Volume 3, No. 2 
April 1999

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a writer, researcher in the arts and life sciences, poet, and visual artist. In regard to translation and linguistics, his primary interests are Russian, Spanish, Danish, Chinese, Persian, Hebrew, and Mongolian texts, as well as the theory and epistemology behind translation applications. Trained in the fields of biomedicine and legal policy, Walker’s theoretical articles and original research has been published in a number of scholarly journals, including: Diagnostic Imaging, Diagnostic Imaging Europe, AirMed, and CATScan. He serves as the Science Editor of Oasis Magazine and also contributes to a number of general interest publications. Web design and the implementation of the Internet in interlinguistic communications are also a primary focus of Walker’s current research and projects.

Michael Walker’s e-mail: mikewalker@geocities.com
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What’s New?
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-99
  Translator Profiles
A Typical Translator?
by Cynthia Keesan
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
  Legal Translation
Pitfalls in Legal Translation
by Davide De Leo

Working in Brazil
by Danilo Nogueira.
  Translators Around the World
Translators’ Day in Armenia
by Narine Khachatryan
  Arts & Entertainment
Translation for Art and Architectural History
by Michael Walker
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XV
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
  Translators’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
Art & Architecture

Translation for Art and Architectural History Applications

by Michael Walker

The histories of visual art and architecture are enchanting, sweeping, realms of study that encompass many diverse disciplines and methodological approaches while spanning international boarders, datelines, and entire continents. The study of art and architectural history also transverses languages, a reality that necessitates that professional art historians have a working knowledge of several second languages (to obtain a bachelors degree in art or architectural history, most institutions require reading fluency in at least two languages while graduate study often requires proficiency in another two languages related to the student’s area of specialization). Although the study of foreign languages and the use of these languages is highly stressed within art and architectural history, it is inconceivable that scholars in this field would not occasionally need to rely on translation services to provide English (or other language) translations of primary and secondary source research materials and to even translate complete monographs, conference proceedings, and other scholarly literature for further dissemination. This article examines the needs of art and architectural historians for translation services and the role of the translator in facilitating the work of these professionals. As art and architectural history are relatively unknown professions outside of their scholastic environment (at least as far as their work-related activities go), it is my hope that this article will enlighten translators as to how they can better serve and better market themselves to this interesting niche of academia.
    My own interest in art and architecture led me to the study of these fields in depth, a situation that brought me into contact with art and architectural historians conducting research on a variety of interesting areas of visual culture. After taking several courses and spending time with these people in general, it occurred to me that the interlinguistic needs of these professionals must be quite dynamic and far-reaching. Discussion of this matter with several of my professors and other graduate students within an art history department lead me to a greater understanding of the unique needs of art and architectural historians and also illuminated some of the obstacles these scholars face in the acquisition of knowledge about the visual history of the human-made world. Unlike biomedical science and law,—the professional arenas I know best—art history often requires delving deep into a reverse chronology as a quest for information about a certain artist, work of art, or building. An entire pantheon of characters and a veritable atlas of places may be opened up by a simple inquiry into the primary sketches for a painting or the exact date of death for a well-known sculptor. Primary sources are often consulted no matter how extensively these documents may been previously translated and re-published, as it is often best for the historian to work with these documents in their original form or as close to that as possible. A great many secondary sources are also needed, and the bulk of these—especially in the case of European and ancient art—may be in a language other than English, most often French, German, or perhaps Italian. Obviously, scholars of antiquities will need documents in less common languages and the same can be said of those researchers concerned with regional (or “area”) art, such as that of Africa, Asia Minor, and India.
    The role of the translator in the midst of all this can be multiform: facilitating either the outright translation of a document into a language understood by the scholar involved or perhaps consulting on the best approach to translating documents (or translating a book or other monograph) as even when the art scholar is conversant in a language, he or she may not be well-prepared to write a consummate and easily understood translation in that language without outside involvement. A key point to remember about art and architectural history is that scholarship in this field is multidisciplinary and may involve literary history, biographical studies, anthropology, archeology, and many other divisions of the humanities and social sciences. Art history is much more than simply examining, understanding, and writing about a painting (and of course, architectural history is more than doing the same for buildings), and the intricacy of the work of the translator will be directly influenced by the demands of the work of the historian. The more astute translators will recognize just how elaborate the whole process of translating research material is and how different such work is from, in way of example, translating a product brochure, contract, or other contemporary commercial text.
