Articles on Amodern by lianne-mctavish


This article details the contributions of blind readers to the development, design, and marketing of the optophone, a text-to-tone transcription machine introduced in the early twentieth century. We combine archival research with prototyping to investigate the dimensions involved in past coding and decoding practices. If archives provide testimonial fragments about individual use, 2D to 3D translation helps scholars to more broadly characterize optophone reading and understand technical affordances.


There are practices of literary art distinguished by the compositional use of software. As a constitutive aspect their writing, computation may generate text from a store of linguistic elements or reconfigure previously composed texts. When asked to translate a work of this kind, we are confronted by actual ‘prior inscriptions,’ programs, that played some part in its writing. What critical or interpretative priority should we give to these inscriptions? Should we translate these programs? If so, how and when? "The translation of process," however, addresses liminal cases of works that are accepted as literary, possess existing translations, and which also instantiate program-like processes.


Transpilers and the New Temporalities of Programming in JavaScript

This essay explores the intersection between machine translation and contemporary software development. Specifically, the article considers ES6 transpilers, JavaScript utilities that translate the as-yet-unimplemented future standard for the JavaScript language (ES6) into executable code. These programs translate from a language that might exist in the future into one that exists in the present, mirroring several conversations about contemporary translation (including work by Rita Raley and Michael Cronin) and writing practices (most prominently Vilém Flusser). Flusser in particular sees digital writing as a process of translating the future into the present in dialogue with machines, and this essay argues that ES6 transpilation is an early example of this new temporal rhythm.


Archive-Based Image Description as an Intermedial Translation Technique

The archive-based translation of image to text is explored in relation to the direct and literal translation of texts between languages. A visual content-based description applies institutional language and record-keeping methodologies, cataloguing visual elements and spatial relationships. It operates, like interlingual translation, within a system of shared knowledge and linguistic structures. Creativity and intuition are perceived as problematic to both translation processes and analysis of meaning is not a requirement. My set-piece description of a news image is provided as an example of translation in practice. It is also the vehicle for a metatranslational discussion, through which a case is made for raising the status of the “secondary” text.


From al-Kindi to Weaver

I argue that the origins of machine translation are to be found in the archeology of cryptanalysis (or “code-breaking”). I trace this archeology through the cryptanalysis and translation practices of medieval Arabic scholars, the machine translation efforts of Renaissance and Early Modern universal language planners, the cryptanalysis techniques developed by NSA chief cryptanalyst William Friedman, and through Warren Weaver’s “Translation” memorandum. Together, these histories reveal some of the ways that various machineries were developed to “crack” unknown text, be it a foreign language or ciphertext. As such, this history also points to a deeper, ontological relationship between language and cryptology.


Machine Translation and the Poetics of Automation

This article tracks the rise of two separate Cold War endeavors: machine translation and computer-generated literature. Technocratic imperatives to circumvent the unhomogenizable nature of linguistic plurality influenced machine translation’s theory and design from the outset. Thus, the machinic ingenuity that makes all languages in the world accessible to every other actually works to intensify polylingualism’s outmoding. Couched in terms of universal intelligibility, this latently monolingual fantasy constitutes an ideology of “crypto-monolingualism.” Placing the machine that writes alongside the machine that translates, this comparative historical analysis of machine translation and computer-generated literature also meditates on how neural-networked machine translation aligns with powerful global incentives to accelerate technologically-assisted monolingualism.


Recreating Early Work in Machine Translation

A 1961 system by Victor Yngve, developed to be part of a machine translation project, produced unusual and provocative sentences. Although this generator was made for a utilitarian translation pipeline, it was eventually essentially claimed (although not by its developer) as an avant-garde poetry generator. In 2016, as an engagement with the history of computing, digital art and literature, and machine translation, I re-implemented this system in three different forms, including as a Commodore 64 BASIC program. I printed this program’s output on a dot matrix printer and presented it at a poetry reading; the three programs I developed were also made available as free software.


What is the relation of translation to transmission? How does mechanical reproduction introduce the possibility of a translation that goes beyond alphabetism, into the realms of image and noise? As we see in W. G. Sebald’s use of Xeroxes, the granularity of a text, a form of utter specificity, is a sign of its existential untranslatability and an indication of the totality of mutation. This translational materiality neither requires dogmatic postmodernism, nor a return to presumably “humanist” bromides about fidelity to a text’s meaning.  Rather, an embrace of the imperfection inherent in a text’s transmission and reproducibility allows for a kind of superfidelity to the constantly shifting ground of translation.


Ink Blots, Accidents, and Ephemera

This essay uses the nineteenth-century material practices and domestic uses of ink to trace an epistemological shift in the nature of accidents. At the apex of this change, Freudian psychology transformed accident into purpose, converting chance into unconscious intent; and hitherto randomly spilled or blotted ink was invested with aesthetic, social, and psychological meaning. This shift culminates with Hermann Rorschach’s famous blots. When spilled or blotted ink loses its accidental qualities, it illustrates an abiding paradox of ephemera, that it is never as incidental as it appears.