Invoking the Translator: A Conversation with Raqs Media Collective

Since their international breakthrough in 2002, the Raqs Media Collective—Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta—have created and curated an extensive body of work spanning text ...

Since their international breakthrough in 2002, the Raqs Media Collective—Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta—have created and curated an extensive body of work spanning text, performance, video, sculpture, animation, sound, computer algorithms, and the photographic image. Raqs (pronounced rux), based in Delhi, have had recent major exhibitions in Madrid, London, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, St. Louis, and Boston. They took part in the Venice Biennale in 2015 and have been appointed chief curator for the forthcoming Shanghai Biennale. Avishek Ganguly has followed Raqs’ work for much of their career and has been an occasional interlocutor. He recently sat down with the collective, during their residence as Kirloskar Visiting Scholars at RISD, to discuss the place of literariness in general, and literary translation in particular, in some of their recent works.

Avishek Ganguly (AG): One of the reasons I find your artwork so compelling is its literariness: it is literary in both form and method. We often encounter familiar narratives or textual fragments in your work, but ones whose plots and structures have been interrupted and subverted; and we see the acts of revision highlighted in the final work. Do you see translation, in its metaphorical as well as material manifestations, as a significant theme of your work?

Shuddhabrata Sengupta (SS): It’s always interesting to think, when one is working with language, about the limits of language and the limits of literary form. You’re correct in proposing that literariness has a place in our work; that comes from us being readers of each other but also because of the life of the practice, [which works] in conversational, annotatory, and epistolary ways. We write letters to each other a lot, and these letters can take various forms: emails, notes in each other’s notebooks, et cetera. Jeebesh, for instance, is a master of the “WhatsApp form of literary production.”

AG: As text messages?

SS: It’s a combination of voiced as well as photographic, verbal, or textual messages. The practice of Raqs emerges from these acts of reading and writing. It is not so much bookishness as it is a care to maintain the flow of a certain process of thinking. Because we are three people, this can only be done outside each one of us. For our practice, that departure of the thought from the body to the surface of a screen or a text is essential. Because how else would you construct the memory of a multiheaded but at the same time disembodied artist, which is the Raqs Media Collective? The artist’s memory consists of what we feed it with, which is language.

AG: It seems like the “Raqs Media Collective” is almost the fourth person.

SS: We have talked about it as being the third man. It’s like what is said at the dargah, the shrine, of the famous 13th-century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, in Delhi: that any person at any given point of time can be the sheikh. The spirit of the sheikh can enter any person in the congregation. So let’s assume that any one of us who is always the third at any given point of time can be host momentarily to the person who is the Raqs Media Collective, and sometimes it is also not in any of us. But the third man is someone who accompanies you.

Monica Narula (MN): I really like the idea of Raqs being inhabited by each of us, or each of us being inhabited by Raqs. The third man is a very interesting concept: mountaineers often talk about this, how when you are climbing up and you feel like you have reached the end of your tether, you sometimes hallucinate and imagine that there is another person ahead who keeps you going. The very idea that they’re doing this ahead of you pushes you, propels you onward, and you do not give up. And so we have talked about the third man as a kind of edict of breath: a connection that may or may not be real, but that creates possibilities.

AG: This experience of being inhabited by the sheikh seems related to the word “raqs,” the name under which you work. You’ve mentioned elsewhere that in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu, “raqs” describes the state of being of the whirling dervishes, which is a kind of elevation and ecstasy.

MN: That is very nice, actually. Going back to what Shuddha was saying about textual exchange, I think we have quite actively been interested in the idea of genre fiction or, in a sense, in the “antiliterary.” So, for instance, if you look at 5 Pieces of Evidence (Venice Biennale, 2003), the work sets itself up as a crime novel. It has the missing person, the assailant, the scene of the crime, the trail, and the motive; it is a chaptered piece. It’s looking at another landscape through a certain genre in order to create another set of meanings.

<i>Strikes at Time</i> (2011). Two synchronized video projections with sound, 18 32

Strikes at Time (2011). Two synchronized video projections with sound, 18 32

MN: Another example is Strikes at Time (2011), a piece that is partly in conversation with Jacques Rancière’s Nights of Labor. One might think of it as antiliterary because it works against the idea of the specificity of the individual. There is a human being in the form, but he is not a character. In that sense we are more interested in the figure than the character: figures of thought, figures of speech, figures of the body.

AG: This discussion of figures brings me back to the question of translation. What is your concept of translation?

MN: It relates to the idea of palimpsest: that layers of language and meaning overlay each other, that they literally overlap, and you can make a new meaning because of the fact that Hindi and English and Bengali and Urdu and all of this together create something different from only Hindi or only English or only Bengali. So, in the process of translation, what happens is that you create, because it takes a figure of thought and physicalizes it within these overlapping languages.

SS: In [our work] The Translator’s Silence (2012), the incisions there create apertures for light to come through the translucent paper. The letterforms become almost portals through which light enters onto the body of another letterform. So it is very much an act of translation, because it aims to produce a visual and in some sense a tactile rendition.

AG: It makes me think of the idea of gloss: a glossary offering a gloss on words, but also shining and reflecting.

