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Amodern 8: Translation–Machination
January 2018


John Cayley

Let’s agree to call the operative aggregation of material culture and technology technics. Language making and, in particular, aesthetic language making, across all natural languages, is always and of necessity implicated, historically and specifically, with applicable technics, obvious examples being the material culture of the book and technologies of print. Technics are co-constitutive of linguistic artifacts and are compositionally significant for language makers. In all of what follows, readers should take such statements as applying, even-handedly, to what one may characterize as “productive” and “receptive” manifestations of linguistic practice as a whole, in the present context: writing and reading. However, the following arguments should also be read in the light of grammatology. What I say about writing, in the abstract, may be applied to speaking (vocal inscription); and when I discuss reading, in terms of a philosophy of language, this may be taken to apply to hearing-understanding. Distinctions made between writing/reading, on the one hand, and speaking/hearing, on the other, should be understood, precisely, with respect to technics. They are not pertinent to the linguistic ontology of a particular artifact.

It’s important for me to set out my understanding of these terms at the outset for at least two reasons. Practices of translation require us to give more or less equal consideration to linguistic “reception” and “production.” The translator is both reader and writer. So is the original writer, of course, but translation’s insistence on some kind of equivalence or regular relationship between what is read and what is written in the processes of translation brings home the requirement to give due consideration to the technics of both reception and production. A translation represents a reading; then, both subsequently and concurrently, it becomes a piece of writing that makes this reading manifest in a form, the distinguishing characteristic of which – as translation – is that it should be in a natural language different from the language of the reading. However, what I am calling the technics of the reading (and writing) in one language and the technics of writing (and reading) in another need not be distinguished in the same way or even with any direct reference to the ways in which the languages are distinguished.

My second explicit reason for setting out certain terms in the way that I have concerns the technics of reading and writing in their contemporary, historical moment. Since the mid 1990s there has been a bewildering proliferation of devices and platforms for the support of linguistic practices. The advent of the Mosaic Netscape web browser in 1994, for instance, is a relatively recent milestone. We still read and write, but we do so differently, in large measure, due to contemporary differences in technics. Moreover, the concurrent proliferation and popularization of user-programmable devices that are implicated in the reception and production of language have led to what are, arguably, entirely novel reconfigurations of technics and language in terms of ownership and control with respect to both production and reception. With new technologies and a wild diversity of material cultural forms, the contemporary writer may bring technics into play as an aspect of composition to an extent and with effects that would have been all but inconceivable in the first half of the twentieth century. A number of writers have composed work in precisely this manner and, in the academic world, there is a well-established field, usually referred to as that of electronic or digital literature, that is devoted to the theory and critique of such practices of aesthetic language making.1 The reception – the reading – of any work in this field must, clearly, make specific, particular, and interpretively significant reference to any and all technics that have been deployed in the processes of its composition and dissemination.

As a reader and writer of aesthetic language of this stamp, implicated with technics that are no longer even “new,” I have direct, personal experience of these circumstances. Since well before the mid 1990s I have used a variety of hardware and software systems and platforms to make chiefly poetic work for which I claim, explicitly, the compositional significance of specific technologies and material cultural supports. Moreover, I have deployed technics in my work to the extent that a considerable proportion of what I have made – from the late 1980s up until the mid 2000s – is currently unreadable, not because its compositional principles are inherently opaque, but because certain specific technologies in which I chose to express these principles have become, effectively, obsolete. Now, let us say that I believed that one or another work from this period and in this condition was deserving of translation into a natural language other than English. At the very least, there would have to be some attempt to engineer, technically, a reading of the work that would form some part of the reading that is an initial and fundamental process in what might then become a conventional practice of translation. My point is that this reading-as-(re-)engineering, this reading as an address to specific technics, is simply an ineluctable aspect of reading itself, of all reading. As we acknowledged at the outset: writing is implicated with technics; reading is implicated with technics. Translation, as requiring – explicitly and in practice – both reception and production, confronts the problematic interrelationship of language and technics in a doubled sense, facing both ways on the horizon of two (or more) natural languages. When proposed as translatable or otherwise made subject to translation, language-making that engages with technics explicitly and that makes a plausible claim as to its compositional and therefore interpretive significance, realizes these redoubled circumstances in actual technologies and specific material cultural forms. A translator must, at least, work with technics to read the work and, when passing on to the productive phase of translation, must, at least, consider whether to realize a corresponding technics associated with the host language to which the translation is addressed.2

Theorists, critics, and practitioners of digital literatures have recently begun to engage with the problems of translation in actual practices specific to their media.3 Linguistically applicable technics associated with networked and programmable media have been deployed throughout most of the distinct language communities in the developed and developing world for some decades now. Certain readers and writers in these communities have subscribed to the project of digital literature and have made linguistic artifacts within their own languages, innovating and experimenting while, occasionally, sharing technics that cross natural linguistic horizons. Even in less specialist circumstances, nearly all of us encounter multilingual websites, for example. Conventional translation addresses the content of these web pages where the technics of, essentially, literary print culture are embedded within the historically more recent technics of hypertext. As an aspect of an encompassing practice of translation, however, the interlingual translation of hypertextual technics is the kind of problem that software engineers characterize as “trivial.” The technology and material culture of hypertext is more or less “the same” – or at least isomorphic – across natural languages, particularly languages with similar, alphabetic, systems of graphic inscription.

Not all technics that may be applied to the composition and delivery of linguistic artifacts will have as little effect as hypertext on the linguistic forms – exemplified, on the web, by “pages” of text – that are characteristic of literary print culture. In fact, of course, hypertext does “break” or transform the typical dynamics (or traversal functions) of the textuality with which we are most familiar in the culture of reading.4 How and when one moves on in one’s reading changes from “turning the page” to “clicking through” and this is not necessarily a “trivial” change, especially if it is considered an aspect of textual dynamics with some potential for compositional and interpretive traction. Computational technics can clearly offer us a time-based, dynamic textuality, including one that is not (entirely) in the reader’s control. If a screen presents us with text page by page, little may have changed in our culture of reading; but if a screen presents a literary artifact sentence by sentence, this may have appreciable stylistic implications in literary critical terms. If a text is presented phrase by phrase – in fragments shorter and less “complete” than the sentence – then grammatical considerations gain purchase on our processes of reading, and we may experience interruptions to both our grammatical and stylistic expectations.

A change in textual temporality and dynamics that is a function of technics is merely one of an indeterminate and large number of circumstances that might, potentially, affect the culture of reading. My point is that if any such change affecting reading at the level of natural linguistic structure has grammatical consequences, this will have consequential effects for the type of reading that is constitutive of translation. Specifically, in my example, if a translator must read a dynamic text phrase by phrase and encounters grammatical interruption or dissonance (in English, say), then how and when should the translator encapsulate or resolve this interruption or dissonance and translate it for a language (French, for example) that has a distinct grammar and therefore a distinct experience of grammatical interruption and dissonance?

This is precisely the kind of problem that brings us to consider a “translation of process.” In the example above, to experience, while reading in one language, a grammatical interruption or dissonance, and then to resolve, reproduce, or to discount this experience by means of expression in another natural language – that is, to translate – would involve a translation of process. By “process” I mean, in the case of the writer, chiefly: a compositional engagement with technics that reconfigures or reforms the linguistic artifact in such a way as to enable readings that are significantly or affectively distinct. When it comes to the translator, there is, firstly, an encounter with language and with process through the kind of charged and directed reading that the translator undertakes, and then an obligation, somehow, to incorporate any process that may have been encountered in the actual production of their translation. Semantic and lexical incommensurabilities and niceties plague the adequacy of conventional – print literary – translation, often highlighting those areas of practice that allow us to distinguish better translation from worse. The technics of these processes are encapsulated within the forms and institutions of print literacy. When less internalized technics transform or deform linguistic artifacts so as to allow distinct readings, processes are exposed. When readings break rules or conventions, the exposure is startling. When translation is the linguistic practice that concerns us, technics-as-process applied, however aesthetically, in one language, will usually – and certainly if not “translated” – lead to rule-breaking in another, typically at the level of grammar. Attending carefully to certain translations should, therefore, serve as a good way to expose and elaborate the role of process in linguistic reception and production generally.

