What follows are case studies put together to argue for a translation aesthetics that can be used to make legible the event before the multiplication of labor. This essay is an excerpt adapted from a larger online project, Translation Aesthetics: Making Legible the Home-yet-to-come as an Instance of the Event Before the Multiplication of Labor, which can be found at: https://josdchavez.github.io/translationaesthetics
Allow me to posit the idea of a translation aesthetics, which can be used to talk about ways in which semiotic objects use translation as their structure of possibility to bring about alternative political concerns for the sake of redefining matters of universal justice. Lydia Liu argues for an eventfulness to the act of translation that allows us to interpret the work of translation beyond the simplified understanding of rendering equivalent a message from one “community” to another. Translation can be seen as “a precarious wager that enables the discursive mobility of a text or a symbol, for better or for worse. The wager releases the multiplicity of the text and opens it up to an uncertain future, more often than not to an uncertain political future.” Translation allows the selected text to move in a different discursive realm, opening it up to uncertain political futures–uncertain because the translation does not guarantee changes in the material and social conditions. The home-yet-to-come emerges as a result of my precarious wager to translate 10 stories collected by artist Paul Ramirez Jonas. By translating them, I’m attempting to make “a preferential marking [that] holds the potential of turning a symbol into an event, or an event into a symbol, back and forth.” Such marking turns the desires of the home-yet-to-come into “political evidence” that can be used to redefine claims for universal justice.
What are some other creative projects that rely on translation to put forth political evidence from which alternative claims for justice can be imagined? We can start by looking at Elyla Sinvergüenza and Guillermo Saenz’s project Cartas Mojadas / Wet Letters, where translation as structure of possibility for the art piece allows for a relationship across difference to be established. In 2016, the Nicaraguan duo collected letters from rural indigenous communities near Managua who were facing the threat of eviction from their lands with no due remuneration because the Ortega government signed a contract with infrastructure development firm HKND, run by Beijing telecommunications billionaire Wang Jing, giving it a 50-year concession to build and operate an interoceanic canal, a Nicaraguan national aspiration since the 19th century. In the letters, people describe how police, the military, and Chinese businessmen engaged in various forms of intimidation to kick them out of their land. They also describe their willingness to die fighting for their land and their way of life. They use the letters to ask “Chinese people” for support. The artists translated the letters into Chinese, made them publicly available online and created an installation on an exhibition space in a hutong in Beijing, hand-delivering some of the letters to the hutong residents during the final performance. Hutong residents were chosen because they also face the threat of dispossession without remuneration due to Beijing’s beautification process, which seeks to get rid of “uncontrolled development and low-end entrepreneurship” to create a “city of the future.” Each letter had a QR code, which the hutong residents could scan through WeChat (ubiquitous social media app in China) in order to reply. Although the responses have not been translated yet (more funding is needed to continue the project), in the context of an interview I conducted with Sinvergüenza, she told me many of the hutong residents responded with accounts their own woes, asking not only where Nicaragua was but how can they help if they themselves are powerless. The goal is to translate the Chinese messages to Spanish as soon as possible and deliver them to the respective recipients in Nicaragua, creating a pen-pal relationship.
Translation, in the context of Cartas Mojadas/Wet Letters, is not only the structure that allows the art project to exist in the world as such, but it is also what allows a relationship between non-aggregate communities, even when the relationship is not what the artists expected. The piece is an attempt to establish dialogue not in terms of national difference but in terms of the different mechanisms that are threatening their respective ways of being in the world. Sinvergüenza wants to keep translating to deepen the dialogue beyond the hutong residents’ self-perception as being distant and powerless in relation to the people in Nicaragua. Translation as repetition holds the possibility of reconstituting subjects not as utterly different and distant from one another, but as interconnected by their vulnerability to dispossession. The reconstitution of the political becomes possible only after they recognize each other as interconnected precarious subjects.
Through this project, translation aesthetics emerges as the way translation becomes the space of possibility for a relationship between non-aggregate precarious bodies to be continuously worked on for the sake of actualizing their respective claims to continue to exist in space the way they want to, without having to sell their labor in the near future as domestic or transnational migrants. The recognition of this interconnection as the necessary condition for the reconstitution of the political suggests that a relationship can only happen when subjects that can recognize it have been constituted. Translation aesthetics is also about the way translation is a technology for the constitution of subjectivity, of the “I.”
Translation as a technology for the constitution of the self is at play in Amy Suo Wu’s piece Thunderclap, which re-appropriates fashion for the steganographic distribution of the writings of anarcho-feminist thinker He-Yin Zhen. Wu instrumentalized the popular Chinese fashion trend of having nonsensical English phrases printed in clothes to hide in plain sight translated quotes from Zhen’s writing, which Wu obtained after stumbling upon The Birth of Chinese Feminism while in residence in Beijing. For her final performance, she opened up her studio to anyone who wanted to customize their clothes with patches and ribbons she had created that not only display the radical thinker’s quotes but also hide a QR code. When someone scans it through WeChat, Zhen’s writings are automatically downloaded in Chinese and English.