SS: Yes, the gloss that has to do with luminosity—

AG: And glossary in connection with translation—

SS: Yes, glossary creates …

All: Glossolalia! (laughing)

<i>Will You, Beloved Stranger?</i> (2013). Performance, architecture, textual collation

Will You, Beloved Stranger? (2013). Performance, architecture, textual collation

SS: The glossary creates something that touches the body of another language. Will You, Beloved Stranger? is a work that in some senses emerges from The Translator’s Silence. The second line of Aga Shahid Ali’s couplet that we quote—“Will you, Beloved Stranger, ever witness Shahid— / two destinies at last reconciled by exiles?” is from a poem addressed to Edward Said. So it seemed quite natural to take that line as the capital of this work, which we did in the Tel Aviv Museum in 2013. This was a performance piece for two “readers” reading fragments from the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, in Hebrew, and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, in Arabic, interspersed with English translations. Meanwhile, a “miscegenated recension” of their joint yet fragmentary corpus, incised on translucent sheets of paper, framed the setting. The Translator’s Silence
also has three fragments of poetry from three canonical poets that we have grown up with in the subcontinent: Rabindranath Tagore, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Agha Shahid Ali.

AG: I am a little curious about that selection—that you chose to work with dominant literary figures.

MN: Well, the canonical poets evoke a sort of sentimentality. They become the voice of your sense of being in a place, of belonging. And belonging then transforms into belonging here and not there, whereby the border becomes articulated. Of course, it’s complicated by the fact that Tagore, for instance, is across languages on one side, and Faiz on the other.

SS: And they all claim a transnational, multilingual readership. Faiz is read across the India-Pakistan border, Tagore across Bangladesh and India. It was so interesting when the recent World Cup Cricket match between India and Bangladesh took place and they played the two national anthems at the beginning of the game—

AG: Both composed by the same poet!

SS: Yes, written by the same poet, Tagore, but neither of which was written as a national anthem. Tagore would really be destroyed by the idea of his poetry being turned into national anthems! But in The Translator’s Silence there is also a sense of the unspeakable that exists at these borders, borders that have witnessed massive violence and erasure due to the Partition of the subcontinent at the end of British colonial rule. However, the unsaid here is not an admission of defeat but an invitation to a companionship with the stranger.

Jeebesh Bagchi (JB): When I look at our own biographies—the three of us were born in Delhi; Monica grew up partly in Indonesia—the anxiety around the mother tongue sometimes flummoxes me. For example, what do we think of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s insistence that one should read through the mother tongue?

AG: I think she advocates reading in the original language of composition.

JB: Yes, but for us the languages of the home, of the street, of the playground, of the classroom have always been different. And not just different languages in the sense of Hindi or something else, but in the sense of many different ways of speaking.

The unsaid here is not an admission of defeat but an invitation to a companionship with the stranger.

AG: Right. I think Spivak was addressing a very specific situation in postwar American humanities and social science academia, where the learning of “foreign” languages, particularly those of the Global South, was often the exclusive domain of Area Studies departments, and was regularly connected to strategic military purposes governed by Cold War geopolitics. So she proposes that we should reclaim the means of that earlier rigor of language learning, while redirecting its ends, by, for instance, approaching these former “fieldwork languages” instead as literary languages. It is more about redoing comparative literature within a specific institutional situation. But when I think of The Translator’s Silence, I wonder if we could perhaps extend that idea: what if the ability to read the language of the original, as a way of knowing the enemy, transforms into the occasion for inviting the companionship of the stranger?

JB: Right. And also because it [The Translator’s Silence] is such a simple takeaway work; it’s a work that you actually have to hold in your hand and take with you. I remember there was a certain degree of confusion about that when it was shown here, because it seemed that at most only two of those three languages could be comprehensible to our audience.

AG: I find this fascinating, the experience of staging and/or encountering incomprehension in a work.

SS: Absolutely. And coming back to your earlier comment about ethics and strangers, when people ask us, “How am I supposed to know what the other languages are saying?,” our response is always, “Find someone who can read it for you.”

SS: So the work involves the search for someone who can read a poem to you in a language you don’t understand. That person is usually someone you don’t know. And these three poetic fragments are about the idea of the stranger and welcoming the stranger in your life. It does, in fact, ask you to find a stranger and make a request of them. Also, since the object itself carries no sign that the Urdu is Faiz or that the Bengali is Tagore, it’s quite possible that someone might read the language and not know who these people are!

AG: I like how that troubles the assumption that the audience of your work, of any work, will be predominantly monolingual. And I like the risk involved in staging incomprehension: leaving out the dominant interlocutors who are used to “getting it” in some sense.

SS: Yes. It also mirrors our own experience, when none of the three of us gets something. We have to rely on each other sometimes to get things that we don’t get on our own.

AG: Invoking the collective?

SS: Yes, but also that search for the translator, and sometimes even the translator’s inability. This work is called The Translator’s Silence
because in this case the translator can only be invoked into speech through a direct address and a request.

AG: The birth of the translator in the spirit of invitation! I think that is a great place to pause our conversation today. Thank you very much.

For an archive of images and video of works by the Raqs Media Collective, see here . icon

Featured image: The Translators Silence (2012). Closed: 33 cm x 15 cm. Open: 33 cm x 45 cm. Laser-cut text on heavy translucent paper