1996-2006

Material: Multiple languages translation

This project experiments with the potential and extent of transference between different languages. Approach: the project begins with the translation of a page of Chinese text into English; the English text is translated into French, from French into Russian, and then, following this method, through German, Spanish, Japanese, and Thai. Finally, it is translated back into Chinese. A comparison of the first and last Chinese versions reveals the extent of the disparity between the two. As of the writing of this introduction, the chain translation project is still in mid-process (right now it is being converted from Spanish to Japanese), but how will it end? I myself do not know. Perhaps it will be a complete perversion of the original, perhaps it won’t be that awful (which would be better, for this would show that translations, upon which we have relied for many years, are still fundamentally trustworthy).

The project began ten years ago with New York curator Octavio Zaya, but it never got off the ground. One day Ocatavia unexpectedly caught wind of another artist who was undertaking a similar project, and I could only agree to stop (even though second hand information is unreliable). Yet, for the last ten years, I have searched the web and made every possible inquiry, but have never seen mention of this project. And my thoughts often turn to this “pitiful” plan.

The theme of this issue of City Magazine relates to translation, and it made me

Later, I realized that an American game called “telephone” is played just this way. You whisper a sentence to me, I whisper it to my neighbor, and then it finally returns to the last person in the chain who reveals how the original statement has changed(I imagine a similar sort of game exists in China as well). The game, which has been handed down from children, is simple to the extent that it mirrors real life, yet it is imbued with philosophical undertones. This species of game is also used in American universities and research institutions: for instance, in management communication classes. Students are divided into two groups and given the same appliance. One group starts the process of constructing the appliance as it transmits each section of the instructions to the other group. The results of the groups can be entirely dissimilar. This experiment examines the degree of error between direct and transmitted communication. It discusses how managers can effectively transmit directions. The skill of translating is also a skill of transmitting.

The original Chinese text was selected from Columbia Professor Lydia H. Liu’s book “Cross-writing: Critical Perspectives on Narratives of Modern Intellectual History.” I had wanted to find a passage which like many…… But I discovered that her style is clear and simple, and it was difficult to find a passage that can easily be misunderstood. But it is only by starting from normal prose that the reliability of this experiment can be proven.

Thank you Lydia, and also a big thanks to the translators around the world who warmly participated in this project.

Xu Bing 25 April, 2006, New York