Lena Yokoyama uses illustration as a translation tool for intrinsic words or phrases

The revolution in Lena’s practice however was when she acquired her own Risograph printer in second year, not only allowing her the freedom to print, but begin an illustrative approach centring around “thinking and drawing in layers”, as she describes. Spending the next two years developing this technique, as well as hunkering down on the themes and subject matter she wished to present, Lena graduated with a tone of voice combining texture and beautifully loose line work, pushing the strict limits of Riso’s selective colour palette in her gradients. However this way of thinking isn’t just limited to Lena’s visual tendencies, with her final (and ever growing) project at Camberwell demonstrating how really, she not only thinks in layers aesthetically but contextually, too.
In Lena’s experience, there are instances where a word in one language simply doesn’t equal another, especially words that are “intrinsic to their culture” meaning “the finer nuances of their meanings cannot easily be contained in the words of another language,” she tells us. With words in this instance rendered slightly inadequate, Lena was led to wonder if illustration could offer a solution, creating Visual Translations as a result. A project that does exactly as its title describes, to begin each piece, Lena selected a Japanese word that embodies these aforementioned intrinsic qualities, before placing it through her own visual translation process.
Titled Visual Translations – and providing the focus for not only her final major project but dissertation too – the project largely centres around an ongoing collaboration between Lena and her father, Akio Yokoyama. The idea of utilising illustration as a tool for translation stems back much further than Lena’s time at university, with the illustrator explaining: “I should briefly mention the context leading up to this point.”
For example, the first word she chose was “MA 間” which loosely translates as to pause or in betweenness, “but its meaning is much more encompassing than that,” says Lena. With the word selected, the illustrator then wrote a brief for her father to carry out. On his next trip to Japan he was instructed to use an old point-and-shoot camera and snap away at anything he felt represented the word in question, “scenes that he, as a Japanese national, considered to represent ‘MA 間’,” explains Lena. To translate these photographs her father was then only allowed to describe them verbally, from which Lena has created her own illustrative translations. “It’s an experiment,” she points out, “to see whether the meaning of a concept can be preserved after putting it through several processes or renditions,” she says. “It’s similar to the game of silent post (or telephone/Chinese whispers).” The roll of film her father took remains in a drawer, ready to be developed once Lena feels “my visual translations are ready for it.”
To start with, both of Lena’s parents’ jobs revolve around language, her father being a translator of Japanese and her mum a German language teacher. “I had quite a diverse and multicultural upbringing and my family moved between a lot of different countries,” she continues. In turn, when confronted with her own language barriers “and the challenge of communicating my thoughts and feelings when words would fail me,” these experiences have led to a life-long fascination “of cross cultural communication,” the illustrator explains. “I see translation as an incredible art form which attempts to adequately convey concepts from one culture to another. Translation, I believe, acts as a bridge between languages, between worlds and between the tangible and intangible,” she says.
Despite always loving the act of drawing, it was by discovering printmaking that London-based Lena Yokoyama fell head-over-heels for illustration. Joining Camberwell College of Art’s course in 2016, “as cheesy as this might sound,” she tells It’s Nice That, “I knew from the beginning that I had found my passion.”