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Review: In Translation: A discussion around the Lankan museum context

By Naveed Rozais and Venessa Anthony

When thinking about museums, in any sense, we often tend to underestimate just how much power a museum has in shaping how we see the past, the present, and the future. And, as always, it’s the little things that really have a big impact. In the Sri Lankan context, one not-so-little thing that influences how we as a generation interact with our museums is language.

As a nation, on paper, we are trilingual. Our languages are Sinhala, Tamil, and English, but not necessarily in that order. The fact is that some of us are at best bilingual, and many of us are monolingual, and so this unity of language plays a huge part in how we experience all aspects  of our lives, but especially museums.

Now, in the museum world, English is the status quo. It is the globally dominant language and this in no small part due to colonialism. But English being the status quo means that countries like Sri Lanka, where English is a second language at best, can often see the wider population get the short end of the stick. They are less a part of global discourse and thinking because of the language barrier between English and Sinhala or Tamil. For non-English speakers to be part of the discourse, translation becomes a necessity. And this is not the case simly for English into Sinhala and Tamil, but across all languages – Sinhala into Tamil and English, Tamil into English and Sinhala, and all the other appropriate combinations.

In the museum context, translation helps us understand not just the language we’re trying to experience, but other aspects of what we’re viewing, the thinking of people who made what we’re viewing, the idea they were trying to convey, which might have lost its clarity over time or, in the case of art, need further explaining for the viewer to completely grasp it.

And this brings us to art, museums, and translation, for while art does transcend barriers of culture, language, race, and religion, that doesn’t mean that translation is unnecessary. If anything, it is even more important because to communicate an artist’s vision completely, sometimes you just need to be able to connect with a viewer linguistically as well.

The event we’re discussing today, “In Translation”, is an event that focuses on translation in the realm of contemporary art in a museum context. Organised by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Sri Lanka (MMCA Sri Lanka), “In Translation” is a two-day online event that sees a brilliant line-up of speakers thinking through the various challenges and opportunities in simultaneously working across three languages. It asks the question “can trilingual approaches make modern and contemporary art more inclusive and accessible in Sri Lanka?”

The event concluded with a presentation of a specially commissioned artwork by Musicmatters for the “In Translation” programme.

MMCA Sri Lanka

MMCA Sri Lanka is Sri Lanka’s first museum dedicated exclusively to modern and contemporary art. In 2016, a group of artists, museum professionals, art historians, collectors, and art supporters had a conversation about the need to establish a museum that was dedicated to modern and contemporary art, driven by the need to preserve and conserve modern art.

Launched in December 2019, MMCA Sri Lanka has been quietly working towards establishing a public museum dedicated to the display, research, collection, and conservation of modern and contemporary art for the benefit and enjoyment of the general public, schools, and tourists.

ICES Research Fellow Hasini Haputhanthri

As the MMCA’s work and conversations continued, they also recognised that museums in Sri Lanka have sought to serve the past at the exclusion of the present, which leaves out vast areas of cultural production in terms of modern architecture, design, art, craft, and film, and it is this exploration of inclusion that has given rise to the discussions on translation that make up the “In Translation” programme.

“In Translation” featured a keynote speech by University of Colombo Department of English senior lecturer Dr. Dinithi Karunanayake; a conversation on “Translation, Memory, Poetics” with University of Jaffna Department of Fine Arts senior lecturer P. Ahilan, theatre artist University of Peradeniya Department of English lecturer Kanchuka Dharmasiri, and York University Graduate Programme in Humanities doctoral candidate Geetha Sukumaran; a conversation on “Language and Identity – from a Translator’s Perspective” with MMCA associates; a conversation on “Translation and Transition in Museum Practices” with International Centre for Ethnic Studies Sri Lanka (ICES) Research Fellow Hasini Haputhanthri and other MMCA professionals; a conversation on finding “Finding the Equal Word” with University of Jaffna Department of Fine Arts senior lecturer T. Shanaathanan and University of Peradeniya Postgraduate Institute of Archaeology lecturer Prasanna Ranabahu; and finally, “Vaasal/Elipatta/Threshold”, a specially commissioned digital sound work by Musicmatters.

‘A museum is, above all else, a translational context’

In a keynote speech that opened the “In Translation” event, Dr. Karunanayake emphasised that because museums are where we encounter and experience art and objects that have travelled through different times and spaces, a museum will always, above all else, be a translational context, which is why museums – and how translation works within them – have the power to shape how the wider audiences sees the past, lives in the present, and creates the future.

University of Jaffna Department of Fine Arts senior lecturer T. Shanaathanan

The role translation plays is sometimes very tangible, like in the case of a caption simply explaining what something is, as well as intangible, when translation deals with the interpretation of a piece of art, because how translation tells this story affects how it will be experienced by the person viewing it.

