Report on “Materiality and Cultural Translation”

Colloquium on
Materiality and Cultural Translation: An Interdisciplinary Exploration
Held at Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, May 3-4, 2010
A Report and Discussion
By Ruth B. Phillips (convener; Art History, Carleton University)
and Aaron Glass (participant; Anthropology, Bard Graduate Center)
Fourteen scholars whose disciplines include history, art history, anthropology, archaeology and literary translation studies engaged in two days of discussion on the topic of “Materiality and Cultural Translation.” They were joined by a small invited audience of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and Harvard faculty and museum curators. The participants had been invited to present case studies taken from past or current work and to reflect on them in relation to the role of material and visual culture and the ways that translation processes have intervened in transmitting meaning for different publics—past and present. Each participant presented a thirty-minute paper followed by discussion; Lawrence Venuti (English, Temple University) served as discussant on the first day, and Laurier Turgeon (History, Laval University) on the second.
A Few Remarks on Materiality and Translation
The material and visual turn that marks recent scholarship in the humanities and social sciences is proving to be remarkably fertile. On one level this development has been understood as a reaction against the limitations of the ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1980s and early 90s and its privileging of language and text as the irreducible ground for the mediation of experience and the communication of knowledge. For students of visuality and materiality, these modes of expressive culture have aspects of autonomous agency, and can play directly formative roles in shaping human experience, actions and social relations.
In exploring these problems, scholars in different disciplines draw on a shared theoretical repertoire that addresses perception, exchange, psychoanalysis, globalization, modernity, the gift, agency, and cultural biography. The impacts and opportunities offered by the material and visual turn vary, however, in relation to each discipline. For historians, interests in consumer culture, colonial systems of exchange, and the histories of marginalized groups have been stimuli for the study of material objects and visual images. These sources add in turn to the range of available evidence and lead to the development of new methods and practices. For art historians, the frameworks of material and visual culture not only enlarge the field of objects but also disrupt long-standing hierarchies of fine and applied arts and bring renewed attention to the material properties of works of art. For anthropologists, the renewal of interest in material culture has led to new theorizations of the anthropology of art and visual anthropology, and supports work on consumption in contemporary societies and critical analyses of museum representation. For archaeologists—and others—the material turn can bring new attention to non-visual sensory experiences and their synaesthetic interconnections.
The notion of translation has achieved a similar currency in many disciplines, reflecting the intensified pressures of globalization, the re-emphasis of cosmopolitan values, and the revival of comparative and ‘world’ frameworks of study. Two decades ago, in the high moment of the linguistic turn, anthropologist Talal Asad identified cultural translation as the central project of modern British anthropology, but he also urged the need for greater reflexivity in anthropological writing and the recognition that textual representations of other cultures “may be vitiated by the fact that there are asymmetrical tendencies and pressure in the languages of dominated and dominant societies.”[1] A few years later, Lawrence Venuti addressed this challenge in a ground-breaking anthology on translation studies, observing that “a translation emerges as an active reconstitution of the foreign text mediated by the irreducible linguistic, discursive, and ideological differences of the target-language culture.”[2]
Another domain in which the notion of translation also figures centrally is Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), in which “translation” is defined as a transformative process that creates effective systems out of heterogeneous entities. ANT describes a world in constant flux and movement, a world in which activity occurs through the networking of heterogeneous entities we normally think of as separate and distinct—humans, natural phenomena, machines, material objects. The hyphen between ‘actor’ and ‘network’ expresses the instability of these heterogeneous entities, both human and non-human, and insists on the necessity of considering them in association with one another. For ANT theorist John Law, “translation” refers to the process by which heterogenous actors form into networks. As he writes, “‘Translation’ is a verb which implies transformation and the possibility of equivalence, the possibility that one thing (for example an actor) may stand for another (for instance a network).”[3]
More recently, Peter Burke has examined translation as an important focus of study for cultural history:

Whether translators follow the strategy of domestication or that of foreignizing, whether they understand or misunderstand the text they are turning into another language, the activity of translation necessarily involves both decontextualizing and recontextualizing. Something is always ‘lost in translation.’ However, the close examination of what is lost is one of the most effective ways of identifying differences between cultures. For this reason the study of translation is or should be central to the practice of cultural history. [4]

Burke’s remarks are very useful to think with in relation to the kinds of losses and slippages that occur as material objects and visual images circulate in cross-cultural exchange. In this regard, too, a remark made by Asad in the discussion of modern anthropological texts cited earlier foreshadows the agency that many scholars are today attributing to material and visual forms:

It could be argued that ‘translating’ an alien form of life, another culture, is not always done best through the representational discourse of ethnography, that under certain conditions a dramatic performance, the execution of a dance, or the playing of a piece of music might be more apt. These would all be productions of the original and not mere interpretations: transformed instances of the original, not authoritative textual representations. [5]

Colloquium Summary
The rich array of presentations over the two days ranged widely across time and space. Fred Myers (Anthropology, New York University) analyzed contemporary processes in which Australian Aboriginal artists have translated into a visual language, that can be consumed as ‘abstract art’, an ancient iconography that positions people in relationship to cosmic generative processes in deep time as marked in and on land. Ivan Gaskell (History, Harvard and Harvard Art Museum) addressed the modalities of translation that occur through appropriation into different paradigms of museum display. He illustrated his model through a case study of a current installation of an Algonkian seventeenth-century bow that is juxtaposed with European paintings and other works of art at the Harvard Art Museum.