This is the intention of the second part of this essay: to attend carefully to a number of literary artifacts for which process has been compositionally significant and affective, and which have also been subject to published translation in at least one other language. The chosen artifacts will not, however, be examples of work that apply contemporary, digital, programmable, networked, or computational technics. The first part, however, outlines a series of rubrics that have emerged from my own practice and field of study, and my reflection on that work. Specifically, I have in mind examples I regard as instances of language art in which process is – to use a pointed, skeuomorphic metaphor – literalized, and also, at least partially, inscribed in or as actual programs, programs which, although machine-addressed, may also be human-readable and so provide material interpretive context for any actual text-to-be-read.5 I have discussed and “attended carefully” to my own work in an essay from 2015.6 It is from that study that I extract a number of rubrics that may be thought of as conditions and contexts of non-correspondence, that is, conditions or contexts that tend to induce or bring to light potential dissonances of significance and affect.

When attending to work with which I was associated as maker or collaborative maker, I first noted two variable properties that are arguably attributable to all texts – and perhaps all aesthetic artifacts—and that are associated with the moral rights that are sometimes accounted for in copyright law. These are:

1. Integrity, and
2. Association.

If these properties of a text are uncertain, indeterminate, or complex, this may prove to be a function of process – the application of technics – and it will certainly problematize and ramify any further application of process to the linguistic artifact, one such further potentially applicable process being, of course, translation.

I then noted two more variable properties that might, optionally, be attributed to a linguistic artifact as a function of its composition:

3. Conceptualism, and
4. Algorithm.

Arguably, it is only in the recent history of literary criticism that “Conceptual Writing” –  conceptualism in literature and language art – has come to be acknowledged as a significant category.7 Conceptual understandings of linguistic form, however, may be discovered and articulated in most self-conscious aesthetic linguistic practice, as when certain prosodic formalisms are associated with conceptions of “the lyric” such that, for example, English quatrains with short lines are accounted lyrical, and the poet may fill this prosodic form in order that in itself – conceptually – a poem expresses “lyric.” Justified by a concept – whether this is in terms of contemporary allegorical abstraction, or because of traditional formal associations – the writer composes in the lights or within the constraints of a linguistically transformative process. Conceptualism brings process to the fore with respect to composition and dissemination.

Naming my fourth rubric “algorithm” was a function of its context in my earlier essay. Writing in programmable media literalizes process as algorithm. In the present context “algorithm” might be understood as a regular procedure without any need for the constituents of this procedure (e.g. structured lists of operations) to have been explicitly recorded (e.g. as a program) and addressed to an actual generative machine. Or, to simplify, we might simply replace this rubric with “process” itself or, rather:

4. Explicit process.

In any case, the authors of certain linguistic artifacts will acknowledge explicitly that they have used processes, that is, regular procedures associated with applicable technics, over and above those processes that are conventionally internalized, for the composition of certain works. When this property is discovered in a linguistic artifact, there may be consequences for many aspects of linguistic form: style, grammar, punctuation, orthography, and any or all facets of poetics in general. When the work is translated, further ineluctable consequences ensue.

The activities associated with language – writing and reading in grammatological terms – are human activities that help to define us, in the most fundamental sense, as what we are, collectively and individually. And yet, typically and for the most part, these activities unfold – without impugning our humanity – encapsulated within singular instances of particular natural languages. Monolingualism does not render anyone a lesser human, at least not qualitatively.8 Those activities which are integral to our full animality – how we move, for instance – are materially the same across all human communities, whereas our linguistic activities are not. We translate in order to try and reestablish this “sameness” across linguistically distinct human communities, to reintegrate our definitive cultural practices of language with an understanding that this should be shared by all who share our species-being. But there is no requirement to translate for us to be fully realized as human persons or language makers.

Translation is therefore a special and privileged process – privileged with regard to a global humanist project designed to share something that we feel obliged, but not required, to share – a process that may be applied to linguistic artifacts, optionally. In the domain of language, it is, I would argue, a model for all process, in senses for which I am developing the use of this word. Once applied, notice that translation immediately invokes substantive complication under all of the rubrics outlined above:

1. Integrity: The work of the source or, preferably, “guest” language is appropriated and “doubled” in the target or, preferably, “host” language. What are the relations between the two linguistic artifacts? The morally and legally pertinent relations? Are these artifacts now parts of some greater integral whole which is perhaps capable of impugning the “integrity” of the “original?”

2. Association: There is at least one other writer in the mix. How should they be acknowledged? With which constituents of the linguistic manifold should they be associated? Does the translator, for example, “own” a right of association with their guest reading of the work that they are hosting? With the hosted double?

3. Conceptualism: What is the thinking on translation – individual or collective – within the host linguistic culture, or as underlying the translator’s particular project?

4. Explicit process: Can we articulate any of these processes of translation? Recursively, with respect to processes that are implicated in linguistic composition as a whole?

In the earlier essay, I went on to identify three more rubrics categorizing significant and affective linguistic phenomena that are brought into relief when linguistic artifacts composed with respect to process are confronted further with special processes of translation. What do I mean by “brought into relief”? We have established what is already intuitive: that process will transform, reform, or deform the linguistic artifacts to which it is applied. If, however, after the fact, we are simply presented with a text-to-be-read in our own language, within our monolingualism, with no explicit statement of process, and if questions of integrity, association, and concept are considered resolved, then the work presents itself to us as, simply, an original linguistic artifact, more or less strange. We might translate it, conventionally, as such. If we do so, it seems intuitively likely both that any actual process that had been involved during its composition in our own language will be concealed or removed in the version we make, or host, and also that any “strangeness” that our conventional translation may evoke in the host language will have nothing to do with any “strangeness” that we experienced during our guest, or translator’s, reading.

In practice, the translator works to bring into relief any and all appreciable “strangeness” or peculiarities of form that are readable in the object of their attention. The translator works to recover the processes of composition, both internalized and explicit, with respect to the text. Typically, the translator is also a guest in what I am designating the guest language (commonly, the “original” or “source” language). Their “first” language is, typically, the host. Having discovered, or having been informed of significant and affective process in the guest language, the translator learns to articulate corresponding processes in their own, the host language, often performing, to achieve this, as a kind of expert in the expressive potentialities of the host. They may not be experts or artists in any other articulable sense, but one may reasonably expect the translator to be conversant with the grammars of both guest and host languages. If one thinks of grammar and syntax as being processes operating distinctly in distinct natural languages, then the way of regarding translation attempted here and what it “brings into relief” may become easier to express. Within a system, processes may interfere with the operation of other, separately motivated processes. Prosody interferes with grammar and brings grammar “into relief.” All this is to say that grammar plays a crucial role in highlighting what I call procedurally induced significant and affective dissonance across languages. The remaining rubrics provide a simple categorization of these dissonances:

5. Procedurally induced local dissonance: differences of natural linguistic form, typically grammatical, that are local to host and guest languages, some part of their local linguistic systems, and that may be remarked comparatively; and

6. Procedurally induced global dissonance: differences of contextual and referential relation between particular languages – host or guest – and linguistic culture, globally considered.9

The final rubric is simply the bald fact of:

7. Procedurally induced natural linguistic non-correspondence or divergence: in host and guest versions despite their being proposed as correspondent, subsequent to practices of translation that are attentive to process, both receptively and productively.

In the following second part of this essay, I examine particular examples of aesthetic linguistic artifacts composed with reference to processes that have either already been made explicit by their authors or that can, quite easily, be inferred and made explicit by readers (the fourth self-referential, if not redundant, rubric). The guest texts for all of these examples have been subjected to translation; the results have been published in at least one host language and are thus, to an extent, authorized, valued. Such critically appreciative readings as I undertake below will generate statements in terms of all the other rubrics that I have outlined (with one possible exception), highlighting the translation of process and its effectiveness in expressing important problematics with respect to integrity and association (first and second rubrics), and bringing generative concepts for linguistic art (third rubric) into relief. This last includes bringing conceptualism to the practice of translation as linguistic art. I will be able to remark the notable characteristics and features of these texts – those that will provoke my critical statements – due to my inevitable, productive encounters with, as I see it, procedurally induced dissonances of significance and affect (fifth rubric), and with natural linguistic non-correspondence (seventh rubric). In traditional scholarship, any appreciation of how linguistic processes in distinct natural languages relate to differences in their contextual and referential resources globally (sixth rubric) extends beyond the horizon of the brief close readings undertaken here.10

There seems to be no clearly expressible conclusion to this writing. Given that any theoretical statements or considerations on offer have already been set out in this first part of the essay, if there were a conclusion, I would place it here. I prefer to state clearly what I may not have argued effectively, but hope to have persuasively expressed. Reading and writing necessarily involve and generate process – processes at all levels of linguistic form and structure. When and if we translate, we translate processes of language. Any and all practices of translation thus constitute a special process that is particularly revealing of the vital role that process assumes in language and its arts.

Not only has it been conceivable for writers to make explicit process a generative impetus for their compositions, but I believe it can be shown that different writers have adopted distinctly different modes of authorial agency with respect to process. Such differences are exemplified in works by the first two authors and their translators to be read here. For writers in the tradition of the OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; or “workshop of potential literature”) such as Georges Perec, process is typically expressed as constraint. The constraint may be arbitrary, and thus entail a certain relationship with chance, the aleatory, but OuLiPian work often seems to be resolved as constraint overcome by mastery. For writers in the tradition of John Cage, in contrast, there is an acknowledged submission to chance and its effects, orchestrated by procedure and by the preparation of instruments – which, here, I take to include linguistic instruments – that preclude the possibility of their ever being mastered.

Comparing the opening pages of Perec’s La Disparition with one of its English translations, A Void, by Gilbert Adair,11 we immediately find evidence of the relationship of OuLiPian writers with process-as-constraint. Famously, La Disparition is a lipogrammatic novel composed without the use of words in French that contain the letter “e.” Its anglo-translation as A Void also avoids this vital symbol. Both Perec and Adair work hard to build artifacts in language that present their readers, despite constraint, with a novel possessing character, plot, ideas, and the development of all such constituents. Adair takes on and “translates,” literally, the process underlying Perec’s voluntary, willful and pointed constraint. He follows Perec’s writing remarkably closely, but comparison of the work immediately reveals procedurally induced local and global dissonance, as well as natural linguistic non-correspondence, helping to exemplify what I intend by distinguishing these rubrics.

I use procedurally induced natural linguistic non-correspondence to refer to divergences between the language of the untranslated guest, and the language of the host translation that would not have been apparent – that would have been translated differently – if the translation of process were not taking place. “Anton Voyl n’arrivait pas à dormir. Il alluma.” If we are not translating process, this might be rendered, “Anton Voyl was unable to sleep. He lit up.” Adair works with process and writes, “Incurably insomniac, Anton Vowl turns on a light.” We already have too much to say about this initial fragment of the novel. Even in terms of actual material, graphic representation – perceptible as punctuation conventions that are shared by the languages in question – there is natural linguistic divergence that contrasts with a correspondence in my “conventional” rendering. There are two periods in the French, one in Adair’s English, where the turning on of an electric light – if this is, indeed what Voyl or Vowl does – is the consequence of an incurable condition rather than, for all we know at this stage, an exceptional nocturnal circumstance. A whole first sentence in French is collapsed into a descriptive phrase that may be read adverbially in relation to the much more concrete English illumination. There is also the spelling of Anton’s last name in Adair’s version, where what is again a materially, graphically perceptible difference, the substitution of “y” for “w,” allows for the translation of an absence, the missing “e”s, which would be less remarkable for an English reader, or perhaps not perceptible at all for a reader having no French or who did not (yet) know that the protagonist, Voyl, is francophone. If not for process, Vowl would surely be Voyl in most translations.

To an extent, the rubric of non-correspondence is a catch-all for instances or an aggregation of effects that are produced by the interrelation of languages and productive or receptive processes. I intend it to refer to differences that are more or less evident, such as graphically marked differences (punctuation, spelling) or the clear addition or removal of language in the host without a corresponding textually inscribed cause in the untranslated guest (addition here: “incurably;” removal of: “n’arrivait pas à”). The translation of process often generates non-correspondence of this kind without this divergence being, necessarily, directly related to the process. In this case, for example, the collapse of two periods into one has no bearing on the language containing “e,” and neither does the substitution of “w” for “y” directly. The non-correspondent additions and removals that I have suggested are made with reference to the process – since its rule must be followed by Adair – but the choice of precisely what to add or what to remove is not directly related to the process and will tend, in fact, to refer more closely to conventional processes of translation where meaning, style and tone are to the fore, however expressed, and however procedurally inflected.

Procedurally induced local dissonance relates, by contrast, to differences between untranslated guest and host translation that are inscribed more or less systematically according to the local circumstances of each language. Both Perec and Adair intend to master novel writing and translating, respectively, without using the most common letter in their languages, and this happens to be “e” for both French and English. The exact relative frequency of “e” and its distribution throughout the vocabularies of French and English is, however, different for the two languages and, for such frequent letters, this will be particularly significant – during composition – when it comes to any special orthography that is indicative of grammar or found amongst the languages’ “closed class” words. Just one example of hundreds: in French a lipogram in “e” disallows an entirely different set of personal and possessive pronouns than is the case for its English counterpart. Procedurally induced effects will be consequent on linguistic circumstances that are “local” to the languages in question, systematically requiring different grammar and word-choice so long as process is translated predominately. Another example of the consequences of procedurally induced local dissonance across our texts: Perec sets out in passé simple (it’s handy that literary writing can dispense with the passé composé); while Adair chooses to use the historical present (since avoiding “ed” would cause difficulties).

Procedurally induced global dissonance is a function of the manner in which the languages of guest and host relate differently to linguistic practices as a whole, across all of whatever we may know, globally, concerning human language. Perhaps the clearest example relating to Perec’s lipogrammatic novel concerns our global linguistic understanding of “most frequent letter” across languages. In translations of La Disparition into certain other languages, the lipogrammatic procedure is retained and applied, but a different letter has been avoided. In the Spanish of El secuestro there are no “a”s.12 The property of “most frequent letter” in an alphabetic system of inscription is, of course, local to particular languages, and lipogrammatic effects on grammar or word choice may be also considered local (and dissonant with respect to the untranslated guest, as above). At the same time, these differences may also have global consequences for the differentiated significance and affect of the work as a whole, so long as we accept, for example, that, from the perspective of English readers regarding various languages globally, a text without “e”s will be affectively and significantly different from a text without “a”s. Such global differences might be shared and appreciated even across linguistic horizons, from other linguistic perspectives, if we believe, for instance, that the actual sounds or the linguistic “musics” associated with these graphemes have some kind of affective or significant consistency. Linguistically implicated consistencies like this are notoriously difficult to establish and, in any case, procedurally induced global dissonance in guest-host translation is really only relevant to translinguistic cultural politics, or translingual practice in Lydia Liu’s terms.13

For most literary criticism and for the rest of our reading, it will not be remarked. It is, nonetheless, worth some elaboration here because it highlights historically novel circumstances for linguistic practice, including translation. At the outset, this essay dealt with computationally rendered versions of linguistic process, and now it is concluding with processes more generally expressed, without instantiations in networked and programmable media. The existence of these media, however, has inaugurated an era in which global differences of language practices can be significantly and affectively appreciated by any author or reader with network access, although not without implications for translingual cultural politics. For any appreciation of global differences, as for questions of linguistic musicality across languages, common reference points and contexts must be established. This is precisely what is provided by network access to linguistic references, contexts, corpora and so on. Google Translate, for example, works differently for different languages because, on the network, languages in this context have different corpora and references available to their practitioners and to the systems of Google Translate itself. For the programmatic generation or manipulation of any particular natural language, in the context of the network, this means that procedurally induced global dissonance will obtain when the same process, for example, is applied to different languages that have different relationships globally to corpora and references on the net. In the current era of Big Data, these differences amount to differences of quality in linguistic production and reception that are a function of the quantity of data that is available for the analysis of different languages. For the moment, Big Data on global (U.S.) English predominates, with troubling consequences.

