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Art in Translation, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp.

DOI: 10.2752/175613112X13244611239872
Reprints available directly from the Publishers.
Photocopying permitted by licence only.
2012 Berg.

Fiona Elliott

Honor Thine
This article examines the challenges faced by the professional translator of art texts today. Art writing tends to go beyond simple factual
accounts of art and often includes complicated passages of fiction and
excursions into scientific and philosophical explanations, and may be
intended as an artistic form of expression in its own right. Translators
not only translate texts from one language into another but are also
asked to edit texts written in English by non-native speakers. Drawing
on her own experience as a professional art translator, Elliott offers
pertinent insights into the responsibilities of the translator vis--vis the


Fiona Elliott

author. Whether translating or editing, the art translator stands at the

center of a web of different interests and has to balance the concerns of
a wide range of people involved in the act of translation, including the
artist, author, curator, sponsor, publisher, and editor.
KEYWORDS: translation practice and art history, art writing, relationship translator and author, translating art texts

Much of the work of the specialist art translator today involves translating texts that will be published simultaneously in both languagesin
some cases not at all in the original language. Ideally, not only does the
translator (in my case, German to English) treat the author with respect
and consideration, the author also reciprocates in a similar fashion. In
fact this is more often than not the case, in part because of the very particular role of the art translator. In a sense, for a very brief period, the
translator is at the center of a web of different interests and has to balance the concerns of a wide range of different players (in no particular
order, here)artist, artists assistant or estate (widow, offspring, sparring grandchildren), author, curator, editor, designer, publisher, sponsor.
At times the translator and the author find themselves steering a course
together through what can be rather choppy waters.
In addition to this, the translator has to bear in mind the wider
concerns of the author. In the art world today, any German-speaking
art professionals wanting to make their mark have to publish in English. This, pleasantly, ensures a steady supply of interesting work for
the specialist translator, but it also means that the translator is above
all required to respond to and communicate a particular authors style
and approach. Art texts these days are much more than factual accounts with a personal touch. In the face of the highly complex or
bafflingly simple appearance of many works of art today, which often
defy description, authors resort to a whole range of devicesfrom
pure fiction (stories, imagined interviews) to speculative explorations
to scientific and pseudo-scientific explanations to philosophy of the
most abstruse kind. The art text is not infrequently intended as a form
of artistic expression in its own right. In addition to this, todays art
translators and editors are also increasingly called on to edit texts in
English written by non-native speakers of English. This task, although
potentially arduous, has a particular fascination as one strives to remove any awkwardnesses and potential for confusion without obscuring the authors voice.
The fact that text and translation are being published simultaneously
turns the act of translating into something perhaps rather particular,
where one has the feeling that in extremis the source text can actually

Honor Thine Author


be changed. And it casts a very sharp light on the question of how far a
translator should go. Personally, I would say, as far as the text needs and
certainly no further than the author can stand. Easier said than done, I
need hardly add!
There are, of course, many texts where the translator is perfectly
or reasonably content with the original, and may need to do no more
than clarify one or two points with the author or editor; however,
there are other situations where the translator might wish the original were slightly (or very) different. And it is certainly not necessarily
the case that one is simply criticizing the original because it is easy to
criticize anythingas my heroes, the translators of the King James
version of the Bible, say in their wonderful, extensive introduction
to the Reader, cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one; it
may simply be that additional information comes to light in ones
research for the translation. Take the case of a text on Tacita Deans
video work, Teignmouth Electron, where the author remarked in an
aside that the name of the yacht was of no particular significance
(the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, who founded Electron Utilisation Ltd and later moved his headquarters to Teignmouth, lost his
life during the Golden Globe Race in 1969), or another authors reference to honeybees as one of the oldest species on earth. Taking
the authors side, so to speak, one has to weigh up how much these
throwaway remarks matter. How important is it that the name of
the yacht must have been deeply significant to the yachtsman, who
entered the race, hoping to win, in a last desperate attempt to save
his business? Does the distinction between solitary bees and honeybees matter in an art text? Id say yes. I dont want my author
to look ill-informed. Its like William Weaver said in a memorable
talk at a conference on Translation Perspectives held in New York
in 1985, when he mentions that he has become friends with certain
writers: and so I have a kind of proprietary attitude towards their
literature. And I should also like to slightly take cover here behind
another quote from the same talk by William Weaver: I dont exactly like to be talking about myself, but I cant talk about translating without talking about myself.
On the other hand, the translator may indeed feel critical of the
original and then it is a matter of weighing up the situation. Is what the
author has said, at best, a little awkward, repetitive, or simply confusing, or is it downright wrong, maybe a direct contradiction of what has
already been said? Whether to take action and what action to take can
depend very much on the author. If it is a writer one hasnt worked with
before, one is often at pains to raise the matter in terms of an interested
inquiry. If it is a writer one has already worked with in the past, one can
probably be much more direct. However, it is definitely best to avoid
creating a situation where the authors textwhich, more often than


