In Conversation with Ricarda Vidal – 21st November 2014

This interview forms an appendix to the Bryan Eccleshall doctoral thesis (Reiterative Drawing as Translation: Making, Resistance, and the Negotiated Encounter) and is reproduced here in full with Ricarda Vidal’s permission. The PhD was conferred on 11th March 2016.

Ricarda Vidal is a teaching fellow at King’s College, London in the Culture, Media and Creative Industries department. She convenes ‘Translation Games’ which ‘brings literary translators, artists, designers and academics together to explore translation in a ludic programme of workshops, symposia, public exhibitions, performances and publications’. A website recording the translation games can be found here.

When I asked Ricarda for permission to publish this more widely, she replied that at the time of the interview Translation Games was an experiment rather than the fully-fledged research project into which it has subsequently evolved.

Ricarda turned the tables on me by asking a question which changed the dynamic of the conversation as we started by discussing my research, not hers. As a consequence there’s more of me in this conversation than I had planned. We both spoke quickly, finishing each other’s sentences. In transcribing the text I have edited it for the sake of brevity.


Tell me about your Ph.D.

Well, it’s practice-led. The work that I’m doing … I’m drawing other people’s art works from photographs. I’ve drawn a Joseph Beuys sculpture that was displayed in Sheffield: a sixteen panel drawing, a metre by a metre. The idea is that by reiterating another work the authorship slips away and becomes problematic and I’m managing to interpose myself between the viewer and the work. But also, part of it is that it isn’t my work.

Do you think of it as adaptation or as translation?

When I started the Ph.D I was interested in copying and tracing, Marcus Boon’s book In Praise of Copying and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing were important.(1) Also, I was interested in processes. But I realised that I wasn’t making copies, I wasn’t replicating. I was doing something more freewheeling: you’d never be fooled into thinking you were looking at ‘the thing’, you’d always know you were looking at a version of the thing. I stumbled across Antoine Berman’s ‘twelve deforming tendencies of translation’ that form part of his essay ‘Translation and Trials of the Foreign’, which is in Lawrence Venuti’s Translation Studies Reader, and I thought ‘oh, these are really interesting, they’re about what happens when you translate: you clarify, you gentrify, and so on’. There’s a whole body of theory that relates to translation that’s really useful. I’m not sure that what I’m doing is translation in a pure sense, however, I can use translation theory to understand a process. It unlocks something about reiterative art. I’m looking at artists like Elaine Sturtevant, even Duchamp with his Boîte-en-Valise as a translation of his own work. It’s not been thought of as that, he’s thought of in terms of appropriation, adaptation and so on, but actually if you think about it in terms of translation, it unlocks other things about the work. And now there’s Kate Davis who’s making drawings of DeKooning postcards…

Okay, that’s very interesting.

It’s flawed. I’ve likened it to buying a pair of trousers that don’t quite fit. They don’t fit, but you can wear them. The theory isn’t perfect, but you can use it. And it’s interesting and we’ll probably get on to this, but I was interested in how scholarliness in translation comes from how things don’t work. If things fit perfectly, there’s nothing much to learn.

That’s interesting; the gaps …

Yes, the gaps and these bits that rub up against…

…and sometimes you think something works perfectly and it doesn’t. The more you think about it and you realise ‘actually I’m missing a lot of what’s in the original there, so I need to do it differently. What I thought was perfect is not. Why is it not perfect?’

Also, it’s become a close reading as well, through spending hours drawings it.

I’m just interested, because normally when I talk to artists it’s me that has to explain what I mean by translation. You have just done that very wonderfully, from your position as an artist, and I wondered if you’d come from a literary background or…?

Not really.

You’re also talking about reading and close reading the art work.

I did a Fine Art BA a long time ago and more recently an MA in Sheffield. I’ve always been interested in Duchamp, reiteration, Conceptual Art, appropriation, so I’ve come from that angle. Artists like Sol LeWitt are important. In the same way that Sol LeWitt wall drawings are done from instructions, like a score. I started to think of them as equivalents though people tend to think of them as copies. I have this thing about trajectories. Copies tend to move back towards the source, whereas translations are pulling away from it, though they’re always linked to it.

