How to translate the unknown

by Harriet Carter and Ricarda Vidal

On a bright and very windy morning on 9th June 2022, we were honoured to lead a workshop at the What’s the Matter in Translation? (Traduction et Matérialité) conference in Montpellier at the Université Paul Valéry. Our workshop titled ‘How to translate the unknown’ was hosted by the Maison pour Tous Marie Curie in Celleneuve, a lively village on the outskirts of town and the Société Française des Traducteurs.

We had 15 participants: 8 were conference delegates, who were bilingual (French/English) and spoke one or more additional languages; 6 were part of the Celleneuve community taking part in a language-learning scheme with the Société Française des Traducteurs. They had only recently started their languages classes, so spoke little French but brought first languages from Berber to Spanish, Georgian and Arabic to the table; and finally there was the group’s French teacher, who was also a student of Arabic.

This eclectic mix of languages and language barriers provided a wonderful basis for continuing our exploration of the unknown which we started in summer 2021. We took what we had learned from our workshops in Ledbury, practicing asemic writing and creating asemic texts through drawing and performance, to this conference dedicated to exploring materiality in translation

‘How to translate the unknown’ was a deliberately paradoxical statement – we aimed to explore facets of experience that we can’t make sense of, inviting participants to indulge in not knowing and in the joyful uncertainty that this produces. The structure for this workshop was based on the two workshops we held in Ledbury last autumn. Through the close study of asemic texts (by e.g. Cy Twombly, Rosaire Appel, Luigi Serafini, Xu Bing, Marian Bijlenga) and exercises which emulate asemic writing, we explored different ways of “reading” the illegible. We explored the production of asemic text in the first half of the workshop and dedicated the second half to translation. Developing what we had learned from Ledbury in the exercises around homophonic translation (see blog post from January 2022), we wanted to focus on the multimodality of any text, whether asemic or not, and the productive participation of the reader (translator) in the text. Making the connection between our autumn workshops and this hot summer day in Southern France  we brought a selection of works that were created in Ledbury (asemic texts and performances of these texts) to the session in Montpellier and asked our participants to make new translations. Besides other material we also brought the French poem, Henri Michaux’s “Le mal c’est le rhythme des autres”, which we had used with our English-speaking Ledbury group to inspire homophonic translation, but it now returned to France in the shape of Lorraine Munn’s wonderful performative translation into English.

Click play to get a silent impression of the wind… and then imagine the sound of the trees.

To begin, situated outside, we undertook the same drawing exercises we did in Workshop 1 in Ledbury to settle into the idea of exploring the unknown. We talked about how these drawing exercises set to challenge language structure or making sense of our environment. We encouraged participants to take in the polysensory surroundings (sound, atmosphere, sight, smell) by pointing out the violence of the wind, delicacy of birdsong, the roar of occasional passing traffic, and brightness of the light. Drawing such intangible facets of encounter was a difficult exercise – stretching the boundaries of what we thought possible to make marks responding to these passing moments. This was also intended as a warm-up exercise into exploring the unknown – a practice in taking down our structured and semiotic barriers. To explore our responsiveness. This went well – particularly due to the absolute gale that was enveloping us. We joked at the way spilled coffee and scattered papers created asemic texts – we liked the idea that the wind was an asemic author!

Next we asked the participants to get into groups – ensuring that people with different first languages were placed together. We asked them to work in their groups to create an asemic text using the things they had found out through mark-making in response to the environment. The results were fascinating and diverse.

One group decided to create the text as a translation of the drawings they had made individually before. Others wrote on their paper simultaneously, rotating the page every time a mark was added which caused a pen battle!

a pen battle – “une bataille des crayons” – a bat’s eye of crayons (if we want to retranslate homophonically …)

Another group focused on the atmosphere that they explored individually – bringing all their personal sensorial experiences together to create a unimodal (visual) text. Another group spoke with each other about their experiences during the drawing exercises and when thinking about how to construct their asemic text, explained their thoughts using their mother tongue. What they discovered was a rhythm in Arabic intonation from one participant, which they felt to be particularly interesting and evocative of their experiences, and so they began drawing to the rhythm of the spoken Arabic.*

* Ricarda: I really loved this approach to language, it’s like capturing language through notation rather than through scripture.

Asemic text created by Jeanette, Caroline and Ruth during Workshop 1 in Ledbury

This chance observation of rhythm led us serendipitously onto the next half of the workshop – focusing on sound – specifically to explore homophonic translation, to introduce our aim of now exploring the characteristics of sound. To provide an introduction to homophonic translation, we showed the group the asemic text created by Ruth, Caroline and Jeanette in the Ledbury workshop and played our translation of this text – the sound-based performance (see Ledbury Workshop 2).

We invited the participants to examine the relationship between characteristics of the text and the sounds contained in our performance, for example rhythm perhaps indicated by the squares (see image), and words perhaps created by the scribbles of almost-cursive text. With this example now made, we moved onto the next exercise. We played Lorraine’s translation of Michaux’s Le mal c’est le rhythme des autres and invited participants to pay attention to the sound of the translation over attempting the more natural approach of translating the poem into their own different languages.

