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Amodern 8: Translation–Machination
January 2018


Joe Milutis

Figure 1: From W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn.


What exactly does Friedrich Kittler mean when he writes: “a medium is a medium is a medium. Therefore it cannot be translated”?1 Is it merely a restatement of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” separating out the translatability of media content from the translation of a medium and its own properties? Surely it does not mean our media machines are incapable of performing translation – though proponents and detractors of machine translation alike­­ will question whether translation is actually happening when a machine “translates,” if by “translation” we mean a mediation of meaning. Furthermore, media are mutable into more formats than ever before. The question of translatability, then, becomes a matter of semantics, whereby the act of translation as it is channeled through human consciousness is distinguished from machinic “transmission,” “transposition,” or “transduction,” which, in creating mechanical and numerical equivalents of messages, are blind to individuality of meaning and poetic nuance.2 But to what extent can we now separate the practices and imaginaries of “translation” and “transmission,” the first as characterized by a reliance on shared syntactical rules with their signifieds, and the second by underlying infrastructures of machinic protocol? If we erase this distinction, whether metaphorical or real, we start to question the categories reinforced by this distinction. What, after all, constitutes poetic nuance, meaning, and consciousness itself? 

Kittler’s description of an anti- or an-alphabetic technological “discourse network 1900” – disrupting both the hegemonies of the poet and psychoanalyst – might at first seem to presage pure digital absolutism, a realism of the machine at the expense of the human and, correspondingly, transmission without translation. This interpretation would lend itself to Kenneth Goldsmith’s argument in Rhizome against the “boutique” and “humanist” practices of translation, and what he presents as the alternative: a celebration of the brutality of displacement. He writes, “Translation is quaint, a boutique pursuit from a lost world; displacement is brutal fact. Translation is slow food: a good meal with friends, in a warm environment, a bourgeois luxury; displacement is not being able to read the menu in fluorescent-lit refractivity that appeared out of nowhere onto Main Street.” Through a reading of John Cage, Goldsmith sides with the fluorescents on the laminated menu, and frames this impossibility of translation as a political act, although we’d have to ask whose politics it serves. For Kittler, the issue devolves upon the predominant mode by which a cultural text is “animated” – so that untranslatability of media is crucial to its liveliness, or living-deadness. That is, the forces of mechanical transmission, by displacing a more human-centered translational practice, can vivify and proliferate a text much more prodigiously than an adoring audience, left to their own devices, would.3

Yet there’s a long-standing underground tendency (you see it in various trends extending from electronic music, experimental film and video) that translates the untranslated (or untranslatable) grain of the media – translating the artifacts of transduction, so to speak – as a kind of utopian surplus of information networks, evidence of a vibratory or meditational “real” behind both the abstract claims of the alphabetic and the mediagenic.4 Even in old Felix the Cat cartoons, for instance, you see a clear example of what happens when translational fantasies inherent to the media at their beginnings give way to the perception, and indeed celebration, of this media granularity. In a number of cartoons, Felix transports himself quite literally through telephone, radio and film apparatuses, his very body merely undergoing a momentary discomfort as it is squeezed through wires and rocketed through mechanisms until he miraculously finds himself at the other end, still his very self, rather than a representation, or numerical sampling, of himself. And yet, beyond the singular cat and his seemingly unmediated repetition, when the animator attempts to convey the effect of crowds, the hocus pocus of simple representational depiction abandons the primitive cartoonist, and swirling swarms of black dots hypnotically cross the field of vision in an effect not unlike TV noise or Brakhage dots. We’ve entered the realm of pure film, the place from which translation of the world “out there” is neither attempted, nor desired, and for which the adventurous cat may be merely an alibi for the motion of light at 24 fps. The play of Felix’s multiple incarnations across time and space is undercut by the media-specificity of masses of people (or mice, or flying sausages, or . . .) reduced to a very information-poor, yet poetically rich image. Forced to their limits, the media invents itself by discovering a more “realistic” translation – or transmission – of its grain.5

When sonic glitches, film scratches, pixel artifacts, TV noise or glares on the menu become coveted textual resources for an adoring public that redirects them into art, the labor of translation takes up what machinic transmission has left behind. This type of difficult translation of the noise of transmission into the essence of art may be the modernist approach, perhaps easily relegated to the “boutique” of humanist hubris. Yet, from more postmodern quarters, Hito Steyerl posits that the upshot of the wild transmission of low quality images within a global economy of displacement is the emergence of “new publics and debates” fostered by the “translation and mistranslation” of disaffiliated and damaged data.6 Steyerl even believes that the circulation of these “poor images” may promise a sort of networked Adamic language as presaged by Vertov. Indeterminate or materialist, gnostic or hyperplastic, these practices premised on the granular “real,” rather than the slick simulacrum, tend to resist ideologies of pure transmission, making media more indexical and performative, and less instrumental and communicative.

If, for Walter Benjamin, any translator worth their salt should be dealing exclusively with the challenges of the “untranslatable” rather than the “informational,” then crossing media in ways that expose and aestheticize its errors of equivalence, its illusion of clear transmission and interoperability, should be the province of the media-poet-and-translator. While it may be easy to confound the semantic distinctions between translation and transmission, the “task of the translator” today may be to create them anew with different ratios. Let’s have less transmission, more translation, then. Could this just mean trying harder?

It may be hyperbole to suggest, as do Cage and Goldsmith, that these types of alinguistic and intersemiotic gestures help to “demilitarize” syntax. Parting ways with rational language (and siding with the machine) is not always essentially a promotion of freedom.7 And yet, this reduction to granularity – in a space between language strictures and machine ideology (and thus fully translational rather than purely transmissional, or maybe, imperfectly, both) – allows, at the macrolevels, other forms of modularity and organization, which may themselves help to break down more misapplied taxonomies. For example, while crossing between the registers of word and image technologies might, under some dispensations, be as ontologically infeasible as jibing the product of a potter’s wheel with that of the electron microscope, at some levels of reality a connection between these disparate registers exists. If this avant-garde is not always effective, or may even seem patently ridiculous to some, it is because this granular real is easily subsumable into practices and environments that are socially and symbolically closed: various forms of social hierarchy can be reproduced through machines, even, and perhaps especially when going “against the grain” of a machine’s reproductive powers.



The specific connection between translation and the limits of media reproducibility, I find, is most pronounced in the granular explorations and “poor” aesthetics of historical Xerox art, not least because the Xerox as a phenomenon occupied a transitional role between the analogue and the fully digital.8The “dirty concretism” of bpNichol’s Sharp Facts, for example, extended his more semantic and geomantic translations of Apollinaire into the post-semiotic world of the machine, even as it rebelled against the clean edges and careful manipulations of other cybernetic productions.9 When Apollinaire is translated in this way, by running the translation over and over through a Sharp Fax copier until the words become illegible, another type of legibility emerges. The granularity of this text, as with other concrete works hearkening to the atomic buzz of matter beyond the word, seems to take us away from the translation of mere word, through the Heisenbergian looking glass of another machine, and into a realm of undiscovered noise and rhythms. As George Steiner has pointed out, much experimental translation has emerged from a heightened listening to the word, taking this listening to the point of absurdity in order to make language speak itself.10 These practices might extend translation into an even fuller attentiveness to matter, from the technical to the biological to the cosmic. . . . truly a “total translation,” to use Jerome Rothenberg’s term.11

Reproducing a Xerox image until it disintegrates . . . we’ve all perhaps played with this phenomenon, at least if we are old enough to remember when Xerox machines were less perfect, and when Kinko’s were all-night laboratories of experimental publishing. The pure unproductive pleasure and surprise of this entropic transformation, pleasure principle and death drive intertwined, is something resembling both translation and its ever-proliferating doubles. With each flash, the image “rises into a higher and purer . . . air,” at the same time giving evidence to the failure and blockage of this activity.12 After countless repetitions, enlargements, and reframings, we find that the output, multiply iterated, is surprising and pleasing (as is the glow of the document glass), and this point is crucial: when the failure of media reveals new potentials, its intentional breakdown is not merely nihilistic subversion, easily cooptable. Rather, these acts are hermetic, artisanal, and meditational hallmarks of an expanded (or salubriously retracted?) translational practice. Anti-positivistic, but not, for all that, nothing but nothing.

