BY Vincenzo Latronico in Features | 27 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 4

Tip of the Tongue

Since English has become the lingua franca, what has happened to art – and to language?

BY Vincenzo Latronico in Features | 27 FEB 12

Jürgen Klauke, from the series „Philosophie der Sinnlosigkeit“, 1976 (Courtesy: Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin & the artist; Photograph: Ruprecht Stempell)

In 1878, while preparing for a tour of Europe, Mark Twain set himself the task of mastering what he would later describe, in the eponymous essay, as ‘The Awful German Language’ (1880). He had already tried (and failed) some thirty years earlier as a teenager, with a stronger memory and suppler brains. This second time round, his efforts strengthened his conviction that German ‘ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.’

Yet Twain did find time. Visiting the cabinet of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, he surprised the custodian who said his German was ‘very rare, possibly unique […] and wanted to add it to his museum.’ On another tour through Switzerland and Austria in 1897, the writer impressed the members of the Concordia press club in Vienna so much that he was invited to give a lecture loosely based on his 1880 essay at their festival in a beerhall. No matter how long it took him, Twain simply had to learn German: In the 19th century, if you wanted to move through the area now known as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, you had no other choice.

Today, writers – art writers, in particular, along with artists, curators, gallerists and everyone in between – still travel across the continent; but something has changed. I moved from Milan to Berlin 130 years after Twain first travelled through the Second Reich. Like him, I had tried (and failed) to learn the language as a teenager. But the parallels end there: I didn’t even try to revive my German before taking my trip – and, much to my disappointment, my non-existent German hadn’t improved when I moved back to Italy two years later. How could I glide through 24 months of abstract conversations, gallery gossip, restaurant reservations and general chit-chat without so much as brushing shoulders with the official tongue of the country I was in? Of course, I speak English. We all do.

By ‘we’, I mean everyone whose professions intersect with the phantasmal abstraction commonly referred to as ‘the art world’. Whatever our nationality, native tongue and education, we must speak English. Art-related applications, statements, press releases, catalogues and CVs come in English or in bilingual versions (like this magazine). By ‘English’, I mean not just the Queen’s English or American English but also a language which is used by non-native speakers, like myself, and which goes by many names: lingua franca, International English, Globish, ESL (English as a Second Language) and even Denglish. According to the keyboard selection on my laptop, what I’m writing right here is ‘English – Int’l’, which is a bit like saying colourless red. Twain might be surprised to discover that most people speaking English in the German art world are not American but German.

In a way, this situation hardly needs an explanation: Every transnational community – be it Medieval monks, 19th-century diplomats, 20th-century physicists or 21st-century artists – must have a common language. Yet the possible reasons for picking English as a lingua franca – colonialism, imperialism, economics, media, pop culture, maybe even glamour – are usually ignored. English is spoken, only to be surrounded by an unexplainable, ridiculous, deafening silence about its predominance. Much politically engaged, anti-post-Fordist or minority-focussed art is produced, explained and discussed in English. Yet it never ceases to amaze me that there is no assessment of, nor fleeting reference to, the apparent paradox of speaking about politics and forgetting the politics of the language being spoken. Some artists have tried to tackle the issue – Nicoline van Harskamp’s video The New Latin (2010) and Jakup Ferri’s video An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist (2003) come to mind – but it’s a small group. And yet, could it be different? Could you imagine, say, a panel about the globalizing effect of the biennial circuit which – as a polemic against English-centred globalization – took place in Finnish? Of course not: The audience interested in such a panel and most of its ideal speakers would have only English as their common vehicle of conversation. This is why it’s a paradox: There is no way out.

I got an acute sense of the complex reasons behind this use of English – its predominance in countries where there are relatively few native English speakers – while talking to an Albanian artist based in Milan. After he moved to Italy from Tirana in the late nineties, he started to give his art works titles in Italian; but later, he switched to English. I pointed out that he was gift-wrapping words that would have the same meaning in Italian. He had exhibited only in Italy and had no significant contacts outside the country: Why English? He quickly dismissed my criticism. Italian was a foreign tongue that he had learnt before moving, by watching Italian television in Albania, where Italian, rather than English, was considered to be ‘prestigious’. The switch from Italian to English represented a move towards a different kind of prestige, mirroring the shift in context that his life had undergone. Neither language was a neutral, straightforward way of conveying information, to him. And English is not neutral for most of us: More often than not, we relate to English from the outside. In adapting our discourse to this language’s conventions and parameters, we charge it with values (positive and negative), implications and associations which make sense from an outsider’s perspective – and which a native speaker simply isn’t aware of, just as I couldn’t detect the reasons behind the Albanian artist’s initial preference for Italian titles.