When Adair translated and composed A Void, most of the dissonances between his own text and that of his untranslated guest were configured locally and separately by his own knowledge and mastery of the French and especially of its English host. Today, insofar as Adair might now make reference to networked linguistic resources, he might also be able to discover and perhaps even to exploit correspondences and dissonances that are determined by those differences between French and English, that are made perceptible and appreciable to us, globally, by the network, although they would be induced by process just as they are in literary practice.

None of the purported “dissonances” that we have already discussed or will go on to examine would exist at all if the host translations were not composed. As we have suggested before, translation might be considered as both the model and the generator of receptive and productive linguistic process as a whole. The process of translation must be underway before the translation of process can begin. If no explicit process can be read into the untranslated guest, there will still be dissonances between guest and host, both local and global, with perhaps even some marked natural linguistic non-correspondence in the case of many translations. These dissonances are induced by the processes of translation itself, since even translation translates actual processes of writing. In what follows, we briefly read a few more examples of linguistic artifacts that have been composed in the light of explicit process while we entertain the theory that these writings are also proposed, simply, as exemplifications of writing itself within the framework of particular technics. The translation of process exposes the processes of translation and writing as process.

The mesostics of John Cage, his “writings through,” are quite well known. A text is “prepared” as an orthographic instrument by searching through it for the letters – most frequently – of a proper name, that of a hero of the avant garde, or occasionally some special word. The letter need not be acrostic – at the beginning of a piece of language, usually a line – but it may be: by chance. It need only be “mesostic,” allowing its discovery, by chance operation, anywhere – at any arbitrary point in a word that is then positioned more or less in a middle, on a central vertical axis for lines thereby raggedly ranged both left and right and rendered poetic through the process itself or by the writer’s subsequent adjustments. In the texts and translations figured as examples and translated examples of this process, the proper name is that of Christian Wolff.14

Wonderful translations by Carol Richards work Cage’s process into French, preserving an easily verifiable – as we match the spelling letters – process perfectly. This generates local dissonance in an exemplary manner since, as for “e,” the distribution of letters across English and French vocabularies is distinct. “aCross” begins both of the figured sections of Cage’s “Songs for C.W.” For the first translation, Richards discovers a root common to both languages spawning English “cross” and French “croisant,” with shared orthography including “c.” She exploits this to light on the required mesostic letter and to justify a grammatical transformation, strengthening Cage’s preposition into a verbal form that tends to actualize and temporalize what could be read simply as situation in the untranslated guest. In the second figured section, “across” is rendered by the prepositional “à travers,” which does not contain a “c” (local dissonance), so this time Richards moves a conventionally translated “cette” for “this” to the first line of the host version, ironically introducing a form of natural linguistic non-correspondence – of the lineation, the poetic punctuation of the linguistic artifact – while maintaining conventional translation standards – “à travers cette” is perfectly good for “across this” (whereas “croisant” is interpretive) – and satisfying the strictures of her translation of process.

Once again, richly wrought text enables us to discuss many fascinating niceties of composition and reading with reference to the translation of process, even in the first few words of our examples. Although it would be perfectly possible, and might even prove literary-critically engaging and satisfying, these are not the kinds of readings that I would like to undertake here. Instead, I’d like to make a couple of more general remarks before continuing to an entirely new and separate example.

The most materially perceptible difference – a natural linguistic non-correspondence in my terms – relates to the “shapes” of the untranslated guest as compared with their host translations. The mesostic central axes correspond and line breaks, as if between verses or verse fragments, are respected but length of line and disposition and amount of language on either side of the mesostic letter vary greatly. When there is correspondence, we assume this is a matter of chance. This shaping, a phrasal and potentially rhythmic shaping, of the untranslated guest is, however, an important aspect of its poetics, regardless of its generation by chance operations. In fact, this non-correspondence, driven by the local dissonance of letter distribution in the two languages, may also be read as a good translation of the chance operations (process) to which Cage subjects his literary art, that is, in the Fluxus manner that contrasts, as I suggested above, with an OuLiPian mastery of constraint. If the phrases of the Cage mesostic fall where the letters make them fall, the same procedurally induced subjection to mesostic chance arranges the host translation’s phrases. We then realize that what this also allows, if not empowers the translator to do, is precisely the kind of conventional interpretative translation that proceeds from some combination of the common sense and poetics in one language into the common sense and poetics in another. If one arranged the Cage texts and their Richards translations in prose-like paragraphs – breaking more than one aspect of the process and its translation (even the mesostic letters would still be present) – Richards would read as fine literary translation, in my view, that is, as very fine conventional translation.15

This is an interesting insight, once more interpretively collapsing translation that is complicated by a translation of (explicit) process to translation and writing as we know it, while recognizing that they always already, more or less implicitly, involve processes that are conscious, significant, and affective. Nonetheless, we must push back on behalf of process and critique the extent to which Richards – whether consciously or unconsciously or as constrained by institutional habit – has been faithful in the translation of Cage’s process. Two points of divergence. For the major part of his mesostic work, it is clear that Cage started with texts from which the language for the mesostic was selected. While I have been unable to ascertain the status of any supply text that Cage may have used as the text-read-through to create his “Songs for C.W.” – original to him or otherwise – Richards does not, as far as I know, begin either with this supply text – in the language of the guest – or with a (conventional) translation of this text. It might be argued that for a faithful translation of Cage’s process, a prior translation of the source text, the text to be read through, is called for, thereby constraining the language of the eventual translation. Secondly, by some lights, the mesostics of the untranslated guests in our examples and those of the host are different. In the untranslated guest, the language between one mesostic letter and another does not contain any other instance of the next mesostic letter that is about to be punctuated as axis-forming.16 In Richards’ texts these conditions do occur. Her translation of the process is not “literal” in this sense. Here we can see how close reading of a translation of process might have a bearing on our critical reading, as a whole, of a literary artifact and its translation. In this case, I would argue that Richards’ translations are excellent and any critique associated with a lack of “faithfulness” to process is of minor consequence. For other kinds of process-intensive work, however, such inattention could well prove crucially hermeneutically damaging. For writing generated by algorithm, appreciation of the algorithm is clearly vital – and full, detailed translation of such an algorithm, making it operative in the host would be crucial to translating the guest into a generative linguistic engine in the host.