Fiona Elliott

not they have toiled overturns into a kind of homework assignment

with the translator awarding marks out of ten. Ideally, the author will
feel that ones starting point is one of appreciative respect, and that it is
possible to work together to find a solution to any problems.
It seems, however, that when there are indeed problems, the responses
from authors fall into three broad categories.
1. The easiest to handle is when the author instantly agrees that something needs to be done, and comes up with an answer. Take the case
of one author, whose texts were so fantastically difficult that even the
great David Britt, another of my heroes, who sadly died some years ago,
hesitated to take them on. This author completely disarmed me with
his response. I had drawn his attention to a sentence: he read it, read it
again, muttered Jesses, Jesses, Maria, and came up with a solution.
And then the same thing at the next sentence, soon followed by, in tones
of amazement, You know, I won a prize for this text. You did? said
I, before I could stop myself. And he laughed, adding, I dont think
they read it. But there is actually something important here about the
German love of complication and the consequences this can have for the
translator striving for lucidity.
2. Next, and the least common situation, there is the author who
doesnt regard the passage as problematic, and could easily be hurt by
ones implied criticism. Personally, I try to come up with a solution that
looks as much like a translation as possible but still manages to remove
the problem. But one has to be extremely wary here, because what may
look like ambiguity or a strange form of logic may even be entirely
intentional on the part of the author. The question of logicespecially
in comparisons between German and Englishis one that constantly
crops up and one that I will come back to shortly.
3. Lastly, there is the situation that is hardest to handlewhere the
author insists that a passage should remain untouched and that it must
be translated exactly as it stands. An interesting and extremely tricky
example of this occurred in my experience a few years ago when a
particular art collector was under very considerable attack from the
press. However, the statements that he issued to the press in his defense
(which he needed to have translated) were hardly likely to do his cause
any goodthey were both defiant and supercilious and read extremely
badly in English. But all my, in fact well-meaning, attempts to make
them more palatable fell on deaf ears and I had to translate them as
they stood. This situation is really rather rare and I think it requires
strength of character on the part of the translator not to take it out on
the author. There is an interesting, very public, example of precisely this

Honor Thine Author


process, where the author, Milan Kundera, objected to passages having

been omitted from the first translation of his book The Joke (in this
case by two translators working together, David Hamblyn and Oliver
What in 1969 read as
I gave the unlovely square a final scornful glance and turned
my back on it, walking down the street to the hotel where I had
booked a room for the night. The room proved unprepossessing:
a bed....
became, in 1970 (republished, following Kunderas objections, by the
same publisher)
I gave the unlovely square a final scornful glance and turned
my back on it, walking down the street to the hotel where I had
booked a room for the night. The porter gave me a key attached
to a pear-shaped lump of wood and said: Second floor. The
room proved unprepossessing: a bed....
Its the pear-shaped lump of wood that makes me wonder, here,
whether the translators were venting a little of their spleen at this point
(when did pear-shaped take on the meaning we associate with it
today?). In their view, they may previously only have been removing
what even the great William Weaver referred to in that same talk as
unnecessary complications. By the fourth and final translation, published with Kunderas personal involvement in 1992, the key fob had
become a rather less cumbersome wooden pear.
Of course, some problems may be avoided if there is an opportunity
to discuss a text in advance, even before it is written. This happens from
time to time, and if I get the chance, I always make sure I ask authors to
avoid using the verb aufheben and any words deriving from it. What
English verb could match aufheben, meaning to pick something up
from the floor, to save something up for later, to close a meeting, to terminate a siege, to remove restrictions, to cancel or annul, to repeal or revoke, to compensate, neutralize, offset, or elevate? (Actually, at the latest
count there are forty-seven separate translations for it online at
My problem with this word is that it is rarely used in any one of these
senses alone: shades of meaning that linger within the verb naturally
also come into play, and the solution in English is not simply to plump
for sublate because this is used in some philosophical texts where
the German uses aufheben. Yet, it seems I have to tame my instinctive striving for lucidity. Many German-speaking authors have a completely different attitude to ambiguity in written texts and relish verbs
of precisely this kind. This has often perplexed me and, before I knew


