March 21, 2011

A glimpse into the process and “Two Years in Correspondence”

Interviews with Four Artists from QY’s “Queering Translation” Art Intervention
By Nelli Sargsyan-Pitman

Նելլի Սարգսյան-Փիթման (ՆՍՓ). Ինչպե՞ս մտահղացավ կամ առաջացավ «Տարօրինակելով Թարգմանությունը» տեղի ունենալիքը:
[Nelli Sargsyan-Pittman (NSP): How did “Queering Translation” come about?]

Արփի Ադամյան (ԱԱ). Քանի որ մեր խումբը բաղկացած է տարբեր ոճերում ու մեդիաներով աշխատող մարդկանցից, խմբի հիմնական նպատակներից մեկն է փոխանակել միմյանց խնդիրները ու փոխազդվել միմյանց էսթետիկաներից ու մեթոդներից, գաղափարներից, պրակտիկաներից: Ինչպե՞ս կարող է յուրաքանչյուրիս աշխատանքը փոփոխվել այս պրոցեսների ընթացքում: Այսպիսով 2010-ին որպես «տարվա» թեմա Շուշանը առաջարկեց թարգմանության գաղափարը: Քանի որ ինքն իր պրակտիկայի մեջ վարում է թարգմանական գործնեություն: Սա իր համար մասնագիտություն է և իր խնդիրները շատ կոնկրետ էին իր համատեքստում: Երբ մենք խմբի ներսում բարձրացրեցինք թարգմանության հարցը, այն արդեն մտավ մեկ այլ դաշտ, որտեղ մոտեցումները շատ բազմապիսի կարող էին լինել: Յուրաքանչյուրն իր ձևով պիտի հարցադրումներ աներ ու իր մոտեցումները ներկայացներ:

[Arpi Adamyan (AA): Since our group consists of people working in different genres and with different mediums, one of the main objectives of the group is to be affected by each other’s issues and be influenced by each other’s aesthetics and methods, ideas, and practices: to see how our work can change in this process. So in 2010, Shushan suggested the concept of translation as the theme of the year, as she herself engages in the practice of translation. This is her profession and her issues are very specific in her own context. When we raised the issue of translation in the group it entered a different realm where the approaches could be very diverse. Every one would raise their issues and present their approaches differently.]

NSP: How did you hear about this art intervention and how did you become part of it?

Melissa Boyajian (MB): My second trip to Armenia in 2007 would be when I started meeting people [first trip was in 2003] . . . I was interested in doing some of my own work . . . As research I started compiling video interviews of queer people in Yerevan who were willing to interview with me. There is an Armenian guy from France that I am acquainted with who gave me the contact information of people who might like to participate. One of them was Arpi Adamyan. I met her and did an interview with her. That would be all the way back in the summer of 2007 . . . I was interested in getting some insight into problems queer Armenians were facing with homophobia within Armenian culture. When I was speaking with Arpi after the interview she told me that there were other people who were involved in, or wanted to be involved in starting a group that would be dealing with women’s and queer issues in Armenian culture. She told me that I should get in touch with Nancy Agabian. So when I came back to the States I got in touch with Nancy and one of the former presidents of AGLA [Armenian Gay and Lesbian Association] in New York. I did a couple of interviews with them in the city. The day that I went to interview Nancy, she was kind of in a rush to meet some people after the interview. I went with her before hopping on the subway and coincidentally I ended up meeting Shushan Avagyan that happened to be one of the people that she was meeting. We all sat down at this café. It was a bizarre coincidence. And these were essentially the people that Arpi was talking about that wanted to start some kind of a group. And so we talked for a while. And I just remember getting really-really excited! And, you know, Shushan was talking about how they wanted to start having some sort of a happening in the future that would be talking about these issues . . . [Shushan] invited me to go to the first art intervention that summer but I was unable to . . . [B]ut I’ve kept in touch with all these people since then. And I got re-invited to go to “Queering Translation” this last summer and I attended this time.

Meliné Ter-Minassian (MTM): I arrived in Armenia [from France] in September, a year and a half ago. First I saw the blog. Then I met them. And then finally we became friends before starting to work together. And the first thing I did for them was I talked about the translation [of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida] I was working on. Arpi made a video about it. So that was the first thing they asked me to do, before they asked me to join the group on the blog . . . And then, because they became my friends, we were talking a lot about this event. And in parallel to that I was working with Laureline Koenig. So it came finally, naturally.

