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

The recent Camberwell graduate’s practice sees her collaborate with her translator father to visually present untranslatable words.

26 February 2021


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.”

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Between Up and Down (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)

A project that leads viewers to thoughtfully consider the wider capabilities of words, especially in the illustrator’s want to use illustration to “allow this concept to become accessible to a wider audience,” Lena’s contemplativeness extends to her visuals too. Always beginning pieces with ink on paper, “where I let my lines go loose,” the illustrator seeks out spontaneity in her works “through quick and confident mark marking”. Unable to edit this hands-on approach, Lena also packs her pieces with information and narrative, “but at the same time I want to portray a sense of order, which takes some planning.” As a result if you look closely at her works you can see the ways in which Lena illustratively slots ideas together, filling corners or empty breaks with extra detail. Colouring then “ties everything together,” where again composition is carefully considered to make sure “colours repeat themselves evenly throughout the illustration, and that every detail is cared for.”

Then completing her works by running them through her Risograph printer, Lena’s work features only two or three colours. Variation occurs in her overlapping layers with grain-like detail being a quality she’s always hunting for. “Something my uni tutor once said is that the appeal for grain is linked to its suggestion of more halcyon days. I suppose I resonate with that thought,” she adds.

It’s here also that a Japanese influence makes its way back into the illustrator’s work, pointing out how the Japanese philosophy of Wabisabi “which is the art of seeing beauty in the imperfect, impermanent or incomplete”; a key influence. The hope in Lena’s practice is that by embracing imperfections in illustration it will have a knock on effect for a viewer, or the wider environment. “It expresses that humans don’t have to be perfect, permanent and complete either, not our looks, nor our being,” explains the illustrator. “This attitude takes a lot of pressure off life and lets you be you, express yourself freely and see beauty where it might be overlooked.”

Looking to the future, since graduating in the summer of 2020, Lena’s excitingly moving into a new studio in Peckham this month, setting up her freelance practice and continuing work with her collective Isshōō. “The Riso is coming with, of course,” she adds. To follow will be further work around and within the themes of “community, diversity and cross-cultural communication,” with many more collaborations with her dad to follow. Visual Translations will continue too, aiming towards an exhibition to showcase the final pieces, where Lena will finally open her father’s photographs in the last step of her growing illustration experiment.


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Between the Gaps of Society (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Between Godzilla's Teeth (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Labyrinth of the City (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Labyrinth of the City (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Shinkansen Commute (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Narumi Garden (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Private Room (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)


Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, photograph descriptions by Dad (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)

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Lena Yokoyama: Visual Translations, Changing Between Trains (Copyright © Lena Yokoyama, 2021)

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.


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