It’s the movement of taking something somewhere else.

Yes. The perfect replica is the undiscovered forged banknote. It is so much the ‘thing’ that it stands for the thing, functions as the thing and nobody realises. That’s a replica. Translations don’t do that. You’re aware that these things are not the thing, but they are of the thing somehow.

They use a different material. When you forge a banknote you have to use the same material, do everything the same, whereas you have to use a different material.

And there’s a kind of ‘passing off’. Copies and replicas try and pass themselves off as the thing. You have a print of the Mona Lisa because you can’t have the Mona Lisa. It stands for it. The thing with translation – and Kate Briggs says this  – is that we forget. People say ‘I’ve read War and Peace’, ‘Do you read Russian?’, ‘No’, ‘Well, then you haven’t. You’ve read a version of it.’

It’s interesting when you think of re-translation. When something has already been translated and you translate it again, which is something that comes from literary translation. War and Peace, for example, was translated when it first came out and recently has been re-translated, because language has moved on and maybe when you do something like that in art you have to take into account other things that have happened in the medium you’re using so even if someone has done it before at the beginning of the twentieth century, when there was a whole thing about ekphrasis and translating work, but they would do it with the medium and the art history of the time; in the art context of the time. But when you do it now, there’s a hundred years in between…

…and technology changes.


…and this is where contingency comes in. Translations are always contingent. Originals remain originals, broadly speaking. We read Shakespeare in English and it’s basically the same but when it’s translated into German or French they…

But Shakespeare’s been translated into ‘English’. When it’s updated for different contexts, it’s transposed or mediated into ‘our time’, using different language.

I was reading on the Translation Games website a quote that I’m fascinated by. I suspect, although it’s not attributed, that you’re the author of it:

with every translation game I play, I become more and more convinced that there really is an essence to every text and it’s possible to capture it and preserve it no matter how far removed the target is from the source.

I think that’s really interesting and it’s a really bold claim. What made you come to that contingent conclusion?

We’ve done quite a few translation games. At the beginning, when we set out with it, it was ‘really, is this possible at all?’ The first conversations with the artists were ‘what do you mean by translation?’, and then you talk more about it and then it’s ‘oh yeah, that’s what you mean’. Then we got translators and literary translators together with artists and we got them to talk to each other and that’s when the artists thought ‘okay, that’s a method I could use which is different from adaptation or illustration which would then perhaps be translation. Then they went away and did their translations and because we had the chain it was really very questionable whether it would be possible to relate the final piece in the chain back  to the original text. I really wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but it worked phenomenally well. There was this question at the beginning as well: ‘is there an essence?’

Which is a real ‘Benjamin’ idea, isn’t it?

Yes, but also, if you talk of an essence it has to be the same thing. One of the questions was also ‘if we all agree there is an essence, do we still agree that it’s the same, constituted by the same elements?’ The first translation games had twenty-seven versions [of the same text], and there seemed to be something preserved throughout. The same element came up in different versions. So that’s why I thought there does seem to be some sort of agreement…

You can’t quite lose it?

Yes. Exactly. So something stays, which could actually be that essence. That is, of course, very controversial. With every workshop that we do people say ‘no, no, no, there’s no essence. Can you really speak of an essence?’ When you’re a literary translator you sort of start out from the idea that there is something, one particular content that really should stay the same when you translate a piece through different languages. It might vary and it might be cloaked in different ideas and materials but it should, in the end, still boil down to the same elements and so far that has actually really worked. We’ve also done translations where we’ve asked literary translators to translate from the visual and that has also worked surprisingly well. Again, I thought it would be easier for an artist to start from that text to translate it into a different medium and then to carry that text… I wasn’t sure if it would work the other way.

That’s more like the standard ekphrastic practice, which is either descriptive or …

Yes, and it has worked the other way round, but we’ve only really done that twice.

I suppose it [the claim, above] is like a conjecture. All you can say is that ‘we did it again and worked.’ You only need one to go the other way and then you have to say ‘well, it doesn’t work for all of them’.