Nancy Agabian (NA): I am not sure. The group had done an event every year. Somehow translation was discussed as an option for this year’s theme or guiding principle.

ՆՍՓ. Ո՞րն էր վերջինիս նպատակը:
[NSP: What was its purpose?]

ԱԱ. Թարգմանությունը իր լայն մշակութային իմաստով շատ ակտուալ խնդիր է ամբողջ աշխարհում, բայց մեր խնդիրն էր դիտարկել այն այս կոնտեքստում տարբեր շերտերի վրա: Թարգմանությունը ես հասկանում եմ, որպես փոփոխություն, փոխազդեցություն, փոխակերպում:

[AA: Translation, in its general cultural sense, is a very critical issue in the world. But our objective was to view it in this context through different layers. I understand translation as change, mutual influence, transformation.]

MB: For me, it seemed like the purpose was to try to get the community involved in whatever capacity that we could. Just to be dealing with some topics that, maybe, have not been explored so much in Armenia and to give a voice to queer and women’s issues and create a space and a dialogue for artists and writers to bridge a dialogue with the audience and people who are attending, with the work that they were making about those issues.

NSP: When you say “to get the community involved,” what community do you mean?

MB: I don’t know exactly who attended. But, I mean, if you have an art event or writing event it tends to be people who do that kind of activity that tend to appreciate the arts or are involved in the arts in some way. So I am assuming that most of the people who were attending were other artists, possibly activists, and critics from Armenia. So it, maybe, isn’t opening to the larger Armenian audiences but it’s at least allowing a venue to talk about these topics with a percentage of Armenian people.

NA: Since I don’t know how it came about, I can’t say what the purpose was meant to be. But in reflecting on it now, I think the intention was to raise some questions in terms of queerness and language. In Armenia, queer women, or any women, don’t always have the words to define their lives, so translation, literally, isn’t necessary—you adopt another language in order to talk about body and desire. On the other hand, adopting another language is a translation, and it doesn’t allow for a genuine means of expression, similarly to how translation can’t account for all meaning. So you shape translation or language to fit your needs. And then translation itself is transformed—it’s “queered” in order to counter the mainstream way of thinking about it. As I became an artist, I found it really necessary to voice or translate my experience as a woman into an Armenian reality; to force all the silenced parts of myself into being expressed. So I think the purpose was to frame ourselves from a wider perspective, and with more visibility, through language and cross-cultural exchanges and the gaps that happen between them. More women were invited from outside Armenia, and more effort was put into making this a more public event than in previous years.

ՆՍՓ. Տեղի ունենալիքի ստեղծման ո՞ր փուլում միացար:
[NSP: At what point did you join the project?]

ԱԱ. WOW-ի ստեղծման հենց առաջին փուլից խմբում էի: Պարզապես այն ժամանակ Շվեյցարիայում էի, երբ լուսինեն նամակ գրեց, ասելով, որ հանդիպել են Շուշանը, Նենսին, Ասյան, ինքը և Լյուսյան: Մինչ 2009-ը ես ավելի պասիվ մասնակցություն եմ ցուցաբերել: Ասեմ, որ մեր խումբը շատ փոփոխական դինամիկա ունի: Մի քանի տարիների ընթացքում շատ փոփոխվեց: Կարելի է ասել, որ կան մարդիք, ովքեր կազմում են հիմնական մասը խմբի ու մեր «տեղի ունենալիքները» հիմնականում այդ մարդիկ են կազմակերպում կամ հիմնական մտքերը առաջարկում: 2010-ին այս հիմնական խմբում էինք ես, լուսինեն, Շուշանը: Մյուսները, որոնք էլի անդամներ են, պարբերաբար են մասնակցում և բլոգի պրոցեսներին և իհարկե «տեղի ունենալիքներին»: Բացի ամեն անգամ փորձում ենք հրավիրել նոր մարդկանց: Օրինակ այդպես հրավիրեցինք Մելիսա Բոյաջեանին, Մելինե Տեր-Մինասեանին, Իլեյն Գրիքորեանին: Նենսին էլ հենց սկզբից մաս է կազմել ու այս անգամ իր «Ֆիզիկական Թարգմանություն» գրական workshop-ի մասնակիցներին հրավիրեց, որ կարդան իրենց նոր գործերն այս «տեղի ունենալիքի» շրջանակներում:

[AA: I have been in the group since the creation of WOW. I was in Switzerland then, when lusine wrote that Shushan, Nancy, Asya, Lusya, and she were meeting. I wasn’t very active before 2009. I must say that our group has a very mutable dynamic. It changed a lot within a few years. There are people who are the core of the group. And they are either the organizers of the art interventions or suggest the concepts. In 2010 lusine, Shushan, and I were that core. The others, who are also members, contribute to the blog and, of course, participate in the art interventions intermittently. Besides, we are always trying to invite new people to participate in the interventions. That's how we invited Melissa Boyajian, Meliné Ter-Minassian, and Elaine Krikorian. And Nancy, who has been part of the group since the very beginning invited all the participants from her “Physical Translation” workshop to present their work at the QY art intervention.]

