cannot communicate on deeper levels with her parents. They also do not have the depth of her English to answer back. [. . .]

[Portrait of Daisy Desrosiers, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui.]

For full essay and endnotes, see

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