“Drops of Oil for Burning Hearts” explores translation as a destructive and a creative act. In this immersive 3-channel film installation, immigrants from various countries translate songs from their native tongues into English. The unrehearsed translations, which are performed while the songs play simultaneously in the background, reveal the limits of language and translation: all kinds of absences arise when there are words or expressions that have no equivalents, or one cannot be found quickly enough, and confusion is often created by the attempt to translate things too literally.
But the song translations also bring to light the beauty of these limits. A poetry and mystery arises out of the slippages and the contradictions, and in one case, the alternating linguistic harmonies and dissonances that result when two different people translate the same song. What this installation seeks to reveal is how the distillation and mystification of language—two of the most important strategies belonging to the poet—are essential and powerful aspects of translation, rendering it a creative tool in itself.
It is through this very same paradoxical lens that one can view immigration. As the philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote, “Exile, no matter what form it takes, is a breeding ground for creative activity, for the new.” Flusser, a lifelong migrant himself, championed the potential of the unfamiliar and the ultimate freedom of the immigrant. In the essay “Exile and Creativity,” he writes about how in a foreign environment, where everything is noise and nothing is information, one must transform the chaos into meaningful messages. This process of making connections and synthesizing information, he argues, is precisely what creativity is. “Habit is like a cotton blanket. It covers up all the sharp edges, and it dampens all noises. It is unaesthetic (from aisthesthai = perception), because it prevents bits of information from being perceived.” But“for the expelled, everything challenges him to change his life. In exile, where the blanket of habit has been pulled back, he becomes a revolutionary, if only because it enables him to live there.”
Flusser’s celebratory philosophy speaks to the idea that forms the basis of “Drops of Oil for Burning Hearts”: although much is undeniably lost when you move from one culture or language to another, there is also a lot gained. Immigration, like translation, is both a destructive and a creative act.