NA: I don’t remember. I think even before it was announced, I knew I wanted to participate in the annual event.

NSP: What kind of project/co-operation was this? What was your role in it?

NA: I had taught a writing workshop for women in Yerevan three years before, and the goal was to voice women’s lives—in terms of public life, like work and opportunity for women, to the personal realm of family, and choice of romantic/sexual/life partners, and issues of the body. A few queer women in the workshop befriended each other and initiated the idea of WOW—for queer women to join together to pursue an art project that would be about visibility and awareness. I had to go back to the U.S. soon after this; but I read the resulting listserv, on which we communicated and made decisions. I also raised funds for the publication of the upcoming book. And I tried to follow the discussion on the list and the blog, but gradually over time, missed more and more of the discussion, because my knowledge of Armenian faded the longer I was in the U.S. I also was unable to attend subsequent events. I followed them online as best I could. Shushan and Adrineh tried to keep me abreast of developments, but I still tagged along. There were three or four women who took active roles in organizing the events, and I wasn’t one of them. But I knew I wanted to go back to Yerevan for personal reasons, to connect with women again through writing. So this is how I came to be involved.

NSP: Did you participate in organizational issues at all?

MB: Not so much. I felt more like a guest. I had been invited to show my work. I think Shushan would like me to be more a part of it, though. And maybe now that I feel a bigger sense of involvement from participating over the summer. I would feel more apt to do that.

MTM: No, I didn’t really decide anything about the intervention. No, we were just talking. On an abstract level, I maybe took part in the concept of it. But not concretely. I wasn't the only one, because there was also this thing about reading Lara’s piece with the letters. So I don’t know, these two performances were basically the only live performances.

NA: I didn’t give input but contributed mostly through my workshop.

ՆՍՓ. Ինչո՞վ էր գործդ հարմար «Տարօրինակելով Թարգմանությունը» տեղի ունենալիքին:
[NSP: How did you see your work fitting the project?]

ԱԱ. Արվեստի նախագծերում ամենից շատ փախնում եմ «հարմար» բառից: «Տեղի ունենալիքը» մի տարածք չէ, որը հարմարեցնում է, կամ ակնկալում է հարմար ներկայացումների: Կարևորը խնդրականացումն է: Գործը կարող է նույնիսկ անհարմար լինել:

[AA: In art projects, I stray away most of all from the word “fitting.” An art intervention is not a space that accommodates or expects fitting performances. The most important is to problematize [phenomena, relations, concepts]. The work might even be unfitting.]

NA: Well, the idea was that the workshop would be about translating the language of the body into words. Physical experiences are difficult to capture in writing, in any language. So that’s where the translation part comes in. I also wanted to give space for queer women in particular to translate the physical into writing.

NSP: And how did you choose the works that you wanted to present at “Queering Translation”?

MB: Well, I showed several pieces. But the piece that I made for “Queering Translation” I had a really-really hard time deciding what to do. I was going back and forth thinking I would, maybe, do a performance piece, or make a series of photos. I ended up making a video piece . . . I basically shot the piece a couple of weeks before I left. Normally that’s not the way that I work by the seat of my pants. But I was having a lot of hesitation about what to show . . . because part of the theme of “Queering Translation” was appropriating texts and cultural objects and redefining them through a queer lens. Not being someone who grew up in Armenia dealing with any post-Soviet issues, I felt really conflicted about how I could make some sort of a critique on that, not being a part of Armenian culture from the Republic, but from the Diaspora. So after a lot of deliberation I ended up recontextualizing a piece, a film that I felt wasn’t just particular to Armenians in the Republic, but could be understood on a wider level, from Armenians in the Diaspora. I made a short experimental film called Delicious Fruit. And it’s essentially picking several themes/scenes from Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. And I’ve recontextualized some of the themes/scenes through a feminist and queer lens. And it’s a 3-minute piece. It’s a feminist renaming of the symbolism of the pomegranate and it also shows these fantasy aspects of homoerotic cruising. I did the filming of the piece here in Boston. And then I did all my post-production work in Armenia. People weren’t familiar with the overture of my work. So [Shushan] thought it might be helpful for people to see everything that I had done in the last ten years. I believe I showed three or four videos and then my photography work as well at the event.

