“International” Art English – but not Universal

Translating texts about art, especially those intended for the media, can be challenging, not just because of the specific terminology (as with any specialist area) but also because some texts can be as abstract as contemporary art itself. Art speak, or “International Art English” (IAE), is unmistakably elitist: you are meant to understand that the person talking or writing is an initiate – whether they genuinely are or not, and whether their use of IAE is apropos, is another matter.

Predictably, IAE relies heavily on French vocabulary – what better language to draw an aura of philosophical intellectualism from! – with long Latin words that express absolute concepts suitably detached from the mundane. Just like modern art, it’s conceptual. You get it and you’re part of the club, or you don’t and you’re not.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that everyone involved with the arts wallows in this abstruse language. Partisans of the grandiloquent clique are far outnumbered by those striving towards the democratisation of art. Many – if not most – of those working in the field are as aloof to IAE as anybody else, or use it, like some translators, simply because it is part of the job.

Having said that, we should be grateful to the IAE speakers, especially to the true art lovers amongst them who can afford to commission or buy art as, without them and their common posthumous donation of entire collections to the public, there would be very little art to see. As for me, I relish the challenge of getting my teeth into some seriously abstract text and re-creating an equally obscure translation whenever the chance presents itself.

Duchamp and his Fountain

Duchamp – anti-art attitude à la French

Photo: portlandart.net


Let Languages Die?

I recently attended a conference and a lecture on translation by Diego Marani at the University of Bristol. The lecture, which was on artificial languages such as Esperanto for instance, aimed at demonstrating how this utopia of creating a simple and immutable language is not viable.

Because these languages are not linked to a particular culture, they cannot accurately represent or express concepts that some people have. Because they are unchangeable, they cannot adapt to a time culture. These languages are restrictive, purely functional and consequently unpractical in many situations and for many people. Consequently, artificial languages soon die out – if they ever live.

When, at the end of the lecture, someone from the audience asked: “So do you think that dying languages and dialects are not worth saving, then?”, Diego Marani made the interesting point that, for him, a language could not be saved by itself. A language depends on its culture, therefore the culture needs to be nurtured, supported, used for such things as science, discoveries, philosophy, literature, etc. for the language to remain relevant to its speakers and alive.

This was a perspective that even we, linguists in the audience, had not necessarily thought of, however logical or even obvious it seems once enunciated.