Art Professor Launches Project on Words Lost in Translation

May 5, 2017

Associate Professor of Art Marek Ranis has joined London-based psychology scholar Tim Lomas and the Anchorage Museum (Alaska) to develop a multidimensional community-engaged art project that explores unique words from many languages. Named Cafuné (the Brazilian Portuguese term for the act of running a hand through a loved one's hair), the project is based on Lomas’s growing inventory of positive words that have no direct translation into English.

“The Lexicon of Positive Untranslatable Words” focuses on words related to human wellbeing, such as the Arabic word tarab (طرب), which means “musically-induced ecstasy or enchantment,” or the Danish morgenfrisk, which means “feeling rested after a good night’s sleep,” or the Indonesian gemas, which is “the urge to squeeze someone because they are so cute.”

Ranis has a strong relationship with the Anchorage Museum that began in 2013 with a two-month artist residency, during which he studied climate-displaced indigenous communities in western Alaska and began his Arctic Utopia project. More recently, he contributed to the museum’s exhibition, View From Up Here: The Arctic at the Center of the World, which ran May through October 2016.

To launch Cafuné, the Anchorage Museum hosted a cross-cultural event on April 7, inviting the public to contribute words to the lexicon. In the upcoming year, Ranis, Lomas, and the museum are planning a public art installation and a board game. Over the course of two or more years, they will develop a series of digital media platforms, including traditional and Virtual Reality videos and a computer game, as well as potential dance and theatre pieces. Each piece of the project will involve participation from the community.

While the activity is beginning in Alaska, Ranis envisions Cafuné as a global project, with the opportunity for participation in many different cities and communities.

“The goal of this effort is to positively enrich our emotional landscape by recognizing the richness and diversity of human experience defined by other than our own language,” he says. “Discovery of this new vocabulary might enhance our daily encounters with loved ones and strangers, giving us the ability to recognize and describe a much more nuanced environment of human relationships and emotions.”