After an Erasmus exchange in Paris, artist and art historian Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie discovered that translation is about the space between languages and voices; a space that affords us new connections, ideas and friendships.
I thought that I might have to crawl under the table: it really was that bad. I was in my fourth week of an Erasmus exchange in Paris. Up until this point I had been shy to ask questions, imprecise in my responses, and had been speaking with an accent caught somewhere between Belgian and English French, as I had recently returned from a semester of study in Brussels. However, I was feeling confident. I had just sat through my first lecture on constructivist photography and, my partner being a photographer (which means 35mm film in the fridge, reels of nitrate movies in the freezer, and absolutely no space whatsoever to dry your clothes because the clothes horse is always laden with wet prints), I was sure that I was on solid ground. I jetted my hand into the air as soon as Madame had finished speaking – because this was a burning question – and asked with all of the earnestness of my being: Why are all of László Moholy-Nagy’s photographs titled ‘with Leica?’ Who is Leica? I was certain that there was a feminist revisioning of Moholy-Nagy’s entire oeuvre waiting to be uncovered. For the first time in history someone was finally asking about this mysterious, always present but never photographed woman named Leica.
Alas, I could not have been more wrong. It was one of those moments when everything rests in the pronunciation. Not being a photographer myself, I had never seen (or at least consciously taken notice of) how Leica was written. In all of my years of studying art and art history this had escaped me. Thus, when Mme D responded with a wince, “My dear Katrine, Leica was the brand of his camera”, I realised that I could not have asked a more ridiculous, nor more idiotic question. I played it over in my head: Lay-ka…Like-a. Ah!
And then to sit through another thirty-five minutes of discussion whilst this sat in the air…
However, no matter how embarrassing it may have felt at the time, the ‘Leica incident’ – as my flatmates like to refer to it – is a moment that I now hold close. It was a moment of what the cultural theorist Julia Kristeva would call “intimate revolt”, of learning – of retracing the same path, only differently, and finding that it ends anew. For me the ‘Leica incident’ holds all of the joy of translation, because it reminds me that I, like language, am never the same person twice when feeling my way into the world through words.
Indeed, speaking between French and English has not only opened up miscommunication, it has also afforded me the great pleasure of friendship, particularly with the ineffable M, who was raised in France to American parents. M and I first met at art school in Scotland, where I was on my linguistic home ground. We had the same pert bob, the same camel macintosh, the same pointy chin, we studied the same joint course in art and art history, and we would both leave each day with tiny flecks of paper offcuts caught in our woollen scarves. The stars were aligned and deemed we should be friends. Yet conversations would pass and she would remain at arms’ distance: she the chic, poetic French artist and I the effusive British academic, with the clutter of teeth to match. We just couldn’t find that common ground that Tonika Sealy Thompson and Stefano Harney write so tenderly of in Ground Provisions, stating that “even if reading together” – and here I would add speaking together – “is only a feel, we dwell in together”. It was as if she spoke poetry – the collaged, improbable, always becoming language of artists – whilst I spoke prose.
Then our foundations shifted and we found ourselves together again in Paris. I was now the one speaking without end in the hope of understanding, stretching the limits of metaphor, and drawing upon images from cinema, art and literature in the hope that she would feel something of the same intensity that I was trying to communicate, and this time it worked. In that space between one complete language and another, and despite – or perhaps because of – the Leica incident, we fused.
Since then, I have realised that, as a collage artist, this is my way of communicating, my form of translation. In my own artistic practice I have learnt that the most intense depth of feeling is often evoked by the space between two images or shots. Similarly, the linguistic act of constructing new meaning from existing fragments shows that what appears to be the same is always infinitely different when (de)constructed through a shared language. Jacques Derrida put it so: the translator must come to live with the “infinity of the loss, the insolvent debt” engendered by translation. That is to say, the translator makes meaning by opening a space of being in common, of resting, of being close enough.
Thus, when we speak of the relevance of translation today, we speak of the importance of shared conversation, shifting perspectives and creating spaces of together. Translation, like collage, is conversation, across geographical and time-bound zones: it is the space between, rather than of, voices. And in translation, just as in collage, we always lose something of the original picture – we must be content in not knowing the full picture. Indeed, speaking, thinking and making between languages has taught me that what we have now is never all that there is; in other words, that we can always surprise ourselves, that change is possible, even in the most confined of settings with the most limited of tools. As M once said, when we speak together the curtain falls that there is still a curtain yet to fall.
About Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie
Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie is an artist and art historian, in her fifth and final year of an MA Fine Art at The University of Edinburgh. Her primary research interests are collage, cinema, contemporary art and feminism. She is currently producing a body of work that explores the olfactory history of womxn, and researching the value of historical reenactment to the study of (art) history. Her artistic portfolio can be found at www.katcutlermackenzie.squarespace.com
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Feature image, ‘I am not myself today’, is by Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie.