Agreeing that translation studies does well to address questions of transcoding, Nick Montfort further extends the project advocated by Maria Mencia, Soeren Pold, Manuel Portela (and our first respondent, Belgian Poet Laueate Jan Baetans). A look at explorations of the topic in early e-lit turns up longstanding interests in the translinguistic, transcreational, the metrical, material, and contextual. Montfort offers this itemization not just to enlarge a specific list and topology for translation studies, but to show that the concept of literary translation almost certainly needs to be exploded and reworked.
Mark Polizzotti, translator of more than fifty books, writes that “… much of the translation theory emerging from academe is simply of little use in either helping anyone understand what translation is, or, from a practical perspective, helping produce better translations. … Translation theory is one of the few disciplines in which the study of the subject seems bent on demonstrating the very subject's futility” (2018, p. 40).
I certainly did not approach Mencía, Pold, and Portela's essay with the skepticism that Polizzotti has for translation studies in general. My initial attitude was more the outlook that Jan Baetens seemed to have; he ended up proclaiming that “The essay by Mencía, Pold and Portela is then a crucial contribution to a new theory and practice of translation, one that's capable of taking into account a broader set of aspects and criteria that force us to reshape our very thinking of what translation is” (emphasis added).
As an enthusiast of electronic literature translation (and someone who has done it and written about it, with others), I was delighted to learn about this publication, the result of a major international research collaboration. The conclusion of Mencía, Pold, and Portela's article gets to a core issue in e-lit translation very well:
Because the translation of literary form – when understood as the translation of a patterned use of verbal language for poetic, narrative, or dramatic effect – already involves a layered set of relations and correlations among heterogeneous elements, digital layers (such as those implied in source code and multimodal instantiations of aesthetic forms) provide an additional constrained and patterned space for testing theories and practices of translation.
Theory is also not separated from practice in their project, as translators such as Polizzotti fear. The work is closely based on particular, practical case studies. Rather, there’s a gap (in the sense of the next Electronic Literature Organization Conference and Festival, “Mind the Gap”) because this research is separated from earlier research. As might be surprising to someone reading Baetens's riposte, this contribution to ebr overlooks significant previous research on electronic literature translation which has made many of the same points.
One New Aspect of E-Lit Translation
The essay presents four dimensions of e-lit translation, each of which is reasonable to consider and which certainly do interrelate. The only one specific to electronic literature, however, is what is called in this essay transcoding — simply put, the computational aspect, or how a particular digital text/machine functions and is implemented, from interface through function and code to platform. This point is clearly articulated by John Cayley in what is essentially the introduction to his “Grammalepsy: An Introduction,” in this same release of ebr, before he moves on to the main concept of that article:
... digital language art allowed aesthetically inclined language makers to embrace a compositional practice that is inextricably involved with digital media, including the computational modulation and generation of text. The making of certain linguistic artifacts, not only their presentation, not only their reading, cannot be achieved without digital media and digital affordances. (Cayley 2018)
As for the four dimensions named:
- Almost any translator, unless they choose the unusual direction of non-translation (Ormstad 2012), deals with what is named in this essay the translinguistic.
- Transcoding, as stated, represents a truly new dimension in electronic literature and digital translation. We know it under a different name, though, and it has been studied already.
- Those who translate sound and visual poetry also necessarily deal with the so-called transmedial and recognize it as a dimension of translation. To be clear, attention to sonic and/or visual properties does not particularly mean carrying them across to the other side (trans+latus). A sound poem translated to another language must attend to sonic qualities, but that does not mean it will always, or usually, become a visual poem rather than a sound poem. The trans- prefix shouldn't fool us here; it likely shouldn't be used, as going “across” is not requisite.
- Many translators have wrestled with the transcreational by trying to re-create a work by imitating poetic principles and techniques. To take one interesting but fairly straightforward example, George Perec's description of everything he could see and write down in a Parisian square in Tentative d'épuisement d’un lieu parisien was re-created, rather than translated, as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in London by Penlington and Lester in 2015. The term “transcreation” is, as Mencía et. al note, due to Haroldo de Campos, although he used it as a complete theory and practice of translation and not as one dimension, much as Jerome Rothenberg did with his similar “total translation” (Furr 2017).
That said, let’s add a few other true dimensions, to show that there are yet others within whatever we consider “total.”
- Metrical. In a great deal of poetry there is certainly the metrical aspect. For instance, the dactylic hexameter of Greek and Latin epics is traditionally set in iambic pentameter in English, but other alternatives are possible and have been used. Using this English meter when translating would be a transmetrical move, but sometimes we might keep the metrical properties of a Japanese haiku, attending to the meter but not changing it. Since this can be varied independently of language, we should recognize it as a different dimension, and one which a translator can move "across" or not.
