ESR 8 Blog April 2021: Marteinn Sindri Jónsson

What do we do when we translate between one language and another? We take a thought, a sentence, a point of view and we manifest that thought or point of view within a new syntax, within a new grammar, within a new “world system”.[1] A classical notion of translation insists that this does not affect the content in any dramatic way. However, the expression is never stable between one language and another. This becomes clear when we consider the Gospel of John 1.1: “In the beginning was the Word”. The Greek term which is translated as “word” is “logos”, which has a much broader meaning, denoting for instance “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning”.[2] This certainly surpasses the connotations in English of “word”, and in Icelandic of “orðið”. To make things even more dense, the Icelandic word “orðið” both means “word”, and “already happened”. So, the Icelandic rendering, “í upphafi var orðið,” not only carries the meaning we find in the English, but also something like: “In the beginning, something had already happened.”

For two months I have very much enjoyed working with my fellow researchers, Sophie Mak-Schram, Fabiola Fiocco and Claude Nassar (and hopefully others in the near future) in a reading group. I was very inspired by Emily Apter’s Against World Literature, suggested to us by Sophie, not least the first chapter, ‘Untranslatables: A World System’ where Apter embarks on a fascinating journey through language and meaning, departing from Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. In our discussions of the book we reflected on how the concepts we use are not stable at all but shape what we find in the world. It brought us to consider how a seemingly straight-forward term, such as socially engaged art, does not lend itself so easily to translation.

In Icelandic, the word socially would generally be rendered with “félagsleg” or “samfélagsleg”, for engaged there is no immediately apt translation. Depending on context it can be translated with “áhugasöm” meaning interested; “tengt” meaning connected; and, of course, “trúlofaður”, denoting the fidelity lovers confess to one another. Perhaps one could get close, by using the notion “samfélagsvirk”, meaning socially active, but that sounds a bit strange. Possibly, “samfélagsmiðuð” would be the most appropriate term, although translating it back to English would just as well render the sense of socially oriented art or art targeting society. This is of course to leave the question of how to translate art, fully aside. The Icelandic concept is “list”, a word less concerned with the proficiency of the artisan, as “art” originally was[3], but instead etymologically interwoven with “lyst”, that denotes both the sensory and the voluntary. In fact, it does not provoke so much thoughts of the optic, auditory, haptic or olfactory as the gustatory; “að borða eitthvað með bestu lyst” is to enjoy one’s food. Furthermore, it bridges the affective and the voluntary — “syngdu eins og þig lystir” would translate as “sing as much as you’d like.”

Concepts constellate thought and action and it may be fruitful to reflect on those we use to delineate our research projects. Two concepts are quite central to my research, the concepts of art labs and hubs.[4] A quick look at the etymology of the word hub reveals that around 1640 the meaning “solid centre of a wheel,” is established, although it might also be related to the hob of a fireplace and the hobnails of shoes. These “short, thick nails with a large head,” were used to nail boots and shoes but also denoted, assumably in a pejorative way, a “rustic person,” from the 17th century and onwards. However, the wheelwrights’ use of the word hub, relatively unknown until c. 1828 was catapulted into the contemporary, on the one hand, because of the rising popularity of bicycling in the 19th century, but on the other hand, perhaps more importantly, in the context of urbanisation. Hub, in its recognisable meaning as “center of interest or activity or importance” was recorded early in the writings of physicist, poet and humorist Oliver W. Holmes, who wrote in 1858: “Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system”. In popular discourse it continued to pertain particularly to Boston, as evinced by a much later entry by Pulitzer Prize Winner J.P. Marquand in Life magazine on 24 March, 1941: “[E]verybody knows that Boston used to be called the Hub, meaning the hub of the universe. It may still be the hub, because the center of a wheel moves slowly.” The word hub exploits the different speeds of movement and stasis, centripetal and centrifugal forces, as well as the dichotomies of centre-periphery and the politics of the urban and the rural. This richness is only partly preserved in the Icelandic “öxull” (e. axis) and “miðstöð” (e. centre). However, a different conceptual tension emerges in the Icelandic word used for the cybernetic hub, the technologically advanced connective port we rely on when using our computers, phones, USB cables etc. The Icelandic offers “tengivirki” for these machines, the prefix “tengi-” practically meaning connective, “virki” translating as fortress or fortification.

Lab dates from around 1895, an abbreviated form for laboratory, that came into popular use around 1600, meaning “room or building set apart for scientific experiments”. The medieval Latin laboratorium means essentially “a place for labour or work,” preserving the rich semiotic matrix of labour. These politically charged dimensions are difficult (but not impossible) to excavate in the Icelandic “tilraunastofa”. On a more specific level, “tilraun” combines with labour, not through the notion of work, but through the connotations of “exertion of the body; trouble, difficulty, hardship”,[5] virtuously explored by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition.[6] In fact, Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther is titled Raunir Werthers Unga in the Icelandic. Thus, reality and hardship are entangled in the substantive “raun”, to which the prefix “til-”is attached in order to produce the substantive experiment. Most narrowly, the Icelandic “tilraunastofa” denotes the room in which experiments are made, but a closer look reveals a fascinating affinity with the temporal bind of the biblical translation I mentioned at the top. “Tilraun” might be quite literally translated as “towards reality”. Thus, it practically “speaks” the pre-enactive qualities that Oliver Marchart has attributed to socially engaged art projects and John Roberts examines in his opening lecture, found elsewhere here on the FEINART forum.[7]

[1] See my reference to Emily Apter in the next paragraph.

[2] “Logos”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 25 April 2021.

[3] See Tim Ingold. 2001. “Beyond Art and Technology: The Anthropology of Skill.” In Anthropological Perspectives on Technology, edited by M.B. Schiffer, 17–31, here p. 17. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

[4] I’m indebted to Douglas Harper’s etymological project, Online Etymology Dictionary for all quotes in this paragraph and the next, as well as the etymological navigation. See ‘hub’, ‘laboratory’, ‘lab’ and ‘labor’ at

[5] Ibid.

[6] See for instance footnote 3 on p. 80: “Thus, the Greek language distinguishes between ponein and ergazesthai, the Latin between laborare and facere or fabricari, which have the same etymological root, the French between travailler and ouvrer, the German between arbeiten and werken. In all these cases, only the equivalents for “labour” have an unequivocal connotation of pain and trouble. The German Arbeit applied originally only to farm labour executed by serfs and not to the work of the craftsman, which was called Werk. The French travailler replaced the older labourer and is derived from tripalium, a kind of torture. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

[7] John Roberts “The Problems and Horizons of Socially Engaged Art Today”, p. 14-16. Here, Roberts is explicitly reading Marchart’s Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019, particularly pp. 176-182.

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