New exhibit shows how translation shapes Mediterranean culture

The Bible claims that the human race spoke one language before the building of the Tower of Babel caused God to "confound" our speech. A new exhibit in France shows that we are richer for it. [rpi virtuelle/ Flickr]

From the Lutheran Bible to Tintin and from Aristotle to the Rosetta Stone, translation has shaped Mediterranean culture for centuries, despite the vast array of untranslatable material in existence. It’s a paradox that a new exposition in Marseilles is focusing on. EURACTIV Spain reports.

European civilisation has been constructed on Greek, Latin and Arabic translations and that was one of the primary reasons why exhibit curator Barbara Cassin chose to organise the ‘After Babel, translate’ exposition, currently being held in Marseilles’ Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM).

“The sheer diversity of languages often seems like an obstacle to the creation of a unified society and common policies, but this exposition turns that idea on its head and shows that translation is an excellent model for modern citizenship,” Cassin told EFE.

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“If there was a single global language, it would be much more practical, but the world would be far less rich as a result,” said the philologist about the event, which runs until 20 March.

Through a brief but dense collection of interactive objects and installations, as well as pieces of art, maps, books and paintings, the role of the translator in culture unfolds.

“Is the plurality of languages a curse or a blessing?” is a question that is asked in the first part of the exhibition, which shows distinct interpretations of the Tower of Babel and provides samples of attempts to create a universal language, like Esperanto, as well as images used by NASA’s Pioneer space probe that could potentially be used to communicate with other lifeforms.

Further along, visitors to the museum will discover how the word “barbarian” derived from the Ancient Greek onomatopoeic phrase “blah blah blah” and how a culture’s perception of translation is largely dependent on how that culture perceives the outside world.

In its second section, the exhibition moves onto examples of significant translation, like the Tintin comic books and various versions of the Bible, the latter of which shaped modern European languages.

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‘After Babel, translate’ also seeks to show the visitor that there is no single translation of a text and that there are infinite possibilities, using translations of works by Edgar Allan Poe into French as case studies.

There are also fascinating examples of untranslatable phrases and concepts on show, with humorous literal translations of idioms and colloquial metaphors that simply do not work in any other language than the original, such as the German word “Fernweh”, which is akin to wanderlust, and the Portuguese word “saudade”, which can be described in English as “nostalgia”, but which goes far deeper than one simple word can convey.

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