- Material. Perhaps the previous dimension applies only to a specific type of poetry, or perhaps there are structural analogs in other literary forms. But the material aspect, as distinct from the medial, would seem to clearly be present in all sorts of literary work. This aspect can be as quotidian as the issuing of a traditional text, for instance a collection of poems, in hardback, paperback, and e-book format. Attention to the Polish context of literary production and translation, and particularly noticing the concept of Liberature (Fajfer 2010, Bazarnik 2018), would make this aspect immediately evident.
- Contextual. There are indeed contextual or framing aspects apart from the material ones just discussed. These would cover the difference between Jenny Holzer's Inflammatory Essays as wheatpasted onto public surfaces in New York City, 1979–1982, and the tidy, costly edition of 100, materially essentially the same, that was produced for collectors in 2002 by Artpsace. A digital example would be encountering Porpentine’s Twine games for the first time either through the online IF Comp, amid many popularly-contributed parser and Twine games, or (still on a computer, still using a browser) at the Whitney Biennial.
It would be possible to keep enumerating more of these aspects — but, again, the ones I have just introduced, along with three of the four mentioned introduced by Mencía, Pold, and Portela, are not specific to electronic literature at all. My real point here is not to enlarge a specific list and to establish my own typology, but to show that these dimensions almost certainly need to be exploded and reworked. That said, it is better to focus, particularly in a short response, on what work has been done that deals with translating the computational aspect of e-lit and its relationship to whatever other dimensions there are.
Translation Research on the Computational Aspect
The essay's authors of course focus on the translation projects with which they are familiar. But broadening their scope a bit, especially given the scale of their international research collaboration, would have been very productive. For instance, the authors pursue the hypothetical question of how Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story should be translated if it were to be made into a French iPhone app. Understanding that the research team likely did not have Polish or Italian members, it seems that it would be more useful to consider how this work has actually been translated into Polish and ported to XML (Pisarski 2012) and how it has actually been translated to Italian and published with another work in book and disk form (Pizzichini and Carassai 2010). Why imagine the hypothetical when the actual has been done and can be studied?
Baetens’s extensive praise lands, at the end of his riposte, by naming this accomplishment of the essay: “the shift from product to process, which radically reframes translation as translating: i.e., as a culturally and historically situated practice that remains endlessly open to change and reinvention.”
As an extremely accomplished scholar but not a typical denizen of e-lit and e-lit translation conferences, Baetens can perhaps be excused for overlooking that the shift he references, this radical reframing, occurred years ago. Discussion of the translation process (not product) has long dominated in electronic literature contexts. There are several ways of thinking about translation processes; there are sociological processes along with computational processes that run and can be killed when they take too much CPU time, for instance. But to get down to the basic sense of process versus product, e-lit research has been focused not on examining translations as texts, but considering how translating is done. See, for example (Pressman 2007, Montfort and Fedorova 2012, Ormstad 2012, Pisarski and Olesińska 2013, Carpenter 2014, Pressman 2014, Małecka and Marecki 2014, Cayley 2015, Flores 2015, Molina 2015, Marecki and Małecka 2016, Florence 2017, Marecki and Montfort 2017, Małecka and Marecki 2018). Translation research on e-lit and related issues is also found in the special issue of Amodern ("Translation — Machination," edited by Christine Mitchell and Rita Raley) that was published in January 2018 and features eleven articles.
Of that long list, is easier to note which of these discussions do not happen to focus on the computational aspects of e-lit (Ormstad 2012, Cayley 2015, Marecki and Małecka 2016, Florence 2017) than to enumerate the discussions that deal with this aspect substantially. Those three discussions are, however, also compelling; for instance, Marecki and Małecka (2016) take up Rothenberg's term "total translation" to embrace audiovisual aspects of the work C()n Du It and comment on the impossibility of translation in so-called "abusive" subtitles that are added to the translated work.
Much of the work I have just cited is from the people who did the translating, discussing their own process — it too was practice-based research. But one does not have to speak from the standpoint of one's own translation practice to provide insights about the translation process. Jessica Pressman, whose work is the earliest citation on my list above, had already pointed out, in 2014, exactly how studying e-lit (and specifically, cross-language e-lit) has compelled the shift that Baetens declares is now a radical reframing:
Here is where a focus on electronic literature can support a disciplinary paradigm shift. What the works of Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries … and other digital writers actually show is that electronic literature pushes comparative analysis to move from text to process, from translation to series of translation acts, from work to network.