After its initial publication in 1966, a version of Nanni Balestrini’s novel Tristano was translated into French by Jacqueline Risset and brought out in 1972.17 Actually, what was published in 1966, and then translated by Risset, was only one possible instantiation of a combinatorial work, the supply texts of which are able to generate a vast number of possible novella-length books all bearing the title Tristano. It was only in 2007 that print publication – in Italian – of Balestrini’s novel, as it was conceived, can be said to have begun.18 Print-on-demand technology had made it viable to manufacture – successively, serially – actual instances of Tristano in effectively unique printed copies. In 2014, the London publisher, Verso, in an effort coordinated with the Italian publisher, brought out Mike Harkis’s English translation.19

Balestrini composed 30 paragraph-sized fragments for each of the 10 chapters of Tristano. As its author, as part of the process of composition, he then proposed to intervene at the point of publication with two operations: the selection and ordering of only 20 from the 30 possible fragments for each chapter; and the random presentation of the chapters themselves. With no other constraint – and discounting the random arrangement of chapters – the number of possible unique permutations of selections from this number of elements has 25 digits.20 If there are further authorial constraints reducing this theoretical number, these are unclear. When Balestrini published the single Italian version with Feltrinelli in 1966, he published a single star from this galaxy. This was a galaxy whose necessarily constrained significance and affect the author might have grasped, though it would be literally impossible for Balestrini to ever explore each star by visiting, that is, reading. He comprehends only the composition of the elements that make up these stars, but cannot possibly comprehend more than a tiny, tiny set of instances having specific arrangements of his paragraphs.

When such elements are not atoms of language, like letters, when they are paragraph sized – and full of interpretable sense – this combinatorial math of selection and permutation works on us strangely. Balestrini wrote for the form he conceived, in an abstract style with a few abstracted, self-reflective characters, in a few abstracted locations, these characters getting nowhere in particular while indulging abstracted, if mildly erotic, romantic entanglements and psychosexual musings. As presented, the book is readable and, if they are aware of its procedural composition, its readers may be ready to believe that the arrangement of chapters and paragraphs, the absence of an indeterminate third of the book-behind-the-book, does not matter or, rather, that this is one of the statements it makes.21 “This is life,” says the book, and some readers might argue that this is life toute simple: that both the style and form of Tristano are as expressive of a certain experience of human life as the next novel.

Briefly here, in this context, our concern is translation of process with respect to Tristano. It is clear that the conventional translation of one instance of the novel is not a translation of the work, not even a “complete” translation, although such a translation – of which Jacqueline Risset’s 1972 is one – might well serve as the translation of a particular experience of the work from, say Italian into French. Harkis proceeded differently, by translating all of the source fragments of Balestrini’s artifact and Verso arranged for the publication of instances according to the author’s generative algorithms.22 Paradoxically, it seems, a translation of the kind undertaken by Harkis and actualized by his publisher, a translation that makes natural linguistic correspondence between any Italian copy and any English copy humanly impossible – this is a “better” translation of the work and also one that is easily conceived by human readers even if a literal comprehension of the novel’s potentiality is precluded. A mathematical, computational sublime lurks in the background of Balestrini’s project. Does it redeem or enhance the banalities and abstractions of the novels that we can read? Balestrini went ahead and published in 1966 and a fine French translator associated with Tel Quel took the time to translate one version of this single speck of light. The technics of print precluded any realization of Balestrini’s overarching intention. By 2007 this was no longer a problem, and further publication of the process on the network as a dynamic process would be “trivial,” as the technologists put it.

It may seem a little unfair, now, to turn to an example of recent contemporary literary practice that falls squarely within the purview of conceptual writing, but Caroline Bergvall’s “VIA: 48 Dante Variations” has received considerable attention and is widely regarded as an elegant poetic gesture. Moreover, it is composed, almost entirely, from language that has been generated by translation – conventional, if literary, translation. Bergvall does not compose this language itself. Her linguistic artistry is all in the collection and arrangement of these fragments of language. Bergvall found and recorded all of the 47 English translations of the initial tercet of Dante’s Divine Comedy that were held by the British Library and published before May 2000, “exactly 700 years after the date fixed by Dante for the start of the Comedy’s journey.”23 She then ordered them alphabetically, numbered them, and added brief, translator surname and date attributions. The 48th variation, Bergvall explained in an introduction to the piece’s appearance in Fig, was a sonification generated from Bergvall’s vocal reading of the 47 translations, by her collaborator, Ciarán Maher.24 Performances of the piece by Bergvall, live and recorded, include vocalizations of the attributions, but not the numbers.

Recently “VIA” has been translated into Polish by poet and scholar, Katarzyna Szymanska.25 To make her translation, Szymanska assembled the twenty existing Polish translations of Dante’s opening lines and then added her own translation of the tercet, constraining her version to begin with the last letter of the Polish alphabet so as to set this verse at the conclusion of her translation as a kind of signature.26 What concerns us in this context is the fact of natural linguistic non-correspondence between Bergvall’s “VIA,” as untranslated guest, and Szymanska’s host language version, which was made, and could theoretically be remade, without any reference to Bergvall’s English. Dante’s Italian, of course, underlies all of these tercets, with their various historically situated conventionalities of translation bewilderingly in play. To disturb us in the middle of our way through literature and literary translation, Bergvall puts the outset of Dante’s journey through a model process of translation diachronically and also demonstrates how each of the generated English versions is strangely divorced – non-correspondent to conventional perspectives – from all its others. In one of the world’s major, though certainly not global, natural languages, Szymanska then takes the next conceptual step, and shows how a translation of process can perfectly render an artifact of language without any need to reference the actual, materially expressed, constituent language of an untranslated guest. These paradoxical circumstances have, I believe, a bearing on the production and reception of language generally, suggesting, through extreme example, that the role of process in language making and translation is, to put it simply, underplayed.

We come, finally, to a reading of Canadian poet Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present27 and its translation by Pascal Poyet, Cinéma du présent. 28 In the production of the manuscript for her long poem, Robertson’s already complex – even when intuitive – poetic processes of composition are further complicated by a simple explicit process, one which any translator would be compelled to remark and confront. Robertson was, moreover, directly involved with the French translation and this is even evidenced in the original publication of the English edition. That book includes “Present: An Index / by Pascal Poyet,”29 an alphabetized list of words that Poyet discovered in his reading of Robertson’s text. This index and list is also a composition of verse-lines and a work of its own, in response to Cinema of the Present. In draft notes for a reading performance of “An Index,” Poyet explains that he was seeking and grouping words like the characters of a novelistic text.30 They were assembled in trios to first reflect and then exceed the dual, folded, interlaced repetition-structure of Robertson’s poem, with the third terms foreclosing any collapse into reductive binaries. Poyet’s list presents three English words from Cinema of the Present, comma-separated, per line and index item. There are no page or line references back into Robertson’s text.

Although it lacks page and line references, “Present: An Index” highlights the chief characteristic of the simple explicit process that Robertson has applied to her writing: alphabetization. Tellingly, the index also exhibits an initial, expressive “glitch” in alphabetic ordering. At the very beginning of “An Index,” the line “Again, again, again.” precedes the second entry, “Absolutely, totally, love.” This is the only “error” of order in the index and signals the fact that Robertson’s use of alphabetization is also deliberately unsettled. There are a number of places in the English poem where the alphabetic order is deliberately “broken” and Poyet’s version reflects this.

As over-arching compositional process, Robertson wrote, line-by-line and as they came to her, the verses of approximately half of what is printed as Cinema of the Present. However, she did not write linearly, as if each line “followed” the one last written. She wrote complete verse-line periods that were conceived as inserted into the middle of the accumulating text.31 Once this text was composed, she took further steps to baffle its default poetics as linear poetic sequence, in pursuit of a duration of the present.32 She took these same lines and alphabetized them. Having done so, she interleaved the lines-as-written with the lines-as-alphabetized, and set the ordered lines in italics. This was not, however, the final gesture in her processes of composition since there is clear evidence of subsequent manipulation, whatever the degree of authorial or writerly intention. Robertson, like Cage, submitted her work to arbitrary process and then also continued to act, making adjustments in response, although not necessarily to master the text in the OuLiPian manner.