The English translation facilitates the distribution of a text that has disappeared from the contemporary context. It becomes a wager that opens up to an uncertain future the desires and aspirations expressed in Zhen’s anti-capitalist, feminist work, which has the possibility of disrupting the here-now (beyond the already disruptive mobilization of it in an art performance piece). In circulating the translation through a steganographic practice that instrumentalizes fashion, Wu is also turning the translation into a medium for political self-fashioning. Wearing the ribbons and patches becomes an act of defiance to the state and solidarity across those who can read and relate to the text. It allows the wearers to construct themselves in relation to Zhen’s work, utilizing their bodies to not only spread censored texts but also to see themselves as agents of change in the world, a change that will allow one to live beyond the terms dictated by patriarchal, global capitalism. In doing so, the translation aesthetics of Wu’s project constitute subjects that recognize global capitalism as the polymorphous threat to the body that needs to be addressed to achieve true freedom and equality.Zhen’s work illuminates how translation aesthetics allows us to perceive how translation, within the semiotic “objects” discussed, functions as a subject-making technology through which social relations are negotiated.
Translation as negotiation became clear to me when stumbling upon untranslatable phrases in the 10 stories I translated, out of 140 that were typed and digitized by California-based, Honduras-born artist Paul Ramirez Jonas in the context of his 2010 performance installation piece, called Dictar Y Recordar, at La Mancha de Tomate, an independent art space in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. For the performance, Jonas invited anyone in Tegucigalpa to come to the art space and dictate memories of Honduras in an attempt to “do the impossible: write a complete history of Honduras,” in the span of 24 hours. While the event was open to the public, Jonas arranged transportation to the capital of indigenous and non-indigenous, female and male activists from all over the country’s rural areas. His interest in writing a complete history of Honduras is linked to the country’s political instability, “a country that has almost as many governments as years of independence.” This political instability is also fresh in the collective memory given that the piece takes place a year after the 2009 coup.
Imagine walking into a long and narrow room, stacks of papers held together and hanging against the wall thanks to clothespins and clotheslines, allowing you to peruse through the piles of memories. Desks run along the walls of the narrow room, each covered by dark purple or blue tablecloths with type-writers clinking away as volunteer typists listen to the recollections of participants, which are then added to the clothesline for viewers to explore.
In transcribing and exhibiting the memories, Jonas creates an immersive space where history is alive through the circulation and representation of memories as an interactive archive. However, by packaging and presenting the stories to an audience as a “history” of a self-evident and clearly differentiated space known as “Honduras,” Jonas’ performance installation obscures the fluid geographical and temporal dynamics expressed within the stories. This is where I can stage an intervention in his piece through a translation aesthetics. The act of translating ten of the 140 stories allows me to discern the subject-making aspect of translation, through the presence of “untranslatable phrases” like Fabrisio’s “aguastaras” and Mildred’s “de nanquius.”
In both Fabrisio’s and Mildred’s stories, untranslatable phrases are used to establish the speakers as subjects engaged in social relations where power is being negotiated. Fabrisio’s narrative tells the story of how the village of Sabanagrande became “modern” at the expense of the U.S. military, whose presence is an organizing force within the diegesis: “We used to go there to smoke our Pinares and to take advantage of its location to look out for the arrival of aguastaras. We knew that each time aguastaras convoys drove around, they’d bring with them chocolate and peanut butter. We also knew that they drove by at like 4, three hours after the gringo planes usually broke the sound barrier and made the world tremble.” U.S. presence permeates Fabrisio’s imagination; it becomes a referent for organizing time and behavior (the trembling that happens 4 hours before the arrival of military convoys is a sign to start climbing up the hill). But this presence is not one that renders the “we” of Fabrisio’s narrative helpless or submissive – their attitude toward U.S. military is of irreverent defiance, as seen by the neologism “aguastaras.” The phrase, like “gringo,” has a deprecatory tone and it was used during the 80s to refer to U.S. military in Honduras. The word itself comes from the name of the U.S. operation Ahua Taras II, which was a Miskito phrase meaning “Big Pine” borrowed by the army and then taken up and “bastardized” into Spanish by Fabrisio and others in order to insult them. Therefore, “aguastaras” points not only to U.S. military in Honduras but also to speakers who use the word to disdainfully refer to their presence.
