BY Andrew Maerkle in Roundtables | 01 SEP 21
Featured in
Issue 221

Andrew Maerkle on Translation in Art Theory

A lecturer of multilingual students at Tokyo University of Arts, Andrew Maerkle reflects on how translation of art criticism can be emancipatory

BY Andrew Maerkle in Roundtables | 01 SEP 21

In this dossier, artists, writers and translators grapple with the politics of language, and their impact on us as readers, viewers and critics. Sophie Hughes analyses the power dynamics of literary translation from an anglophone perspective, while Theophilus Imani explores what it means to translate images through his photo diptych project (2016–ongoing). Andrew Maerkle reflects on his experience as a lecturer teaching the first Japanese translation of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909) to multilingual university students and Evelyn Taocheng Wang’s visual diary entries reveal her feelings about learning English, Japanese, German and Dutch.

Having been born at the tail end of the Cold War, and having embarked on a career in the art world in the early 2000s, I am old enough to remember when it was acceptable, in places such as New York, where I was then living, for art from outside the US or Western Europe to be casually dismissed, whether in conversation or formal criticism, as being ‘derivative’ or ‘late’. Such dismissals were always a reminder to me of the power structures that police speech in our societies, which I had already encountered growing up as an Asian American in the form of the racist belittlement of my language ability. 

My formative experience of racism and cultural imperialism as a loss of voice has led me to pursue practices that multiply the voice through collaboration and dialogue – interviews, translations, discussion-based teaching – as essential to my critical project. As I’ve deepened my engagement with translation since moving to Japan more than a decade ago, I’ve also come to consider that being ‘derivative’ or ‘late’ is actually an important position from which to interrogate the present moment of presumed universal contemporaneity. 

Wada Eisaku, Subaru, cover of pilot issue, 1909. Courtesy: Andrew Maerkle

I’ve applied much of my thinking on translation to a seminar I teach in the faculty of global arts at Tokyo University of the Arts. Every year, I start the course with a group reading exercise: all students get a copy of the first Japanese translation of the 11 articles of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Manifesto of Futurism (1909) and we take turns reading it aloud, sentence by sentence. The point is not to indoctrinate the students – who come from a wide range of academic backgrounds and countries and have different

levels of fluency in Japanese and English – in a foundational text of international, avant-garde art. Rather, I want them to physically experience the opacity of the text through a brief, and usually fun, moment of shared confusion and embarrassment.

The Japanese translation is a fascinating document because it embodies the contradictions of a then-nascent globality. The speed of its publishing reflected new advances in communication networks. Executed by novelist, translator and Japanese army surgeon Ogai Mori, it appeared in the Japanese literary journal Subaru in May 1909, soon after the expanded French version led the 20 February 1909 edition of Le Figaro newspaper. However, undertaken at a time when the Japanese written language was still in a process of modernization that would extend to post-World War II script reforms, the translation is a linguistic fossil, peppered with obsolete Chinese characters and archaic turns of phrase that are themselves now foreign to contemporary readers. 

In all my years of conducting the exercise across different contexts in Japan, almost no one has been able to get through a complete sentence without ad-libbing the reading of a character or turning to the group for guidance. The defamiliarization of encountering something that is at once self-evident yet incomprehensible becomes a mechanism for readers to critique the text on their own terms, through a process of doubt, self-reflection and discovery.

From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan, 1945–1989, 2012, cover. Courtesy: MoMA

Translation is integral to our conception of globality, yet the politics that inform it are all-too-easily obscured by technologies of instant connectivity. We are tempted to assume that everything, whether an artwork or a theoretical text, reads much the same in one context as it does in any other. But reception – to say nothing of transmission – is still governed by social, cultural and institutional determinants.

In the case of Japan, patriarchal social structures past and present collude to keep women underrepresented in syllabuses and anthologies of art writing that do not take an explicitly feminist stance. From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan, 1945–1989 – a landmark collection published as part of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s ‘Primary Documents’ series in 2012 – features only five texts by individual women authors among its 85 translations of historical sources, and two of those are by the same author: Yayoi Kusama. Redressing these imbalances requires redefining what constitutes canonical speech.

Translation can be emancipatory precisely when it occurs at the intersection of power structures in both the source and target contexts, giving new life to the text in both. Each new reader of the translation will become living proof of the existence of the source material. Conversely, a translation can challenge occlusions in the worldview of the target language simply by existing. Few English readers, aside from those with a specialist interest, probably give much thought to art criticism from Japan. But the presence of even a single translation of Japanese art criticism can reveal the limits of the English language at the same time as it expands them. 

What does it mean to let another person speak, to lend them your voice? The generous translator must be a good host, offering attention, care and patience to the source text, while also being open to defamiliarization from both self and other. Only then, looking backward as it looks forward, can translation achieve what bell hooks describes in her essay collection Talking Back (1989) as ‘coming to voice’, or the process whereby objects, or those who have been othered in the dominant culture, become subjects by ‘speaking with’ rather than ‘speaking to’.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 221 with the headline 'Language Bearers’  alongside Evelyn Taocheng Wang’s Grammar DiaryThe Silent Transformation of Language and Images in Translation.

Main image: Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Mirror Room – Phalli’s Field, 1965, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Ota Fine Arts, Singapore, Victoria Miro, London and Venice, and Gropius Bau, Berlin

Andrew Maerkle is a writer, editor and translator. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.