The results were once again diverse and innovative. One group led their translation by focusing on the sensation of hearing – this resulted in a fantastic vocal mimicking the drum beat at the start of Lorraine’s poem, followed by reading of the words “Let the singer play the harp”. Another group’s translation was performed by simultaneously reading out individual written words responding to Lorraine’s poem. Most of the group spoke in different languages which made the simultaneous sound intricate and hard to grasp – which was very exciting!

Lorraine Munn’s translation of Michaux’s poem.
Il faut jouer… one of the groups playing with their languages and what they heard in Lorraine’s poem and in each other’s words.

Another group conducted a multimodal approach: they read out phrases in their different languages (English, French, Georgian, Portuguese), this time taking it in turns. They approached this by using a translator app that listened to spoken words and created a translation – this was to assist in the four different spoken languages that comprised the group. They then mimicked the words Lorraine spoke which they found to be done in an angry way. Furthermore, they made drawings of the things they heard that they found funny – one drawing was of a melted chocolate bar!

Once these exercises had concluded, we discussed the participants’ experiences of the workshop and how it related to the unknown. We had some really thoughtful remarks. One participant (a Masters translation student at the Université Paul Valéry) commented that as one doesn’t normally venture into the unknown, they were intrigued and inspired by our deliberate embrace of it. A participant from the Celleneuve community explained how they had enjoyed the exercises because they brought individuals together to create a universal exploration of the unknown. Another Celleneuve resident added to this statement saying that putting words to the unknown liberates language. The participant explained they found that

the universal language created between different languages created conviviality between nationalities, bringing different people and their experiences together.

These observations by participants draw attention to the affinity between the unknown and translation and how the one can be used to explore the other – and vice versa.  The multilingualism prevalent amongst our participants alongside the absence of a single shared language in which everyone was proficient, liberated worries about misunderstanding things and allowed for a joyful, blind reaching for experiences of not-knowing.

Harriet: I found myself mollified by the little I could grasp of conversational French. Ricarda and I led the workshop in English which was translated at regular intervals by the wonderful translators Maélis Bégé and Joan Simpson. These French translations were then further translated into the multiple different languages of the Celleneuve community members. Ricarda and I had prepared a ten-minute talk to introduce our research and the workshops we conducted in Ledbury. However, it transpired that we had to significantly cut this down due to the translations that took place. This was actually a positive thing. I found it fascinating how important words and information we got across were translated across multiple languages and how understanding was passed through the group, inevitably changing throughout each translation. This enabled us to focus on the ‘here-and-now’, of the people gathered around our windy table, in the beautiful French sun.

Ricarda: Working with this group of people who were at home and not at home in and across so many different languages, experiential translation became more tangible and concrete than in any of the previous workshops. Like in previous workshops, it felt like we were all happily riding the waves of the great big unknown together, but this time there were so many additional unknowns between us as a group – and yet, this did not compromise collaboration. Like Harriet, I enjoyed being translated, listening to our two amazing interpreters, Joan and Maélis, express in French what we had so often discussed in English. And while I could still follow the French, our words became unknowns as soon as they transitioned into Arabic or Berber as participants discussed the different exercises and what to do with them. It was only when we saw the results of their work that we knew that we had indeed been on the same journey into the asemic – or perhaps not the same but at least a similar journey.

Our pursuit of translating the unknown began at the very first moment of live translation. Our translators had to work rapidly, scribbling down what we said to translate it right away. It was fascinating to see them focus on specific words and to see them choose what was conveyed. One translator, Maélis, has provided us with her experience of this:

“During the workshop […] I have been live interpreting and I also participated in the first part of the workshop, with the drawing exercises.
As for the live interpreting, it was a very wonderful and educative experience. I was really stressed and anxious at first because I had never done such a thing before. But it was actually a really great exercise where I had to use my memory and where I had to adapt quickly between languages. I was really amazed at how my brain could go from a language to another or even translate while writing notes, I never thought I could do those things. It was also in a very safe space, so I felt more at ease to interpret.
As for the drawing exercises, I was in a group with a person who only spoke English and Spanish, a person who only spoke Arabic, Berber and a bit of French, a person who only spoke French, and I, who spoke French, English and a little bit of Chinese. Since I was the only one who spoke French and English, I also had to interpret what everyone was saying in the group. It was really amazing to be able to make people with different languages connect. It was kind of chaotic but also really organic. There were also some moments when they tried to understand each other without me translating it, just listening to each other’s mother tongue and trying to interpret what the others meant. I thought that was really beautiful.”

– Maélis Bégé

In those moments of trying to understand a foreign language purely by listening which Maélis describes here, our subjects (the unknown and translation) become embedded in the fabric of the workshop: enmeshing the content with our framework. The play of the unknown and translation within the structure of the workshop felt like a suitable evocation of our aim to explore the multimodality of text and the productive participation of the reader. In some sense the workshop itself became an asemic text where not-knowing was embedded in the multilingual community that surrounded us, as people from different cultures and practices shared their unique perspectives and knowledges to traverse the unknown. Bringing together a mix of ideologies and understandings of what the unknown might be through exploring the different ways it is viewed (and experienced), caused new imaginative ways to respond.

We look forward to presenting our research at the forthcoming conference: ‘Performative & Experiential Translation: Meaning-Making through Language, Art and Media’ at King’s College London, 13-15th July 2022.


Note: We would like to thank Cultural Literacy Everywhere for supporting our travel to Montpellier with a small grant.

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