For an unsettling start to our own actual reading, we note that there is at least one additional italicized line, since the text begins and ends with a line thus formatted. This means that all the lines of the poem-as-written in a series of “presents” are framed by alphabetized lines. For this reader, there is a suggestion of the cinematic frame in this formalism. The inscriptions of (once) present (re-presented) moments are framed in the text and in the memory by rhythmic structures composed from these moments. Pairs of italicized lines form a “gate” like the projector’s gate that captures each frame of film for projection, with displaced repetition – albeit on an entirely different scale – and conjure a flickering which resolves itself, as we watch and read, into an apparently fluid poetic motion, while hinting at moiré patterns of significant and affective interference.

Then we notice that the italicized text ends with “Now only time is wild.” – wildly out of order. The preceding three italicized lines begin “With … // What … // What …” and follow, rather than precede, an important long section beginning with “You …” or variants like “You’d …” and finally “Yours …” although the last italicized line in this section reprises an initial “You …” Nonetheless, overall, the order of alphabetization holds for the poem’s lines in italics such that we may rely on it to discover where else a particular line occurs. Or, returning to Poyet’s index, we can look for lines that also begin with the initial words of his “Index” entries. If we do this, we discover that hardly any of the ordered lines begin with Poyet’s head words. The disordered “Again, again, again.” leads to “Again you consider the sumptuous wreckage of the present.” – a line that we may read, again, again, again, as a highly significant comment on Robertson’s project as a whole. Poyet’s head words, however, are nouns, and few nouns, other than pronouns, initiate Robertson’s lines; as I go through “An Index,” I note that “You, yourself, beginner.” will lead to many lines beginning “You …” However, between “Again, again, again.” and “Index, information, irony.” only “Funny, cosmic, humble.” refers me to an actual line in the italicized order: “Funny, cosmic and humble.”

In Poyet’s “Remarques sur Cinéma du present,” apart from citing and discussing Robertson’s concerns with the “enduring present” temporalities of thinking and reading, and their instantiation/representation in or as folded, interlaced, recurrent poetic form, Poyet also quotes a stated intention that Robertson shared from her notes toward the poem, “I want to build the pronoun she.”33 The question of pronouns, their address, and their role in the generation and modulation of subjectivities is one of the focal themes in Robertson’s long poem. She wrote in large part to build her feminine pronoun, and this in dialog with herself and with the work of linguist and linguistic philosopher Émile Benveniste. In the event, however, although she began the actual writing in the third person, she shifted her thinking and her writing so as to engage these complex questions by way of the second person, you, replacing, at one point, all occurrences of “she” in her initial work, retaining “her” when necessary or commodious.

For the practice of translation, pronouns provide an important grammatical locus at one of the many liminal, shared horizons between natural languages. When we pass over from one language to another at the point of pronouns, procedurally induced local dissonance is very likely to arise, simply from those processes necessary for translation as such. Differences in the ways that English and French treat pronouns and the the dissonances that emerge are conceptually important for Robertson’s text regardless of any other explicit processes that have been used to generate or to order the poem and its translation. French has two second person pronouns and it also requires agreements, expressed in terms of gender, that call for commitments on the part of the translator and their text. Poyet chooses to translate Robertson’s “you” with a “tutoiement,” the familiar second person (the pronoun, presumably, with which one would address oneself) and also insists that all agreements referring to or from a “you/tu” should be feminine. He argues eloquently that the French translation, as it were, instantiates and articulates certain processes of thinking that Robertson passed through as she composed and yet chose to leave inexplicit or ambiguous in her adoption of the English second person. For Poyet, “Elle disparaît presque complètement du texte anglais […] pour réapparaître partout diffus(e) dans les accords du texte français,” actualizing, linguistically, what in English remains a speculative, poetic, thought-realized construction of the feminine pronoun.34 Gender is paramount for the interpretation of these processes in the poem, but we should remark, in passing, that Poyet’s French forecloses the literal, grammatical plurality that “you” in English allows, such that any plurality of address that the text might demand from its French “tutoiement” must, in a complementary manner, be performed as speculation or as thought, rather than remaining within the literal gift of English grammar.

The choice of pronoun, furthermore, provides a significant way into our reading of alphabetization in Cinema of the Present, since so many of the verse-lines begin with the text’s most common pronoun and local linguistic difference generates a dissonance in terms of position in the alphabet. “You” begins with its penultimate letter and “tu” does not. “Vous” would more nearly have approximated the position of “you” but more significant and affective considerations, in Poyet’s estimation, overruled this alphabetic consideration. Nonetheless, “t” is still relatively late in the alphabet. The (re)ordering system provides not only a mechanism for the arbitrary disposition of repeated lines – their “mere” return or recall so as to problematize reading/thinking temporality and a present-without-duration – it also establishes longer passages and movements in the work, most notably the longest such section towards its conclusion in either language where either “tu” or “you” and their morphological variants begin so many lines. For this section of the work to have been promoted to much earlier in the alphabetic order might have been a serious problem. Note, moreover, that the alphabetic order of the main subject case form of the second-person pronouns and their contractions/variations differ in English and French: “you, you’d, you’ll, you’re, you’ve, your, yours,” uninterrupted by non-pronomial forms vs. “ta, tes, toi, ton, tu” with “telle, testaments, totalement, tourbillons, tout, toute” interrupting the procession of verse-lines that are pronoun-led in French. Given the significance of these pronouns to the interpretative content of the work, there remain, here, points of potential intervention for which the full relative expressive possibilities of host and guest text may not have been and might still be addressed. Importantly, as a concluding reflection on my arguments in this essay, such interventions would be addressed, clearly, in terms of differential translations of process, and would be unambiguously implicated with the original interpretative content of the guest.

Further examples demonstrating this principle can be pointed to, all within the scope of the simple explicit process of alphabetization in Cinema of the Present. In English, many question-words begin with “wh-” and so a significant passage of the poem, held together by “wh-” questions, closely precedes its “you” section. In Poyet’s French, the passage with interlaced lines beginning “qu-” is a little shorter and differently displaced, while the corresponding passages retain the same relative order. The question of “wh-” question words is significant in that Robertson breaks alphabetization following the poem’s long “you”-and-variants passage, after a final, properly alphabetized “Yours …” line – with the important italicized line “You seem to remember.” The next begins “With …” which is followed by two “What …” questions, remotely mirroring in a kind of miniature the disposition that precedes the “you” passage. The French cannot or does not achieve this degree of nicety with respect to its quasi-arbitrarily constrained ordering and its final breakdown. Between the “tu” passage and the order-breaking lines – the final ten lines, both roman and italic, are all finely and, in the common sense, “conventionally” translated by Poyet – there intervenes a properly ordered passage of verse-lines beginning, in particular, “Un …” and “Une …”

Let us consider one final example of a procedurally induced local dissonance that was explicitly addressed and ameliorated by Poyet in consultation with Robertson. In the English, toward the very beginning of Cinema of the Present, there is a striking passage of interlaced italic lines all beginning with “A gate (made) of …”. French, “une porte,” initially, would have sited this passage at the end of the book between the “tu” passage and the poem’s final lines. Both Poyet and Robertson read the “gates” as a way of entry, helping to balance the long passage of pronomial address toward the book’s conclusion. They agreed to prefix these nominal-phrase lines with “à” rendering them prepositional and adverbial, but thus repositioning the gates and preserving a large-scale structural arc and symmetry of the English poem, including the pronomial “high point” (un point d’orgue). “… tous les tu au féminin disséminés dans le texte, précédés des ta, toi et ton pour qu’ils soient eux aussi à l’initiale, de façon spectaculaire et symétriquement aux portes qui nous y ont fait accéder au cours des premières pages …”35 Not only does the process of translation itself serve to bring out many aspects of a larger complex, co-authored text which is generated by its practices, it would be difficult to find a finer example of how the translation of process – even one as simple and as arbitrary as alphabetization across English and French – may be able to form and articulate the significance and affect of aesthetic language.

