Broken Telephone? From (Mis)Translation to Curatorial Transmission

Translation – the process of changing words, text, concepts or forms, from one language or condition to another – is everywhere. Yet is it just a tool to cement English as the lingua franca of an increasingly dominating capitalist ideology? What can artists teach us with regards to the value of linguistic, cultural, social, and political diversity through (mis)translation?

With the continued global expansion of the artworld, artists and curators are increasingly working across borders, using processes of translation in their work, commenting on language as a shifting code and a container of culture, and a record of power relations. Yet artists and curators aren’t simply ciphers in a continuous process of transmission, they are also active agents and commentators in a shifting process of signification and interpretation, that is always imperfect. Certain artists deliberately subvert the codes of communication, to mine the gaps between languages and test untranslatability – for instance theorised in Glissantian notions around opacity -, embracing in the process cultural hybridity, reflecting on postcolonial conditions and exploring alter-globalizing concerns. Conversely, how can the curator, whose work is meant to serve a public, respect, and highlight artists’ nuances and intentions?

This research aims uncover the value of (mis)translation in art. How can the curator successfully mediate (mis)translation, opacity and untranslatability? How can the curatorial process not itself turn be another form of Globish and a flattening secondary process of translation? What can we learn from (mis)translation?

Emily Butler is Conversations Curator for Art Basel, a freelance curator and a PHD in Practice in Curating candidate. She holds a BA in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, and a MA in The Cultural and Creative Industries from King’s College, London. Previously she was Curator at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. Projects included leading the Artists’ Film International consortium (2016-21), survey exhibitions such as The London Open 2022, The London Open 2018, Electronic Superhighway (2016), major solo shows by Kai Althoff (2020), Hannah Höch (2014), John Stezaker, Wilhelm Sasnal (2011), collection displays including the ISelf Collection, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington (both 2017), commissions by Nalini Malani, Carlos Bunga (both 2020), Katja Novitskova (2018), Benedict Drew (2016), Kader Attia (2013) and Rachel Whiteread (2012), as well as festivals including Nocturnal Creatures 2021, 2018 and Art Night 2017. From 2004-2010 developed exhibitions internationally for the British Council’s Visual Arts Department. She contributes to international publications and independent projects.