I’m still in the collecting phase, and I want to gather more. What is really really interesting is to have these workshops and to get people talking and to see what everyone thinks, and then to get people to do it, because sometimes we get … when you have … the most critical ones have been creative (specifically, theatre) practitioners, because they go, ‘what we do with every play [we put on] is put on a translation, so how is what you’re doing different?’ When you do translation … When you create a stage set, is that translation? I would say it isn’t, it’s really an adaptation – there is a difference – stage sets can be wildly different from one another. There’s a lot of overlap between adaptation and translation. Once you get theatre practitioners to take part in a translation game they say that there does seem to be a difference and that the difference is that translation is always more limiting. It’s much less free than the adaptation.

I think that one thing that I’ve noticed in making drawings of photographs of art works is that you can’t be glib. It can’t just be a sketch. A rough ‘back of a cigarette packet’ drawing of a face can’t be a translation of the Mona Lisa. It can’t be, because there’s something about judicious attention to detail, something ethical, a consciousness that you’re doing justice to the thing, in a funny sort of way.

That’s what everyone who takes part (in the translation games) always says. They felt this pressure to respect the work and to do it justice.

That’s where scholarship comes in. When I was thinking that translation … I’m basically monolingual – I don’t speak any other languages – so I’m coming at this from a very strange angle, but that Medieval idea of scholarship is about translation. Translation is the root of scholarship, turning a Greek text into Arabic, and then into Latin and when people start comparing texts it’s scholarship. That’s what we still do in literature reviews and when we tell students to compare Rembrandt with Caravaggio. We’re asking for them to compare and contrast two texts which have something in common but that aren’t the same. Translation is just a more radical version of that.

But also what you’ve just said about being monolingual, that you don’t do (linguistic) translation is not true.

Well, if you gave me a French book and said ‘translate that’, I couldn’t do it.

In translation games that’s also one thing that we want to contest: that people say ‘I’m monolingual, if you give me a French text I can’t deal with it’, but you actually can, because a lot of words are related. It’s more obvious with German, but French also has a lot of words related. So when you give a text to people they all say ‘oh I don’t speak that language’, but they can break it down…

I accept the point…

… and the visuals can help. And also the idea that we’re constantly translating is also something visual so when you’re confronted with the French text it might conjure up images for you as well and via the images you might get to what it actually means.

Oh right, so you use it as a conduit back to the…

This idea that translation is always between one language and another is what we try to break down. Even when I read a German text – my native language – I might have a particular image in mind, so it’s sort of the understanding of the text, the linguistics, that is related to other forms of communication. The step to take those other forms of communication, to translate them, is not as radical as it might first sound.

I suppose what I mean is that I couldn’t earn a living as a translator in the normative sense. What I find interesting about the idea of translation games is that whereas what is traditionally seen as a solo operation, you’re using collaboration and actually the side of my project in which I’ve become more and more interested is in this space of work that opens up. Translation is the cultural form that acknowledges this space of work – one is saying that there’s the author and there’s me and that something happens between them. We sort of pretend that nothing happens when the author did it, they just did it. It sprang from nowhere, whereas the translator has to work at it and it exposes that. We see it manifested in footnotes and prefaces and apologies and little brackets with bit of italics, and we’re constantly reminded that somebody has managed a text into another text – wrangled it, somehow – and it seems to acknowledge a site where an encounter has happened, where a negotiation has happened. By having people collaborating you making that very, very visible. There’s a literal encounter, not an intellectual encounter between a person and a text; it’s a discussion.

Which is very much part of translation. If you read a text and are not quite sure how to translate it, you get in touch with the author and you talk it over. Obviously that’s the ideal.

I was listening to a podcast of the woman [Anthea Bell] who translated W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and she was saying that he was writing it as she was translating it.

He was very much involved.

And he changed some of the latter bits because of the way she translated it. He changed how he wrote it because he knew how it would come out. That’s the perfect storm, in a way. If the author is dead, there’s more of reliance on experts and expertise and so on…

There’s someone interesting you might want to talk to — Stephen Fowler, have you heard of him? — he’s a poet and he has a project called ‘enemies’ in which he gets different people to collaborate across languages. He might get an English poet working with a Mexican poet, neither of them speak each other’s language, but they each translate each other’s work and they do collaborative work in that space of not really being able to communicate, but actually communicating quite amazingly.