    This brings us to a key point germane to nearly all translating efforts involving source materials, especially those predating the current century: source materials may not be entirely faithful to the language of their time nor the facts of whatever matter they concern and describe, but they must be translated as closely to the original text as possible while providing a readable document for the historian, a document that if ambiguous, it is ambiguous due to the inherent nature of the writing, and not due to the translation. While this point applies to many other areas of translation, it is crucial to art and architectural historical work and should be the foremost thought in the minds of those who translate source materials for art historical research. A comprehensive discussion with the historian(s) involved should always precede translation work whenever possible so that all parties can become aware of the ultimate requirements of the project and how these objectives may be solved or at least furthered by the translator. Occasionally, the historian will not have a clue towards what is needed in terms of translation, even in terms of exactly what documents need to be translated (how would the historian be certain of this if he/she had not been able to read these documents?) but most often the historian will be able to provide very precise instructions as to what he/she requires. Effective translation is so dependent on effective communication between the translator and the client - enough said on that!
    Documents pertaining to specific works of art (personal letters of artists, statements from artists and gallery directors) will often require patience on the part of the translator as many such documents will seem mundane, perhaps little more than inventory lists or long descriptions of a painting which the translator may well have never even seen. Not all art and architectural history focuses on the Picassos and Le Corbusiers of the world and much of the current scholarship does involve minor artists and architects who may hold little interest outside of the world of the specialist or the aficionado. Realizing that the value of such primary source documents often rests in the most subtle of details should further the translator’s ability to find his/her own interest in these papers. Secondary source materials present other issues, as these are often scholarly journals written in very formal, academic, prose (“register one” rhetoric) in another language. Translation of such literature demands a knowledge of how art history is written about, its specific jargon, and its associations with other fields of study. Looking at art history journals in the language that is to be translated into can be an excellent way to become familiar with the stylistic conventions utilized in such writing. Art historians seem to value concise, lucid, prose as much as scholars in any other discipline, but they also appear to be somewhat nostalgic (well, they are historians after all) and if the source material appears to be overwrought with romantic overtones (something especially common in certain German and French scholarly publications) then that tone as well as the underlying mode and information should be translated to the recipient language as faithfully as possible.
    The translation of source materials frequently must be accomplished with the rapid succession of one document after another, quickly moving through documents that are of moderate individual length but of staggering combined quantity. The sheer amount of information which sometimes needs to be translated begs for a computer-based system of translation that will allow for text-searching and archiving, saving both the translator and the scholar a great deal of time and frustration. Art and architectural historians have not shunned technology (in fact, several whom I know of are using it in quite innovative and exciting ways) but the translator may have the sole responsibility for introducing a computer-based platform, encouraging its use, and instructing the application of specific software packages. Again, while most art and architectural scholars have an impressive command of various languages, these people are not linguists nor translators by profession and are not used to implementing technology-based solutions to translation problems. Part of what is being paid for in hiring a professional translator is the expertise in overall services and solutions, so it only makes sense to provide the most useful and efficient of such solutions.
    The translation of source material, as noted in the above paragraphs, is an affair unto itself; the translation of new, complete, monographs and journal articles being composed in one language into another language for dissemination is completely another task. Books on specific paintings, artists, buildings, or genre are often written by scholars working in the nations where such works/artists/traditions have been produced or established themselves. For example, academic works on Russian minimalism may well originate from Russia; this trend seems to be even more true of architectural scholarship than that of art history. When such works have international importance, they are most often translated into either English, French, or German. Most major monographs eventually end up in an English translation either accompanied by the original source text or with other multilingual translations (trilingual translations into English, French, and Spanish appear to be a growing trend in art historical book publishing in Europe). The author of the monograph may or may not have a decent knowledge of the language to which his/her work shall be translated, and it seems prudent to first ascertain whether the author can be and desires to be involved in the translation or if this is not possible. When the participation of the author is prohibited by a lack of linguistic familiarity or other circumstances, the assistance of another scholar (often, a student of the author) who is intimately familiar with the work at hand is frequently useful to the translator. Additionally, in the case of catalogs for museum/gallery exhibitions and in some architectural monographs, it is a most common practice to augment the written commentary of the principle author/editor with that from other scholars, often in the form of essays, prefaces, and introductions. The primary essays may be complied and edited by one person while the actual notes accompanying the pictorial plates may be written by someone else. If one translator is left to translate all such information, it is essential to consider the role of the individual voices of the contributors.