He was not the only one switching to English. In the early noughties in Milan, I often translated texts from Italian into English for Italian artists. Over time, their contacts with the international art discourse enabled them to write the texts by themselves. Still, they would ask me to edit, and then I noticed something. As they started to write in English about their projects, their prose, their style – their ideas – changed. The most obvious transformation was formal – short sentences, modest vocabulary, basic syntax – which can all be ascribed to a beginner’s proficiency but not entirely. What changed in English was not only their writing skills but also the standards they used to evaluate what was worth writing and how it should be written. English has a distinct intellectual style: language-specific criteria for a convincing argument, a well-grounded idea, a strong proposal or a good quotation. Mastering the language – editing a text or tweaking a translation – isn’t enough to express an idea originally conceived in Italian. Ideas, arguments and concepts that sound solid in Italian sometimes don’t work in English – and the same can be said of other languages, including German, as we shall see.

Italian intellectual style – the argumentative style characteristic of both academic and art writing – has been determined, until very recently, by the dual impulses of 19th-century German philosophy (led by Marx and expanded to include Benedetto Croce) and French post-Structuralism (which curiously enough includes Martin Heidegger). This mixture makes the prose meandering, strenuously long, convolutedly composed of subordinates nested within other subordinates in a smoky mise-en-abîme. To anyone used to English writing, it’s most likely to sound as if no argument had been made at all. Adjectives multiply like rhetorical blank shots; quotations and references abound in a frenzy of appeals to authority that seems to conceal the absence of any sound reasoning. And this, peculiarly enough, is what good scholarship amounts to, what academics strive to achieve and what the Italian language’s intellectual style defines as a hallmark of well thought out arguments.

Language differences are often understood in terms of translation and its difficulties. But, in this case, the problem actually runs much deeper. It’s not a matter of a text losing references to its cultural conventions and background when shifted to another language (things getting lost in translation): What changes is the set of standards and parameters used to evaluate what is worth saying and how. This is particularly evident in the case of self-translation. In theory, nothing should go missing when the writer is also the translator; that’s what I believed when I started to translate my Italian novel into English. Obviously, I knew the chapters thoroughly: I had spent countless hours polishing, editing, reading and re-reading them; some parts I could recite by heart. Yet as soon as I transposed them into English, metaphors seemed blunt, ineffective or ridiculously over-emphatic; whole sentences appeared banal or redundant. I started noticing things in the original, too. As I continued, I grew increasingly aware of the inner split experienced by anyone who has indulged in self-translation: You know what the text means (you wrote it); you know that such meaning is conveyed fully by the original version; you know that the translation is technically faultless and yet – and yet – something has changed. My novel simply didn’t sound as interesting anymore: it hadn’t been conceived that way. It had been conceived in Italian.

A similar problem, undoubtedly much greater, arose with the translation of the German art historian Hans Belting’s Bild-Anthropologie (2001). In the preface to the English edition An Anthropology of Images (2011), Belting notes that ‘despite a close collaboration with the patient translator’, one chapter – which had appeared in the French, Spanish and other versions – had to be dropped entirely, ‘because it seemed to resist any meaningful translation’. What did this resistance amount to? English doesn’t lack the specific categories he needed (even if it did, they could have been created or defined). The resistance Belting describes may be coming from the intellectual style mentioned above, yet his conclusions are more sweeping. A book conceived in German, he argues, ‘should be rewritten, and reconceived, as a new book in English’. He refers implicitly to a linguistic theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis when he concludes: ‘we believe we think with or in languages, but more often languages think with us’.

This verdict is perhaps too drastic. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – named after the anthropologist-linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf – is also known as the ‘principle of linguistic relativity’: every language has a distinct impact on its speakers’ way of seeing the world. The hypothesis is now considered an exaggeration by researchers in linguistics. As the linguist Guy Deutscher argues in his study Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (2010), one’s native tongue does affect one’s mental habits and general Weltanschauung. But research suggests that this impact is highly unlikely to go beyond minor superficial effects, such as the associations speakers of a given language make with a noun because it is classified as masculine or feminine. Natural languages, Deutscher argues, can be used to express everything – because this is the reason they evolved to begin with.

But here is where the present discussion differs: Lingua franca English is not a natural language but a second one and intrinsically so. It has not evolved in order to encompass all possible matters of discussion. Some things may not be precisely expressed in the somewhat watered-down, formulaic version of English we foreigners often speak (although communication does not not seem to be a problem for non-native speakers). The problem lies elsewhere: To what extent does an acquired language influence what we choose to speak and write about, and the way we do it? As writers and artists originally trained in a foreign tongue improve their English competences, they (we) will become increasingly aware that some of their (our) points lose most of their forcefulness when translated; hence, rather naturally, they (we) will make different points. Will they make different art?