MTM: We [MTM and Laureline Koenig] wanted something that was translated into French. And something that was a little bit light. Because when you see the video this performance is very serious. The second was lighter. We liked it because there were some sentences that made us laugh. And it was enough. We wanted something that was not about the sadness of the lost country. So that was the reason . . . We took it very suddenly. We had an anthology of Armenian poetry translated into French. And Laureline liked it . . . And I laughed at the same passages. So . . . we said, ok.

ՆՍՓ. Ի՞նչ ես փորձել գործովդ անել:
[NSP: What were you trying to do with/through your work?]

ԱԱ. Փորձել եմ հենց «նեյտրալ լարվածություն» ստեղծել: Լարվածության խնդիրը իմ այլ աշխատանքներում տարբեր ձևերով արծարծել եմ ու այս անգամ փորձում էի լարվածությունը թարգմանության պրոցեսներում դիտարկել: Սա միայն տեքստային թարգմանության մասին չէ, այլ օրինակ ինչպե՞ս է հանդիսատեսի համար Մելինեն թարգմանում Կարինի թարգմանությունը՝ ում նաև ուղղված է Մելինեի սեռական ցանկությունը և ով հետերոսեքսուալ է: Ինչպիսի՞ բարդություններով է պայմանավորվում իրականացվող տեքստային թարգմանությունը, որտեղ կան լեզվային պատնեշներ: Ինչպե՞ս է Մելինեն մարմնով թարգմանում տեքստը վերածելով այն պերֆորմանսի: Ու ինչպե՞ս եմ ես թարգմանում այդ պատմությունը՝ թարգմանական պրոցեսի լարվածությունը, թվացյալ «նեյտրալ» ցուցադրությամբ: Ձայների ու պատկերների ոչ համընկնումով: Ամբողջ վիդեոն չունի մոնտաժի կարգավորված ստրուկտուրա: Անընդհատ փոփոխվում է, անհամապատասխանությունը ֆորմալ իմաստով աչքից չի վրիպում: Ինչպես նախորդ հարցդ էր խոսում հարմարությունից, ապա այստեղ ավելի շատ անհարմարություն կա, չնայած որ պատկերները դանդաղեցված ռիթմից կարծեցյալ հանգստություն են ստեղծում: Կամերան որոշ հատվածներում անընդհատ փնտրում է թրթռացող շարժումներով, անհանգստությամբ, ինչպես և արվում է տեքստային թարգմանությունը, երբ փորձում ես մի քանի տարբերակներ ու չի բավարարում, չի համընկնում, չես գտնում ու դեռ փնտրում ես, ինչպես արվում է երկու անձանց հարաբերությունում, երբ բառերը վերածվում են մարմինների, շարժումների:

Ամռանը Շուշանի վարած թարգմանական workshop-ին էի մասնակցում ու այնտեղ շատ էինք քննարկում թարգմանչի անտեսված, թափանցիկ լինելու իրողությունը որպես մշակութային քաղաքականություն, ինչպես նաև այս խնդիրը բարձրացվում է հենց ֆիլմի մեջ: Ու հետաքրքիր էր այն, որ «տեղի ունենալիքի» քննարկման ժամանակ գրող Հասմիկ Սիմոնյանը, ով իմ այլ աշխատանքները չեր տեսել, ասում էր, որ չի տեսնում ինձ հուզող խնդիրն ու ես ասես այս ողջ պատմության միայն փոխանցողը լինեի: Սա իհարկե այդպես չէ, քանի որ մի քանի ժամանոց նյութից ես ընտրություններ եմ արել ու այլ կերպ համադրել, իմ նախընտրությունները շատ են: Ամենակարևոր պահերից մեկը առաջին կադրերն են, երբ Մելինեի ձայնն է հանդիպման բացումն  անում, իսկ նրա կերպարը փոխակերպված է: Երկար մազերը այլևս չկան: Այս տեսարանը նկարել եմ ներկայացումից հետո: Սա կերպարի փոխակերպումն է, որն ինձ համար կարևոր էր ցույց տալ: Բայց դիտողի համար սա դարձավ «օրիգինալից» չտարբերվող նյութ, ու ես հայտնվեցի կարծես թափանցիկ թարգմանչի դերում: Սա մի կողմից տարօրինակ էր ինձ համար, քանի որ իմ գործերը նույնիսկ քննադատվել են որպես չափազանց անձնական: Բայց մյուս կողմից՝ հետևություն եմ անում, որ երբ խոսքը գնում է թարգմանության մասին, ավտոմատ կերպով կարող ես դիտարկվել, որպես թափանցիկ փոխանցող:

