The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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MAY 2020 Issue
Critics Page In Conversation

The losses we carry across: an afternoon with Azza El Siddique and Sahar Te

In thinking about translation, many past conversations came back to mind. Some that took place between an artist and me, some were interpretations based on works seen, heard of, or read about. This conversation between Azza El Siddique, Sahar Te and myself is a conjuncture of all the above. I have met and worked with Azza in the past, I had been following and read about Te’s work. I was curious to connect with both artists as it seems that each,  in their own ways, give form to ethereal, sonic and mnemonic languages. El Siddique’s practice is informed by African mythologies, religious and architectural theories. In her work, those sources are cited discretely as acts of remembrance and grief through material transformations and motifs. Sahar Te investigates the politics and potential of languages. Coming from a literary background with a profound interest in traditional Persian poetry, she explores languages for their phonetic—intonation, rhythms, and patterns—and performative qualities. Her work aims to shift the meaning of words to their musicality. While being based in three different cities, here is the conversation we sparked.1

Daisy Desrosiers (Rail):  I thought I would start with a very straightforward question and navigate from there. Where does each of you see the space and juncture where translation resides in your practice?

Sahar Te: I would say it came from two places, where one was the concept of translatability that was itself interesting, in the sense that there are moments that are untranslatable. So those moments of untranslatability rather than translatability are rich, which is important for me to look into it rather than look over it. A lot of times those lost in translations get kind of forgotten and lost—absolutely lost—and I was interested in finding alternative ways of welcoming those moments of untranslatability into my work. The second one is the awkwardness. There was a sense of awkwardness that I experienced within translation whether if it is in texts that I was reading or it was a translation from let’s say French, I wouldn’t even know this is a translation and the awkwardness reveals a translated work.  The decrease of power that happens within language and the loss of affect for me was a major element that I really wanted to get into because of the sense of oversimplification that it carries.

Azza El Siddique: I think it is really interesting, Sahar, the way you address an aspect of translation is the inability to translate. I also feel that is also where my interests lie. It is through materials where I can begin to be able to give form to where language fails me.

Rail: I would like for us to think about mother tongue as an origin story and a conceptual frame too. Where do they meet in your work?

El Siddique: I think about the idea of mother tongue and I reflect on its first manifestation that was body language and the emotions that are inherently embedded within you that you don’t necessarily have the words to express. It is these complex feelings where my sensorial installations attempt to capture these guttural bodily feelings that cannot be translated through verbal language. It also brings me back to Arabic which was my first language, but I think the one thing that is really interesting with language, sadly, it’s something that you can lose. I lost my Arabic at a young age. I still understand a bit, but just basic conversation. Something that has always stuck with me was having very strong memories of being a child and not being able to speak English and playing with other children, and how we were able to communicate through body language.

Azza El Siddique, <em>Measure of one</em>, 2020. Image: Toni Hafkenscheid
Azza El Siddique, Measure of one, 2020. Image: Toni Hafkenscheid

Te:  Farsi, it is a very complicated language and when I came here [Canada], I was so proud thinking Farsi beats English so badly! It is such a rich language, there is a lot of metaphoric, emotional, and musical ways of using it that are less present in English. For example, if we want to say something like the word calm, it is actually a calm word with a calming effect. If you want to talk about anger, the word anger is itself “خشم” a dynamic word. A wise poet can find the right words to convey a message through a choreography of sounds. I also come from a literary background and I studied how poets, for example, use these sound qualities of language to create an experience. Language itself is more experiential, I would say, in Farsi than in English. So, coming to the University in Canada and having to write about complex concepts, I found English more straightforward and more on point. It is funny now as a Farsi speaker, I cannot write an essay in Farsi. Because I have a lot of concepts, but I cannot speak about them as directly as I can in English, so English, for me, is a more equipped language with more scientific words. It has the capacity to get updated, but then with Farsi I can communicate so many more emotions that do not exist in English with the same quality. That is a departure point where I started looking at language as my material itself and looking at the material aspects of language, like the intonation, rhymes, rhythms, and patterns. Specifically looking at traditional Persian poetry, which takes a lot of its rules from traditional Arabic poetry, and follows certain metric systems. If the rhythm sounds like “ta ta taa ta … , ta ta taa ta …” it is a romantic poem, but if you want to write an epic, it usually follows another metric system or pattern, which sounds like, “ta,ta,t | ta,ta,ta,” which is very epic in its rhythm. That translates to music very well, where you find a lot of drumming that is used in epic films or when people are chanting on the streets: rhythm becomes the conveyor and the meaning. More intuition is involved in the rhythm in Farsi as a natural quality than in English. I am saying English because it is another language that I know, not like a universal thing. 

