Fire is Scary is a collective working in/with translation, the borderlands
(from Gloria E. Anzaldua- the experience of living between/across cultures) and learning to live in a damaged world.
translation figures both literally and metaphorically in our work. We utilize translation as a method for artistic creation, relation building, and research. We look at what is lost, distorted, and generated in the process of translation.
During our participation in School of Commons we developed and practiced techniques of translation between sound and image and investigated how to share, present and transfer our research into new contexts including workshops, exhibitions, music recordings and performances.
In this article we share what we have learned/are learning from translation with the hope that it will encourage others to engage with translation in their daily lives and practice.
‘...There is always mistranslation because a translation can never be a perfect rendering from one space or one language to another. It is bound to be somewhat misunderstood, as we are all always misunderstood in every dialogue we undertake...There is no perfect transparency.’ -Stuart Hall 1
Sol wrote a short poetic text combining her two diary notes from one day. Her translation began with choosing words or sentences and detaching them from her personal experience. The following process of language translation from Korean to English gave more chance for the text to expand its meaning. But try communicating in quotes to a new supervisor, or factoring literary coping mechanisms into funding applications and you will quickly see that.
On the very morning of the 18th of March 2019, I'd had a bizarre dream, so I wrote it down in half-sleep, then the Utrecht shooting* incident happened, which was very near my house. I scrabbled about the experience and my feelings towards it at night. Later, I decided to write a new text using two writings of that day as material, wondering how much or what kind of personal traces would remain if I treated them as sets of words or sentences and try not to involve myself in it.
The first translation step happened in choosing words and sentences, weaving them together to create another story. Even though I wanted to exclude a particular event, my emotions, conditions and the specific people in the dream from original writings, I still had a reason to choose those diaries. I thought, what is the core thing I wanted to deliver from them. I challenged myself to make the new text's atmosphere resemble my diary notes by using only declarative sentences, tried to remove adjectives and adverbs from the selection process, although there were unavoidable exceptions.
When I translated Korean to English, numerous choices, hierarchies within, distortions, reconstructions happened as always. It is a similar process from weaving writing style, however much more limited since language has less space that I can intervene. I wanted to show the language translation process in the text and my hesitation in it. So, I left a few traces in the text.
Fig1. analyzing the process of translation - Korean to English
For example, 'language' and 'horse' came from a homonym Korean word '말'. Using those two words as the translation for '말' made more sense since my task was ignoring my first intention in words and seeing them as material.
Fig2. word '말' in dictionary
As my practice starts from writing and I move away from the mother tongue, translation has become inevitable. However, translation is not only applied to language. Because of my position, working within space brings translation issues surrounding different media. The first try of translating Fire is Scary text materially for a pop-up show was making visual copies of my handwriting from the diaries using clear tapes. Because of the random manners of sticking on and off the tape's width, the writing became cloudy.
Fig3. the first tiring of Fire is Scary text to visual material - (partial view)
‘...translation operates by exceeding the narrow meaning of language. A novel is translated into a film, just as a political idea can be translated in action... Translation passes through and circulates in the intervals of different instances of meaning, threading together discontinuous contexts.’
Gordon transferred the cloudy, dreamlike atmosphere of Sol’s text into written music. He used open harmonies and wandering melodies, above layers of shifting flows of time to recreate the essence of the text in the form of a song cycle.
The process of translating the Fire is Scary text into music occurred over the course of two years (2019-2021). I first came across Sol’s text as an installation work in a pop-up exhibition and I was immediately drawn it. The formatting especially caught my eye - parts of the text made use of Korean Hangul (letters), some words were stacked on top of each other, and other words were highlighted in yellow. I found myself wondering how these effects could be recreated in the form of music.
Translation begins with a deep study of the source material. I read over Sol’s text, spoke with Sol about the inspiration and process for making the text, and even had my partner record herself speaking the text, so that I could listen to it spoken back. I began moving the text into music by notating the rhythms of the speech and finding rhythmic ideas that would shape the musical language. From the first phrase of the text, ‘fire is scary’, came the melodic and harmonic material that would inform the atmosphere and world that the music would exist in.
Fig. 1 Notebook Sketch
As I worked to write each instrumental part, the idea of layering different flows of time became more and more important. The final line of the text of this movement, ‘I was not too shabby but I was worried about going back in time’, seemed to demand this. The different percussion parts took the rhythms that were gathered in the process of notating the speech, and began to move faster and slower against each other— creating a shifting, flowing music, that never stands stable for long.
Fig. 2 Text Rhythm (notation)
Fig. 3 Midi Recording
‘Cast as an act of love, and as an act of disruption, translation becomes a means of repositioning the subject in the world and in history; a means of rendering self- knowledge foreign to itself; a way of denaturalizing citizens, taking them out of the comfort zone of national space, daily ritual, and pre-given domestic arrangements.’
-Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Agustin recorded the percussion (marimba, drum set, vibes, glockenspiel, etc.) from the parts that Gordon notated. During this stage, the composition was translated from written symbol to audible recording; the acoustics, mic setup and instruments leaving their traces on the result.
