Parsing Puns, Politics and Power: Bailey Pekar reflects on her internship research project

As Block Museum 2020-2021 intern Bailey Pekar completes her research with us she shares more about the work that she has undertaken this year and how it is informing her own work as a journalist.

The Block has a collection of 367 Daumier lithographs. About 107 of those are missing English translations and 166 of them have incomplete translations. Daumier is a French artist of the 19th century. He is known mostly for his lithography, which was published in newspapers on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. He also was a painter, although that’s not as well-known as his lithography, and he’s particularly known for his political satire and caricature.

In our digital collection, a significant amount of prints are missing the translations, or the translations are incomplete and are missing some of the wordplay and puns, which is a notable part of his work. I set out to improve these records. Throughout this process, I really leaned on the Daumier Register and Brandeis Institutional Repository for their research on the French translations. These were great resources and offered thorough research on these prints.

Here I have an example that’s one of my favorites. It translates to “The German astronomer releasing a famous rumor,” but in French rumor can also be translated as duck. So he’s got this little cage of ducks and he’s releasing them onto the world. The translation is essential to understanding the image.

For this example, both sources agreed that the translation should be, “Parisiens already taking their precautions to avoid being roasted by the comets.” This was a comet predicted by German astronomers and of course, the humorous “precautions” are jumping into the Seine and staying cool! I was able to correct our museum records to add the English title.

In other cases, there were a slight differences between the possible translations. Here the Daumier Register says, “Still more Venuses this year… always Venuses!… as if there were any women built like that.” Of course, in reference to all of the drawings in the salon.

The Brandeis resource said, “This year again Venus, always Venus!… as if there were women built like that.”

We really took these options on a case-by-case, basis seeing which one is more fluent in English, and also what’s closer to the original French translation.

In some cases, there really wasn’t agreement on the translation.

For this work the Register reads “Having found a seat after ten desperate attempts to board the train, a first tender feeling of holiday relaxation emerges.

And then Brandeis on the other hand says, “When after ten unsuccessful attempts, one finally gains a place in the car, one experiences an initial and very great joy.”

Here the Brandeis is the one that we’re going to use in our database. For the public it’s really helpful to have these full translations for ease of searching, and for purposes of teaching and accessibility.

Following this project, I was inspired to take one of Daumier’s most famous prints for my Collection Spotlight blog post, which I had a great time writing. I chose the Rue Transnonain, April 15, 1834, a powerful political image.

Looking at the Rue Transnonain in context of works like these, which have a very humorous and satirical edge, its just a testament to the power of images overall. I’m a student in the Medill School of Journalism and we’re taught early on how much storytelling can be visual and the usage of photography in telling our stories. It’s interesting to come to a piece of art with that sort of concept in mind, and it really shifts the way that you look at it.

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