And they must establish a new language to deal with that, I imagine.

I’ve worked with him on a couple of translation games. His idea of translation is much wider than mine. My idea is probably quite limiting because it’s very tightly focussed on the respect for the original and because of my fervent belief that there is this kind of essence. Within Stephen Fowler’s notion of translation it doesn’t matter if there’s an essence or not. What matters for him is the collaborative part and he sees every translation as something new. A new work. I don’t see it as necessarily an entirely new work. I think that relates to what you said at the beginning that it is a new work because it uses new material, other forms of expression, but it also comes out of something else and has a very very tight link to that original, from which it comes.

I recently came across a book by Efraín Kristal, Invisible Work, about Borges’ translation practice, how crucial it is to understanding his literary writing practice.(2) His approach to translation was that he could do the conventional, normal translation for publishers who want to make good, straight forward, representations but he could also … well, for example when he translated The Arabian Nights he added a story because people have always added stories and he saw it as completely in the spirit of the thing. (3) Also, he used stories, adapting them, shortening them because he wanted to highlight something. He’s almost after the essence, saying ‘that’s what they would have written, had they written in Spanish now, but they didn’t, so I’m going to do it for them’. But also there’s something – not disrespectful – it’s a strange sort of imposition of authorship…

I think with fairy tales that’s entirely permitted because they’re in the oral folk tradition and they’ve always been … but fairy tales are the ones that are of the essence and when the Brothers Grimm went out to collect fairy tales, they wrote down what they perceived to be the essence. If you bought that story book it was up to you to make the story up from the bones of it, basically.

I see. This serves your argument, the more extreme you can play with it, something is still there.

It’s the same story, but I don’t know whether it always is because when you think about what has happened to Little Red Riding Hood, for example… That has had numerous re-shapings, translations and where the moral of the story is entirely different.

And the moral could stand for the essence, the thing you’re meant to get from it…

… and it did for the Brothers Grimm, but maybe it doesn’t for us, now. Which kind of means that there isn’t an essence. (Laughs).

It reminds me of the film Company of Wolves. (4)

Exactly, I was thinking of that particular one. A student of mine made a sound version of that. It was quite a few years ago: you had to take a CD player and headphones and walk through Epping Forest and have the experience.


That was a way of taking it into the twenty-first Century.

Going back to the thing about essence which I think is, appropriately enough, the core of the problem. When translating, does complexity in the source material makes a difference? Does it matter how complex it is?

I would say that – and I’ve got two poems in my mind right now that we used, one was a conceptual poem by Paul Brown from 2012 and another by a Serbian poet (Vasko Popa) which is quite a bit older and quite simple. It uses very easy metaphors and language whereas Paul Brown has made up a few words; it’s very powerful and more difficult. We had that translated into film and then back into poetry and it worked amazingly well.

The Popa poem was translated into a picture, it was a very multi-layered photograph, you could throw all sorts of narrative at it. What came through was that the poem, which also had a narrative in it, could, like the Brown one, be translated back into poetry and that the spirit or the atmosphere was kept. Also, with Paul Brown’s poem, some of the metaphors actually came through. With Popa’s we gave people just the image and got them to write down a draft of it and then gave them the Serbian (which none of them spoke, but we had a couple of Hungarians), and they started translating the words. Then we put up the German and everybody just figured out the German and although it watered down the original idea of just working (with the Serbian), it was interesting.

Because there were too many clues?

Yes, but we asked people to set their initial response to the image aside as an idea for a translation and they did capture that atmosphere and what was going on in the poem. There was something there that worked quite well. One of them wrote a poem as an initial response to just the image. It was quite a new work, but it did have a similar story in it, about two people and the breakdown of a relationship.

There’s the phrase ‘deaf air’, isn’t there?

It worked with the simple and the complex work. I initially thought that the complex one would be easier because if you have a complex work as an artist, you have more to play with.