Fiona Elliott

better (not to go there, as they say these days), I would get embroiled in
conversations along the lines of, So (as pleasantly and politely as possible), in which sense are you using Farbe here? Is it color, or paint?
Deep sigh from the author, or, Oh, you translators, you always want
to have everything spelt out, or, In both senses! But recently I found
myself translating a passage that maybe sheds some light at least on the
acceptability of ambiguity to the German-speaking scholar. It comes in
a particularly dense text by a Swiss author:
Nietzsche described Laurence Sterne as the most liberated
writer and explained why: What is to be praised in him is not
the closed and transparent but the endless melody: if with this
expression we may designate an artistic style in which the fixed
form is constantly being broken up, displaced, transposed back
into indefiniteness, so that it signifies one thing and at the same
time another. Sterne is the great master of ambiguity.... The
reader who demands to know exactly what Sterne really thinks of
a thing, whether he is making a serious or a laughing face, must
be given up for lost: for he [Sterne] knows how to encompass
both in a single facial expression; he likewise knows how, and
even wants to be in the right and in the wrong at the same time,
to knot together profundity and farce.1
And while Im talking about talking with authorsI would be extremely interested to know, on a human, audio-socio-linguistic level,
why it is that when I have reached a state of some despair and am
already in severe danger of committing the sin of losing patience with
the author, more often than not, it is the sound of the authors voice
that calms me and gives me new strength, and, before I know it, Im
thinking, of course, thats what he/she means. No problem, I can do
Of course, talking to authors and/or meeting the people one works
for can also be rather revealing. I learnt two quite serious lessons in
this way. The first was when I went to Zurich for the first time, and
met several people I had been working with but had never seen face to
face, some of whom I hadnt even spoken to on the phone. (I hadnt yet
understood that people are generally very appreciative if it seems that
one is interested enough in getting a text right to take the trouble
to call themI still thought they might be appalled at my ignorance
and inability to translate German.) So, I went around, visiting different people, and it was all great fun until I walked into one gallery and
the director came towards me, his hand outstretched, a big smile on
his face, and said, Ah, the autonomous translator. I laughed a little
weakly and hurried on to questions about him and the show, but I also
took it to heart. Let that be a lesson, I thought to myself, and I decided there and then that I must have gone too far somewhere along the

Honor Thine Author


line. And that I wasnt going to do that again. It was probably at that
point that I decided I shouldnt just be trying to be stylish, or elegant;
I actually had to try a bit harder to really translate what the author was
saying. In my mind its something about never adding to or subtracting
from a text. And if ever I am in danger of going too farin my own
judgment at leastI still see that tall figure striding towards me, beaming in amusement.
The second small but serious lesson was at the end of a telephone
call with an author, when we were discussing a text that he was going to
write and that I would translate. Just as we were on the point of ringing
off, he completely stunned me by saying, And, like last time, with some
jokes! What? I thought. I didnt add any jokesI wouldnt dream of
it! (I had already learnt my first lesson.) But then, on reflection, I realized that what may have seemed to me like a slightly lighter touch than
the originalwho would want to be that ponderous?actually came
across to him as frivolous high spirits.
So, assuming the translation has been done, there has been no petty
squabbling, and the author has read the text, this is the point where the
translator can really start to learn something. Because, with many of
these authors speaking good English and with all of them being used to
reading English art texts, their response can be taken as typical of other
non-native speakers who may read the translation. There is no point in
insisting on something that might cause confusion. At the same time,
many authors enjoy reading translations for the sharp light it can cast
on tricky passages in their own workand, as I work my way through
a difficult text, I sometimes see in myself something of the policewoman
I once met late at night in the streets of Edinburgh, out all on her own.
I stopped and asked her if it wasnt rather frightening, and she grinned
and said, I just walk around, hoping Im not going to find anything.
Thats how I feelinitially the text can be a quite daunting, shadowy
place with who knows what lurking around the next corner.
Read the whole text first, one might say. But from my point of view,
knowing what is up ahead means that I am too soon in danger of anticipating the authors argument. In the case of an art text, which is not,
as a rule, driven by a plot but is the scholars unfolding of a particular
argument, it is absolutely essential that each step in the argument is rock
solid. And it seems to me that you have to secure each foothold as you
go. I like to assume that the author was doing the same thingthe peak
of the mountain may be out of sight because of the angle of the mountainside, or it may be obscured by low-lying cloud, but he or she knew it
had to be there somewhere. And I like to try to follow exactly the same
routeI really think its no good standing on a higher ledge and trying
to haul the author up behind you.
In the situations I have described so far, in the interaction between
the author and translator, the text is, in a sense, still in flux. Naturally,
some of the issues Ive touched on become all the more acute when the


