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How should we translate the title of the artwork?

September 2, 2011

Here is a 1926 scupture now displayed in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art made by the Romanian artist (then living in Paris) Constantin Brancusi:

brancusi

The original 1926 title of this artwork is La Négresse blonde, which SFMOMA translates as “The Blond Negress.”

Is this a good translation of the French title?  How women of African descent feel when they see this title?  The word “Negress” in 2011 is shocking to see – certainly it does not have the same meaning that Négresse had in 1926. Or is the title meant to be ironic (in the same way that the sculpture certainly is)?

What do you think would be a better way to translate the name of this sculpture into English? 

(Bonus question:  what is the best translation of Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios) as it occurs in the New Testament into English?)

Here is the description SFMOMA gives of the artwork:

La Négresse blonde (The Blond Negress)

1926 sculpture | bronze with marble and limestone base

Fusing the traditions of classical sculpture with Romanian, African, Egyptian, and, later, even industrial forms, Brancusi’s groundbreaking works introduced abstraction and primitivism into sculptural practice. They were as important to the development of Modernism as the paintings of Pablo Picasso.

Brancusi’s sculptural vocabulary consisted of relatively few highly distilled forms, one of the most significant being the ovoid or egg shape that is the basis for La Négress blonde. The title of the work makes reference to an African woman Brancusi had met in Marseilles. The perfect, upturned ovoid serves as the woman’s head. Her distinguishing features are reduced to a pair of full lips, a chignon, and a zigzag ornament at the back of the neck, perhaps denoting a scarf or the lower part of her coiffure. The sculpture’s pedestal comprises a cylinder, a Greek cross, and a plinth that can be read as the woman’s body, shoulders, and neck. The bronze portion of the sculpture, however, can also be interpreted as the body of a golden fish, the top and rear embellishments becoming its dorsal and tail fins. The highly polished surface allows the viewer to contemplate the contrast between the simplicity of the sculpture and the complexity of his or her own reflection.

In attempting to capture the "essence of things," Brancusi broke with the Western tradition of representing the world in a realistic manner and paved the way for twentieth-century sculptural abstraction. His work was radical for its time, and when detractors refused to consider it art, his friend and peer Marcel Duchamp came to his defense, arguing, "To say that the sculpture of Brancusi is not art is like saying an egg is not an egg."

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 3, 2011 12:10 am

    It’s rather interesting to find that “l’art nègre” is translated as “African Art” but “la negresse blonde” does not get the same treatment! Here is an article mentioning African art,

    “Although Picasso never visited Africa, his interest in its art is well documented, from his discovery of African masks at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in June 1907. Thereafter he became an avid collector of “art nègre”, as it was known.

    However, Picasso himself remained ambiguous on the subject, once famously declaring “L’art nègre? Connais pas” – “African art? Never heard of it”.

  2. September 4, 2011 6:58 pm

    That’s a pretty amazing observation, Suzanne. Thanks!

    Right now, there is some flaw in our blog format, so it is not immediately obvious that the word article above is a hyper-link to the article you quote. If you hover your mouse over it, it becomes a link. It is worth reading.

  3. September 4, 2011 6:51 pm

    I find the Brancusi a difficult question – the black blond, I don’t know how I would translate such a title. But I just did. As for Ioudaios, you raise the question for me as to how I have treated all proper names in the psalms. I will think about it. I have heard the endless discussions on the old NT e-lists about Jew and Judean – and I can take either or both of them myself. I am not fond of endless discussions.

    By the way, my knowledge of Brancusi was till now limited to the Kiss. And a hearty handshake is no substitute for a holy kiss. A cold comfort we make of it in the north. The wrong sort of weather for a greeting.

  4. September 4, 2011 7:06 pm

    Bob raises the question of kisses vs. handshakes.

    Suzanne cites The Daily Telegraph.

    In honor of these first two commenters on this blog, please enjoy this article: link.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 5, 2011 2:47 am

    I see links in red so they seem clear enough. Regarding la négresse, at first, I didn’t see it, but now I think it should be translated as “the blond African” since this is really about the influence of African art on French abstract art.

    And thanks for the tip on how to save on spreading germs. I shall try not to shake hands with my students, but just offer air kisses all around!

  6. September 5, 2011 1:05 pm

    The links are in red — only after we visit them.

    Thanks for your kind words on your blog — I’m looking forward to your posts here, Suzanne!

  7. September 5, 2011 3:05 pm

    I love your bonus question, “What is the best translation of Ἰουδαῖος (Ioudaios) as it occurs in the New Testament into English?” Given the topic of the post, nonetheless, the better question is what’s the best translation of the NT Ἰουδαία (Ioudaia), the feminine form of the word. It’s used as a proper noun for a place, of course. But in Acts 24:24, there she is. Willis Barnstone renders Luke’s Greek there as, “his own wife, Druscilla, the Jew.” (At least there’s no mention of her by her hair color.)

  8. September 5, 2011 5:00 pm

    Kurk, we don’t need to go to a language with strong gender grammar such as Greek to see these absurdities. Just consider the adjective”blond” (an adjective that can be used with all genders) vs. the nouns “blond”/”blonde” (gendered English nouns). Thus we have many (cruel) “blonde” jokes but not many “blond” jokes.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 5, 2011 7:01 pm

    In French “la blonde” means your girlfriend, not necessarily a dummy. But Brancusi was just referring to the colour of the medium.