… and more to read into it. Lawrence Venuti talks about ‘domestication’ and this is an idea I’ve become interested in.(7) It was first presented to me as almost colonialist. It’s like you’re literally taming something and turning into something recognisable in your culture and denying its cultural specificity. I was just sent a text by The Guardian’s Tim Parks about writing from your place, that some things shouldn’t be translated. He writes that there are Dutch and Swedish authors writing in their own language but with a view to being translated into English and it’s changing how these authors are writing in their own language, because they want an international bestseller. You don’t get rich as a Swedish author unless it’s translated into English. This seems to argue against – I think – trying to write for a general audience, writing something ‘domesticatable’ and that it’s good that some things aren’t translatable and are inaccessible to people who don’t speak Serbian and they should stay Serbian as they have something to say to Serbian culture.

Which is the ideal, but I recently went to a talk [by a representative of Phoenix Yard Books] a press that specialises in children’s books and translating them. The woman who gave the talk had an example of a Swedish children’s book. With children’s books obviously the visuals are very important as well as the words. But the words go with the visuals and they had this wonderful children’s book which had been translated into German and French and the English publishers rejected it because they thought it wouldn’t work for an English speaking audience, but not because of the content or the words, but because of the images and of course you can’t translate those. Well, you could, but that would be one of our translation games then, if you also had to translate the images. For me it was interesting how these English publishers make this connection between not just the written language but the visual language as well. They actually see it as something that is understood differently within different national and cultural contexts.

The irony of that is just because someone speaks English doesn’t mean they have anything like the same visual understanding, because English is such a widespread language. Living in New Orleans might be very different from living in Vancouver.

But then again, you do translate between British English and American English. The Harry Potter covers were different for the American market and some of the words were different. There is translation going on between the Englishes as well.

This reinforces an idea that you started with, that perhaps we don’t think we speak more than one language, but in fact if we think of them in term of dialects then we speak across more borders or linguistic borders.

It’s just occurred to me that we always think visuals are internationally comprehensible and speak to everyone, but it seems that they don’t, or that the fact that those publishers thought they wouldn’t be able to sell this book because the visuals might not appeal to a five year old British child when they do to a five year old in Sweden or France.

Rudi Meyer – a speaker I recently saw at a conference – spoke about the dialects of drawing: blueprints are different from 3D modelling, sketches, Leonardo’s sketches and so on. If you think of them as dialects you can see what is common (a hand looks like a hand looks like a hand), but sometimes they’re diagrammatic and serve a different purpose. (8) To paraphrase Kate Briggs: each translation is almost a translation from first principles, being based on the source, your ability to do it, and the target. You’re aiming for something, for example building a building, you have to do blueprints. You mediate the information according to where it’s going to end up, as much as being dependent on where it’s from. You have to negotiate with that.

Comics and animation are interesting to look at. A comic like Asterix has been translated through many languages and that seems to work. Japanese Manga is being translated and that seems to works as well. So what’s the difference with the children’s books?

I’m of an age that I grew up reading comics and remember manga appearing. I remember it being too rich. There’s so much going on in the panel. I’m actually not very literate in those terms. I’ve read graphic novels that are and always were in English but when I look at Japanese stuff it’s so dense visually and people have told that that’s like Japan. It’s visually very dense and hard to read.

The signs comprise so much more than our alphabet. The pages in Japanese aren’t quite as overloaded as when it’s translated. That’s also when you translate from a language in a different alphabet and when you translate the visual – like a comic – that’s something else to think about. When translating from Arabic, for example, you read from that side (the right), so you have to turn the whole book round, and the speech bubbles and the direction. And Hebrew, for example, is much shorter because they don’t have any vowels.

Which brings me to another thing I’m interested in which is the surplus created when something is translated. Often there’s leftovers. Often it is in the footnotes and prefaces, but often translated texts are far longer than the source text. Even in languages which ought to be shorter, they end up being longer because there has to be a bit of explication: the clarification that Antoine Berman talks about. I wonder in the projects you’ve done what that surplus looks like, because I’m almost convinced that there’s bound to be one. When you get groups of people making things, are they taking things away that are surplus to the exercise?

