CONFERENCE: On Translations at Nottingham Contemporary | part 1

The Nottingham Contemporary, a gallery/exhibition space in Nottingham, hosted the On Translation conference  from 16 to 17 February 2018.

In these posts (find part 2 here) I’ll give a brief overview of what went on and tease out some of the key questions that it raised for our cultural translation research theme.

Seminar: Rolando Vasquez

Friday’s main event shaped up as a seminar that explored the colonialist implications of translation, given by cultural critic Rolando Vasquez. It was a challenging session. It pushed us to think about the epistemological assumptions we hold when translating, but also raised broader questions about Western frames of reference and the violence they might do, wittingly or unwittingly, to those cultures that are seen through Western eyes.

Drawing on the postcolonial theory, Vasquez argued that translation between Western civilisation and non-Western cultures is inherently colonialist. This is because Western epistemology claims, at base, to be able to know the truth of any particular situation (a hangover from the Enlightenment), and also because Western epistemology implicitly or explicitly centres the West in any frame of reference it might use to explore non-Western subjects. Vasquez calls this our ‘arrogant ignorance’ – we implicitly centre ourselves and assume that we are perfectly able to know everything there is to know, if we don’t know these things already.

Vasquez then outlined the principal consequence of our ‘arrogant ignorance’: non-Western truths/ideas/ways of knowing, being, etc. that don’t look familiar to us are ignored or ‘erased’ when they are translated into a Western context. This counts, for Vasquez, as a repetition of the original act of colonial violence that he takes as founding Western modernity.

In straightforward terms, when we translate, for example, indigenous  mythology into Western cultural forms, say for an academic paper, we also unwittingly erase its ‘temporal and ontological specificity’, that is, we overlook those elements for which an equivalent in our Western conceptual schema cannot be found.

A similar argument that specifically handles cultural translation crops up in Talal Asad’s path-breaking essay, ‘The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology’.(1)

Vasquez’s decolonial approach to (cultural) translation is, I would argue, inherently political. It isn’t simply about exploring the challenges involved in cultural translation but holding those who erase subaltern specificity to account. It is about ensuring that colonial violence remains foregrounded, rather than forgotten.

Vasquez raises tough questions, particularly for scholars who work on culture that circulates to and from non-Western contexts. I admire his refusal to wave away the horrors of our shared colonial past. At the same time, of course, Vasquez is writing a broad thesis about a very general (global and historical) practice of translation rather than attending to specific texts, so some of what he says may or may not pan out in the details. Nonetheless, a challenging and informative seminar.


(1) Asad, Talal. “The concept of cultural translation in British social anthropology.” Writing culture: The poetics and politics of ethnography 1 (1986): 141-164.




SEMINAR SERIES: Jazz Studies | Translating Curatorial Practice

For the first seminar in the BCMCR Seminar Series, Fiona Talkington and Sid Peacock explored how curatorial practice might be understood in terms of cultural translation.

In this post, I’ll explore Fiona’s talk in a little more detail and tease out a couple of the questions that interested me.

Fiona Talkington (BBC Radio 3) – If Mountains Could Sing

Fiona presented a paper on her experiences curating Norwegian Jazz. She described how her passion for the promotion and circulation of Norwegian jazz began; and traced the journey it took, from the humble, self-effacing musicians she spoke to in Oslo’s jazz bars, to the intricate, highly creative musical collaborations she organized later in her career.

Among the collaborative highlights outlined in her paper, one stood out: Fiona set up the ‘conexions’ series wherein she brought together Norwegian and British musicians for live performances (you can see the Intro to the 2013 event here). The twist here being that in some cases they’d never played with each other before. The music they played or improvised together took on the characteristic of an informal dialogue, produced in the moment, and proved both culturally enriching and profoundly creative.

What struck me about Fiona’s account was her intuition that something about Jazz managed to transcend linguistic differences, at least to some degree. Fiona spoke of its capacity to move and affect the listener, and that the effects it produced in the listener were comparable between British and Norwegian cultures;  put another way, what she liked about Norwegian Jazz (rhythms, peaks, harmonies) was what Norwegians liked about Norwegian Jazz.

This gestures towards an interesting point about the translation of affect from Norway to Britain. It suggests that common or equivalent feelings might be produced and experienced via non-linguistic medium, even if the specific articulation of those feelings takes place in different languages. In other words, we might feel the same things (but  articulate those feelings in a different language, according to local and specific ways of understanding feelings, and so on).

I was also interested in the limitations to the cross-cultural movements of jazz. Money for jazz festivals, said Fiona, was in relative abundance when she first visited in the 90s, at least in Norway, but the shifting political and economic landscape had changed considerably since then and she reported that funding has begun to dry up. The consequences for the continued flourishing

Fiona also raised an interesting point about gender: a high proportion of the musicians that found prominence on the Norwegian Jazz scene were male, while those involved in managing festivals and setting up collaborations both in Norway and transnationally tended to be female. This gendered division of labour, at least to me, could be seen as gesturing towards broader structural patterns of inequality that shape the ways in which music is circulated globally. Certainly food for thought.

Welcome to the BCMCR Cultural Translation Research Blog

Over the coming months we will use this blog to capture a range of approaches to the topic of cultural translation.

 What is cultural translation?

A good question. In the most general of terms, cultural translation might be seen as the process through which culture moves from one particular place, language or time to another, whether that means a literal translation (from one language to another) or a more metaphorical transposition (say, across national borders). But as Maitland (2017) notes, the definition is far from settled. For our working definition, go here.

Part of the work this blog will undertake is exploring how the concept is useful in Media and Cultural research, what sort of thinking can be done when we attend to cultural translation, and what questions are raised by it.

The blog will aim to:

1.       provide an up-to-date library of work that looks at issues of cultural translation by BCU scholars.

2.       catalogue the seminar series as it unfolds, with perspectives and comments posted week by week.

3.       invite thinkers from around the world to comment on how cultural translation impacts their work.

4.       allow the public to engage with the BCMCR seminar series and involve them in the wider debates we’re having here.

To keep this short, we’ll just say that we welcome comments, thoughts and engagement from academics, arts practitioners and members of the public alike. We’re looking forward to exploring cultural translation over the course of this project. Watch this space!


Maitland, Sarah. What is cultural translation?. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.