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Issue 221

Images in Translation

Theophilus Imani discovers how we might be able to translate images instead of words

BY Theophilus Imani in Roundtables | 03 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.

Left: Caravaggio, The Adolescent Bacchus, 1595–97, oil on canvas, 95 × 85 cm. Courtesy: Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo 

Right: Herbert Lang, Portrait of Manziga, Avungura, Chief of Azande, 1910–15, lantern slide, 8 × 11 cm. Courtesy: © AMNH Library

‘The photograph is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb,’ wrote Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). ‘Each of us mentally stocks hundreds of photographs, subject to instant recall.’ Sontag’s observation reminds me of a similar one expressed by William Max Nelson in his essay ‘Five Ways of Being a Painting’ (2017). Inspired by the writings of the German romantic critic Friedrich Schlegel, Nelson writes: ‘The short sentence functions as both a part and a whole. At first, it seems to make sense in isolation, yet it calls out for placement within a context that could reveal some fuller meaning.’ Nelson’s words intensify Sontag’s reflection: the photograph is like a synecdoche that never stands alone; images always remind us of other images.

Left: Kurt Markus, Billy Stafford, Y’s for Living, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1988, photograph. Courtesy: Kurt Markus and Staley-Wise Gallery, New York

Right: Justus Sustermans, Marie Madeline and Her Son, c.1623, oil on canvas, 1.4 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: The Picture Art Collection/Alamy Stock 

This indexical property allows the creation of visual conversations, wherein one image speaks to another, prompting discussion, in turn, of yet another image. The result is a form of translation. In such instances, when the translation takes place, the meaning moves from images to words. The relationship that exists between the images in these diptychs, as Édouard Glissant wrote in Poetics of Relation (1997), turns every periphery into a centre, abolishing the very notion of centre and periphery.

Left: Glenn Ligon, Red Hands #2, 1996, silkscreen on canvas, 1.3 × 1.5 m. Courtesy: Glenn Ligon, Hauser & Wirth, New York, Regen Projects, Los Angeles, Thomas Dane Gallery, London, and Chantal Crousel, Paris. Photograph: Farzad Owrang 

Right: Joe Penney & Abdou Ouologuem, Incarnation, from the series ‘The Redemption of Mansa Musa’, 2014, pigment-inked jet print. Courtesy: Joe Penney & Abdou Ouologuem and Galerie Number 8 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 221 with the headline ‘Image Index’ alongside Evelyn Taocheng Wang’s Grammar DiaryAndrew Maerkle on Translation in Art Theory and The Silent Transformation of Language.

Main image: Palmer Hayden, The Janitor Who Paints, c.1930, oil on canvas, 99 × 84 cm. Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., Gift of the Harmon Foundation

Theophilus Imani is a visual researcher and medical student. He lives in Verona, Italy.