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The art of “artspeak” and “artspoke” (but not in French)

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There are times when, as a translator, you have to recognize that certain terms or expressions just cannot be translated from one language into another. And I think it takes a good translator to know when to throw in the towel. Here’s an example from an English to French translation.

The American writer, art historian and journalist Robert Atkins is the author, among others, of two useful guides to the field of art and art history and to the field’s particular lingo or jargon. The first of these volumes, published in 1993, was titled ArtSpoke: A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements and Buzzwords, 1848-1944, while the second, published in 1997, was titled ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present.

The difficulty for a translator in this case, of course, lies in translating “artspoke” and “artspeak”. “Art-spoke” is the simple past, as it were, of “art-speak”, and the term can only really exist, and be understood, in relation to the latter. “Artspeak” was formed, it seems, on the pattern of “Newspeak”, the artificial language used in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Artspeak”, then, hints at the impenetrable obscurity of this critical jargon while also promising, as the title of the volume, to shed light on it.

So how is one to translate these terms into French? Well, one possibility, for “artspeak”, would be to do so on the pattern of the French translation of “Newspeak” (the dreadful “novlangue”). But “art-langue” or something similar would not only be meaningless but also sounds quite ridiculous, besides failing to capture the contrived nature of the term. Needless to say, conjugating that term to arrive at an equivalent of “art-spoke” seems virtually impossible.

The translator of these volumes, Jeanne Bouniort, thus rightly chose to drop “Artspoke” and “Artspeak” from the titles, and to opt for broader, though also more concise titles: Petit lexique de l’art moderne, 1848-1945 (2000), and Petit lexique de l’art contemporain (1998). And in fact, the French editions are presented as French “versions” of the English text, and quite rightly so, too. Both the English and French editions are published by Abbeville Press, which specializes in fine art and illustrated books.

Robert Atkins's ArtspokeAtkins Petit lexique

Written by Patrick Lennon

October 10, 2011 at 11:40 pm

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