    As an example of a complex and superbly successful translation project grounded in architectural scholarship, I offer the book The Architecture of New Prague 1895-1945, by Rotislav Svacha (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995). Svacha originally wrote this monograph concerning the architectural renaissance of Prague in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in his native Czech and the book was thus published in the Czech republic. Realizing that this volume was perhaps the most thorough and well-written book on its subject, plans were made to release the book on a major academic press imprint as an English translation. But how would this be accomplished and who would translate the Czech text into English? The author was not in a position to execute the translation and another person was chosen to undertake this task: Alexandra Buchler, a translator of literary and scholarly works fluent in both English and Czech was selected based her familiarity with the languages at hand and her ability to mimic Svacha’s writing style in English. Svacha is a well-known Czech architect and critic, not only highly regarded for his scholarship in architectural history but also for his enchanting prose, so Buchler had no easy task awaiting her. Additionally, the English edition would contain original essays and introductions by some of the “heavy-weights” of architectural history, including Kenneth Frampton, a scholar and theorist whose comments seem to turn up in every anthology and text book on architectural history. These essays would be written in English and therefore Buchler’s translation of Svacha’s text would need to be both distinct enough to preserve Svacha’s unique voice among the writings of the other commentators while being uniform with the overall feeling of the book. Czech, as anyone who speaks the language is well aware, is a naturally lyrical although sometimes disjunctive, rhythmic, language. The written language utilizes a number of diacritics to express the variety of intonations and inflections inherent to Czech oral speech. These diacritics and the tonalities they connote in writing express something near music within the mute written word; how would this poetry of a language possibly be translated? Buchler takes a subtle, pragmatic, approach to her translation work; explaining in her own introductory comments to the book that it is impossible to directly translate many vernacular terms of Czech into English and establishing a common thread between what was originally written by Svacha and what she had to rewrite in a radically different language. Keep in mind that this book is a contemporary work by a highly educated man in a prominent Slavic language, not an ancient manuscript in an obscure tongue nor a neglected letter that was dashed off to the friend of an artist in some haste. Buchler had the advantages of working with a consummate manuscript, but she also had to acknowledge the difficulties of dealing with such an expansive (over five hundred pages) as well as expressive a document, and at that, one that had already been published in its original language. Buchler uses the privilege of her own introduction to prepare the reader for what to expect from the translated text; this is not always an option in translating a book, but is something that I believe every translator should request of the publisher/editor when he or she feels that such explanation is warranted and can be effective in helping the reader understand the work at hand. Simply restating that a work is in fact a translation can be profoundly important as many readers seem to assume that anything appearing in English was originally written in English!
    Buchler also achieves in this volume a superlative balance between over-using English substitutes for Czech terms and confounding the reader with what could have become a plethora of unfamiliar terms. Architectural historians may be well-read and worldly, but there’s little reason to believe that most readers of a work such as this one would be very familiar with the majority of the Czech terms that have come into the argot via folk sayings, jargon, and political propaganda. The translator of a book such as Svacha’s must also realize the significance of photographs, plans, and other illustrations to the text. These figures are never simply decorative in an architectural work, but instead convey essential information that cannot be paraphrased into words in any language. To blend the text with the illustrations that support it and to recognize when and where the author has referenced an illustration (not a direct reference, per se, but a textural allusion in many cases) is the summation of the translator’s varied work on such a book project. The translator becomes familiar with not only the author’s way with words, but with his or her way with images, the reasons why certain images have been included and how those images are meant to communicate to the reader/viewer. Letting the imagery speak and knowing when not to talk louder than what these images have to say (and when to usher in their voices) can make or break the translation of an art historical or architectural monograph. Overall, the successful translation of documents for art and architectural history applications relies on the willingness of the translator to understand the unique and sometimes labyrinthine nature of the disciplines at hand. These are people concerned with a past represented in visual, tangible, works, but also their concern stretches far into all that is not visible in such works: the letters between artists, the unseen struggles and triumphs, and often the mundane, everyday, work that collectively becomes the production of great works of art that endure and demand study. Realizing the layers involved, the way that historical research is truly empirical in the sense that it builds upon previous efforts, should carry the translator a long way towards preparing valuable translations for scholarship. The translator who is presented the rare opportunity to translate an entire monograph should realize that he or she is in the midst of creating something of lasting aesthetic and informational import, and the project should be treated in a way that is not only technically accurate in terms of the representation of jargon and syntax, but also as something that is resounding in its testament to a given work of art, a particular artist, or as in the case of Svacha’s book, a period of architectural progress. Translators who undertake the mission of understanding art and architectural history will find that they are guests in a very exciting and beautiful world.
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