You definitely get a whole lot of notes and first drafts and then you also get the interpretation, because every translation is always an interpretation. You get things added on to the narrative if there is one, or you get a narrative transposed into where there wasn’t one. Those are the new things that go on. Footnotes are quite interesting. Our first visual translator, Anna Cady used footnotes for her film of an original piece of fiction. In the film she has these footnotes which say ‘listen to this piece of music here’ or ‘look at this bit of writing in this book’. She actually used footnotes in order to make the translation work. Her final footnote in the film is ‘this is not translatable in this language.’ She then left it up to the viewers to follow up on the footnotes. The next translation that came up after that took those footnotes and worked around it. The translation after the film was a ceramic translation where the artist made pieces and asked the viewers/audience to enact the narrative with those pieces and in that way sidestepping the ‘this is not translatable in this language’ but maybe you can contribute here yourself. It’s a kind of an invitation to interpret and do something with the text, but the footnotes were really important to make the film work as a translation.

And they’re a signpost for translation. Translations tend to have footnotes. A Tom Clancy novel probably doesn’t…

They do when it’s a classic work.

It’s a sign of serious literature. If you read Joyce in French you get footnotes because it has to be readable.

But when you’re not allowed, as a translator, to put footnotes you have to make decisions like, for example, when you translate a work that has dialects in it…

…Like D. H. Lawrence and his Nottinghamshire miners.

Exactly, so what do you do if your publisher says ‘we don’t want footnotes because we want people to enjoy it, to be entertained?’ Then you have to make a decision about what to do with the text and do you then, if translating in to German, use a German dialect, or slang? Is the slang from the particular era? Do you update it?

This is what Berman talks about, the loss of rhythms and contextual stuff. […] What’s become more and more interesting as I’ve looked into this is what the process opens up, especially what happens in the making of the translation, and in the attention given to translation.

And in the errors. Translation always opens up lots of possibilities of making mistakes which doesn’t always have to be bad. It can be a productive mistake. In the first translation games, one of the textile designers who is a bit dyslexic misread the word ‘sliver’ for ‘silver’ which determined his choice of thread for his embroidery work, which was very nice. It was just a mistranslation. The Turkish textile designer had a Turkish translation which had used… The original text contained a boxing scene […] and in the Turkish translations it says ‘he boxed until he was black and blue in the face’. The Turkish textile designer used this to determine the choice of fabric, so again we had something where it wasn’t an error, but was a particular way of translating something – using a colour – which then determines the translation that came after it.

It sounds like that the processes you’re generating or using, has the people translating into their own language, which is generally what people do. It’s logical. There are very few people who translate out of their own language, even if they can do it, they choose not to.

Because you’re at home in your own language. You can’t ever be quite as ‘at home’ in a foreign language.

It becomes about facility or skill. You can do more in your own language, be it textiles, ceramics, film-making, writing in English, or making drawings. And it’s a kind of domestication, but the paradox is that, yes, it domesticates it or takes it across into something inappropriate but it gives you the biggest range to accord it the most respect. If you can’t make films you’re only going to make bad films … If you choose to do something you can’t do very well you’re limited and your vocabulary is small.

In the first translation games we worked with students and some were translating from one foreign language into another. That really opened up all sorts of different sorts of errors that could be made which was interesting – it wasn’t ideal – but it was the nature of the project.

But that’s how you find out things.

Exactly. It did open up a lot of new ways of interpretation, of seeing, and perhaps more ways for the artists to grapple with, or explore.

It’s this tension of doing something right – the judicious translation with an attention to detail – that actually generates the knowledge of the error. ‘Silver’ rather than ‘sliver’, for example. Without that [judiciousness] it’s just something else. That doesn’t mean to say that the error is a bad thing, but it’s not correct. That yardstick becomes an interesting way of testing what you’re doing. You were asking me why translation and not adaptation or variance or version, but translation actually comes with the check. You have to check things.

It’s the thing that limits you that makes it challenging.

And because it’s difficult, you find yourself bouncing up against it. If I make a drawing of a Joseph Beuys and it doesn’t look like one, I can’t test it and and it doesn’t uncover anything. It’s the difference from drawing a flower from a photograph or from life. It’s different because I can compare the photograph with my drawing. Although I don’t want to make a replica and you can see differences because I’ve used a pencil but it’s not just a drawing of a flower, but a drawing of that photograph of a flower.