Jennifer Roberts (Art History, Harvard) examined John Singleton Copley’s painterly translations of objects and people across distance and space in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world and the impact of his political/spatial/artistic transformation in the course of the American Revolution and his move to England. Laurel Ulrich (History, Harvard) presented an aspect of her current research on the diaries of Wilford Woodruff, analyzing key pages that are richly embellished with graphic designs and architectural motifs. Drawing out its material and visual qualities as a handmade object, she investigated its probable range of visual sources and the expressive meaning of their ‘translation’ into textual adjuncts.
Beverly Lemire (History, University of Alberta) and Mark Phillips (History, Carleton University) transferred the site of translation to eighteenth-century Great Britain. Lemire examined the conflicted process by which Indian printed cottons were imported and eventually incorporated into British dress. Phillips discussed Sir John Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland and its representation of historical processes of modernization and change as material manifestations of alteration in land, crops, animal husbandry, and material consumption.
Charlotte Townsend-Gault (Art History, University of British Columbia) and Aaron Glass (Anthropology, Bard Graduate Center) addressed contemporary and historical aspects of Northwest Coast visual art. Townsend-Gault suggested that materials, or materially marked tactics, may be used to filter translation. This is a way to monitor protocols of proprietary rights and maintain a level of secrecy in contemporary art forms. Glass looked at the recursive nature of visual representations of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) Hamat’sa dance as they have occurred in the course of repeated translations into popular performance, photography, film, and museum representation. Matthew Liebmann (Anthropology, Harvard) discussed the archaeological evidence for material changes in the seventeenth-century American southwest during the decade of independence and cultural revitalization that followed the successful Pueblo revolt against Spanish colonial domination. Architectural and ceramic forms suggest processes of re-translation, both of pre- and post-Spanish forms.
Using debt records from fourteenth-century Tuscan archives, Dan Smail (History, Harvard) examined a set of processes by which people and goods could be ‘translated’ through a system of equivalences that invoked concepts of enslavement, imprisonment, and the seizure of goods. Tom Cummins (Art History, Harvard) also looked at court records, although from early sixteenth-century Mexico. He examined the ways that Spanish officials ‘translated’ Aztec texts containing pictures and glyphs into visual evidence that could be used in a case brought against an important Spanish official. Lawrence Venuti provided a case study of textual translation of an important recent French historical work in order to argue for the hermeneutic nature of translation and to illustrate the kinds of choices translators must make and the parameters by which they are constrained.
In their commentaries, Venuti and Turgeon introduced perspectives from literary translation studies and the study of intangible heritage that usefully called into question assumptions about both translation and materiality. Venuti urged the need to remember than translation can never be unmediated, while Turgeon argued that materiality cannot be considered in the absence of its relation to the intangible or immaterial.
Reflections and Discussion
Although we can do justice neither to the breadth of ideas nor to the depth of case-study details, we offer brief discussion of a number of themes that emerged over the two days, specifically those of interpretation, transformation, displacement, and agency. These arose in the context of reliance on different senses or implications of “translation,” and a widely variable dependence on or departure from colloquial (linguistic/textual) models. We close with some reflections on terminology, evidence, and the challenge of interdisciplinary scholarship. Along the way, we raise many more questions than we answer.