Pressman continues, with a perspective that includes more of the sorts of dimensions (such as the contextual) that I have mentioned above:
Digital literature promotes a shift from focusing on objects (a work, a text, a narrative ) to focusing on processes, institutions, protocols, and relationships. How can onscreen poetics be separated from programming codes or the specificities of software versions and hardware configurations? How can we consider national, linguistic, and genre questions without considering how corporate and technological factors enable (or disable) literary aesthetics?
The interrelation of code and linguistic aspects was discussed by Montfort and Fedorova (2012) in a survey of several translation projects. We found here, for instance, that “word-level text generating machines involve significant engagement between the language and computation, engagement which is revealed in the process of translation. Preserving the meaning involves both changes in code and sentence construction.” In a case study of the translation of “Speeches” (in Polish, “Przemówienia”), a type-in program from a 1993 issue of the Polish Amiga magazine, Marecki and I described how we approached porting, one part of dealing with a work's computational aspects:
The translation of a digital work is not only a matter of language but also requires awareness of the code and the platform for which it was designed. Especially in the case of older works, the translator has to consider porting the work to a platform more accessible to the contemporary reader.
In this case, we sought to take into account the layered model of platform studies (Bogost and Montfort 2009) that allows a more detailed theoretical engagement with the one new dimension, the computational dimension, of electronic literature. Specifically, this model distinguishes reception, interface, form/function, code, and platform levels, explaining how each interrelate ant that context is connected to each. As Pressman did, we also discussed how the translation process for electronic literature specifically intersects with other contextual issues:
In traditional works, the translator is often invisible, a background figure, sometimes subtly credited or even not mentioned at all. In the case of digital works, the translator becomes visible, an ambassador of the work, often explaining its mechanism and the translation process. They quite frequently act as the editor of the work (also in terms of deciding about the target platform and mode of presentation), or even its agent (presentations at festivals, etc.). (Marecki and Montfort 2017)
By investigating this, we, along with others, are beginning to uncover how electronic literature typically is framed within its own contexts. Such study could certainly extend to the economic and social contexts of translation. While the computational aspect is inherently different in electronic literature, the role of the translator and the way translations circulate also happen to be quite different than with traditional literature.
We clearly can theorize and study translation by basing it on practice, as this recent essay and many previous discussions have shown. The way those in the electronic literature field undertake translation studies can also ensure that it is relevant to practice — for instance, by highlighting aspects that might be otherwise overlooked, or by looking within a particular aspect (the computational one, the contextual one) in detail and offering insight on how to cross platforms, change programming languages, move between page and screen, and shift from a realm of publisher-backed paid translation to the experimental and provocative translation being done in electronic literature.
. . .
I appreciate, and anyone interested in electronic literature should appreciate, what Mencía, Pold, and Portela have offered in their essay. I was compelled to submit this reply, however, lest readers should imagine that the essay marks “Electronic Literature Translation, Year One.” 1My reference is to the title of Espen Aarseth’s editorial in the first issue of Game Studies: “Computer Game Studies, Year One.” Let’s remember that an international conference on translating e-lit took place June 12–14, 2012 in Paris, hosted at Université of Paris 8. At the ELO conference in Paris the next year, the translation of electronic literature was indicated as a topic of interest, and proposals on the subject were specifically welcomed. There had been significant previous e-lit translation activity and some research into the topic before these events, too. We in electronic literature are not suffering from a division between theory and practice, as Polizzotti and others fear is always the case with translation studies. We have good scholarship discussing, in detail, the interrelation of many aspects of electronic literature with the essential new one, the computational aspect. Let’s keep this work in mind, and — since there is plenty more to do — keep building on it.2I am grateful to Aleksandra Małecka and Stephanie Strickland for offering comments —usefully and quickly! — on this article in draft form. The stance here is my own, however, as are any mistakes I have made.
Baetens, Jan. “Creating New Constraints: Toward a Theory of Writing as Digital Translation.” Electronic Book Review (ebr), July 1, 2018. https://electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/trans-procedural
Bazarnik. Katarzyna. Liberature: A Book-Bound Genre. Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press, 2018.