  1. The most important academically oriented organization devoted to the field is the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO,, also a major sponsor and contributor to the Consortium on Electronic Literature (CELL, The field’s best knowledge base and research starting point is the ELMCIP (Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice) Electronic Literature Knowledge Base ( 

  2. In this essay and generally, I prefer to use the “guest” and “host” terminology advocated by Lydia Liu with regard to translation, where the guest language is what is usually referred to as the “original” or “source” and the host language is the “target.” Lydia H. Liu, Translingual Practice: literature, national culture, and translated modernity—China 1900-1937. (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 1995. 

  3. This is far from a complete survey. The ELO works hard to promote the practice of digital literature in languages other than English with its 2013 and subsequent conferences having this as a main theme ( There are associated centers of related activity in Norway ( and; Spain (; Portugal (; Poland (; Canada ( and; and France (; and, with many other writers and scholars from across and beyond Europe taking part. A European eLiterature collection was produced in 2013 ( accessed 1 Mar 2016).
    The author’s paper on the speculative translation of one of his own collaborative pieces (John Cayley, “Beginning with ‘The Image’ in How It Is when translating certain processes of digital language art.” Electronic Book Review, 2015. Available online: (Accessed Sept 23, 2015) was delivered at a 2013 conference in Paris on “Translating E-Literature,” the proceedings of which are published online as Regnauld, Arnaud, and Yves Abrioux, “Translating E-Literature = Traduire la littérature numérique.” Traduire la littérature numérique (, Paris, 2013.
    Another published essay of the author’s (John Cayley, 2015, “Untranslatability and Readability,” Critical Multilingualism Studies 3 (1):70-89. Available online: (Accessed Sept 23, 2015) makes further reference to related questions.
    “The Trope Tank,” directed by Nick Montfort of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies | Writing department, initiated their “Renderings” project in 2014 and the following is quoted from their website (, accessed 1 Mar 2016): “The Renderings project locates digital literary work from around the world and translates it into English. This process involves close attention to the computational aspects of the work – along with the concern for language that has been developed over centuries by literary translators. The project also sometimes entails porting earlier work to contemporary platforms and making such computational work available on the Web.” The first phase of actual Renderings (13 works in 6 languages) has been published in Fordham University’s literary journal Cura (, accessed 1 Mar 2016). 

  4. “Traversal function,” as a term for the way a literary artifact presents its text and the relation of this presentation to temporality (typically) is from Aarseth. His work remains a standard reference for the analysis of textuality having affordances that are enabled by programmable digital media: Espen Aarseth, Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press), 1997. 

  5. John Cayley, “The code is not the text (unless it is the text),” Electronic Book Review, 2002. 

  6. John Cayley, “Beginning with ‘The Image’ in How It Is when translating certain processes of digital language art,” Electronic Book Review, 2015. Available online: (Accessed Sept 23, 2015). 

  7. References to contemporary literary Conceptualism are given in Cayley, “Beginning with the ‘Image’.” 

  8. One of the striking arguments of Jacques Derrida’s Monolingualism of the Other is that human persons may become monolingual in a language that is not, in personal historical terms, their own (Derrida 1998). These remarks raise further complications of macro and micro linguistic history, the fact that statements about language are complicated by diachronic and synchronic perspectives. Nonetheless, it seems to be phenomenologically the case that at any (synchronic) moment during the (diachronic) course of reading and writing, one can only ever be acting within a particular, singular language. See Jacques Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other; or, The Prothesis of Origin, Translated by Patrick Mensah. Edited by Mieke Bal and Hent de Vreis, Cultural Memory in the Present. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Original edition, Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1996. 

  9. I have made slight adjustments to the terminology for these rubrics as compared with my earlier essay on the translation of digital language art and especially algorithm-intensive linguistic artifacts (Cayley 2015a). I have replaced “algorithm” with “explicit process” (which is easier to apply more broadly) and have then ordered, more logically, the qualifiers for the two types of dissonance, replacing “algorithmically” with “procedurally induced.” 

  10. Real-time network access to archival and referential resources for linguistic practice has quietly revolutionized reading and writing. The internet, as itself a site for such practice, is indexed by a number of search engines that have rendered it, effectively, a living multilingual corpus. Discussion of this revolution is far beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it here to point out that, for the first time, historically, the network allows both scholars and practitioners to have some direct sense, for example, of the differential access and comparative comprehensiveness of archival and referential resources across distinct natural languages. Whereas, previously, it would have been very difficult to make any kind of authoritative or even anecdotal statements concerning what I call “procedurally induced global dissonance,” it is now plausible to address these effects critically, as I have begun to do in a previous essay when discussing the translation of generative processes as applied in English and, by contrast, in French (Cayley 2015a). 

  11. Georges Perec. La disparition, Collection L’Imaginaire (Paris: Denoël, 1969). Georges Perec, A Void,  translated by Gilbert Adair (London: The Harvill Press, 1995). 

  12. Georges Perec, El Secuestro, translated by Marisol Arbués, Mercè Burrel, Marc Parayre, Hermès Salceda and Regina Vega (Barcelona: Anagrama, 1997). 

  13. Liu, Translingual Practice

  14. The discussion here refers to (Cage 1985-1986) and (Cage 1987-1988a). The 1987-88 issue of Revue d’Esthetique devoted to Cage’s work and containing these French translations of the artist’s “Songs for C.W.” has much else of interest, including other mesostics in translation and both English and French versions of “Untitled” which reads through the word “SILENCE” (Cage 1987-1988b). The untranslated English of this piece is in (Cage 1983b). See also (Cage 1983a) which is translated for the Revue. 

  15. In the current case-study reading, I wanted to highlight the (re)shaping of the guest and host texts in terms of mesostic-driven lineation, but did not address the spectacular disruption to orthography, in both the figured translations, represented by “quWand” for French quand = “when.” This substitution is a function of a procedurally induced local dissonance since the frequency of “w” in French, essential to the name “Wolff,” is far, far lower than its frequency in English. The dissonance here extends to the introduction of a “misspelt” word, with what would be called a “double-u” in English that, plausibly hides itself as a more or less unsounded “différance” in the French and definitely evokes the deconstructive translingual pun. All this also harkens back to Perec’s letter-driven constraints, and forward to the question of English-French alphabetization in Robertson’s Cinema of the Present, for which the position in the alphabetic order of English “w”-question words and their French equivalents, in any translation, is an issue that is, to an extent, taken up in this essay’s final close readings. 

  16. This procedural distinction may be appreciated in purely formal terms but was also explicitly recognized by Cage, according to this Wikipedia article,, citing Cage’s assistant, Andrew Culver. Here, the untranslated guest form of mesostic was referred to as “one-hundred-percent” mesostic whereas those in Richards’ versions would be “fifty-percent” mesostic. 

  17. Nanni Balestrini, Tristano: romanzo, I Narratori de Feltrinelli (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1966). Nanni Balestrini, Tristan, translated by Jaqueline Risset, Tel Quel (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972). 

  18. Nanni Balestrini, Tristano, LM3665 copia unica, romanzo multiplo (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2007). 

  19. Nanni Balestrini, Tristano: a novel, translated by Mike Harakis (London: Verso, 2014). 

  20. “The number of ways twenty things can be selected from a group of thirty things and arranged in different orders is 30!/(30-20)!, which is a number with 25 digits: about 73.1 septillion, or just over 240 times the number of stars in the observable universe. And that’s before we take into account that there are ten such chapters, themselves ordered randomly.” Letter to the London Review of Books (Vol. 36 No. 16, 21 Aug 2014) by Martin Wakefield. 

