Translation history is fascinating and this French museum has a full exhibition dedicated to it

Photo from the outside façade of the MuCem museum with the title of the exhibition "After Babel, Translate"
The MuCem focuses on translation history in the Mediterranean region.

Translation history is fascinating and full of interesting anectodes. From translation gaffes in the Bible to the challenges of translating ad campaigns creatively, there is no shortage of tales of success and failures in translation. And the MuCem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) in France is dedicating a whole exhibition to it.

Until March 20, the museum will run the exhibition “After Babel, translating”. Archives, videos, sculptures and paintings will show visitors some tales of which translation history is so rich.

Translation history shows how it evolved alongside languages

Languages are more than simple words. They have a history, concepts, ideas, and nuances. Speakers of a language understand all of these instinctively. A good translation will allow users of another language to understand the same concepts and ideas.

And as languages and meanings evolved, so did translations. The translation of a concept five hundred years ago might be totally different today. This MuCem exhibit is perfect for those who want to dig up examples of this in translation history.

Photo from the exhibition with text in ancient Syrian
Photo of a Syrian funerary mosaic. (credit: afp.com/BERTRAND LANGLOIS)

But the relationship between languages and translation is not a one-way street. Languages themselves evolved as a result of translations, as translators exposed their native contemporaries to foreign concepts and ideas.

Conceptual differences in translation history

Painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder of the Tower of Babel.
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The word “translate” itself shows what the essence of translation is about. In Arabic, “translating” is “interpreting” while in Chinese we “exchange embroidered fabric”.

The MuCem has an artistic installation with a common idiomatic expression: “It’s raining cats and dogs”. Did you know that in French, pouring rain is described by “raining ropes”? And it’s “raining knives” in Portuguese from Portugal.

Of course, a museum room is also dedicated to the Tower of Babel. According to the myth, God gave different languages to the world’s peoples so they would not be able to succeeed in building a tower tall enough to reach heaven. The room showcases Abel Grimmer and Pieter Brueghel paintings. People may have been separated by languages, but translators have been bridging this gap ever since.

In fact…

Translation influenced history. In fact, translation history is a window into history

According to the exhibition curator: “Translation bridged a gap between cultures, knoweldge and power transfer: from Greece to Rome, from Rome to the Arab world…” Knowing how to deal with other cultures and understanding differences is arguably at the root of the thriving Mediterranean civilizations of the past.

Studying translation history reveals just how these knowledge transfers occured. What possible gains a civilization made from understanding a foreign one. What possible misunderstandings there were along the way.

Rodin sculpture called "La main de Dieu" or "La création" in French.
Rodin’s “The Creation” (“La création”) or “La main de Dieu” (God’s hand)

Religion is, unsurprisingly, also a big part of history. And of the exhibition. Translations of religious texts influenced societies as a whole. For instance, the Hebrew translation of “tzela” usually means “flank“. A translation mistake might then be the origin of the Genesis passage describing Eve being “born from Adam’s rib”. Maybe Eve was just born beside Adam.

The exhibit shows both artistic interpretations of this translation with biblical illuminations or Rodin’s “La création” (“The Creation”).
If you like translations, history, Mediterranean history, or if you’re curious about translation history, then definitely go check out this exhibition! (Oh, and also, if you happen to be in Europe and can make the trip to Marseille, of course).
The exhibition “After Babel, Translating” opened on December 14, 2016 and will run until March 20, 2017.

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