1. Translation as “interpretation.”
In the most basic usage, this suggests a process or goal of explaining or “making-sense-of” one thing in the language—or by extension, the materiality—of another. This is primarily a cognitive/ideational/conceptual usage, one meant to highlight the transfer of understanding across some social, cultural or material divide (even if the vehicle for delivering the new “sense” happens to be an object, like a book, painting, or museum exhibit). More narrowly, such translation-as-interpretation is facilitated or realized by the seeking of analogy or (ideally, perhaps) direct equivalence between two disparate things [see #3 below] to bring them into meaningful relation with one another; the ultimate goal of this exercise is to establish terms for comparison and recognition, and thus (ideally, again) mutual recognition. There is certainly room for debate over how closely the resulting translation will ever be to its source; for instance, Venuti contrasted an overtly “hermeneutic” approach to translation, which acknowledges and even celebrates innovative intervention, with the more “empirical” (and perhaps impossible) search for direct correspondence. It was repeatedly suggested that this approach to translation—of texts, objects, paintings and images, whether in academic or exhibitionary contexts—has strong resonance with the general goals of “ethnography” as a method of cultural description and analysis that privileges interpretation and contextualization of the unfamiliar in order to render it recognizable and comprehensible (vis-à-vis the Asad quote mentioned above).
These discussions raised a number of questions. Do the two “languages” (linguistic, visual, or material) between which something is being translated already exist as standard, conventionalized codes (as in the common model of linguistic translation), or is something entirely new being invented out of the pieces of both of them (suggesting the “hybridity” or syncretic nature of creoles and pidgins)? Is this latter context still “translation” exactly, or does it push us into the related realm of “transformation” [see #2 below]? Is it useful to distinguish these procedures, or rather to complicate the distinction by showing how each partakes of the other’s conditions? Moreover, as a logical exercise, we might ask ourselves whether all translation is also interpretation [the colloquium participants would generally agree that it is], and conversely whether all interpretation is also translation? Here, however, we feel the answer is “no,” that there are modes of interpretation that ought not to be described as “translation” per se, so as to avoid collapsing the two terms completely. Rather, translation emerges as one type or method of interpretation, one that privileges the presence of more than one code or social party to the transaction; this ultimately focuses discussions of translation around the dynamics of managing relations and relationality, anchoring the larger cognitive or conceptual process in thoroughly social and cultural contexts.
2. Translation as “transformation”
If the focus on interpretation privileges content, a second theme emerged from papers that take into close account the physical/material properties and forms of the things undergoing translation. This was evident through the invocation of various terms being put into analytical dialogue with translation, which also helped focus the discussion toward materiality: revision, alteration, adaptation, appropriation, repurposing. Such themes raise classic questions about the relation of form to content, especially in diachronic perspective: when the form of a thing changes, does its sense/meaning necessarily change as well? Likewise, when sense/meaning changes, must there be a concomitant alteration in form? This raises another logical challenge: does all translation necessitate material change in form? [we’d suggest that it does, whether in the case of spoken or written language, or in the case of sculptures based on paintings or texts based on photographs). However, is the converse also true, that any material transformation or change-in-state also constitutes a “translation”? Here we would argue against this claim, suggesting that it over-applies the term to situations (such as breakage or natural decay) that should not be understood as “translation” per se. Again, translation would be one type or method of material transformation, but not equivalent to it.
We believe one key element that distinguishes translation from other processes of transformation is the intentionality behind the process of changing something’s material state. Many papers discussed this factor under various rubrics—including appropriation, incorporation, domestication, and “grafting”—all of which imply, to various degrees, that the second term, code, or party absorbs the first at some level. But is this a necessary feature of translation-as-transformation, or does it only characterize select examples of the general process? This brings us directly to the last two issues—distance and power.
