[11-30, Sep. 2017] Photo Exhibition - The Interpreter's One Hundred Years of Solitude: Between History and Memory

Photo Exhibition
The Interpreter's One Hundred Years of Solitude: Between History and Memory
Date: 11-30 September 2017
Venue: G/F., University Library, CUHK
Department of Translation, the Chinese University of Hong Kong
Centre for Translation, Hong Kong Baptist University
Translation Programme, Hong Kong Baptist University
Download: Poster
Friends have asked me many times what an interpreter feels when he works at a high-level meeting, what happens inside him. Well, nothing really happens beyond an occasional sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach and a sense of … loneliness. The sinking feeling comes when the interpreter senses that the meaning of his principal’s utterances is beginning to elude him or when the latter interrupts his train of thought to wonder if he is being ‘got across’ correctly. […]
The sense of loneliness comes from the fact that the interpreter is alone in the crosscurrents of ideas and in the midst of a sea of words. He has no one to help him and he just does his level best to interpret well. (Korchilov, Igor (1997) Translating History. Thirty Years on the Front Lines of Diplomacy with a Top Russian Interpreter. New York: Scribner, page 22)
World history has evolved through dialogue – be it peaceful or aggressive – between people who did not understand one another. The same holds true today. And so in order to reach understanding they have often had to resort to go-betweens, playing the role of interpreter. However, more often than not the decisive role the interpreters played has gone unnoticed, perhaps purposefully so. One just has to watch the politicians meeting foreign counterparts on the news – the essential links in the chain of communication, the interpreters, are almost always hidden from view. This way our political leaders seem to understand one another effortlessly, as if they were linguistic geniuses – something which is far from the truth. Photographs do the same thing, often editing out the interpreter, to hide as far as possible the fact that most of our politicians do not master other languages. Photographs thereby add to the fiction of effortless mutual understanding between world leaders.
The aim of this exhibition is to make the interpreter visible again. Through a series of photographs we want to show they were there, we want to reconstruct our history. We are not trying to reduce history to the meetings of political leaders over the last 100 years, not at all. Rather we merely want to emphasise that some of the events that made the front page of the newspapers involved linguistic and cultural mediators, without whom these decisive meetings could not have taken place. However, the exhibition aims to go beyond the events of photographic history; it points to a longer history, and to a claim to be remembered. Thus the photographs from the last 100 years point back to a much older time, as the interpreter's role as intermediary has existed for much longer. These snapshots aim to restore our memories of historical moments both past and present.
The photographs should be studied with a critical mind, given that they are never entirely neutral – neither when taken (angle, focus, lighting etc.), nor when interpreted later by whomever. New information and communication technologies have transformed the way photographs are taken. Now thousands are taken every day, all over the world and in all sorts of situations; all it requires is a simple, trivial click. They can then be published instantaneously in all sorts of formats, and disseminated in a matter of seconds. So technology has radically changed the way photography functions in society. Photographs are an essential ingredient in today's social networks, and everyone can be a photographer these days, even the very young.
This is not true of the photographs in this exhibition, which belong to the analogical age. They date from the past, a different time when photographs were taken by professional photographers, some of them well-known. They are rooted in a specific moment. Back then there was a long time-lag between taking, developing and publishing the photographs, and so they seem to be suspended in time and space, making them to some extent timeless. This lends them a depth which belies their apparent superficiality, and which makes them part of a profound vision of history.
The idea of making this exhibition came out of discussion between us, the teachers and students of the University of Salamanca . We thought it would be interesting to try and illustrate the last 100 years through photographs chosen by the students; the only condition being that the interpreter be evident, one way or another, in each photograph. We hoped in this way to get them involved in a simple research project. The photographs served to motivate the students to learn more about the work of our predecessors, and to highlight the strategic importance of inter-linguistic and intercultural communication between people.
Of the interpreters who appear in the photographs, some were not professional interpreters and carried out this role only sporadically – which leads us to look at the daily realities faced by interpreters today. Although most of these photographs show interpreters in meetings that are largely political in nature, or which aim at solving conflict (only once arms are laid down can the negotiators' voices be heard), they nonetheless reflect a plethora of possible situations. In today's multi-cultural world, it is the interpreter who is called upon to make sense of the cacophony of languages and dialects.
The exhibition aims, through these snapshots of their lives, to pay tribute to these interpreters, who are an essential link in the chain of communication when those involved in the dialogue do not share a common language or culture. We hope it will encourage visitors to look with a critical mind at these historical moments, captured on film. We appeal to their ability to develop and edit the images, and by casting new light on the hidden details, get beyond the two-dimensional photographs, to bring them, and history, alive.