  21. As others who have attempted this have remarked (Jones 2014), making any kind of reading that compares the original 1966 publication with anything other than Risset’s conventional translation (this has the kind of natural linguistic correspondence we expect) is bewildering and, frankly, seems pointless, particularly when we recall that the chances of there being any substantive correspondence between any copies of any of the uniquely-printed editions in any language is infinitesimal (if not impossible: the 0-9,999 copies that may eventually be issued by DeriveApprodi could, theoretically, exclude those permutations calculated for Verso’s copies that commence with number 10,000). Nonetheless, here are a few notes intended to give some sense of the scale of the problem with regard to, as it were, correspondent readings. I own #10,330 and #10,544 in the Verso edition of Harkis’s translation. The primo capitolo of the 1966 text is Chapter 2 in #10,330 and Chapter 10 in #10,544. The two English versions have a total of 17 of the 20 fragments in 1966’s chapter one, whereas Balestrini composed 30 possible for each chapter, including this one. #10,330 has 7 fragments not included in 1966; #10,544 has 8, some of which are also in #10,330. Thomas Jones LRB June 5, 2014 (op. cit.) reports: “I have number 5121 in Italian [the 2007 DeriveApprodi edition], and number 10,603 in Mike Harakis’s English […] Chapter 10 in copy no. 10,603 corresponds to Chapter 8 in copy no. 5121. They have ten paragraphs in common. So I happen to have all 30 paragraphs of that chapter, distributed across two books in a completely different order in each.” 

  22. With the proviso that, in the original Italian text, punctuation of the fragments within chapters differs from that in the 1972 Italian edition and the English translation. For the 1966 publication Balestrini or his publisher ran pairs of the selectable fragments together to form ten longer typographic paragraphs or sections for each chapter. The later Italian and the English translation break all twenty fragments per chapter into blank-line separated paragraphs. Risset’s translation corresponds with the original Italian edition with respect to this point. 

  23. Caroline Bergvall, Fig: Goan Atom 2 (Cambridge: Salt, 2005), 64. 

  24. Bergvall, Fig, 63-71. Bergvall also explains that, in the version for the first publication of the piece, Chain (Transluccinacion issue, Fall 2003), she added a 48th translation of the tercet but removed it later so as to adhere to the 700-year rule. The title to Szymanska’s republication and translation into Polish (details below) refers to 48 and 22 “variations” but this is also because Szymanska considers the entirety of each set of Dante translations to be a variation. For Bergvall (2005, 64), the sonification by Maher based on her vocalized readings brings the collated variations, materially, together into a unitary, countable artifact. This, by the way, makes for a highly complex situation with regard to our rubrics of integrity and association. Szymanska’s Polish translation of “VIA” contains her own new translation of the Dante into Polish and then also forms a constituent part of her translation of “VIA” which is also a 22nd “variation” which is what exactly: a part of her translation? the “signature” of a new work of conceptual writing in Polish? The first 36 variations are printed in the anthology Against Expression (Dworkin and Goldsmith 2011, 81-86); publication on the Poetry Foundation website has “all” 47 ( accessed 29 Feb 2016). 

  25. Bergvall, Caroline, and Katarzyna Szymanska. 2015. “VIA: 48 Dante Variations/VIA: 22 wariacje na temat Dantego.” Ha!art 50 Numer konceptualny = Conceptual Issue:17-21. I have not traced all the translations of “VIA” that have been made. Szymanska kindly referred me to an online interview with Bergvall (Bergvall and Heisler n.d.), where she speaks of the pleasure she has taken when considering the approaches of poets and scholars who have asked her about translating this piece. She mentions explicitly Szymanska’s version and one in Portuguese. “In this respect, I have really enjoyed the way poets have approached me to translate my piece “VIA (48 Dante Translations),” seemingly untranslatable. Yet I have made the process so transparent that they are invariably happy to generate a new text based on their culture’s own history with Dante. I do specify the musical quality of the Bach fugue variations so that they bear in mind the alphabetic quality of the selection but that’s all. Most recently VIA has been translated for a Polish anthology as well as for a Portuguese project, following these guidelines.”

    In the same section of this interview, as she is being questioned about a remark in her introduction to I’ll Drown my Book: conceptual writing by women, on translating practices that are “along the line of structure, rather than verbal correspondence” Bergvall responds in a manner that is in accord with my arguments here. “It seems to me very silly to wish to translate the language from instruction- or template-based pieces. Especially if there’s been no other editing or writing than accepting the material and reorganizing it. Best to utilize the process itself to generate a text in the arrival language and, in this sense, reframe the translation process.” 

  26. Szymanska 2015) Readers may find the following remarks by Szymanska of some interest, kindly supplied to the author in an email of 21 Oct 2015:
    “[T]he title reads: VIA: 22 wariacje na temat Dantego [VIA: 22 Variations on Dante]. I collected the opening lines of all existing translations of Inferno in Polish (20 versions) and added my own one (21st version: Szymanska, 2015) treating it as the translator’s signature. In order to keep it at the very end of the series while simultaneously staying with the alphabetical order of the original, I needed to make sure my final terza rima starts with the last letter of Polish alphabet, Ż (diacritic: Z with a dot above).

    “Now, the shape of my tiny Polish addition is important for the entire chain for two reasons:

    “Firstly, Slavic languages signal the speaker’s gender in past tenses more explicitly than English. As a consequence of that, two women translators in Polish renderings (Świderska 1947, Kuciak 1989) ended up expressing their sense of being lost using masculine forms. I decided to keep these forms without editing them. In doing so, I try to suggest that the artistic language of women poets/translators has always been dictated by writing/translating men, even in expressing emotions/writing about being lost in life etc. (I guess that this device might be interesting for scholars working on Women’s Studies/Feminism). And as a counterbalance to that tendency, I used feminine forms in my own final version; not only because of being a woman myself, but also since what I actually “translated” was Caroline Bergvall’s 48th private reading, i.e. another woman’s variation.

    “Secondly, all 20 versions in Polish are either old or were intentionally rendered archaic. Sadly, Polish translation practice differs from the amazing Anglo-Saxon tradition of modernising and playing with the language of the classics. My version was in a sense supposed to dissent from the earlier stylistic patina, and sound transparent and modern. I hoped it would give a new lease of life to Polish Dante and appear as something valid nowadays, that is a sincere statement of someone living in 2015.” 

  27. Lisa Robertson, Cinema of the Present (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014). 

  28. Lisa Robertson, Cinéma du présent, translated by Pascal Poyet (Clamecy dans la Nièvre: Théatre Typographique, 2014). 

  29. Lisa Robertson, Cinema of the Present, 108-9. 

  30. Documentary notes by Poyet, in English, attached to a personal email communication from Lisa Robertson, November 11, 2014. 

  31. “Lisa Robertson n’a suivi d’autre contrainte pour écrire phrase après phrase Cinéma du present que de ne jamais ajouter la nouvelle phrase à la dernière, mais de faire grandir le texte par le milieu.” Poyet, “Remarques sur Cinéma du présent de Lisa Robertson,” 91. 

  32. Poyet refers this to Robertson’s engagement with the thought of Hannah Arendt, who writes about Henri Bergson’s “enduring present” (as the received translation has it) in The Life of the Mind (Arendt 1981, vol. 2, 12 ff). “Duration of the present” is my own formulation and is intended to refer more directly to Bergson’s thinking and, especially, to the much more complex and interesting treatment of reading and temporality in the first essay, in particular, of Robertson’s book, Nilling (Robertson 2012). Nilling was composed during roughly the same period as Cinema of the Present (Poyet 2014, 87), and should be read as a vital companion text for any more thorough critical reading of Robertson’s poem, one that is, sadly, beyond the scope of this essay. 

  33. Pascal Poyet, “Remarques sur Cinéma du présent de Lisa Robertson.” In Cinéma du présent, 87-94 (Clamecy dans la Nièvre: Théatre Typographique, 2014), 88. 

  34. Poyet, “Remarques sur Cinéma,” 89. 

  35. Poyet, “Remarques sur Cinéma,” 94. 

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