[AA: I was trying to create neutral tension. I have touched on the issue of tension in my other works in various ways. This time I was trying to probe tension in the processes of translation. This does not refer to the translation of texts only, but, for example, how Meliné is translating—for the audience—Karin’s translation into a sexual desire towards Karin who is heterosexual. The complexities of textual translation in these conditions, when there are language barriers. How Meliné is translating the text through her body, turning it into a performance. And how I translate this story, the tension of the process of translation, presenting it as seemingly neutral through the discrepancy between the sound and image. The video has no streamlined editing structure. It constantly changes. The discrepancies are always visually noticeable. Going back to your previous question about fitting—there is a sense of discomfort, although the slow motion creates a sense of seeming tranquility. In certain parts the camera seems to be searching for something, quivering with anxiety, much like textual translation, when you are trying a few versions and you are never satisfied, there is a discrepancy, you can’t find the right phrase, and keep trying, much like in a relationship between two people, when the words turn into bodies, movements.

I was participating in Shushan’s translation workshop in the summer. And we were discussing the translator’s neglected and transparent role as a cultural policy. The video raises this issue as well. And what was interesting was that during the art intervention q&a discussion, writer Hasmik Simonyan, who hadn’t seen my other works, said that she could not visualize the issue that I was raising in the video, and it seemed to her that I was merely transmitting the whole story. This, of course, is not so, as I have selected certain pieces out of a several-hours-long material and have edited/arranged them differently. The video projects a lot of my preferences. The first frames are one of the most important moments, when Meliné’s voice opens the meeting, but her image is transformed. The long hair is gone. I have shot this after the performance. It was important for me to show the transformation of the character. But for the viewer this became indistinguishable from the “original.” And I found myself in the shoes of a transparent translator. On the one hand, [Simonyan’s comment] was strange for me, because my previous work has been criticized for being too “personal.” On the other hand, however, I realize that when we are talking about translation one can automatically be viewed as a transparent transmitter.]

NA: I wanted to give a space where women could be writers first, and secondly, where women could write about their bodies, and third, where I could write about my own body in an Armenian context. I wanted to encourage more women writers with their work, and encourage more connection and support among them to help build community. With my piece, I wanted to write about something I found difficult voicing, and thus, understanding. I had to get my experiences on paper in order to make sense of them. I was hoping that this exploration would resonate and have meaning for other women as well and would raise discussion.

NSP: When you were speaking about queer issues and women’s issues and also different pieces of work that were touching on these issues, were there pieces that queer people irrespective of their gender could identify themselves with, or women’s issues that all kinds of women, whether of normative or non-normative gender identities would identify with, or was “Queering Translation” touching mostly on issues of queer women?

MB: Well, the whole theme of translation was interesting because I don’t speak Armenian very well. So, when I am there and I’m watching these pieces and they are spoken in Armenian I am not always fully understanding what the piece is about. Of course, the q&a afterwards sometimes would make a little more sense. But everything was always through a process of there being an intermediary between my understanding something. It seemed to me some of the projects were dealing with how people were personally dealing with their experience of being Armenian queer women and things that they were thinking and feeling about their sexuality and gender. And, you know, even Nancy Agabian’s piece. She’s doing this text about family and about her relationship with her husband. The piece she is reading is talking about their heterosexual relationship and the problems that they are having with communication, aggression, and sexism and how she and her husband are teaching and learning ways of breaking those habits that they have . . . Even though this is a heterosexual relationship, I feel like she’s dealing with many of the issues in a queer way. So I would say that that’s not so particular with gender. Or rather it is showing how slippery gender can really be. I think it’s a queer way of thinking and writing that she has . . . In general I felt that people have different ways of exploring things, you know. I think, maybe, some people were touching on gender and sexuality in a stronger way, where others were dealing with the translation aspect in a stronger way. But I still find that all of the work in the show was very queer.

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The interviews were conducted via Skype, email correspondence and by phone over the period between January and March, 2011. The complete interview will appear in our forthcoming book, Two Years in Correspondence.

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