Mildred’s account recounts the time when, as a little girl, she felt embarrassed for not being able to speak English when “working” (wageless) as a secretary for her father’s business transactions with Canadian clients. It takes place in 1977, when the military junta that had been in power stepped down. Mildred starts her narration as a child who experiences an embarrassing exchange that makes her aware of the need for a “change” to avoid feeling shame like that again: “One day, the phone rang and it was a Canadian man asking for my father who happened to not be at home. I asked him to leave a message with me, he dictated it and said ‘Thanks!’ I answered: ‘De nanquius.’ At that moment I realized that it was not pronounced like that and we both laughed before hanging up.” Because Mildred knew no English, this exchange must have taken place in Spanish with the client randomly switching to English at the end. This contingent action prompts the utterance “De nanquius,” her attempt to say “You’re welcome” and to maintain her competence (thus making her father proud). The phrase is a combination of the Spanish “De nada,” which means “you’re welcome,” and the perceived sound of English (“uiu” = “You”). The phrase not only suggests Mildred’s desire to avoid the shame at not being able to communicate and uphold the image of professionalism that had earned her praise (“He was very proud of me when clients congratulated him on the way I expressed myself on the phone”), but it is also an attempt at self-fashioning. It is Mildred’s way to constitute herself as a bilingual, eloquent daughter-entrepreneur. “De nanquius” allows Mildred to constitute herself as someone who attempts to avoid the shame produced by not being able to speak English.
Instead of translating the words into something recognizable as an “English word,” leaving “aguastaras” and “de nanqiuis” as they were transcribed confronts the reader with translation as a subject-making technology. The phrases are translations in themselves that the speakers engaged in not to “deliver a message” but to establish their own subjectivity against an “other.” Their presence as hybrid also challenges assumptions that I’m translating from “Spanish” to “English” a text about “Honduras” to the “U.S.” The words are bastardized English or Spanish; they are instances of hybridity beyond one or even two languages in the case of the Miskito roots of “aguastaras.” The multiplicity of language and the arbitrariness of linking it to a nation (Honduras = Spanish, U.S. = English) becomes legible as a political move that undergirds hegemonic relations. Its hybridity also suggest how Honduras might be better understood in this context not as referring to a sovereign nation but signifying the state practices that institutionalizing and materializing global capitalism. Linking language to homogeneity (unity) allows it to be associated with a national (and ethnic) being, from which politics and justice are envisioned. The untranslatable phrases challenge the assumption of a language’s unity and the understandings of politics and justice that derive from it. Translation aesthetics seek to renegotiate the political through the constitution of subjects working out difference in alternative ways that allow for a being in space to be imagined as a concern for universal justice.
If translation aesthetics can be a way to talk about the employment of translation as a structure of possibility for certain contemporary semiotic “objects” to reconstitute subjects and their social relationships in order to make claims for alternative visions of universal justice that attend to the threat of by global capitalism, one “justice” that it produces is rendering legible the experience of being in transit, whose occlusion is the condition of possibility for the coherence of difference based on “nationality” or “language.” Naoki Sakai argues for the subject in transit when thinking what the subjectivity of the translator must be: one that is “internally split and multiple, and devoid of a stable positionality. At best, she can be a subject in transit, first because the translator cannot be an individual in the sense of individuum in order to perform translation, and second because she is a singular that marks an elusive point of discontinuity in the social, whereas translation is the practice of creating continuity at that singular point of discontinuity.” Sakai points out how for translation to take place, the translator cannot be said to belong to one distinct “community” over “another”: she must be in between, or else how would she be translating in the first place?
At the same time, Sakai posits how the very corporeality of the translator marks them as a singular point of discontinuity while still existing within the social. This paradoxical condition suggests that translation must be a way to negotiate the difference imposed by corporeality, by being itself: “Through the labor of the translator, the incommensurability as difference that calls for the service of the translator in the first place is negotiated and worked on…the work of translation is a practice by which the initial discontinuity between the addresser and the addressee is made continuous and recognizable.” The “incommensurability as difference,” that “initial discontinuity between addresser and addressee,” is corporeal existence itself, the fact that by being one is necessarily distant from others. The labor of translation allows for that distance to be breached through language, and it is only after such labor is undertaken that incommensurability can be represented as national unity and difference: “What makes it possible to represent the initial difference as an already determined difference between one language unity and another is the work of translation itself…Only in the representation of translation can we construe the process of translation as a transfer of some message from this side to that side…[it] enables the representation of ethnic or national subjects, in spite of the presence of the translator who is always in between.” The coherence of the nation and the national-linguistic subject is only possible through the labor of the subject in transit, who must be occluded for the “nation” and “language” to be cohesive to itself. Translation aesthetics as discussed so far can be understood as demanding justice precisely by reframing the subject in transit. Being in transit becomes an “event” that is legible through the translation aesthetics employed by the pieces, where translation is the space of possibility for new events, new subjects and new relationships to take shape. Translation aesthetics revivify the reified social relationships that have come to be understood under ethno-national and linguistic terms in order to negotiate initial incommensurability between bodies differently, in order to combat the threat to being.
