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Translation and the Archive: Performance, Practice, Negotiation

International Symposium 31 May - 2 June 2023

Read the conference report here.

Main venue: Haus der Universität, Schadowplatz 14, 40212 Düsseldorf

Keynote lecture by Ato Quayson (Stanford): “Disputes with Vehemence: Historical Transition and Violent Disagreements from the Greeks to Postcolonial Tragedy”

With readings/performances by Esther Dischereit, Oxana Chi and Layla Zami, as part of the tie-in series Translating the Archive

Consult the symposium programme


This international and interdisciplinary symposium explores the interdependency of repositories of memory (archives) and their translation. We assume that the relationship between acts of translation and the construction of archives is multi-​directional, and that translation and the ar­chive are mutually constitutive: Not only do archives require translation but acts of translation defini­tively also require archives in turn. Fields in which the mutual dependency of translation and the ar­chive come into focus are typically those in which either one or the other is felt to be deficient, in which the repositories that surround us do not match our own experience, in which available reposito­ries contradict each other, or in which the translational process is incomplete.

Translation, as concept and as practice, obligates us to consider what is translated, who is authorised to translate, and how the status of translation determines cultural capital. Practices of translation are never ‘innocent’, they become acts of positioning, and the questions we bring to them are vital in order to understand the hegemonic situations that enable or mar the construction of, or access to, reposito­ries. Who translates for whom, between which languages, and for what purpose? How are cultural re­positories maintained, or transformed, under divergent experiences of migration and dispersion? What can take the place of the archive for communities that have been suppressed or annihilated, whose lan­guages have never been recognized as languages just as their cultures have never been recognized as cultures and their members have never been completely recognized as human? (Trouillot)

Our understanding of the terms ‘archive’ and ‘translation’ is broad and extends to non-​written, imma­terial repositories and beyond linguistic acts of transfer. We do not see translation as a derivative, sec­ond-​order engagement but as a fundamental process of the human condition (Bassnett). As ‘translating animals’ interacting in myriad social situations, we rely on the repositories we have access to – and when we find these lacking, we search for, or construct, such repositories through translation and while translating. The difficult, yet omnipresent, attempts at constructing archives through translation and translating ourselves into archives can have transgenerational implications for individuals and so­cial structures.

Yet, how we negotiate this space, how we do or do not do translation, often remains invisible and ab­stract. Literature abounds with poignant engagements and articulations of the struggle to ‘come into translation’, to find the “Ark of the Covenant” in hidden, unlikely, impossible places (Walcott). The new understanding of biographical, autobiographical, and memoiristic writing as ‘ego documents’ tes­tifies to the understanding of an individual as archive, an externalisation of the realisation that “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” (Baldwin) This notion also manifests itself in orature and performance practices that emphasise the individual voice and body as repositories of knowledge that can be opened in specific situations of narration, declamation and performance. We are interested in the ways in which writers and artists act as translators, and transcribers, constructors and critics of a wide range of archives.

Our symposium seeks to draw attention to the urgency of translation in light of a pluriverse of archives as well as the potential of translation in light of unearthing, constructing, and negotiating hidden yet powerful archival forces. The ways in which acts of translation – or the absence, invisibility, or hyper­visibility of processes of translation – can play themselves out have ongoing and proliferating implica­tions for individuals and affect convivial structures within a society. We hope to shed light on some of these implications through dialogue across disciplines and scholarly focuses.



Dr. Marc Caplan and Dr. Eva Ulrike Pirker

Inquiries and registration:

All events are free of charge. Due to limited seats registration is strongly recommended.


Works cited:

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-​Fiction 1948-​1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press 1985.

Susan Bassnett, “Prologue”, Tradition, Translation, Trauma: The Classic and the Modern, eds. Jan Parker & Timothy Mathews. Oxford: OUP, 2011.

Michel-​Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995; 2015.

Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History”, The Star-​Apple Kingdom. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979, 25-28.

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