Translation as Appropriation?

Artist Henrietta Simson presented a talk yesterday evening on the subject of appropriation in her own work, a theme highly relevant to both Jack Goldstein and Anne Collier, who often create new works from re-photographing, manipulating and referencing existing material. Collier’s Woman With A Camera consists of frames from the 1978 film Eyes of Laura Mars, showing Faye Dunaway’s gradually changing expression as she lifts her gaze from the viewfinder of her camera. One of Goldstein’s most famous works involves a 16mm film loop created from the iconic MGM roaring lion logo, with its identifying branding removed, the background shifted from black to red.

Simson’s work is less obviously appropriated than Goldstein and Collier’s, partly because her sources are more art historically respectable (she makes hand painted copies of background details from early Renaissance and Renaissance paintings by Giotto, Lorenzetti and Leonardo da Vinci) and partly because, rather than photographs of these details, she uses Renaissance methods – drawing, gilding and painting on gesso – alongside more contemporary mediums like tracing, projection and installation. Because less familiar, her sources are also more elusive, only the titles giving us the cues we need to establish that a source exists.

This gives Simson’s appropriations a decidedly different feel to Collier’s images drawn from frames of film, magazine covers and LP sleeves – the current exhibition includes works showing art and photography magazines of the later 1970s, the Smiths 12″ single This Charming Man and an LP (with a monochrome seascape on its cover) of Sylvia Plath reading her poetry. Yet Collier’s photography is as resolutely traditional and crafted, in its own way, as Simson’s paintings, and while it would be easy for a viewer familiar with Photoshop in 2011 to dismiss Jack Goldstein’s lion as lacking craft, it should be remembered that back in 1975, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was made, the process involved in achieving these manipulations would have been highly technical and difficult.

In Simson’s case the traditional craft skill involved in the appropriations is obvious, but should not be seen as more rooted in a process of translation and interpretation at the level of technique than those of Goldstein and Collier (who generally – if not always – transpose their appropriations into mediums close to their sources, just as Simson appropriates gesso painting into gesso painting). In all these cases, the images are lifts from other works, but the completed works radically alter the sources, moving them from one language (in Simson’s case, that of an incidental, perhaps largely unnoticed detail in a historical religious work) to another (a contemporary artwork highlighting a slightly unreal landscape, sometimes reminiscent of, say, John Armstrong or Paul Nash).

This sense of appropriation as a process of translation – from one language to another, and one idiom and tradition to another – got me thinking about how my own use of (say) Welsh poems and Czech song lyrics as sources for my own writing was in its own way a similar kind of appropriation.

Perhaps one key is that the intention is not – for me, anyway – to faithfully transcribe a work into a close approximation of its original form in a new language, but to remodel it as a new work within that other language: the work being ‘translated’ becomes a fusion of the original and a new piece of writing on which my own fingerprints are markedly visible, for better or worse. That I tend to ‘translate’ with at best extremely partial knowledge (and often no knowledge at all) of the original languages, usually working from glosses and translation software, also means that these pieces could never be true translations anyway: fortunately someone came up with the word transcreation to describe this approach, and it’s a useful word, if only to avoid making the claim (implied by translation) of a deep knowledge of the original’s language, context and cultural nuances.

That being said, even where the original languages are known by the translators – as in the work gathered in George Steiner’s Poem Into Poem: World Poetry In Modern Verse Translation (1966/70) – the transcriptions often emerge in a form that carries more of the translator’s than the original poet’s DNA: whether the outright liberties taken by Ezra Pound’s Homage To Sextus Propertius and the Imitations of Robert Lowell (not to mention the way that Yeats’ versions of Ronsard read more like Yeats than anyone else) or the more subtle reinventions of whole traditions for English readers executed by Arthur Waley’s Chinese translations and Helen Waddell’s collections of Troubadour songs, the translator is always, in some sense, appropriating the source as a new work of his (or her) own.

Perhaps some of this thinking might begin to insinuate itself into the work produced during this residency, but in another sense it’s arguable that all art is both appropriation and translation: from experience into language, from three into two dimensions, from the sound of a voice into marks on the page, from a lifetime into a moment, one medium into another, even, as when a photograph (or simply a brick wall’s crumbling texture) is evoked in print, or paint, or charcoal on paper. Each act of translation – or perhaps more accurately transcreation – leaves the fingerprints of the translator on the image or experience.

Perhaps appropriation is not the measurable tendency within art that Simson’s talk suggested – a discrete area of practice to be chosen as a point of interest by artists – but in some sense an unavoidable part of the making of works of art in any medium, at any time in history, and in reference to any subject – in life, nature or the body of accumulated cultural detritus that surrounds all of us – it will ever be possible to choose. 

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  1. […] partly about appropriation, but also a case of the film borrowing much from the traditions of art photography: the […]

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