Translating the untranslatable

It began, says Claire Keys, with wonder: “I heard a really great piece on NPR last year on how, particularly in Romance languages, there are a lot of terms that encapsulate abstract emotional ideas, and are hard to translate into any other language in a way that’s so succinct and pointed,” she said. “These words make you smile, because they’re so perfect.”

Keys, Senior Writer at VSA Partners, had a chance encounter earlier this year with former VSA designer Katherine Walker as the latter was moving to San Francisco and mulling over an idea to create a playful and typography-driven exhibition. Walker, said Keys, “approached me to be the wordsmith. But it really started from that organic, language-focused place.” She culled through books, articles and other sources to find less well-known examples of these terms. Among them: the word that refers to the conversation that takes place at a dinner table after the food is taken away (sobremesa, Spanish); the word that describes how the reflection of the moon on an open sea looks like a road (mangata, Swedish); the word that means running your fingers through someone’s hair (cafuné, Brazilian Portuguese) and the phrase that describes feeling someone else’s pain so deeply that you feel like it’s happening to you (koev halev, Hebrew). “These words had to come together in a logical way,” she remembered thinking. “How do you find the thread that brings it all together?”

Keys and Walker hit upon the idea of a narrative focused on a heroine and her coming-of-age story—she deals with life’s hardships, travels, encounters old friends, learns to deal with the differences between the expectation and the reality of her life, and so on—and tying those ethereal life moments into illustrations of the words being examined. Over the course of nine large-scale posters and two digital executions, the exhibition moves the viewer through the space in a fractured path; the story connects in non-linear ways and each of the pieces is visually and emotionally distinct. The pair worked with Chicago curator and writer Jamilee Polson Lacy to realize the exhibition, “TYPES by Display,” which opens on Thursday, November 13 at Columbia College.

“It’s grown into something so much more meaningful than what I’d envisioned in my mind; where once the words, writing and art existed separately, they’re embedded now, thanks to Katherine. It makes these 11 words come alive,” said Keys. When asked what she wants viewers to get out of the exhibition, she replied, “We really want people to delve in deep with each piece. We want them to come away with a preternatural, automatic understanding of what these foreign words mean. It might confirm to them that they’ve experienced those words already.”

Keys and the complete “TYPES by Display” team will present an artist lecture on November 13 at 4:00 pm, followed by the exhibition’s opening reception at 5:00 pm; you can RSVP for the opening at its Facebook event page. The exhibition runs until December 13 at the Averill and Bernard Leviton A+D Gallery in Chicago. In conjunction with the exhibition, the gallery will host “Type Sets,” a free series of workshops and lectures on the diverse and contemporaneous qualities of typography and text. “Type Sets” will include a lecture from Keys herself on December 6 called “Art + Science (form versus meaning, meaning versus form),” in which she will discuss the creation of the exhibition’s narrative.

Cover photo courtesy of Averill and Bernard Leviton A+D Gallery.