No one has explored such practices as they relate to both the powers and failures of the granular and granulated image more effectively than W.G. Sebald. While Sebald was somewhat secretive about the methods he used, many of his fans have surmised the role of Xeroxing in his images. The Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI) research team out of Los Angeles has even re-enacted, with forensic exactitude, the ways the author may have manipulated and remanipulated his images in his university’s copy center, at times “translating” cheap and glossy brochure images into ones that would give the illusion of decay and irretrievability.13 Roger Mayer’s film, Reading at Dusk, which was inspired primarily by Sebald’s Xerox-infused research, demonstrates quite clearly the ways in which Xerox noise – working in the “murky realm between drawing and photography” – creates a potential, rather than a blockage, for translation between images.14 Notice in the following clip how each image, when reduced to its grain – fractalesque, cellular – becomes seamlessly another image.

These simulated zooms into each image’s machinic DNA – the reduction to Xerox granularity – literally creates the possibility of interconnection between wildly unrelated images. This is not mere free market celebration of a frictionless space of movement, however. As we will see with Sebald, this reduction and fragmentation, while promising surprising conjunctions, is also productive of a melancholic reflection on the inhuman system that forged these connections. On the one hand, Xeroxing (somewhat like digitizing or file-sharing), is a purely modular activity that subtends an equally modular writing. It keeps the writer active, wards off depressive demons, and opens up horizons for discovery and interaction. On the other hand, as I will discuss in relation to The Rings of Saturn, such performances of pure tracing – in effect, the reduction of writing to a sort of granularity of being – threaten the dissolution of the author, even as they engage the reproductive mechanisms responsible for the creation of authorship conceived strictly, as these traces proliferate into transmissional networks.15



Sebald’s use of Xerox imagery is part and parcel of his overarching concern with translation as it intersects with themes of transformation, ruin, and memory. Such themes are central to The Rings of Saturn. Like most of Sebald’s books, it was originally written in German, and translated into English by Michael Hulse with the close participation of the author. Sebald’s texts typically incorporate images that are of poor or unremarkable quality, heralding a kind of existential intractability on one hand, and undergoing various deformations and degradations on the other. As noted above, Sebald would sometimes Xerox and re-Xerox these images to the point of indecipherability.16 The “grain” of these images may, like Barthes’ “grain of the voice,” tell us something about the real itself, a machinic presence both unsettlingly inhuman, and yet conveying a gist of the autobiographical in the act of translating one’s consciousness both across linguistic borders and to paper. On the one hand, the Xerox bears evidence of the quiddity of indexicality, the author pressing the image onto the document glass as a performance or meditation, sending the image away from the reader particle by particle rather than fretting about a faithful rendering (this erosion of the image may, after all, be the most faithful rendering of a reality lost to time), and ultimately opting for opacity rather than communication. On the other hand, the introduction of Xerox technology, a new technological dispensation facilitating a new reading and writing of history, promises an endless play of transformation and interconnection; the assertion of noise rather than signal here does not necessarily herald authorial death but, rather, allows for an animating plasticity.

The following image, for instance, one of the most curious in The Rings of Saturn, encrypts a potential theory of the textual-xerographical-translational in the guise of various print inconsistencies and cross-media glitches that have been allowed to make their way to the reader.

Figure 3: Image of image of text, from The Rings of Saturn.

The image is an image of text itself – a type of image not uncommon in Sebald. There is nothing to indicate we should “read” this text. The image’s black letter typography may merely signify a sense of antiquity for those who don’t read German, or perhaps the dark, mythic hyle of the German forest. Here, the bad Xerox, like a ruin, does not invite reading as much as it signifies “pastness.” As a postmodern “ruin-in-reverse,” it may also signify the failure of the promises of xerography itself, the abyme of proto-digital notions of the infinite copy.

Even readers of German might have trouble with the odd orthography. If one has perhaps read a transcription of this chapter, as it was published online at the New York Times . . .

Figure 4: Transcription from the New York Times.17

A crucial word – Drtyen – is mistranscribed and should instead read Orthen, what seems to be most plausibly an archaic form of the word Orten. Denoting “place” or “location,” Orten is something indubitably disrupted in Sebald’s narratives of diaspora, but also sanctified by the way his writing uniquely intersects with his walking.

This word, Drtyen-Orthen, like Sebald’s photos, seems to take German readers or curious translators in two directions. They are displaced by the typographical glitch, and are also asked to squarely experience the specificity of what’s in front of them. This might be a multiplicity, but only a multiplicity of chances for lost meaning. Notice further that the New York Times, egregiously but also somewhat delightfully, transposed the long s letterform into f throughout, making the text unreadable.18 However, unreadability was already the case for this passage, whatever one’s knowledge of German, as the original body of the text is in no language at all. Regardless of whether an s is an f or an f an s, then, readers are presented, at least on the surface, with a presumably nonsense language – a special class of untranslatable thing.

Figure 5: Close-up of non-sense text, from The Rings of Saturn.

However, that this text is unreadable in any language was a fact never pointed out by Sebald.

We can say that when an author “contextualizes” an image or illustration, he or she effectively translates it. The surrounding text forms a kind of caption. However, no caption, no “pinning” of the sort is available here, other than a deceptive entrée – and such obliquity or deferral of meaning for the images is characteristic of all of Sebald’s work. The context is not in the text, but is radically elsewhere.

Sebald does set this quote up in the preceding text, however, by relating a series of tangentially linked literary references. A discussion of Thomas Browne’s fake bestiaries leads into a discussion of Borges’ book of imaginary beings, which reminds Sebald of the monstrous Baldanders, a protean being that transforms first from a statue into the author of this nonsensical text, and “then into a mighty oak, a sow, a sausage, a piece of excrement, a white flower, a mulberry tree, and a silk carpet.”19 (The name Baldanders can be translated as “soon-another” or “at any moment something else.”) Adding another literary link to this quincunxial grid of references, we are told that Baldanders appears in Borges’ encyclopedia of imaginary beings and as a character in the 6th book of Grimmelshausen’s picaresque Simplicius Simplicissimus. Sebald then draws us back to Thomas Browne’s views on mortality – in fact, the whole of The Rings of Saturn could perversely be said to be a translation of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial, or a performance of the unfinished translation of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial taken up by the fictional author in Borges’ “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius– and posits Baldanders as a metaphor for the “continuous process of consuming and being consumed” in which “nothing endures.”20

This metaphor is perhaps too easy, although it’s the one that subsumes the whole book. Nevertheless, it is perhaps a nihilistic one that must ultimately be avoided for Sebald, who starts the book narrating a debilitating depression, and proceeds as though the writing would release him from the condition. Throughout the text, in lieu of an ironic vanitas, we are given more dynamic images of the dialectic between stasis and adventure, which may also be that between translation and the untranslatable, the metaphoric and the factual, the immortality of constant mutability and the freedom that comes from the knowledge of the ineluctability of death.

Has commentary on this image-text been left out of Sebald’s narrative (and left as an image) because the full import of “soon-another’s” writing disrupts not only translation, but narrative, metaphor, and meaning as such? Is Baldanders merely a demon of the depressive, the transformative principle into which all work can simply disappear, by which the act of writing unwrites itself, its hand forced by the weight of hyper-consciousness? Is this why Sebald/Hulse chose not to translate, or to obliquely appropriate what even in German would be a cryptic text?21 To further the mystery, if one tries to find an English version of Grimmelshausen’s original narrative to see how this passage has been translated, one is faced with a particularly Borgesian problem. The 6th book of Simplicius Simplicissimus simply does not exist – and whatever copies do exist of this last book may possibly be fake.22

What we have here is a puzzle – a word, at least etymologically, that not only implies something placed before one, an opposaile – but also quite literally a denial, in this case a denial of easy meaning. As I am no proponent of translational timidity, I propose we pick through this text that has resisted our ease of comprehension. Let’s attempt to move from image to writing, where the image is quite literally an “image of writing,” and the meaning therein contains metaphorically an “image of writing” itself.

Figure 6: “Author’s interlinear translation of the beginning of Baldander’s riddle, from The Rings of Saturn.

Notice the important positioning of und gelte. “Which applies” is quite literal here. While it may be in the spirit of a creatively “wrong” translation, the word gelt also implies currency, as if a literal economic correspondence between meanings was to be inferred. And, in fact, the idea of “I am the beginning and the end” is meant to be taken literally, since the secret of this passage is to read only the first and last letter of each nonsense word.23 What seems to be a reference to Christian eschatology is travestied, debased by the pagan hylomorphism of Baldanders, who transmits an encrypted message that might even overwhelm the validity of the act of decoding itself. The alpha and omega of the Logos is turned into mere trick, as if Baldanders were gaming eternity, turning God back into alphabetical epiphenomenon. We can try to parse out the puzzle, but even when we discover its rules – as we can see in the following transcriptions of first and last letters above – it still resists a clear reading.

Figure 7: Various transcriptions of the solution to Baldander’s riddle.24

While this passage does, superficially, seem to add to Sebald’s interest in death coupled with a sense of messianic retrieval, I want to suggest that he’s presenting an impasse – a blockage, a stasis – that is the source of passage itself. Just as the act of translation continues, even when caught between the impossible injunctions of fidelity and the melancholy of miscommunication, so too we are caught up between the textual specificity of the original and the play of its noise in future incarnations. The specificity of the text-image stands for the untranslatable riddle of presence, whereas attempts at its transmission are always imperfect and even comic in the face of this riddle.

It would be a particular form of hermeneutic stupidity to imagine that we’d cracked the message, that we’ve delivered textual meaning to something that was once an image of something that was once another text. It would be foolish to presume that we’ve presented its meaning fully without excess or entropy, that no transformations have occurred in the matrix of various source texts, authors, and meanings themselves to make und gelte an allen Orten a convenient fiction. The code is only deceptively decodable – not only because the orthographic trickery continues down to the root, but also because the encoded message chides the reader for “foolish curiosity” – as if to say, “nothing to see here.” And yet, the actual grain of the Xerox tells a different story. It is both a unique trace – an existential smear that cannot be translated – and a source of multiplicity that calls for constant translation and transformation, if not curiosity.

Perhaps, in the end, Sebald’s choice not to read this passage (or not to give his audience an easy entrée) is to ultimately side against the word, and with the grain. If, in the face of new mutations and transformations of translation, we were merely to consider the verbal – as well as the meaning it trundles through the hallowed halls of consciousness – we would have perhaps already missed something. A translational truth that would include an embrace of granularity is no longer about the analogical aptness of translations in the face of originals, but rather about errors of equivalence that expose the reality of the translator, the machine, or the translator-machine. Granularity also demands attention to the smallest elements, perhaps those that are usually unnoticed by or unavailable to the casual reader, and to the overall texture – granularity as a gist or feel, not merely a botch.25 It is about what happens when words dissolve, perhaps with the guarantees of Thomas Browne, who spent a lot of time explaining why the “confused burnings” of ancient burials did not mean loss of heaven.26 Granularity promises something like Babelian unity without the recourse to eschatological nostalgia. It tells us something about our existential relation to imperfect mechanisms.



If this notion of granular translation seems merely a hyperextension of close reading practices, there is much to be said for translation as a form of literary criticism or semiotics performed as a primary scholarly and creative activity, or at least a practice that disrupts the distinction between primary and secondary texts themselves. Perhaps this may be a way to realize Sontag’s wish in Against Interpretation for an erotics, rather than a hermeneutics, of art.27 Yet this “against” always seemed to me a plea for a different kind of interpretation, not an abandonment altogether. After all, the “reading” practices explored by experimental film makers or sound artists who manipulate transduction as a mode of experimental translation – and thus, like Sontag, who are very much interested in the materiality of the artwork itself, outside of explanatory schema – activate reading systems that interpret signals in ways they were not meant to be read. Such reader-artists engage a machinic code-switching that is a kind of interpretation against interpretation, a supplanting or supplementing of the universe of frames and code systems. In the process, furthermore, new transmissional assemblages are forged that impinge on any act of writing.

In translation, unlike other arts, we are under no illusion that we are imposing form upon inert or unspoken matter. We listen to, interpret and negotiate with translation – just as a careful filmmaker would pay attention not merely (if at all) to story, but instead to the ways in which film itself speaks back and dictates another kind of narrative, even down to its very frames, and thenceforth to the grain of the film. When conventional translation imposes the form of translation itself onto translation, it represses everything not concerned with the transmission, through the translator’s consciousness, of meaning. What is the informing matter that is ignored in this process? Is what’s “lost in translation” gained when the translator returns us to the fullness and complexity of the world beyond representation itself (without any anti-intellectualism and artistic know-nothingism)? This hylism may lead us, willy-nilly, not to the material of translation, but to a virtual black hole – what the poststructuralists explored as that subjective element of a reading that the science of signs cannot explicate. But translational granularity need not merely be a mirror of consciousness; this open approach lends itself instead to a superfidelity to the materials of translation, as part of the global dispositif of reading and its discontents.

Figure 8: Image from Emily Dickinson archive.28

Consider, in conclusion, a modest literary example – a scribble, perhaps, from Emily Dickinson. What are the expanded frames that allow us to see the writing on this page as perhaps something more than a scribble? (Note that some of Dickinson’s ephemeral writings are not even on “pages,” but on the backs of envelopes – transmitters translated.)29 Was Dickinson merely testing the pen? Has a Massachusetts mic check become a literary fetish object? Even if this is not intentionally a kind of proto-concrete poem, what do we make of the fact that what started out as something that seems like soundwaves, or birds, and is accompanied by the author’s signature percussive fillips, morphs into alphabet, turning “oiseaux” into “was,” and a string of potential alternate meanings behind a deceptive repetition.30 If Dickinson’s unpublished poems were “not meant to be read,” then these ephemera are doubly-so, and returning them to the virtuality of non-writing (asserting that they are birds, soundwaves, or just pen marks), that is, effectively not-translating or even not publishing them, may be the aptest reading. Yet such a reading would not be the most interesting, and would ultimately be over-reverent. In any case, this is not the reading that the accidents of history have given us. Nevertheless, on this path picked carefully across a landscape strewn with accident, atrocity and invention, the untranslatable transmission (or untransmissable translation) may be the reality of the ground to which a granular translation leads us, even if this ground is one that tends to change under our very eyes.

  1. Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer with Chris Cullens (Stanford, Stanford UP, 1990), 255. See also 71-77. 

  2. See my discussion of the relation of experimental transduction to translation in Bright Arrogance, a column on experimental translation for Jacket2.

  3. Part of the problem with McLuhan’s and, by extension, Kittler’s and Goldsmith’s formulations is that they all partake of a kind of sloppy absolutism that is useful for jarring, large-scale pronouncements, but fail at the granular level. Umberto Eco takes issue with McLuhan’s definition of media as the root cause of the more apocalyptic tone of popular media theory of the last fifty years. Such large stroke proclamations may be disastrous for any theory of translation based on a theory of media, given that these theories assume severely truncated translations of the term “media” itself, eliding the more detailed categories as defined by communications theory: source, transmitter, channel, code, message, signal, receiver, addressee. Putting these terms in play may allow for more embodied, contextual interpretations while not slipping into hoary humanism, or a caricature of it. See Umberto Eco, “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare,” Travels in Hyperreality, 1967, trans. William Weaver (London: Picador, 1987), 138-39. 

  4. I’ve explored the history of this concept in a number of contexts, including “Radiophonic Ontologies and the Avantgarde,” in Experimental Sound and Radio, ed. Allen Weiss (Cambridge: MIT P, 2001), 57-72 and Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2006). 

  5. Of course, a Felix doll would later be used in a much more instrumental way for television air tests, effectively the first electronic broadcast image. 

  6. Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux, no. 10 (November 2009). 

  7. John Cage, Empty Words, Writings ’73-’78 (Middleton: Wesleyan, 1973), 133. 

  8. See

  9. See Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 109-12. 

  10. “The more receptive our listening inward, the better the chance that we shall hear a force and logic of expression more central than ‘meaning’ . . . . It is then, in Heidegger’s terms, that we hear ‘language speak’ (die Sprache sprechen), that we separate its own ‘saying’ from our accidence, as does the poet.” George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (NY: Oxford UP, 1975), 395. 

  11. See Jerome Rothenberg, Writing Through: Translations and Variations (Middleton: Wesleyan, 2004). 

  12. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator.” Illuminations. trans. Harry Zohn (NY: Schocken, 1968), 75. 

  13. The ICI Research team calls these images “fetishes of a world withheld,” considering them not so much evidentiary as creative of their own reality. In a sense, many Sebaldians miss the point by asserting the photographic, modernist, and indexical aspect of these photos rather than the xerographic, postmodern, and indeterminant. See ICI Research Team, “The Truth That Lies Elsewhere,” in Lisa Patt (ed.), Searching for Sebald: Photography After W. G. Sebald (LA: Institute of Cultural Inquiry, 2007), 492. 

  14. Patt, Searching for Sebald, 506. 

  15. W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 1995, trans. Michael Hulse (NY: New Directions, 1999). 

  16. Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) explains this process, but also emulates it quite well. This is perhaps why the film is not “about Sebald” but “after Sebald,” that is, a kind of translational experience rather than a documentary explication. Even though the film takes us to the places that are the presumed origins of Sebald’s images in The Rings of Saturn, they are not made available to the reader in full, unequivocal, digital color, but retain a grainy 16mm texture, in tandem with (digital) superimpositions and reframings. Grant Gee, Patience (After Sebald) (Cinema Guild, 2012). 

  17. Digital excerpt linked as supplemental material to Roberta Silman. “In the Company of Ghosts,” Review of The Rings of Saturn, by W. G. Sebald. New York Times, July 26, 1998, 

  18. The editorial standard, when translating archaic orthography into modern typeface would be to translate the long s into a short s, so this transcription is clearly a mistake. Without the trace of the archaic typeface, there would be no standard by which to know it is a long s, especially given that every word with a long s, including the mistranscribed “Unfang,” is not recognizable as German. The fact is that this transcription, undoubtedly straining many editorial standards already in its translation of a deeply image-enhanced writing into text-only, errs precisely at the moment when the attempt is made to return the intractable image back to easy transmissable alphabet. 

  19. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 23. 

  20. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, 23. 

  21. Carol Jacobs says of this passage, “Sebald wisely leaves all that unglossed, unsaid, unread. Perhaps it hits too close to home.” Carol Jacobs, Sebald’s Vision (NY: Columbia UP, 2015), 66. 

  22. The fascinating publication history of Simplicius Simplicissimus makes it hard to believe that Sebald’s reticence here does not mask a profound connection to Grimmelshausen as a 17th-century author of a novel-that-has-not-yet-come-into-being, and the Simplicius tales as a key to his work as a writer. The sixth book, sometimes called the Continuatio, was a disputed sequel – partly because various anagrammatic pseudonyms of Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen were attributed to his works for over 200 years. See Walter Wallich, “Postscript” to Grimmelshausen’s The Adventures of a Simpleton (NY: Continuum, 1962), 247-49; Kenneth Negus, Grimmelshausen (NY: Twayne, 1974), 96-102; Alan Menhennet, Grimmelshausen the Storyteller (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997), 96-115. 

  23. This “key” to the whole passage is another victim of the New York Times’ transcription, which has substituted Unfang for Anfang; in the spirit of the infinite regress repressed here, this Unfang could be rendered up as a misspelling of the German word for “scope,” “range,” or “extent,” and thus “I am the beginning and the end in the beginning of the beginning and the end.” 

  24. Claus-Michael Ort, “Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen: Abentheurlichem Simplicissimus Teutsch” (2007) online PDF, 17. 

  25. In a pop cultural context, “granularity” has gained currency to describe wonky, data-driven political interpretations that are both detailed in their analyses and change the status of “details” by utilizing new forms of data collection. In this sense, there is a clear connection between media artists who use methods of transduction and sonification of data, and their cable news confrères. 

  26. Sir Thomas Browne, Urne-Burial, 1658 (NY: Penguin, 2005), 24. “Oblivion is not to be hired,” wrote Browne, even though you can get scratched film filters or glitch patches for most any digital video editing system or softsynth. ((Sir Thomas Browne, Urne-Burial, 47. 

  27. Many current trends seem much more anxiously poised to displace the practice of interpretation, which, according to Roman Jakobson, is a form of “intralingual” translation or merely, according to George Steiner, what we may call “understanding.” Unfortunately, this slow rot to which interpretative practices have been exposed goes hand in hand with digital absolutism, and more pointedly to the abysmal state of current public discourse. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” in Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (NY: Noonday Press, 1966), 3-14. 

  28. Emily Dickinson. Box 5, Folder 81, Amherst Manuscript #443, Emily Dickinson online archive, 

  29. The one pictured here accompanies a poem that might very well be a Xerographical metaphor for paying attention to what lies outside the poem itself: “The Sun is one — and on the Tare / He doth as punctual call / As on the conscientious Flower /And estimates them all —”. 

  30. I’ve named my file of this image “MayManyWasWastManMasWayM’amMastWanWant.png.” 

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