Dr. Karunanayake shared with guests that despite the intimate connection between museums and translation, translation isn’t always given the attention it deserves, and in many museums around the world, translation practices are still under-researched.

Calling for more mindful translation practice because of the implications translation has on societies and how they interact with museums, Dr. Karunanayake recommended more thoughtful processes when it comes to translation, as well as exploring different mediums to help get messages across in more cohesive and effective ways.

Dr. Karunayake also commended MMCA Sri Lanka for the great care with which they approach translation within their space, noting that such care and attention is sadly not always common museum practice.

Language and Identity – from a Translator’s Perspective

Translators are people too, and it’s important to remember that as much as the end viewers interact with a piece of art, a translator too interacts with a piece of art, almost always in a much deeper and more meaningful way than a casual viewer would. This is because especially in the arts space, a translator needs to pay special attention to what they’re translating and how to make sure the artist’s true meaning is conveyed across barriers of language and culture.

This discussion saw several of MMCA’s translators – Kaumadhi Jayaweera, Praveen Tilakaratne, Hiranyada Dewasiri, Mauran Muralitharan, Shiyalni Janarthanan, and Phusathi Liyanaarachchi – have an informal chat about what it means for them as translators when it comes to translating different bodies of work.

The majority of the group were not formally trained translators, but professionals who fell into translating for various purposes because of how proficient they were in their respective languages and because of their love for the craft and helping make the nuances communicated in one language understood in another.

Among the intricacies that were discussed during the session were aspects of translation like needing to create new words, especially when it comes to art and creative terminology, because those words simply do not exist in the language they are translating to.

The group also discussed how when translating work related to the arts, it is not as simple as translating from one language to another and calling it a day, but is instead vital to think carefully and critically about what you are translating and how you can communicate that message without diluting it in when telling the same story in another language, and also being able to decipher the value of what you’re translating and amplify the power of the message you’re trying to convey.

Translation and Transition

In recent years, more and more museums have made diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion a priority. Institutions are striving to engage multicultural audiences and strengthen ties to their local communities. They are making efforts to reflect diverse experiences and perspectives, and create spaces that are welcoming to marginalised individuals. Many museums now mandate that their offerings be made accessible to a range of audiences.

It is widely recognised that translation helps achieve these objectives. However, museums everywhere feel the challenges of insufficient budget or staff. How should museums prioritise the development of multilingual materials? With limited resources, where is the best place to begin? The conversation, titled “Translation and Transition in Practice”, as it is a space that allows transference, exchange of knowledge, and represents various kinds of knowledge, tackled these questions.

The main aim behind this session was to discuss disparity and discourse as it often hinders museum spaces that work in multiple languages.

Haputhanthri shared her knowledge on the topic and went into an in-depth discussion on why translation is important in the context of a museum.

Museum professionals have long advocated for museums as valuable spaces for education, civic engagement, and even as places that inspire social change in our communities. Yet, paradoxically, she pointed out, as we argue for the very real value of museums in society, we also struggle with actually engaging all members of our communities regardless of class, gender, age, race/ethnicity, or even linguistic background.

“In the case of language, we have arguably been slower to recognise and identify strategies for including multilingual audiences,” Haputhanthri commented, adding that the reasons for this vary and include, among others, the belief that linguistic diversity is not common, the prediction that youth will primarily speak the dominant language of the nation (meaning it is not necessary to invest in learning how to serve multilingual groups), the view that someone in a group can translate (for instance, children in a family group), and the opinion that developing multilingual resources is too challenging and cost-prohibitive.

In fact, most of the questions posed by museum professionals regarding multilingual audiences concern the need for, or the logistics of, providing written resources in multiple languages. Some of the most common questions, for example, are: Do we need to translate everything in an exhibit? What is the best way to translate text? What are best practises for translation or for bilingual label development? Can including other languages increase attendance? How do you decide which languages to translate? The focus, then, has been on providing written access to the content and ideas the museum wishes to transmit.

Implementing translations in cultural institutions does not need to be overwhelming. Doing so can be accomplished successfully even when resources are limited. Rolled out in stages, translated materials can help museums foster inclusive environments, strengthen relationships with local communities, and reach a broad spectrum of visitors.

The prominence of one, or a few, dominant languages used in “official” capacities such as government or business tends to give the impression that linguistic diversity is uncommon. Yet, this is far from true. Sharing her thoughts on the topic, she stated that the word transition is as important as the word translation. “For a long time, even in the context of knowledge, certain knowledge (areas) are restricted to certain categories of people and are only accessible by a specific group of people.”

In her opinion, transition is about making the museum more accessible to different types of people, not just people at a research level.