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Visual Translations – Material Transformations (2020-)

One major factor in keeping texts and literatures relevant across space and time and in allowing them to circulate is their translatability. 'Translation' here refers not just to its linguistic component but also has a bearing on the materiality and visuality of the written word. The material way in which a text is rendered – its typeface, the particular surface used for writing, the formal arrangement of its contents and its aesthetic design – affects the reception of its contents. The history of a text is always also the story of its material rendering and its formal aesthetic composition.

This aspect of visual translation seems particularly relevant to the question of literature as a phenomenon that is global and enjoys a reach across time: on the one hand, processes of translation frequently go hand in hand with entirely different strategies of visualisation concerning the design of subsidiary texts and the material components themselves (such as format and design of a book). Such transformations can be observed both in the long-term and in particular instances; their semantic potential has a lasting effect on the reception of texts, not least because a cultural/regional/national 'appropriation' can also take place and be promoted at that level (as was the case with the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute, for example). Moreover, the visual composition of texts always hints at their temporality and historicity, or indeed could also simulate them. On the other hand, this field of research is also relevant because the reception of visual aspects is often based on the assumption of a 'universal' understanding, unlike the readability of texts. Recent art historical studies on transculturality meanwhile have focused on the challenges of translation with regard to images/artefacts within a global context, thus deconstructing such a claim to universality. The same applies to historical contexts.

The project begins its explorations with late medieval manuscripts, on the basis of which principles of layout design were developed that remain valid even today. These principles give rise to wide-ranging and complex questions relating to the material contexts of texts and their semantics. The aim is also to widen the scope of these questions to include printed books and other written documents. Some of the key questions to be addressed in the context of this project can be summarised as follows: What influence do certain materials and techniques as well as the parameters of writing have on the production and reception of texts and literatures? How do divergent types of documents (rotuli, codices, clay tablets, etc.) configure the visual order of texts and thus also their aesthetic and semantic content? What value is attached to certain writing practices and to the resulting textual products? How does the circulation of these practices relate to the circulation of texts? What transformations do canonical texts undergo, which for centuries have been written and copied by hand, reprinted or digitised, depending on the technologies prevalent during each era?


Student Assistant

Visual Translations – The Materiality and Mediality of Black Books of Hours (2020-)

Doctoral Research Project
Marie Hartmann