Translation, ReTranslation

hatoum

Among the many images Christine Poggi shared in her 27 September presentation, the most arresting for me was this reproduction of Mona Hatoum’s Projection (2006, cotton and abaca paper).  Although Poggi was primarily concerned with translation in its most literal sense, as carrying something over a boundary line, I was struck by how this example of Hatoum’s work queries the process of translation. Through the process of erasure, the artwork exposes the ways maps transmit their prejudices when translating three-dimensional geographical features into two-dimensional representations.  Whereas a map’s standard cartographic images project borders, languages, and landmarks as suitable for understanding geography, Hatoum’s translation of a map removes identifying features that would associate a locale with any agenda, people, or language. By stripping away all those features that would link the map to one purpose or another, Projection reminds us that customary maps are filled with the prejudices of those who make them, the powers that support them, and the eyes that read them. Delivering a washed out recreation that seems to bear little resemblance to the original, Hatoum’s art work would initially seem to declare the impossibility, even undesirability, of translation—whether cartographic or any other mode of translation—without prejudice.

If, however, we think about her projections as translations of translations, then she shows how a translation can sometimes return us to the source text’s original purity, a purity visible only from a distance.  Projection reminds me of the Apollo 17 photos of the earth taken 45,000 km away, the famous “Blue Marble” images. bluemarbleArtificial political demarcations are naturally absent, but also missing are many topographical features that have traditionally established boundaries. Instead, we have the broad outlines of continents and oceans. Hatoum’s image approximates this borderless, god’s-eye view that the Apollo photograph seems to capture, returning us thereby to a cartographic vision unavailable to most us.

When we study Chaucerian translations, either Chaucer’s own translations or subsequent translations of Chaucer’s texts, it can often feel that we’ve moved so far away from the original that we’ve lost sight of what counts.  Perhaps, only perhaps, these translations can bring into relief what we might otherwise miss, those broad outlines obscured by the text’s natural details and the false demarcations we’ve inherited from previous generations of readers.

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