  10. September 5, 2011 7:28 pm

    The French term for girlfriend/boyfriend which has always amused me is petite amie/petit ami. Since you are a Canadian, Suzanne, the connection might not be as strong, but being in America, for me the words of Tony Montana are burned into my brain: “Say hello to my little friend.”

  11. September 7, 2011 11:40 am

    I had actually written a nice, long discussion on the translation of Ἰουδαῖος but scrapped it after I realized I honestly no longer cared. Judging from the context in which it is used in John’s gospel, in some places it is clearly “the Jewish authorities” in contradistinction to the people, whereas in others it seems to mean “Judeans.” And, I think, it’s also “the Jews” in a number of places, especially where the author seems to be explaining that Sukkot, for example, is a Jewish festival, as if his audience were not only Gentiles, but Gentiles utterly unfamiliar with any aspect of Jewish tradition.

    The reason I no longer care is a tougher nut too crack. I used to bend over backwards to defend scriptures that were racist or sexist, trying to find the nugget of truth or any other redeeming quality amid the dross, and trying to translate passages so they were presented in their best possible light. Then I decided to let the scriptures speak for themselves, and let readers see that while there may be eternal truths in it, there was a very great deal of temporal statements and some untruths as well, and I think it behooves us to look at all scripture, from all traditions, with an open heart and a jaundiced eye.

  12. September 7, 2011 1:39 pm

    I understand your approach Craig. But traditional translations of the Fourth Gospel have caused not just misunderstandings, but many actual incidents of violence. For me the ultimate expression of this is Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies. This set of excerpts shows what I mean.

    Now, if a sophisticated Bible reader such as Luther could so misread the text (and write the blueprint for the Holocaust), how much more vulnerable are ordinary readers. So, I consider this question important.

  13. September 7, 2011 2:54 pm

    Yes, but I’m not sure a translator has to take readers’ prejudices and racist attitudes into account. I understand that many people are justly horrified by the use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, but I don’t think that means banning the book, or worse, bowdlerizing the text. If we are convinced that the author of the Fourth Gospel was writing with a distinct anti-Jewish polemic, do we pretend it isn’t there? Must a translator have a social agenda?

    The Luther example just goes to show that even intelligent, sophisticated people can have vile, bigoted beliefs. If the biblical text had said, “The Jews are not to blame for Jesus’ death! They don’t eat Christian babies, and they don’t have horns!”, I guarantee you that antisemites would find some other justification for their hatred.

  14. September 7, 2011 3:53 pm

    I do not think the analogy between Huckleberry Finn and the fourth gospel is a good one.

    Huckleberry Finn is a work, at least in part, about racism. And it is an original text. It is written entirely in a dialect of English, not the standard received language. And it was intended for adults. Twain is reported to have said:

    I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ & ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave.

    In contrast, large parts of the fourth gospel have been read as an anti-Semitic. But even more shocking, the text has been translated in such a way as to make them more anti-Semitic in translation than they were in the Greek. As you correctly point out, Ἰουδαῖος is used in many different ways in the fourth gospel, and the English translations that simply always translate it as “Jew” lose those multiple meanings.

    Suppose someone were to rewrite Huckleberry Finn in “contemporary language,” akin to the breezy style of many of today’s Bible translations. Thus we might change the opening words:

    You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary. Aunt Polly—Tom’s Aunt Polly, she is—and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before.

    To

    Unless you read the book entitled The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, you may be unaware of me, but that does not matter. Mark Twain wrote that book, which was mostly factual, although a few points were stretched for effect. This is typical, except perhaps of Aunt Polly, the widow, and Mary. Tom’s Aunt Polly, Mary, and the Widow Douglas are all described in that book, which as I mentioned above, is mostly true but with a few points stretched for effect.

    From this example, you can see that Huckleberry Finn is written in a strong voice. My “translation” of it loses almost all of the merit of the original — it stinks. Of course, the fourth gospel is also written in a voice, but one that rarely comes through in translation.

    So contemporary translations of the fourth gospel suffer from two problems simultaneously: they take away the unique voice of the author and they end up injecting more racism than was originally in the Greek original. The worst of both worlds.

  15. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 7, 2011 10:56 pm

    I used to bend over backwards to defend scriptures that were racist or sexist, trying to find the nugget of truth or any other redeeming quality amid the dross, and trying to translate passages so they were presented in their best possible light. Then I decided to let the scriptures speak for themselves, and let readers see that while there may be eternal truths in it, there was a very great deal of temporal statements and some untruths as well, and I think it behooves us to look at all scripture, from all traditions, with an open heart and a jaundiced eye.

    Craig,

    I completely understand your comment. I struggle with this. On the one hand, there are simply certain positions which seem to be supported in scripture, ie slavery, as well as others, which we simply cannot condone. On the other hand, adelphoi, really did refer to all siblings in a family, so I think one can honestly support “brothers and sisters” as being more literal than “brothers.”

    So, it is both/and. There are certain views in the Bible which we don’t accept, obedience to a dictator, perhaps, and there are others which are exaggerated by translators. But maybe it is more useful to discuss our resistance to the cultural givens of the Bible, rather than focusing on how it is translated.

  16. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 7, 2011 10:57 pm

    So contemporary translations of the fourth gospel suffer from two problems simultaneously: they take away the unique voice of the author and they end up injecting more racism than was originally in the Greek original. The worst of both worlds.

    Also well put. I waver between these two approaches.

Trackbacks

  1. Biblical Translation: Art, Science, or Politics? « BLT
  2. “La Négresse blonde” and even “grammaire” | BLT

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