Fiona Elliott

original text has already been published. And I think it is important, as

a translator, to bear in mind what is at stake for the author.
In many ways, the text can be crucial to the authors standing in the
global art community. And, on a more personal level for the author,
it may be crucial to their relationship to the non-German speaking
artist whose work they are describing. So the translator may have to
engage in some subtle diplomacy. If an author refers to an artists unremarkable (unscheinbar) house in London and names the road
that this highly respected English artist lives in, I would hesitate to
translate this as it standseven apart from the fact that I happen to
know that this is a very grand road and the house itself extremely elegant. If there is to be an English editor, one might leave it up to them.
But not if the translation is going to the artist first. At the same time,
I wouldnt simply change the text or omit it. I would always check
with the author first.
Linked to the matter of the authors standing in the global art community, certain writers view the text not perhaps so much as an opportunity to display their scholarly acumen, but as a chance to establish
their own credentials as a creative individual. These texts can range
from impossibly challenging, as far as I am concernedas in the following proposal for a text for an exhibition on abstraction:
to reasonably challengingwhen the author, for instance, discusses
rhetorical devices in paintings by Raphael in a rhetorical mannerto
other texts that are just great fun. At the fun end of the range (if this
is ones idea of fun) there are the poems and the fantasy texts. Its like
being let out to playflexing ones muscles and joining in the authors
game. I like a good haiku or, more recently, a playlet where the critics
discuss the show, in the hearing of the waiter, who of course turns out
to be the artist. And its in these situations that one can join in that other
linguistic game played in the art world, called expanding the English
language. See, for instance, the following by Nicholas Bourriaud, curator of the fourth Tate Triennial in 2009:
Altermodern Manifesto:

If twentieth-century modernism was above all a western cultural

phenomenon, altermodernity arises out of planetary negotiations,
discussions between agents from different cultures. Stripped of a
centre, it can only be polyglot. Altermodernity is characterized by
translation, unlike the modernism of the twentieth century which
spoke the abstract language of the colonial west, and postmodernism, which encloses artistic phenomena in origins and identities.2

Honor Thine Author


However, lest this all sounds rather too unserious, Id like to touch
on the definitely serious matter of editing art texts. One extremely interesting area that the editor of art texts is increasingly involved in today
is editing English-language texts by non-native speakers, where the language has to be reined in rather than expanded. Here I learnt my most
important lesson from a Swiss expert in landscape design at the ETH in
Zurich who frequently writes in English. As he told me, he is happiest
when the editing process is kept to an absolute minimum (homeopathic, as he put it)minute changes that transform the interior of the
text yet still leave him recognizable to his friends in the art world.
And this brings me to another important aspect of the work of the
art translator. Whereas a publisher of literary texts might regard the
notion of publishing a translation as a financial risk, for the Germanspeaking art institutions it is often a financial necessity. It is only by
publishing in English that they can make their mark internationally,
which in turn encourages the major sponsors to back their shows. So,
the translator is not necessarily having to consider a domestic readership in the same way that the literary translator may well have to do.
And yet, having slithered sideways into the art world, and having had
to put years of determined effort into acquiring the tools of this trade, I
am always tempted to translate things in such a way that my former self
could still have understood them.
I have very much concentrated here on the process of translating
texts for living authorsa reflection of the fact that this is by far the
main bulk of my work. But there are times when we find ourselves
translating texts by past scholars, and here I feel a very strong sense of
duty. Unable to chat merrily with the scholar from the past, I personally
am utterly determined to translate with the greatest accuracy (interpretation aside) that I can achieve. Given that my interpretation will of
course color the translation, nevertheless I will at least not knowingly
suppress things or try to second-guess the argument. Otherwise what
chance do the modern readers stand of coming to their own conclusions? However, I am not going to go into this area in any more detail
here: all I would say is that, when translating the work of authors from
the past, one is faced all the more urgently with the question I raised at
the beginning as to how far the translator should gothe question I feel
I will endlessly struggle with.
Which brings me close to the end of this talk, and to the matter of
endings. This, of course, is one of the trickiest moments in any text,
and it seems to be the one where the translator and the author sometimes almost converge. There have been a few situations where I have
come to the end of a text and have thought, hmmm...a little abrupt,
maybe?but of course I havent said anything if it was not directly
problematic. But as soon as the author says they werent sure about it,
I cant help myselfAh, well, I was thinking... And inevitably I come
up with something, and in the most extreme cases (to my slightly guilty


Fiona Elliott

reliefbecause I dont want my authors text to just fizzle out) he or

she says, Yes, why not?, now, let me think, what would that be
in German?

1.Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free
Spirits, trans. by R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1996), vol. II, part one, no. 113, p. 238, as cited
in Roswitha Schild, Speculating on Mario Sala, in Maria Sala,
exh. cat. (Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Nuremberg, 2009).