If we are to succeed in making a particular work accessible, then we first need to figure out the kind of questions the artist is asking and the particular challenges they are posing in the work. This is a far from trivial exercise, and there are also no guaranteed right answers. But without considering this question, we may find ourselves spending enormous amounts of energy translating aspects of the work that are completely incidental to the artist's intent and irrelevant to the work's expressive power. Of course, this process of deciding what to translate is a subjective process, but then, any process of translation is unavoidably subjective. (Even automatic translation by computer is strongly shaded by decisions made by the programmers themselves.) Nonetheless, these subjective choices must be made in as informed a way as possible; common sense can easily lead us astray here.

The Facets of an Artwork

When a book is translated, it is reasonably clear that the work is made up of the words that comprise the text. But simply translating each word literally is not usually sufficient to convey the meaning of the book. The words are the most visible markers for things embedded deeper in the text. Clichés and colloquial expressions have meanings that are culturally coded. Words have a reach beyond their basic definition as a result of their history of usage, references that that history generates in the mind of the reader, the sound of the word in its native language, and the play of other words that sound similar.

Among the facets of a work that may need to be considered:


Works generally grow from some sort of seed idea, story, theme or approach. In some cases, the end result is a literal manifestation of the initial seed. In others, the seed is simply an initial motivator that instigates a process that may lead to a very different result than first imagined. Even when the artist feels that the work is a direct expression of the original concept, the subjective experience of the work that a viewer or listener has may not seem related to that initial idea at all. Other works are so fully expressed by the initial idea or story that the elaborations involved in the production of the actual work are almost unnecessary.<


Concept and intent are not the same thing. The concept is in the work and the intent is in the artist. What we can determine of the artist's intent can help us to work out the relative import of its various facets: what is key and central to the work, and what is incidental... where to focus our efforts in making it accessible.


The work develops from its initial inspiration profoundly shaped by the creator's working process. Marcel Duchamp said that the "work" of art is the difference between what the artist intended and what they ended up with. For some artists, the creative process is more important than the final result. In other cases, the working process is itself the work, or at least carries a substantial amount of the essence of the work.


This includes the tangible properties of the work as realized (dimensions, medium, materials, style, content, etc.). Where a work has been produced for a specific site or location, the site itself forms an important facet of the work.

External References

Works often make references to things outside of themselves, such as myths, historical or contemporary events, and other art works. In some cases, it is impossible to decipher the work without considering these references.

Audience Experience

Any individual's experience of a work is unique and subjective. We each bring our whole life experience to the table when we regard a work. Nonetheless, an artist may consider the work itself secondary to the experience it provokes. In this sort of situation, it would seem more appropriate to aim to induce a experience similar to the one induced by the work, than to slavishly translate the material itself. The experience itself may have intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, sensory, perceptual and cognitive dimensions. It may be limited to the period of exposure to the work, or it may continue to resonate afterwards.


A work may be difficult to appreciate without some knowledge of the context within which it was created. This context might include cultural and historical context, the artist's life history, the artist's influences, the place of the work within the artist's history of work, as well as the history of this work since its creation (controversy, public acclamation). The critical writings that may arise around a work can sometimes completely change the way a work is generally viewed and can transform one's past experiences. Providing a sense of context may be particularly important when translating a work. For example, a person with visual impairment is likely to have less general contextual knowledge of the field of painting than a person with unimpaired vision.