Carpenter, J.R. “Translation, transmutation, transmediation and transmission in TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE].” Presentation at Translating E-Literature, Université of Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, June 12-14, 2012. Abstract at http://elmcip.net/node/4245
Cayley, John. "Beginning with 'the Image' in How It Is When Translating Certain Processes of Digital Language Art," Electronic Book Review (ebr), March 1, 2015. http://electronicbookreview.co
Cayley, John. "Grammalepsey: An Introduction," Electronic Book Review (ebr), August 5, 2018. http://electronicbookreview.co
Fajfer, Zenon. Liberature or Total Literature: Collected essays 1999–2009. Trans. and ed. Katarzyna Bazarnik. Bound back-to-back with Liberatura czyli literatura totalna: Teksty zebrane z lat 1999–2009. Kraków: Korporacja Ha!art, 2010.
Florence, Penny. “Translating the Untranslatable.” Presentation at Electronic Literature Organization 2017: Affiliations, Translations, Communities (ELO 2017), Porto, July 19–22, 2017. Abstract at htts://elmcip.net/node/12197
Flores, Leonardo. “About my Spanish Translation of ‘Enigma n.”” Leonardo Flores (blog). February 28, 2015. http://leonardoflores.net/blog/about-my-spanish-translation-of-enigma-n/
Furr, Derek. “Total translation: Navajo song and the story of US modernism.” Jacket2. May 2, 2017 http://jacket2.org/article/total-translation
Małecka, Aleksandra and Piotr Marecki. “Hyper-constrained: Translating Nick Montfort's textual generators.” Word and Text 4: 83-97, 2014.
Małecka, Aleksandra and Piotr Marecki. “Literary Experiments with Automatic Translation: A Case Study of a Creative Experiment Involving King Ubu and Google Translate.” In the Fringes of Literature and Digital Media Culture: Perspectives from Eastern and Western Europe, ed. B. Kalla, Leiden, 2018.
Marecki, Piotr and Aleksandra Małecka. “C()n Du It by Katarzyna Giełżyńska : a case of a total translation of an electronic literature work,” Miranda 12: 1-14, 2016. http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/8371
Marecki, Piotr, and Nick Montfort. “Renderings: Translating literary works in the digital age.” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 32.suppl_1: i84-i91, 2017. https://academic.oup.com/dsh/article-pdf/32/suppl\_1/i84/17751533/fqx010.pdf
Mencía, Maria, Søren Bro Pold, and Manuel Portela. “Electronic Literature Translation: Translation as Process, Experience and Mediation.” Electronic Book Review (ebr), June 30, 2018. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/translative
Molina, José. “Translating E-Poetry: Still Avant-Garde.” Presentation at Electronic Literature Organization 2015: The End(s) of Electronic Literature, 2015. Abstract at https://elmcip.net/node/11072
Montfort, Nick and Natalia Fedorova. "Carrying across Language and Code." Trope Tank technical report TROPE-12-04, July 2012. http://nickm.com/trope\_tank/TROPE-12-04.pdf
Ormstad, Ottar. "Non-Translation as Poetic Experience." Presentation at Translating E-Literature, Université of Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, June 12-14, 2012. Abstract at http://elmcip.net/node/4240
Penlington, Nathan and Sarah Lester, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in London. London: Burning Eye Books, 2015.
Pisarski, Mariusz. “From Storyspace to Browsers. Translating Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story into Polish.” Talk at Translating E-Literature, Université Paris 8, Vincennes-Saint-Denis, June 12-14, 2012. Abstract at https://web.archive.org/web/20150328032142/http://www.bibliotheque-numerique-paris8.fr/fre/notices/168453-From -Storyspace -to -Browsers-Translating-afternoon-a-story-into-Polish-.html
Pisarski, Mariusz and Monika Górska Olesińska. “On the Polish Translation of Sea and Spar Between.” Presentation at Electronic Literature Organization 2013: Chercher le texte, Paris, September 23–29, 2013. https://elmcip.net/sites/default/files/media/critical_writing/attachments/gorska-olesinska_monika_and_pisarski_mariusz_on_polish_translation_of_sea_and_spar_between-maly-ilovepdf-compressed_0.pdf
Pizzichini, Paola and Mauro Carassai. “E-lit Context as Records Continuum: The ‘lost’ Michael Joyce's afternoon Italian Edition and the Archival Perspective.” Talk at Electronic Literature Organization 2010: Archive & Innovate, Brown University, 2010. Abstract at https://elmcip.net/node/6935
Polizzotti, Mark. Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2018.
Pressman, Jessica. “Reading the Code between the Words: The Role of Translation in Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries's Nippon.” Dichtung Digital, 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20110127195928/http://dichtung-digital.mewi.unibas.ch/2007/Pressman/Pressman.htm
Pressman, Jessica. “Electronic Literature as Comparative Literature.” ACLA State of the Discipline Report, 2014. http://stateofthediscipline.acla.org/entry/electronic-literature-comparative-literature-0