Writing across borders
We speak to Hephzibah Israel about the research and creative process behind her exhibition மொழிபெயர்ப்பு / the nature of difference.
மொழிபெயர்ப்பு / the nature of difference is an exhibition of 20 text-based artworks by Dr Hephzibah Israel on the nature of translation and what it is to navigate borders.
The show is running at Talbot Rice Gallery until 30 September 2023, including as part of Edinburgh Art Festival. It is produced in collaboration with Fraser Muggeridge studio.
Through each text, presented as poster vignettes in individual bays of the Georgian space, Israel poses questions "In your language or mine?" and prompts us to consider our own perceptions of borders.
We caught up with Hephzibah to ask how the show came about, how it relates to her research and teaching in Translation Studies at the University of Edinburgh, and what she hopes audiences will take away from it.
An idea and a challenge
The idea for மொழிபெயர்ப்பு / the nature of difference came, Hephzibah recalls, “as a result of some exciting conversations I had been having with Talbot Rice Gallery and its artists on multiple interpretations of translation and how these intersect with art and politics”.
In January 2023, for example, she was one of four invited academics from the University to discuss the theme of borders from different disciplinary perspectives, and how they thought about them in their own work, for artist Lara Favaretto’s Thinking Head: Clandestine Talks series.
Within weeks of the Clandestine Talk, the Gallery had commissioned Hephzibah to create her own artwork on the theme of translation and borders as part of its summer exhibition programme. She was able to interpret the theme as broadly or as narrowly as she wished, but limited to doing so in no more than 10-15 words per piece.
“I thought it was going to be impossible!”, reflects Hephzibah, “but I found this creative tension nurtured artistic writing. The challenge to be poetic in such few words was both invigorating and constraining, and once I started writing, I could not stop!”.
Personal and private, public and political
The exhibition draws on Hephzibah’s critical work on the translation of sacred texts in its commentary on border crossings "between the sacred and mundane, the sacred and secular, between human and divine migrations".
While working on the panels, she was simultaneously co-writing an academic chapter on the use of translation by South Asian migrant communities when speaking of their religious practices and community cohesion in the UK today.
Describing the series of 20 panels, she says “I have deliberately woven the deeply personal and private with the public and political as this is an area that interests me in my research on translation and the creation of autobiographical subjects in personal accounts”.
“Throughout, I intersect poetry and language use with issues of power, migration, and empire in translation that I have written about academically”.
It was really great to think about translation in such a different space. I enjoyed how the poems use different languages, giving fresh perspectives on some of the metaphors of translation we use in translation studies (and generally to talk about translation). 'invisible' was one of the panels that really stayed with me. I found it interesting to see visibility linked to people in this way. It made me think of how this (silent) expectation of incomers to adapt/get on with things without making a fuss renders people invisible.
As well as her research, Hephzibah credits her teaching in translation as creative practice as being a huge help in creating the exhibition.
“I have spent so many wonderful hours discussing creative strategies and approaches to translating and writing with my students over the past ten years at Edinburgh that I think they must have percolated into my subconscious in a way that released me to enjoy the process of writing creatively.”
“Beyond the words on the ‘page’, I was also thinking of multiple other factors - something I invite my students of translation to do. The space where the artwork would hang, and how I could best use it, of my audience, colours, the interaction of multiple scripts and fonts.”
“This writing was no longer an academic point for discussion but in action! And what better theme to write on than translation—something that I enjoy researching, writing about, thinking critically and teaching?”
Applied to translation, thoughts on positive aspects of borders might link to translation as potential enrichment, with borders serving to stake out the limits of positive interaction. In this respect, maybe translation holds out the possibility not so much of rejecting borders but of transforming how we see them.
Both visible and invisible
Asked what she hopes audiences will get from the exhibition, Hephzibah says “I want [them] to think critically about the presence of borders around us all - both visible and invisible - and to what extent translation may or may not facilitate the crossing of borders."
"Having crossed borders myself, multiple borders at that, I know what effects these have had on my life - some positive and others not as good. Through this exhibition, I wanted to create a space where audiences could relate to a range of experiences in border crossings - what do these borders mean for each of us? How do we negotiate them on an everyday basis? And, importantly, how do we respond to broader political discourses on borders, whether or not they directly affect us?”.
“What I hope audiences will also see is that concepts embedded in the research of translation have wider applicability. For instance, the idea of achieving equivalence in translation is related to the desire to re-produce identical meanings and texts despite deep differences in cultures and languages, which renders some, in fact, more equal than others at border crossings.”
Hephzibah's exhibition brings to life certain key issues in translation studies. Concepts such as refraction, author/ity, equivalence, invisibility cease being theoretical constructs as they weave in and out of her life story, as well as of those who have similarly migrated and become translated.
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