Talking About Translation: History, Art, and Language

Talking About Translation panel. L-R: Nadia Rhook, Allison Chan, Rani Pramesti, John Young.
Talking About Translation panel. L-R: Nadia Rhook, Allison Chan, Rani Pramesti, John Young.

In October 2016, three Asian Australian artists: visual artist, John Young; performance artist, Rani Pramesti; and writer, Allison Chan, spoke with moderator Nadia Rhook, on a panel hosted at the City Library. Hosted in conjunction with the exhibition, Moving Tongues, these three artists shared stories about the practices and politics of translation, covering questions such as: What kind of spaces support the translation of linguistic and cultural difference? How are language(s) important in the making of place? Of art and histories? Of identity?

This transcript of the discussion begins with reflections from John Young, then moves on to Allison Chan and Rani Pramesti.

John Young
John Young

NR: How do you practice translation, and what kind of translation is it?

JY: I only had one thought when I started thinking about this question and that was a set of works I did in 1981 called Drawing in Ten Parts. And in those days the visual arts it was impossible within Australian contemporary art to utilise any sort of Chinese imagery or Asian imagery really, because people were so unused to it.  So I really had to think of ways to describe different ways of living that I actually carried with me when I came to Australia. I started to look at Chinese poetry or other activities like Tai Chi, and somehow translated that into the visual art form. So I’ll give you a very simple example – I looked at the live activity of Tai Chi, which is an art form which is really important in terms of time, and breathing and bodily movement and I translated that into drawing. In a sense it was a cross-medium form of translating. Like any textual translation however, things are lost and gained in the translation between two different life activities, between the Tai Chi exercises and the process of drawing in contemporary art.

NR: Let’s turn to the question of how to translate stories; from the personal into the collective, and from the past into the present.

JY: For people who are not familiar, this [*points to the wall behind the panelists] is an excerpt from a work that I did called 1866: the Worlds of Lowe Kong Meng and Jong Ah Siug. It tells the story of two individuals at the end of the nineteenth century. One (Lowe) spoke four languages, and came to Australia with a fleet of boats, a great trader, and ended up as part of the elite of Melbourne. One of the high points I guess was that he was on the board of Westpac, which in those days was the Commercial Bank of Australia, and he convinced the Bank to make bank notes bi-lingual, so there were Chinese and English in the original one pound, five pound, twenty pound notes.

Lowe Kong Meng died relatively young, but he lived a fairly illustrious life. Jong Ah Siug was 16 years old when he arrived in Victoria, he was from a very illiterate background, and when he was on the gold fields he got into an altercation with some other Chinese miners and was thrown in jail. But the fact that he couldn’t articulate in a functional language – and especially not in English – and a series of court decisions landed him 33 years at Yarra Bend Asylum, and he never got out. Jong wrote in a small diary, now held in the State Library, in an attempt to exonerate himself, but of course it never got to the appropriate parties. But the fact that he wrote this diary, in English words and a sort of Chinese grammar, with observations from the Chinese world view or episteme — full of references to spiritual deities— landed him the tag of madness. This is a testament to the difficulties that he faced whilst he was incarcerated.

Whilst Jong was in the insane asylum there were reports of him seeing ghosts. Nowadays we would say that he was hallucinating.  And judging by the names he attributed to these ghosts, they were known Chinese deities. Then he was considered hallucinating, but in fact these sorts of things were common even with the last generation of Chinese people like my grandparents, so ghosts are considered part and parcel of life really. And so in that sense I guess the reimagining of these two individuals would be a kind of translation.

I only have one basic principle now in my artworks if I had to use texts, which is that if I work in a language, I always write it in Chinese and English, sometimes, you know, also in German, so I always have multi- languages in my work. But I feel there is still an enormous resistance in contemporary art. Really, translation is possible when you have a shared goal, when people have shared sympathies, whether it’s a trauma or whether it’s a material goal, and you work towards that, even when there are some differences. A good translation has to be empathically imaginative.

NR: Is there a role for translation in decolonisation?

JY: I felt that my own experience shapes this question of decolonisation. I’m from Hong Kong so I grew up speaking English and Cantonese. Cantonese as most people know is actually a very old dialect, so it’s very complex tonally but also it’s got different ways of usage, its highly context dependent, very proverbial, rhetorical and densely ironic in ordinary speech. Literalism and functionality ranks very low in this dialect. You know, one can be praising a person and pull the carpet under their feet at the same time in Cantonese. And there are enough proverbs in one sentence to describe a person’s character fairly accurately. And since the handover from the decolonisation of Hong Kong, handing over from a colony of Britain back to China, you see the recolonisation of bureaucratic Chinese i.e. Mandarin speaking to Hong Kong. So definitely a lot of ideological lines are drawn through language.  Yet at the same time the curious thing is that the leaders in the Umbrella Revolution are often speaking in English because they have to deal with democratic and human rights issues, and a little bit of Cantonese. So they are taking on language as a form of battle.

Allison Chan
Allison Chan

NR: How do you, Allison, practice translation, and what kind of translation is it?

AC: Translation sort of figures as an invisible phantom in literary academia. Mostly because in order for the text to gain any sort of validity we need to talk about it, and read it in English, for some reason, and we always talk about that process of translation in the original language of the text as “the foreign”, and we’re rescuing it by bringing it into the center, so while I find that translating from English into another language is an incredibly liberating process, I’m still operating within circles that are translating from other languages into English, and I find that quite restricting in a colonial structure that privileges English over other languages. And I guess it’s never really mentioned.  When we’re confronted with published texts that include untranslated original languages, it’s often talked about as inter-textual, as though the other language is a completely different text that doesn’t relate to the one right in front of us. So, I inhabit this very strange space where translation isn’t really mentioned, or where translation is a means to an end, but I find that it can be quite a violent process of erasure.

NR: We might talk for a bit then about some of the tensions – and even the political tensions –you’ve faced in the process that you speak about.

AC: My political tensions come from a deeply personal place. My family speaks Cantonese and Mandarin, and I have sort of like a very minimal understanding and ability to speak the languages, and for me these languages have become ghosts, where I sort of see them and can tell that they’re there but I can’t really grasp at it. And I guess I’m struggling with this notion of your identity being tied to your linguistic heritage, and if I don’t speak the language then who am I? Recently I’ve been thinking about the notion of the migrant as between the telling and the told, and inhabiting that space of language. I’m really conscious of the fact that being in this society where I have to speak in English in a certain way to be understood and to have a part in the society that it means that I can’t practice the languages that allow me to communicate with my family, and that my family privilege English over our own language to, to communicate with me and to bring me into community but I don’t think that necessarily feels the same, and I think that for people of colour especially, when they’re required to interact with the society in a different language and work harder than everyone else to be successful and to have a place and to feel worthy. The time and energy put into that means that you can’t put it into your language, and that’s how the loss of language is perpetuated.

NR: We might turn to the question of how to translate stories; from the personal into the collective, and from the past into the present.  Allison, you recently covered the Chinese Writer’s Festival. Did you want to talk a bit about the spaces that do, and don’t, support translation?

AC: The Chinese Writer’s Festival functioned as a very diplomatic space, rather than as a space of neutral language. In practice the kind of translation that happened at the Festival was necessarily laborious. It took time, because that’s what translation does, we unpack all of the cultural knowledge that doesn’t get translated across and there are misunderstandings and clarifications, but I thought it was an incredibly beautiful thing to bear witness to. To have even like a speaker up there to correct the translator and say actually, no, that’s not what it means, it’s probably more like this word. And, but I do think that something like the Chinese Writer’s Festival also needs to acknowledge that perhaps it was China-centric.

I felt quite alienated, mostly because I’m from Malaysia and even though I identify as Chinese-Malaysian for the benefit of other people, not necessarily for me, that language reflected there didn’t actually reflect my persona, familial, cultural histories. And I think that is true to the colonial lens that views Chinese or Asian very reductively. The Festival was perhaps a good start to paying attention to other languages, but then again it was conducted without understanding the way in which China is at the top of the hierarchy when we talk about Asia, which is due to what we can gain from China as economic partners, and a lot of it was directed towards publishing. But I do think that there are other very beautiful spaces that encourage translation and nurture that practice.

NR: Is there a role for translation in decolonisation?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about translation in very concrete terms. It is a process of transforming one thing into another, and we always act as if those two languages are static, they don’t change and we can just completely flip it over (see more). In my degree I’ve been studying Indonesian, and one of my frustrations with a lot of the translation was that I was always required to translate into English in a very clinical way …So the way I see translation as a decolonising practice is to look at the translation itself, that in between process of the gaps in what we cannot translate. And I think there is a great importance in actually addressing what isn’t there, or what is there, because by recognising it and calling it by its name I think that is an incredibly liberating thing, and I think we see that in a lot of other things. For example, when we address the trauma that’s happened in racism, there is an incredibly healing process, and I think that if we address the fact that translation is an incomplete practice we can begin working towards the same goals, as John was referring to.

Rani Pramesti
Rani Pramesti

NR: Rani, how do you practice translation, and what kind of translation is it?

RP: I make intimate performance installations for very small numbers of people at a time, and they encourage people, gently, to engage with topics that are very hard to sit with and reflect on. Things like racism, mass violence, and most recently child sexual abuse, and it’s only recently that I’ve worked in a bilingual way. So my mother tongue is Indonesian and my second language is English, and that’s partly because I went through dramatic arts training at the VCA, which helped me to really grow a lot as a performer but I felt completely disconnected from my own heritage in that training, because we very much focused on Anglo Australian or Anglo American or Anglo British works. I only recently sought to make works that translate across my cultural way of being. My most recent work Sedih // Sunno, just in the title itself, “Sedih” is to be sad in Indonesian, and “Sunno” is to listen in Hindi, so the work was a gently invitation to listen to sadness. And part of the soundscape of the work was multi-lingual in nature. So there was Indonesian, there was a scattering of Javanese, Japanese, English, as well as Hindi, for example. I also thought about translation in terms of making my work accessible to targeted communities.