3. Translation as “displacement
Starting with recognition of its Medieval Latin etymological origin as a term for the movement of objects from one place to another, conversation frequently returned to the notion of translation as de- and re-contextualization. (As above, we would suggest that re-contextualization is the super-category here, and that “translation” should be considered a distinguishable subset of the larger phenomena). This was highlighted in case studies where specific materials/meanings were transported or transmitted across some kind of overt boundary (historical, geographical, social, cultural, etc), with an implied or explicit change in state or status as a condition or as a result. Translation generally (if not necessarily, by definition) implies the bridging of such a gap. However, in as much as it focuses attention on the divide in the first place, by nature of the transposition, perhaps translation also underscores and reinforces boundaries—calling attention to the disparate codes themselves—even as it seeks to overcome them. Or does this latter condition more accurately describe failures of translation, the potential incommensurability of systems of meaning and value? We certainly heard many papers about things getting lost in translation, either by mistake/error or as the result of conscious strategies of withholding, nondisclosure, or misinterpretation (sometimes in political response to histories of dispossession, appropriation, and misrepresentation). Clearly, the success or failure, as well as the positive or negative value, of translation-as-displacement depends in large part on relations of power as well as knowledge.
4. Translation and “agency”
Finally, we were confronted with the problem of locating agency in processes of translation. Most discussions tended to assume the tripartite model from the most common linguistic usage, which identifies three potential loci or moments of human agency or strategic intentionality: speaker/writer/maker/producer → translator/broker/curator/circulator → reader/viewer/user/consumer. However, alternatives presented themselves as well. What about makers who anticipate translation-as-displacement during production, and/or who participate in the circulation process (e.g. in practices of adapting ceremonial objects to the context of tourist art)? Drawing on Actor-Network Theory and the influential work of Alfred Gell, can we recognize agency in the material/object itself, treating it as a key player in the relations of production/translation/reception? Does translation presuppose the existence of a “text?” Is it active or only reactive? Returning to a question raised in #2 above, is locating intentionality somewhere (or more likely, in multiple places, roles, processes, and agents) absolutely essential if something is to be considered “translation,” or might it ever be accidental or incidental, an unintended byproduct of relocation or material change?
Many discussions circled around problems of terminology, and whether our key terms—translation and materiality—were being used too narrowly or too loosely. One question arose about whether we had simply expanded the definition of translation until it became indistinguishable from “mediation” more generally (defined in the larger sense as trying to establish terms of communication or mutual understanding, often by changing the “form” of those terms themselves so they are recognizable by one/both/multiple parties). Should translation be considered a particular form or format of mediation more broadly? If so, what are its distinguishing features? In another vein, given the recent moves toward materiality and material culture (as an alternative ontological, epistemological, or phenomenological framework to text-based/semiotic theory), is there a danger in drawing so heavily on translation as a model, which in its most common usage is about language/texts? Can we step back from language/text and think about what larger (or perhaps more essential) features of translation would look like, such that they can be made to apply more generally? Can we return productively to its Medieval sense as a movement of things? Or do we get caught up in the colloquial model and its baggage? We found clear advantages in thinking about “translation” as a specific form of mediation, as it implies interpretation, creativity, context, agency, and innovation; likewise, sensitivity to “materiality” calls attention to the physical and sensory qualities of cultural forms as well as to their linguistic/textual/conceptual contents or modes of communication. However, both terms have the capacity to be overextended until they lose analytical purchase and the ability to distinguish between disparate phenomena.
The answers to some of these questions may depend on disciplinary sensibilities, divergent terminological genealogies, and varying standards for recognizing and evaluating “evidence.” As in other interdisciplinary settings, we recognized the recurrent and perhaps predictable challenge of clarifying terms and unspoken assumptions, and of placing one another along an often-implicit continuum between theoretical and empirical analysis. However, with as much reflexivity as we could collectively muster, we experienced productive cross-fertilization (anthropologists using classic art historical methods to reconstruct relations between images/objects; art historians, curators and literary theorists calling for something like “ethnography” to tell more nuanced and contextualized stories of things), as well as successful avoidance of old, tired clichés (art/artifact; past/present; self/other; culture/Culture, etc). Overall, we found both translation and materiality useful concepts to think with, even if—or perhaps, precisely because—neither was subject, at the end of the day, to conceptual clarity and closure.
[1] Talal Asad, “The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology,” in James Clifford and George E. Marcus eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 164.
[2] Lawrence Venuti, “Introduction,” in Lawrence Venuti ed., Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology, New York: Routledge, 1992, 10.
[3] John Law “Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity,” 1992,, 7, accessed March 2008. (Also published in Systems Practice 5: 379-393.)