Translation is almost like a research method because when you have a text or an art work or a ritual or something and you start translating it you start looking at it with a different eye or gaze than when you just enjoy or read it in a normal way. You find out things about that ritual that you didn’t know and you also find out where perhaps you haven’t quite understood it. That’s also why, for example, some of the German philosophers are easier to read in English, because someone has already been in there and tried to make sense.

That’s Berman’s clarification.

That’s also something you can do for yourself as a research method. When you have a complicated poem you go through it and translate it into a drawing perhaps or into a different language. And you suddenly realise points that are interesting that you didn’t know about before. The point that you haven’t understood and things that can be interpreted in different ways and which are perhaps very idiosyncratic to that particular author or to that particular context and it suddenly opens up all sorts of different worlds where you discover new things about that ritual.

And you can’t really ignore parts of the text that you’re translating. There’s a great Nabokov text in which he writes about the translator of Shakespeare who ignored all the obscene bits and cleaned it up.(9) Didn’t translate it and clean it up, just didn’t translate those parts, so there are bits missing. When I’m drawing from a photograph, I can’t ignore the complicated bits. I have to make a go at them, even if I’m not good enough. I have to try and it’s here that the difficulty becomes an extreme version of negotiation, which is really hard. I’m very interested in language, which you’ll have discerned, and this idea of the dialect becomes very close to the dialectic. You rub up against something and the difficulty of not quite getting it, of having to work something out becomes really important and ongoing.

That’s also why it’s different from illustration because you don’t have the liberty to leave out or to change, you have to stick to the source.

At this point I detour into an account of the various iterations of We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, (Philip K Dick, 1968). (10) This is the source text for the film Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990), all better explained elsewhere. In summary, the various versions of the story are adaptations not translations because they are free with the content and not beholden to any fair representation.

… replicas lie about honesty. Embedded in a replica is the idea that they’re the thing, but they’re not, but the translation says ‘I’m not the thing, so I can be true to the thing’. In a funny sort of way, the translator is free to be true to the thing (source), but the translation is always saying ‘I’m not it, it’s over there’.

Of course, where it’s also different or where it’s special is that when you translate you interpret the truth that you see is your own truth, but at the same time as a translator you’re trying to place it into the context into which you are translating. You’re never just ‘you’, you’re working with a material that is being used by lots of other people and has to be understood. You’re doing it for other people. Your gaze that is looking for the truth is one which tries to look with multiple eyes and not just yourself.

And this is where translation is never expressive or expressionistic, because that’s in the original work.

That’s also why it’s different from you reading something or looking at a painting for yourself. You’re not doing it for yourself but you’re trying to do it for others, to take those other views into your own endeavour of supporting what the essence of truth is in the language.

I think that I’m not as whole-hearted as you on that.


I think there’s something about dissemination that’s embedded in the idea of translation in that it takes something to a new audience.

When you’re a literary translator you have an audience in mind.

Absolutely. I’ve been redrawing art works now for a couple of years and it feels quite selfish because I’m doing it for my own purposes. It’s helping me understand the process, but with the rhetoric of drawing, which is interesting because drawing doesn’t have an ideology attached to it because it’s so prevalent. It’s not oil painting, watercolour, film-making, or photography which all have loaded political and philosophical texts. Drawing doesn’t and nor does translation. Translation is very specific in the sense that when people talk about translation they talk about specific instances or anecdotes, rather than a general thrust. Drawing, too, resists being co-opted into an ideology, because everybody in visual practice draws.

And usually it’s something that can be associated with something that can be understood … as opposed to something like abstract oil painting … though obviously you can make an abstract drawing, too…

It’s the thing that people do before they do the next thing.

It’s the basics.

It is the sketch that becomes the work. I like that it sits before the work. Do you think you might come across the idea of untranslatability?