Sahar Te, Performance of <em>KHAAREJ No.3</em> (2019). Photo: Emmanuel Osemene
Sahar Te, Performance of KHAAREJ No.3 (2019). Photo: Emmanuel Osemene

Rail: Of course and no forms of languages are static anyway, it triggers or it is being triggered. Azza’s use of incense comes to mind.

El Siddique: Yes, the sandaliya, which is used during a Muslim burial as a way to cleanse and prepare the body through ritual.

Rail: I think your work has an ethereal syntax that it is very much rooted in very tangible qualities.

El Siddique: I think it is a fair assumption to say that the process is present. Also, the process is very transparent in how you are able to see these systems work and how these ephemeral and ethereal moments are happening within the installations. They are an amalgamation of a personal translation linked to cultural specificity and anthropological research that I intertwine with one another. And I think that sort of translation for me is trying to unearth and make meaning and understanding of these systems that I am specifically thinking about.

Azza El Siddique, <em>Begin in smoke, End in ashes Pt. II</em>, 2019. Image: courtesy of Helena Anrather, New York
Azza El Siddique, Begin in smoke, End in ashes Pt. II, 2019. Image: courtesy of Helena Anrather, New York

Rail: Do you imagine translation as a site of interpretation?

Te: It is really interesting because, for me, it bears the question, is this a translation? Then I ask myself, what do I even mean by translation? In KHAAREJ No. 3 (2019), by bringing an English speaker to comprehend a Farsi text, I ask that we focus on another aspect of language rather than the connotations of the words. Mostly on the material quality of the language in terms of sound, spacing, rhythm, and pattern, and all of that. To achieve that, I ask the performer to accept the role of the translator and to focus on these alternative qualities of language that usually get lost in translation. There is a lot of weight given to the possible meanings of words. For example, Rumi is one of the most read poets in the world, especially in America, but when you read the translation, the entire rhythmic and musical experience is lost. He would spin around and then get to this ecstatic mode and would say things like…“Man na manam, na man manam” which means “I am not myself, this is not me” but then “I am not myself, this is not me” is not “Man na manam, na man manam”… right?  

Rail: Now that I know, I can hear the lost.

Te: To me, Rumi is completely gone. The experience of Rumi is completely turned into little bits and pieces of words that are trying really hard. It reminds me of the idea of when Walter Benjamin talks about how the relationship between a language and its culture is similar to a fruit in its skin! When you put the banana skin on an apple it never works. 

Sahar Te, <em>Listening Appears Direct Flow</em> (2019). Photo: Natalie Logan
Sahar Te, Listening Appears Direct Flow (2019). Photo: Natalie Logan

El Siddique: I think also within translations and histories, what isn’t being said is silence, which is also super powerful. That essentially holds so much more weight of what isn’t there than what is.

Rail: Absolutely.

Te: I have been challenged by a lot of different people on the idea of using translation as a metaphor, which sometimes can become potentially problematic.

Rail: And maybe, reductive.