And there is more: This influence, of course, acts in both directions. Even as artists and writers of all nationalities adopt the English ‘intellectual style’, what they say and write does not necessarily coincide with proper English. A particularly interesting sign of the influence of these speakers can be gathered from research being carried out by the artist David Levine and the sociologist Alix Rule who ran the workshop ‘International Art English’ at the 2011 Artissima Art Fair. Their project is an extremely interesting manifestation of the divide English generates among speakers, just as I and my Albanian artist friend, both speakers of Italian, were divided in seeing the language as neutral. Both Levine and Rule are native US English speakers, and this origin seems to influence their approach, which in part was concerned with pointing out what sounded ambiguous, or plain weird, in English. To whom? Well, to native speakers, of course.

For Levine and Rule, ‘International Art English’ is exemplified by a large set of English-language, art-related press releases and newsletters. They analyzed the corpus and found a tendency towards overly long sentences, a proliferation of superfluous abstract nouns, the excessively frequent derivation of nouns ending in ‘-ization’ and even a slightly peculiar metaphysics: writers granting agency to inanimate objects – exhibitions, projects, research – when this agency should be ascribed to the people who created them. For Levine and Rule, the cause of these traits lies in a foreign influence: the imitation of French philosophy and theory as read in English translation. If the French are to blame, then we can only imagine what could be the long-term impact of all the non-native speakers directly speaking in English – and on a much wider scale than just press releases.

Levine and Rule are right: These traits do mark a significant difference between International Art English and ‘standard’ English (but again, one can ask: Whose standard?). And the traits suggest that International Art English is closer, not to standard English, but to foreign languages like French. Moreover, the idea that a set of formal aspects in syntax and vocabulary could eventually conjure up a difference in contents, even in metaphysics, is a clear and powerful way of framing the issue. But perhaps an analysis of the common language of a somewhat diverse and geographically scattered community isn’t best carried out in terms of norm and deviation because, properly speaking, the norm is still in the making. And who makes it? We all do.

A lingua franca is an intrinsically collaborative endeavour. For example, when a Polish curator and a Swiss artist discuss a project, they’re most likely to be speaking a language (English) which is not their own and which they master to different degrees. It is only natural if one speaker completes the other’s phrase as he or she looks for the right word; if they both go through complex periphrases in order to avoid using terms they are unsure about using; or if they project something of their native language’s structure onto what they’re saying. The result – although formally wrong – could still be understood (and hence enter common parlance) or else be rephrased until the meaning finally gets through. And yes, the meaning does get through. Multiply this small example by all the possible language combinations taking place in art discourse, over a wide group of people and a few decades’ time, and you’ll get a flexible, collectively-crafted linguistic norm: one that admits tweaks and contributions from any foreign language, as long as its meaning can be understood, without too much difficulty, by another foreign speaker. Here lies the cause of ‘-izations’ (they come from French), of long, winding paragraphs (they come from German) and even of the sudden agency granted to inanimate objects (it may come from the many languages that use gender for inanimate objects and thus replace nouns with pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she’). Levine and Rule are right in ascribing such traits to a foreign influence; but wrong, I believe, in seeing them as something that makes language only more complex. The foreign influence makes the language more accessible for a different, wider, more diverse audience than one composed of native speakers only. International Art English – lingua franca English, Globish or ESL – uses fewer words and less varied syntax than ‘high’ standard English; at the same time, the words used are not necessarily the easiest, nor are the syntactic constructions the simplest. Adapted to the needs of non-native speakers, the language becomes at once complex and easy: a combination of convoluted, abstract refinement and down-to-earth directness – a strange combination, perhaps, but in no way unique. The same thing happened to Latin.

Latin as spoken in the Middle Age was an international language of scholarly communication, which was based originally on the language of the Bible in St. Jerome’s extremely successful translation and of the many commentaries it spawned. The translation’s success depended precisely on the aspects that were later frowned upon by Renaissance philologists, busy rediscovering the purity of classical Latin: Jerome’s style was plainer, more repetitive, more banal, and he used bizarre words mutuated from Greek and Hebrew although more appropriate synonyms were available. In short: his Latin was easier (being aimed at a wider audience) and uselessly complex at the same time. Sounds familiar?

In contrast to International Art English today, Medieval Latin wasn’t only an intellectual language: It was also the only literary language heard during church services by Christian Europeans. As such, the Vulgate Bible has been the main reference of Latin as spoken all around Europe, by different communities, in different regions, in different versions. We know what happened: These communities spoke that complex, plain language so much that they eventually changed it, making it less complex and less plain and eventually transforming it, over time, into those tongues we now know as French, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Italian and Romanian (alongside a few dozen more) – the neo-Latin languages. At some point in history, Jerome’s Latin stopped being his and became everyone else’s. I guess we just have to wait.

Vincenzo Latronico is a writer and translator based in Milan, Italy. His latest novel La cospirazione delle colombe (The Conspiracy of Doves) was published in Italy by Bompiani in 2011. He is currently working on a new Italian translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934).