Yes. I’m waiting for when it goes wrong, where it becomes something so different I can no longer draw out any connection at all. It hasn’t happened yet, but it probably will at some point. I obviously want there to be that essence but if I realise that it’s me interpreting, interpreting, interpreting in order to find a common denominator then that’s when I will need to say ‘okay, now it has gone wrong’. But the nice thing about the format of the workshops is that you always have everybody else looking on as well and the people who have taken part so far have been quite outspoken about when they felt critical, or about when it wouldn’t work. So it’s not just hoping that people will say ‘Ricarda, stop. You’ve found something that’s not there.’

Because you can project meaning…

…which is why I’ve put everything up on the web. So far nobody has responded, but people could say ‘I don’t agree with what you’re doing’.

I’ve thought about whether we need a new term for what we’re doing? I’m not doing conscientious translation (the normative idea, that is), but neither am I doing adaptation or variation. I started thinking that there’s a word that we do have in English, but it’s the French for ‘translation’: traduction. In English to traduce something is to violate or slander it. French has it almost better than English because it’s not a neutral ‘carrying across’, there’s a kind of breaking. We’ve done something to it. But I think the implication of violation is too negative.

In Italian it’s ‘traduttore’ which is the same word as for ‘traitor’. (11)

And what is it in German?

Übersetzer (‘translator’). We also have the word übersetzen. When the emphasis is on the second part, ‘überSETZEN’ it’s ‘translation’. ÜBERsetzen is ‘to cross a river’. (12)

The nice thing about all those words is they carry this idea of trajectory, something moving from one place to another place, and formal changes. Something shifts and there’s an acknowledgement that there’s a shift. You could sit in a room with ten people and ask ‘what does bonjour mean in English?’, and you’d get ‘good morning’, ‘good morning’, ‘good morning’, ‘hello’. We don’t even agree on one words which pretty much anyone in England would reckon to know. Of course, it actually means ‘good day’, but we don’t say that anymore.

But if you were Australian, you might.

Even at the simplest level, where you think there’d be no argument, it breaks really quickly. There’s not even a verb.

It’s not even a sentence.



1 Marcus Boon In Praise of Copying, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2010 and Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing language in the digital age, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

2 Efraín Kristal, Invisible Work: Borges and Translation, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002.

3 Kristal, Invisible Work. p. 26.

4 Company of Wolves dir. Neil Jordan, Palace Productions, 1984.

5 The poem was translated into film and then back into poetry: and

6 The Vasko Popa poem was part of the Far Away Within Us workshop:

7 Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, London: Routledge, 2008, p. 18.

8 A summary of his abstract: ‘Dialects of Drawing. Drawing […] can be regarded as one more language, in addition […] to text and the spoken word, used by designers to generate, develop, record, represent, and transmit ideas. […] It is interesting to note that the types of drawings used for certain kinds of discussion seem to have been determined by some sort of professional consensus. […] one might ask whether using certain types of drawings for predetermined tasks not only establishes a language and its use but also inadvertently limits not only access to that language, but also to the range of thought expressed in that language.’ This can be found on the following website, but requires log-in privileges:

9 In fact, Nabokov uses a translation of Anna Karenina to make his point: ‘Perhaps the most charming example of Victorian modesty that has ever come my way was in an early English translation of Anna Karenina. Vronsky had asked Anna what was the matter with her. ‘I am beremenna’ (Nabokov’s italics), replied Anna, making the foreign reader wonder what strange and awful Oriental disease that was; all because the translator thought that “I am pregnant” might shock some pure soul, and that a good idea would be to leave the Russian just as it stood.’ Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Translation’, The New Republic, 4 August, 1941, 160–162.

10 I wrote a blogpost exploring the different iterations of Total Recall and of the texts and other products that orbit it which can be read here:

11 After the interview I looked this up and couldn’t find this relation. Traduttore does mean translator, but traitor is traditore. When asked for clarification, Ricarda replied as follows: ‘the Italians have a saying ‘traduttore, traditore’ – ‘translator, traitor’ That’s what I meant to refer to here.’

12 This connection, between the two iterations of übersetzen makes plain the ‘carrying across’ implicit in the English prefix ‘trans’, also found in transfer, transport and so on.

2 thoughts on “In Conversation with Ricarda Vidal – 21st November 2014”

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