Te: Sometimes it fits the context and sometimes it creates confusion and becomes too generic. But then I was thinking of how translation can be looked at as a potential. I was actually looking at the word translation this morning and I thought: by translation do I mean adaptation in my case? Is this a reenactment or an adaptation? Or is this a remediation or a transformation? I have been thinking a lot about it as a gesture and as manipulation and I am playing within the power systems through a process. Maybe an unwanted and unwelcome potential. That is where I get super interested in the poetics of mistranslation or intentionally manipulating something. This is a concept that Gayatri Spivak talks about within the discourse of post-colonialism and the ideas of being a translator and how it works to be a subaltern who is doing the translation or being translated.

El Siddique: What a slippery and fugitive word translation is. There are so many factors that come up and collide in this way. When I begin to reflect on translation, I’m thinking who is doing the translating? And also memory. Memory is something that is always in flux, as well as ideas of truth, which are in their own form extremely slippery and hard to grasp. In its own way it makes me just wonder if translation itself, in some aspect, is not necessarily the right word. The other thing is in English there are just not enough words. I think that is probably why I go to the visual and the material, the tangible. Because what lies between translation feels more of an “honest word” for me.

Te: I really enjoyed your word “slippery.” It is such a good way to convey it. 

El Siddique: I think you were also talking about this, Sahar, how you were saying language is always changing. And for some odd reason I think translation hasn’t quite caught up or something. It feels static and that we still don’t have enough words.

Te: That is so true. I think there is a paradox within translation that is as much as a connector as it’s also a divider. As you mentioned, if there is a space in-between these cultures, it creates a moment of failure or a moment of falling in that gap. To understand this in possibility and failure of translation I think it is very important to think about it as less of a tool and more of a discourse these days. I also think that the performative aspect of translation is so essential and important that we sometimes overlook it. There has been a lot of times where I am trying to explain a concept, let’s say go back to the musicality of language, and then I want to communicate that with you without me performing the rhythm you will never understand the concept, even if it is like five pages explained under, in the footnotes.  It would not do what the performative aspect could do which is; intersemiotic translation. I find myself a different person each time I develop a new set of vocabulary, especially within the art context. We heavily rely on language and a lot of times we use these Western or mostly Latin-origin language systems to explore a work of art. For example, the idea of “context”; there is literally no context for the word context in Farsi. I struggle a lot of times. Within the Latin-based languages like French, German, and all of these languages, you can explain some concepts, but then Arabic, Farsi, and Indian languages are kind of similar and then the word context. Azza, do you have a word for it in Arabic?

El Siddique: That would be something that has been lost into the ether of losing language. 

I actually appreciate that. That there is no word for context in Farsi since it is already performed.

Te: Exactly. With words in English, I am so equipped to make valid points or maybe, making things more legible. When I think about that lack of lots of words in Farsi, there is a sense of performativity or ritual that makes up for that gap. That it is more effective in the sense that it is more experiential and less linguistic, let’s say. 

Rail: I like to think about the rituality of words and it goes back to Azza’s point about silence as a powerful and super active form. I wanted to share a word with you both: “yonder.”

El Siddique: Like “way yonder?” Way over there, kind of?

Rail: Well, it’s close. It’s the title of a book by Siri Hustvedt where she explored the in-betweenness of interpretations exploring this word as a trigger. It’s Yiddish and basically means “between here and there.” Doesn’t that leave us in a good place to wonder?


  1. The title of this interview echoes the Latin origin (lat.) of the word translation; carrying across as found in the Collins Encyclopedia, fifth edition, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 2775.


Daisy Desrosiers

is the inaugural Director of Artist Programs at the Lunder Institute for American Art at Colby College. She is an interdisciplinary art historian and independent curator. Her thesis concerns the cultural, post-colonial, and material implications of the use of sugar in contemporary art. In 2018, she was the inaugural recipient of the Nicholas Fox Weber curatorial fellowship, affiliated with the Glucksman Museum (Cork, Ireland), as well as a curatorial fellow-in-residence at Art in General (Brooklyn, NY).

Azza El Siddique

is an artist currently based between New York and New Heaven, CT where she completed her MFA at Yale University.

Sahar Te

(b. Tehran) is a multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto, Canada.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2020

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