NR: We might talk for a bit then about some of the tensions – and even the political tensions – you’ve faced in the process that you speak about.

RP: One of my signature works is called Chinese Whispers, and it was about mass violence that happened in Indonesia, some of which was targeted at Indonesians of Chinese descent and that’s actually how I came to be in Australia. And we had a predominantly English language version of that work, an interactive 40 minute audio journey that you followed through a labyrinth made of cloth. Then I translated that work into a predominantly Indonesian work, and it was interesting doing the narration in English. But when I translated it into Indonesian in Ria’s house, all this anger came up, anger that I think was so deeply entrenched and so linked to the past trauma. It took me speaking my story in my mother tongue to unlock it, and I thought that was really interesting because it’s like language is a way of locking away trauma when you connect with it through a particular language, and language is the key to unlock trauma, and the energy and the memories that come with it. It was a very visceral experience, I was sitting on Ria’s couch and I just started crying from the emotion, it just came out of “nowhere” so I wanted to share that as an experience.

NR: Let’s turn to the question of how to translate stories; from the personal into the collective, and from the past into the present. Rani, in Sedih // Sunno how did you deal with translating stories from your family’s past into the present?

RP: It’s become clearer and clearer to me that what I tend to do with my work is I take a personal story and, with the help of my creative team, try to make it a universal, relatable experience. You know, Sedih // Sunno was inspired by my mother’s sadness, due to experiencing child sexual abuse when she was much much younger. So I try to tell the personal story with integrity and then I let people make their own connections. That said, there are some things that I still don’t really know how to talk about. Some of them involve ghosts, actually, because there were ghosts that day, in the performance.

The work that I make tends to be very emotionally draining, and once my mum came over from Indonesia to support me. She was just so strong to do that, because the show’s inspired by her trauma. And this one afternoon, we’d already done seven runs of the show for audiences and I felt so utterly drained, so I rang my mum and said “Ma, can you please come and support me energetically?” And she came, she sat in the corner of the room, and meditated. While we were warming up, I felt the energy in the room shift and she blessed me and I was like “Ma! What are you doing, cos it’s working!” She said “Oh, I just called some Angels so there’s one over there, one over there, I put one over there and one over there, so you’ll be fiine.” (Laughter.) Every time she did that, it would be like having wings sprout from my back, and interestingly that was one of the closing lines from the show, that she forgave the perpetrator, she felt like she grew wings. My family talk about ghosts constantly. I try to speak about it publicly but I don’t quite know how to do that yet apart from telling stories, like the one I just shared [with] you.

NR: Is there a role for translation in decolonisation?

RP: I also wanted to share how I was at a panel recently with Australian and Indonesian writers, and one of the observations that was made was about how as writers from South East Asia we don’t read each other enough, we don’t translate from Indonesian —  Bahasa Indonesian — Bahasa Vietnam, Bahasa Vietnam — Bahasa Cambodian, Bahasa Cambodian — Bahasa Indonesian. So we don’t translate enough between so-called Asian languages. And yes, in terms of decolonisation, Indonesian is a very interesting language, isn’t it, to talk about because Bahasa Indonesia was created from a mixture of different languages to build the notion of Indonesia as a nation. So translation definitely plays a very key role in nation-building.

Panellist biographies

John Young Zerunge read philosophy of science and aesthetics at the University of Sydney and then studied and taught at Sydney College of the Arts. His investigation of western late modernism prompted significant phases of work from a bi-cultural viewpoint, since 2010 John has devoted his time to researching and creating projects in relation to the history of the Chinese diaspora in Australia.

Allison Chan is Peril Magazine’s writer-at-large, completing her studies in Literature at Monash University. Allison is currently co-producing Peril’s upcoming podcast, Please Explain, which unpacks national conversations and the racial underbelly of Australian myth-making. She was also a resident blogger for the 2016 Chinese Writers Festival.

Rani Pramesti is the Founder of RANI P COLLABORATIONS. Rani is a performance maker, an arts producer and an advocate for the arts. In all three roles, she builds bridges across cultures, generations and disciplines. Since 2015, Rani has been working as an Associate Producer at Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC). She is currently the co-producer of FCAC’s Emerging Cultural Leaders program. Rani is also the lead artist of Sedih //Sunno, a performance-installation that premiered at Next Wave Festival (May 2016) and Metro Arts (August 2016) to critical acclaim. Rani is a proud Board Member for the socially engaged youth theatre company, Western Edge Youth Arts.


Nadia Rhook

Author: Nadia Rhook

Nadia Rhook is a Melbourne-based historian and writer of Anglo-Celtic background. She lectures colonial history at La Trobe University and has published in national and international journals including Postcolonial Studies and Peril Magazine. Nadia curated the 2016 City of Melbourne-La Trobe heritage exhibition 'Moving Tongues: language and migration in 1890s Melbourne' and runs walking tours about Melbourne’s migration history.