Lost in translation

Short read


Margaux Portron, Research and Communications Associate, Artraker.

I have been thinking and reading about the politics of translation lately, by which I mean both Gayatri Spivak’s article and the concept of translation as serving a greater agenda. I love translating, because it is halfway between interpretation and creativity, something that I find in my academic work. Being part of Artraker I have been looking into what research had been carried out regarding peacemaking and translation, or translating as peacemaking and conflict prevention. I have not found much – but if you do know sources please send them my way!

Nevertheless if translating has a creative scope, which I am sure it has, and creativity should be part of peace processes, which is what we are trying to work on here at Artraker, then translating is perhaps more than a simple tool for negotiations. In other words, translation is not simply a technology.

We know how mistranslations can put even more pressure on diplomatic processes. We also know how some spectators were angry at Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, claiming it is a racist film. While I do not deny anyone the legitimacy to see racism in the reproduction of stereotypes by the film, I think it is a bit unfair, for in my mind what the film is about is how the characters see Japan and Japanese people – not how they are. Bob is cynical and Charlotte is naïve. Japanese people appear to them as exuberant aliens. Even though the main protagonists are endearing, I also saw there a criticism of Americans showing up and not making any effort to understand a foreign culture. Charlotte, who sees herself as an intellectual type, cannot communicate with the American actress who introduces herself as “arexic”. Bob cannot communicate with his wife who only speaks of carpet colours. These are stereotypes as well.

There is that moment, quite memorable, where Bob is shooting an ad for a brand of whisky. The director gives instructions for 15min and the interpreter translate it into a minuscule sentence. It sums up, in my view, Bob and Charlotte’s experience of Japan: they are surrounded by an extremely rich, ancient but also highly modern – from the point of view of technology – culture, and all they get from it, is screaming tv shows and karaoke. We should be careful about where the stereotypes lie: in the intent of the film or in Bob and Charlotte’s minds?

Nevertheless, spectators are also interpretors – Lost in Translation‘s final scene is one of the biggest mysteries of 21st century’s cinema! – and so are translators. Translation is a fascinating work in which the text has to speak by/for itself. I think there might be something really relevant for peacemaking processes and I will try to write more about it.



Multilingual typography as cultural diplomacy. Intercultural collaboration through design.

Short read, Talk

Margaux Portron, Research and Communications Associate, Artraker.

Is it possible to do intercultural diplomacy with typography?

Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares, who has created the Khatt foundation, thinks so. She explained last night at The Mosaic Rooms how the Typographic Matchmatking Projects (TMM) work.

Fedra Arabic and Latin Font

Fedra Arabic and Latin Font

Teams of typographs from different backgrounds worked together on projects requiring scripts in different languages, for instance in public spaces and cities. The TMM want to create dialogue between typographs but also and most of all between scripts. Having dissimilar scripts can give the idea that messages are dissimilar too:

Matching the scripts on public signs, for instance, show that the same message is conveyed:

Typographs familiar with the Latin alphabet but with little knowledge of the Arabic script had to understand it, its possibilities. Doing this pushed them to understand Arabic culture at the same time. Some of the questions designers asked themselves were:

  • should we use the writing tool as a starting point, as it will provoke a common gesture?
  • when was this Arabic/Latin script invented? are there Arabic/Latin scripts that were invented at the time?

The next TMM, in Morocco, illustrates the idea very well:

From top to bottom, left to right: A collage of images by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares, Kristyan Sarkis, Juan Luis Blanco, Salah Bellizi, and Laura Meseguer.

From top to bottom, left to right: A collage of images by Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares, Kristyan Sarkis, Juan Luis Blanco, Salah Bellizi, and Laura Meseguer.

It “will research and develop tri-script font families that combine Arabic, Tifinagh and Latin scripts harmoniously”. It is political: the Tifinagh script is used by the Berbers or Amazighs, who have been ostracised in North Africa. The Latin script, explained AbiFares, will take inspiration from Spanish scripts, to show the exchange between Morocco and Spain since the middle-ages. Therefore, bringing them together is an attempt at making these cultures collaborate and coexist in harmony, and as equals. 

Type design evolves and becomes obsolete very quickly, but as AbiFares states:

Having a book is important, because even though it’s not valid anymore, it is a historical document, and what we lack in the Arab world are historical documents.


The Khatt Foundation website also hosts a collaborative platform for type designers. This talk was part of a series of events around the exhibition Tracing Landscapes by artist Dia Batal, from 09.09 to the 27.09 at the Mosaic Rooms.

The Khatt Foundation was founded in 2004 in Amsterdam. The goals of the foundation are: build cross-cultural creative networks, provide a platform for dialogue and design research, support and initiate cross-cultural and inter-disciplinary collaboration, publish critical writing and establish a knowledge centre on contemporary design from the MENA region.


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