The Ode to Translation or the Outcry Over the Untranslatable

The Ode to Translation or the Outcry Over the Untranslatable


Natalia Fedorova claims sees the future of electronic literature in translation: just as translation from her native Russian to English can teach us about both of those languages, translations between “natural languages” and “languages of code” can clarify what makes electronic language literary.

This series of short interventions were made at the “Futures of Electronic Literature” discussion at the bi-annual Electronic Literature Organization conference in 2012. Titled “Electrifying Literature: Affordances and Constraints,” the conference took place at West Virginia University in Morgantown on June 20th to June 23rd. The contributors were organized by Stephanie Strickland to offer suggestions on how to improve the organization as it attempts to re-define its mission in a shifting cultural, economic, and technological landscape. Ranging from the concrete to the poetic to the theoretical, the following nine short statements were made by a group of emerging artists, scholars, and practitioners from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.

My contribution to this discussion is going to be with a foreign accent and thus accentuating translation. The perspective changes indeed as one changes a geographical location. My shift teaches me that the lack of community is even worse than hurricane Sandy as I am flying to Edinburgh for ELMCIP Remediating the Social conference one day late due to the lack of funding opportunities for something neither known, nor understood, unlike all the participants for the United States who have arrived on time, despite the natural disaster. So here I want to ask how e-lit and its community can be translated into my native language – Russian. Another reason why I am touching on the topic of translation both in wide and narrow sense is that my last year at Trope Tank of Massachusetts Institute of Technology was devoted to e-lit translation project.

I believe that the future of the ELO is multilingual in terms of natural languages, otherwise there is considerably less future. Since translation is the breath of an alien voice in a given language and a way to step outside it and outside the local context.

Translation is the sign of life, it indicates both interest to the phenomenon on a global scale and the presence of the reader (or readers). Translated and translatable also means valuable – something not read in the original language will hardly go through the translation sieve.

Translation in case of electronic literature, written at least in two languages: a natural language and the language of code - is the translation of both. For this reason it has an immence educational potential and can be an and excellent exercise in the process of training to write on digital surfaces. Translation teaches both about the other language, about your own language, and about the work itself. Gregory Rabassa has stated (in his contribution to the Crafts of Translation) that “translation is essentially the closest reading one can give a text,” which suggests that the translation of a computational system to produce linguistic or narrative creativity would involve a very deep analysis and understanding of the system. John Zuern points out that paying attention to what happens “when we  translate (or don’t translate) electronic texts will lead to finer-grained insights into the relationship between “electronic” as a category and “literature” as a category”( Zuern, SLSA Presentation, September 2011). Just as literary translation allows for an extremely close reading and for new insights about a text, the translation of these text-machine electronic literature works allows for a better understanding of how they are literary and how computing and language come together in them.

For the sleeping e-lit on the Russian and post Soviet space the flow of translated works can be  a source of inspiration and a  possible way to gain  momentum for the future development. It is not only and not so much setting the standard but allowing to understand the paradigm, the way to know what has been done outside the world of Russian language and thought. 

Once the cognitive, pedagogic and promotional benefits are obvious, it is time to think about the possible solutions to help extend the inerlanguage circulation of e-literature. Certainly,  the role of ELMCIP Knowledge Base cannot be underestimated as it provides the opportunity for cross reference, and thus the dissemination and reviewing of  both  creative and critical works. Also the description passage in English helps open and create interest to multilingual e-writing practices.

However, the KB still doesn’t allow to engage with the wider literary community interested in translating and capable of it. In this respect Translating E-lit  conference at  Paris 8 is a significant leap forward. Seemingly perfect solution should be found in attracting grants for translation projects, making the translation conference annual and/or including a permanent panel on translation to the ELO. However,  it is only one side of the coin and it is equally, if not even more important, to promote this project outside the e-lit community, to make translated work a culturally significant practice by means of raising the media presence, holding festivals, public discussions, and exhibitions as well as other events for different target groups.

Natalia Fedorova holds a PhD from Herzen University (St-Petersburg, Russia). Currently Natalia is  back after her  one year  postdoctorate term at MIT Trope Tank to teaching experimental literature in Smolny Institute (St-Petersburg State University - Bard College) and editing of e-lit and new media writing column in Rattapallax magazine (NY).  


E-Lit Futures 2012 Forum: Next in Line Gorman