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The Art of Archival Translation

Language is always changing. New words appear and old words fall out of favor. Language from a few hundred years ago can easily appear unintelligible from the language we read and write today. Even handwriting evolves, leaving century-old handwritten documents practically undecipherable to modern-day readers.

Digging into the meaning of archival texts and handwritten documents can have immense scholarly value and bring artists’ words to life. Archival texts provide context to our history, as told through the voices of people who lived and witnessed events of days gone by.

Translating Archival Text

Eriksen had the opportunity to work on some meaningful projects involving the transcription and translation of historical, handwritten text. In this video, Eriksen’s Director of Sales Will Lach discusses the challenges. He begins by showcasing archival translation projects involving materials written by Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész and Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica. Will next presents a series of centuries-old Spanish documents that shed light on the slave trade.

Ultimately, the talent, scholarship, and linguistic expertise of Eriksen’s specialists produced exciting results, uncovering the true meaning of the original texts.

Transcription: The Art of Archival Translation

Hi, I’m Will Lach from Eriksen Translations.

Eriksen is the premier language service provider to the cultural sector, assisting nearly every major museum in North America. We offer many services, including map localization, live Zoom interpreting, multilingual typesetting, and exhibition translation. But today, I’d like to take a quick look at our archival translation services by discussing a few very special projects from last year.

Let’s start with the Art Institute of Chicago. Last year we had a project for an exhibition that’s still forthcoming, on the topic of the Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész. There is Kertész, and there is one of his beautiful, dreamlike works. We were asked to transcribe and translate Kertesz’s handwritten ephemera from the 1920s and 1930s, from Hungarian into English.

This slide gives you an idea of some of the materials, which included his daybook, letters, postcards, photographs, inscriptions, and his expense book. It’s always thrilling to see source material like this, even though the vehicle of a JPEG, and to provide the curatorial team with tools that lead to new scholarship. Actually, when the curator received the transcribed and translated materials, she said it felt like Christmas morning!

Another archival translation project came from Lisson Gallery, the pioneering contemporary art gallery founded in 1967, with offices in London, New York, and Shanghai. Lisson controls the estate of Hélio Oiticica, the Brazilian artist who, in the late 1960s, coined the term Tropicália, which describes art political expression and, of course, music. Eriksen transcribed and translated Oiticica’s handwritten and hand-typewritten materials with notes for his Hunting Dogs Project. These materials supported Lisson Gallery’s widely acclaimed show at several New York venues last winter.

The third and final archival translation project I’d like to feature is one that we’ve just embarked on with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Smithsonian came to us with a series of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century Spanish documents that deal with the slave trade. The combination of history and handwriting rendered them largely inscrutable-at least to other language service providers.

When you take a closer look, you start to see where some of the difficulties lie. There are various linguistic issues like atypical abbreviations-names like Juan or Juana that could be shortened the same way. Such issues must be parsed out through context. And one can’t ignore that these documents are handwritten, so there are legibility issues, which we call “the hand of the scribe.”

Our crew for this project includes a scholar of Spanish studies who is one of two or three people in the world who can do this work. He also happens to be a Mexican-American who can trace his family history to this period. And then there’s the translation team, which comprises two native-speaking linguists with subject-matter expertise about this particular time and place.

Eriksen and our partner, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, are eager to discover what this work will unveil at this fascinating juncture of translation and scholarship.

Thank you very much.

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