A universal condition that can be the basis for the actualization of alternative visions of justice, put forth by the translation aesthetics of the pieces, is not the subject in transit but the subject who is negotiating the conditions that would force them to be in transit. Like the subject in transit whose work in the act of translation is foreclosed in order for translation to be able to represent itself as communication between two distinct unities, the migrant and the labor power they are forced to differentially sell are necessarily occluded for the cohesion not only of the nation, but also of global capitalism at this particular historical juncture. While none of the semiotic objects discussed so far work explicitly with the experience of migration, all of them are working with translations of texts concerned with the consequences of dispossession from one’s land and one’s ability to reproduce thereafter. They are all instances in which the source texts narrate contestations against material conditions that would lead subjects to migrate. This is clearly seen in Cartas Mojadas, where letters are translated that deal with the threat of dispossession by the canal, a threat that will force people to leave their lands and to sell their labor in order to survive, turning them into migrants either at a domestic or transnational level. With my reading of the home-yet-to-come, this very threat to being that enhance the possibility of migration (both Jorge and Maira have already undertook it) takes place through political instability, persecution and imposed disposability. He-Yin Zhen’s writings are also concerned with threats to being that force a selling of one’s labor across different regimes, a selling that undermines true freedom, “from the rule of (upper-class) men and from the rule of (upper class) women.” The translated texts can be understood as contesting the material and social conditions that threaten the speakers’ bodies. By remaining in place, the contested conditions will eventually force them to be in transit, to migrate, because they have been dispossessed from their ability to reproduce their own life.
The translations employed by the semiotic objects narrate moments before social and material conditions force subjects to be in multiple forms of transit, which is also the “event” before the multiplication of labor, the condition of possibility for the bodies of the speakers to be translated into differentiated labor power not for oneself across different labor regimes. Although happening across different historical junctures, across disparate geographies and in ways that are local and particular, the translation aesthetics of the semiotic objects mark as an event the experience(s) before bodies are separated from their own lives and translated into (cheap) labor power. Sandro Mezzadra points out that capitalism today functions through “continuous multiplication of control devices that correspond to the multiplication of labor regimes and the subjectivities implied by them within each single space constructed as separate within models of the international division of labor.” It is in these multiple labor regimes that the commodity of labor power is exchanged; but because labor power is inextricable from the body, the control devices must perform an act of translation. They must establish a “continuity at a site of discontinuity,” which is the body as labor power that is no longer for itself but for the satisfaction of labor regimes where it finds itself inserted into. Once the subject is in the labor regime, the “continuity and stability of production and reproduction of labor power” can no longer be taken for granted. Translation aesthetics make the event before the multiplication of labor legible as a moment(s) when subjects contest the social and material conditions that will force their bodies into the commodity of labor power that supplies the demands of different labor regimes. Home-yet-to-come is thus one event, rendered legible through a translation aesthetics, that is an instance of the event before the multiplication of labor, the condition of possibility for bodies to be translated into labor power, for the migrant as a subject of labor to even be imagined.
This is a wager to make the event before the multiplication of labor legible as a political concern through a translation aesthetics in which semiotic objects employ translation as their structure not only to exist but also to reconstitute subjects that can engage in alternative social relations for the sake of a universal justice. At the same time, this project extends beyond the scope of this essay. Whereas the specificities of this universal justice must wrestle with histories and particularities of specific locations in order to successfully address the threat to being (since capitalism updates itself to the particularities of space), there is a general direction this universal justice should aim for that exceeds the contemporary terms of political representation precisely because it is a justice concerned with the ability to exist in space. This universal justice that reconstitutes the political must seek to abolish the material and social conditions that make possible the violent multiplication of labor (a justice that disrupts the here-now), where living bodies are translated as organs for labor power meant to satisfy the demands of different labor regimes, and not of the living body itself.
Liu, Lydia. “The Eventfulness of Translation Temporality, Difference, and Competing Universals”
La Mancha del Tomate (2010). “Dictar y Recodar.”
Sakai, Naoki. Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism, 13
Liu, Lydia. The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory
Mezzadra and Nielson, “Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor”
Josue Chavez just finished an undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature and Society, with a focus on Spanish and Mandarin, at Columbia University. He experiments with a hybrid artistic-academic mode of knowledge production in order to explore the ways in which technology (both its production and usage), language and aesthetics are sites of subjectification for capitalist globalization. His piece “CUERPO CLICKBAIT: A SPECULATIVE, ANTI-DYSTOPIC DIGITAL COLLAGE” will be published in the forthcoming issue of Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media & Technology. He also works part-time with China Residencies, a not-for-profit that helps young, independent artists who don’t have other forms of funding find ways to execute projects in China. It is his hope to continue an independent academic-creative practice after graduation, so if anyone knows of ways (generous funding institutions, open calls, etc) to make such aspiration sustainable, reach out!