In 2019 I joined Gordon in a series of performances with an experimental ensemble in which we performed an audio-visual piece collectivity created by him and Sol. This was my first instance of encountering the layered and complex textures visually created by Sol in reaction to Gordon’s proposed themes and musical ideas.
When I consider and analyze what lies at the core of my translative processes in Fire is Scary, I cannot help but start with the creative, platonic, and supportive nature of the relationships found in the collectivity. In order to go about my personal translative processes of the music and vision of the piece I must first use the foundational context of our relationship as a group to further dissect the ideas that will best portray my portion of the process.
By the time the piece arrives to me it has already undergone two clear moments of translation from Sol and Gordon. My task, in the most simplified way, is connecting to the imaginative notions proposed by Sol’s text and visual demonstrations, which are then translated into a western notation score as created by Gordon’s musical narrative, in order to then best translate this score into the performed and recorded percussion parts.
Fig. 1 score from Gordon with my notes
Fig. 2 Email from Gordon
To pursue the performative and recording stage of my process I rely on the concept of gathering. I gather sheet music sent by Gordon, I gather the required instruments, I gather the necessary technical and digital gear to achieve the recording, I gather written and visual textures from Sol, I gather recordings of take after take until arriving to the ones used in the final production. This process, or layers of processes took place from January of 2021 until November of 2021.
Fig. 3 Photo of me recording the percussion parts
‘How to recharge “hybridity" so that it is prised free from [an] oppositional coupling? The aim is to prevent it from narrowing down into a reductive, celebratory term. To recode it in a more circumspect key involves defining it as a concept that unceasingly plumbs the depths of the untranslatable and that is continually being shaped by that process. It is to reinscribe it with a double movement that cuts across ‘optimism and pessimism, the opaque and the crystal-clear’, to activate it as a play-off between the poles. It amounts to reindexing hybridity as an unfinished, self-unthreading force, even as a concept against itself. At any rate, as an open-ended one that is shot through with memories and intimations of the untranslatable.’
Ariel then provided a dramatic and emotional interpretation based on the text of Sol, the music written by Gordon and the percussion recordings of Agustin. Her voice took on Sol’s words and Gordon’s melodies. She reacted to and with the layered sound that Agustin had built up in the recording process. Her work connected the chapters of the cycle in a fluid narrative.
Gordon invited me to join this project in the fall of 2020. He showed me the visual materials of the text of Fire is Scary made by Sol and explained to me how he got inspired to start this project about music and translation. I found the prospect of creating a new musical piece together very interesting, as usually I sang works that had been written a long time ago and were recorded by someone else.
Over the last few months, I practiced with the midi recordings made by Gordon, the percussion recordings gradually sent out by Agustin and the spoken recordings of the texts by Charli. I interpreted the atmosphere and emotions of the texts by myself line by line. Sometimes I wrote down my interpretation in Cantonese on the score.
Fig. 1 my score with notes in Cantonese and English and IPA transcriptions
Since I am not a native English speaker, I study the diction with the help of IPA (International Phonetics Alphabets). I wrote down the transcriptions of IPA word by word on my score. Then I recite the texts to practice the pronunciations and expressions. Then I practiced singing at the end, trying my best to convey the interpretations with clear diction and musicality.
Fig. 2 “Fire is scary” in IPA, standard written Chinese and written Cantonese
In order to prepare for the final recording session that took place in Oct 2021 we had a few rehearsal sessions in a studio in Utrecht. I discussed with Gordon the rhythms of the texts in some of the movements. We reflected on how to strike a balance between the length of the syllables and the clarity of the text while singing.
In Oct 2021, we made our final recordings in a professional recording studio in Utrecht over 2 days. It was the first milestone to put everything together for our exhibition in Dec 2021 in Amsterdam.
Fig. 3 a photo of me in the final recording session in Oct 2021
Fire is Scary
by Sol Enae Lee, Gordon H. Williams, Agustin Faundez Rojas, Ariel Sin Yu Lee
Fire is Scary is a collective from Sol Enae Lee, Gordon H. Williams, Agustin Faundez Rojas and Ariel Sin Yu Lee. The themes of our work are translation, the borderlands (from Gloria E. Anzaldua- the experience of living between/across cultures) and learning to live in a damaged world.
Translation brings two separate languages/disciplines into relation with one another. Fire is Scary is particularly interested in the in-between spaces of these relations- the traces, the noise, the leftovers, the gaps, the silences. Which qualities travel across the distance of the translation and which qualities remain behind?
Fire is Scary seeks to follow what accumulates during our translations from text to sound to image, recognizing that in translation there is space for opacity, unknowing, ambiguity and discomfort. Translation is a movement, a process, a cycle.
Your reference to borderlands made me think of what Simone Weil said - 'the nation is a fact, and a fact is not an absolute value'. Have you noticed a relationship between translation and what is absolute?
Practicing translation is one of the best ways to oppose what we call 'absolute' or 'fact'. Because when we say absolute, it is often related to the power relation, which we want to approach carefully and critically. Translation creates gaps and cracks in what seems solid by constantly moving and changing their positions. In this way, we can have opportunities to think and intervene from different angles. Translation has its value in creating meanings, not valuing.
What is scary about translation?
Translation entails responsibility for the inevitable loss and changing certain nuances. It is always cautious and scary.