'Or Maybe Something Like That'... A solo fine art photography project using Google Translate

I recently came across the opportunity to explore the usage of my own name and specifically what it means in other languages. A couple of months ago I was composing an email to somebody in Italy. I decided to be polite and use Google Translate so that I could send the message in Italian. I know that Google Translate isn't perfect, so I decided – despite not speaking the language – to proof-read the resulting text just to make sure that it appeared broadly correct.
When I reached the end of the document, I realised that I had left my name Rick in the sign-off at the end and this too had been translated; to pagliaio. With my curiosity peaked by this unfamiliar word, I reversed it through Google and found that it meant haystack. I forgot about this for a few weeks until I found myself translating another message into French. This time Rick had become meule which meant grinding wheel. The germ of an idea formed. I was hooked and I began to explore what my name translated to in every language available in Google, all 90 of them, until I had a database of words to work from.
The project
My full name is Richard Alexander Reddyoff (Rick for short), so I translated each name to see what came out. In most cases, Rick was the only name that had a result, except for Arabic which translated Richard as Palestine and Khmer which decided that Richard, Rick and Alexander all deserved to have the prefix lok added to them; so lok Richard, lok Alexander. Translation: Mr Richard, Mr Alexander. Khmer is obviously a very polite language.
On the whole, they came out with agricultural references, or spoke of sprains and strains, which I attribute to these dictionary sources:
noun noun: rick; plural noun: ricks
a stack of hay, corn, straw, or similar material, especially one formerly built into a regular shape and thatched.
noun noun: rick; plural noun: ricks
a slight sprain or strain, especially in a person's neck or back.
Now I had a list. I'm a photographer, so obviously (and in the spirit of the experiment) I had to 'translate' these into images. For years, I have been a fan of the American photographer and filmmaker Jem Cohen. In his film Lost Book Found, a seemingly unconnected string of words (the 'voice' of the titular book) is set to filmed images that bear a loose resemblance to the dialogue being spoken. Clearly this was the way to move forward, so I set about creating a group of pictures with an indirect link to the resultant word. Thus, meule - or grinding wheel - becomes an image where I draw a circle with a piece of chalk: the abrasive act of drawing with the chalk becomes grinding, the circle is the wheel. Just as your brain might make you think a 'skunk flower' wouldn't smell as sweet as a rose (even if it's the same thing), my creative process made me turn the meaning of a grinding wheel into something similar, but not the same. I'm changing the expectation of what the title means into an altogether different creature.
In my images, my name has undergone a translation not once, not twice, but four times; first into another language, then back into English, then into an interpretation of the word and finally into another medium altogether: the photograph itself. It loses a little information with each translation, but also gains layers and extra meaning. What am I learning from this? When I started, I didn't even know that 'rick' in English meant a sprain or strain. How this passed me by, I'll never know, but I've since heard people using this in regular conversation and even once used to describe a mistake (something at which I'll admit I initially took a slight offence). So the act of creating these images has made me think more closely about not only identity, but the usage of speech itself and, as I delve deeper into the meaning of words, I'm gaining a deeper appreciation of the complexity of language, their shared origins and the threads that connect them.
A couple of weeks after embarking on this project, I was given the perfect title for the series. Sat in the sunshine one weekend afternoon, I received a random text message from an unknown number. It said only: A może coś takiego?
Putting this through Google Translate, I discovered that it is Polish and means: 'or maybe something like that?'
Which, given that the whole project revolves around approximate translations, seems incredibly appropriate, don't you think?

The image attached is from a translation of my name into Croatian and means 'Cloak'. So I interpreted it in the loosest sense possible; to cloak or conceal. All done in camera, just a simple visual trick put to good effect.

Team Credits

Rick Reddyoff

  • Message
  • Photographer

Project Tags

  • Fine Art
  • photography
  • director
  • Designer
  • concept art
  • Translation
  • google translate
  • Google
  • Props
  • Set Design