[4] Peter Burke, “Cultures of translation in early modern Europe” in Peter Burke and R. Po-Chia Hsia, Cultural Translation in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2007, 38.
[5] Asad, “The Concept of Cultural Translation,” 159.
Publications related to Materiality and Cultural Translation by Colloquium Participants:
Gaskell, Ivan. “The Riddle of a Riddle,” Contemporary Aesthetics, March 2008,
Glass, Aaron. “Frozen Poses: Hamat’sa dioramas, recursive representation, and the making of a Kwakwaka’wakw icon.” In Christopher Morton and Elizabeth Edwards (eds). Photography, Anthropology, and History: Expanding the Frame. London: Ashgate Press. Pp 89-116. 2009.
______“A Cannibal in the Archive: Performance, materiality, and (in)visibility in unpublished Edward Curtis photographs of the Hamat’sa.” Visual Anthropology Review 25(2):128-49. 2009.
Liebmann, Matthew. 2008, “The Innovative Materiality of Revitalization Movements: Lessons from the Pueblo Revolt of 1680,” American Anthropologist 110(3): 360-372.
______2002 “Signs of Power and Resistance: The (Re)Creation of Christian Imagery and Identities in the Pueblo Revolt Era,” in Archaeologies of the Pueblo Revolt, edited by Robert W. Preucel, pp. 132-144. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.
Lemire, Beverly. “Revising the Historical Narrative: India, Europe and the Cotton Trade, c. 1300-1800”in Prasannan Parthasarathi & Giorgio Riello, eds., The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1300-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 205-222.
______“Domesticating the Exotic: Floral Culture and the East India Calico Trade with England, c. 16001800.” Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture 1:1 (2003), pp. 65-85.
______Forthcoming. Textiles that Changed the World: Cotton (Oxford & New York: Berg Publishers, April 2011).
Myers, Fred. 2002, Painting Culture: The Making of an Aboriginal High Art, Durham: Duke University Press.
______2004, “Ontologies Of The Image And Economies Of Exchange.” American Ethnologist, February, Vol. 31 (1): 1-16.
Phillips, Ruth B. “‘Dispel all Darkness’: Material Translations and Cross-Cultural Communication in Seventeenth-Century North America,” in Art in Translation, 2 ( 2), 2010, pp. 171–200.
_______”Making Sense out/of the Visual: Aboriginal Presentations and Representations in Nineteenth-Century Canada,” Art History, 27, 4, September 2004, 593-615.
Roberts, Jennifer. “Copley’s Cargo: Boy with a Squirrel and the Dilemma of Transit.” American Art 21.2 (Summer 2007): 20-41.
______ “Failure to Deliver: Watson and the Shark and the Boston Tea Party.” forthcoming in Art History, Spring 2011.
Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. ‘Not a Museum but a “Cultural Journey”: Programmed Squamish Political Affect’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, edited by Nyanika Mookherjee and Christopher Pinney. 2011.
______’In Front of Fabulous Painted Things’, in Backstory: Nuuchaanulth Ceremonial Curtains and the Work of Ki-ke-in. Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery: University of British Columbia. Late 2010.
______Circulating Aboriginality’. Journal of Material Culture 9 (2), Special Issue, Beyond Art/Artifact/Tourist Art, edited by Nelson Graburn and Aaron Glass. 2004.
Laurier, Turgeon. “Spirit of Place: Evolving Heritage Concepts and Practices,” in L. Turgeon (ed.), The Spirit of Place: Between Tangible and Intangible Heritage / L’esprit du lieu : entre le patrimoine matériel et immatériel, Québec, Presses de l’Université Laval, 2009, p. 33-47.
______ “La mémoire de la culture matérielle et la culture matérielle de la mémoire,” in Turgeon L. et O. Debary (eds.), Objets et mémoires, Paris, Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2007, p. 13-36.
Ulrich, Laurel. The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth. Knopf, 2001
_____ “An American Album, 1857.” Presidential Address. American Historical Review, February 2010.
Venuti, Lawrence. “Ekphrasis, Translation, Interpretation” Art in Translation 2 (2), 2010.
______”Translation, Empiricism, Ethics” Profession 2010, [Modern Language Association of America], forthcoming December, 2010.

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