The waters of translation


Today’s Penn Humanities Forum seminar discussion centered on Kimberley Thomas’ study of failed water management efforts in Bangladesh.  Her “hydro-social” framework reminds us of the difficulties of determining boundaries and “ownership” of fluid cultural artifacts. Because of this fluidity, we face difficulties when we approach a source text thinking we already know what it means.  The source might make no effort to be either complex or coy, yet because the translator approaches it with partial or tainted knowledge, the translation ends up misleading and no one understands (at least initially) that the communication misfired. When we embrace the fluid nature of the source text, then identifying these misfires in a translation allows us then to return to the source text to see how we might have also been victims of partial or tainted knowledge.

The False Quest: Eradicating Informational Entropy

georgetownexperiment1954In her 8 November presentation “Crypto-Monolingualism: Machine Translation and the Poetics of Automation,” Avery Slater challenges us to consider the ways machine translation has relied on efforts to locate, nay create, a singular language that eradicates impediments to communication caused by linguistic diversity. In pursuit of this goal, proponents of machine translation ignore the fact that linguistic messiness starts with individual languages. Although that messiness complicates translation, it is not caused by translation.

In its earliest iterations, machine translation sought a way to account for, reign in, and even take advantage of the paradoxes of informational entropy.  On the one hand, an unambiguous event can be easily conveyed because it contains a limited amount of information. On the other hand, an ambiguous event, while more difficult to convey because it contains more information, can also be a compact and efficient vehicle for conveying that load of information, a realization which poets have long relied.

In order to circumvent and circumscribe informational entropy, machine translation initially sought a mono-language identified as a “new Tower of Anti-Babel,” whose desideratum seems closer to an Ante-Babel, that mythical period before linguistic plurality.  Reaching this desired mono-language meant more than a simple unified linguistic experience; it also promised to eliminate equivocation and ambiguity. This natural generative language (NLG) becomes the code into which all languages can be re-encrypted.  Moreover, each utterance in this language would point to a single, predictive meaning.

By integrating statistical models into their algorithms, more recent forms of machine translation would seem to have abandoned the formulaic substitutions based on dictionary definitions and syntactic rule books. And yet, as I discovered when I typed in, word-by-word, Catullus’s Poem 101, I initially received a predictably awkward rendition of the poem’s lines. Halfway through, however, those lines disappeared and were replaced by a crafted translation of the lines.  I haven’t yet found their source—a 100% match did not appear when I googled the translated lines—but they are not the same as the one provided by the initial algorithm. Instead, they reach into the internet, filching how others (most likely humans) have translated those lines.  What I was given felt closer to the results that would have been provided by the person hidden inside Benjamin’s deceptive chess-playing machine.

The quest for reliable machine translation seems partially propelled by fear of the fallible, “wrongly” biased translator.  As Slater discusses, however, even the most mechanized translation devises embed the biases of their designers.  And the latest translation software that relies on human translators cannot escape the preferences of certain powerful groups of translators.

Of course, these “failures” are not really failures, for all they do highlight what makes language such a fascinating and endless source of study: its essential aleatory nature that allows it to convey information both compactly and expansively, efficiently and gloriously inefficiently.

For these reasons, I’m enthralled by the parlour game of translation tag that retranslates translations through google translator.  Here, I begin with a Modern English translation of the first four lines and then retranslate it into Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, and Armenian. For Afrikaans, I provide only the translator’s rendition into Afrikaans and then back translated into ModEnglish. For the other four, I first provide the translation from ModEnglish into the receiving language and then the back translation into (just as I did with Afrikaans).  Beneath that is the translation from the language just above it and its back translation into ModEnglish.  Thus, the third entry under Albanian is the translation from Afrikaans (rather than from ModEnglish), and the fourth entry is the back translation into ModEnglish.


When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout through every vein with liquid of such power.


Wanneer sagte reën April se die droogte van Maart reg deurboor om die wortel en gebaai elke spruit deur elke aar met vloeibare van so ‘n mag.

When pierced soft rain, April’s drought from March right around the root and bathed every stream through each ear with liquid of such power.


Kur shirat e butë të prillit kanë shpuar thatësirë e marsit të drejte në rrënjë, dhe bathed çdo dal nëpër çdo mënyrë me të lëngshme e fuqi të tillë.

When soft April rains have drilled the March drought right at the root, and bathed every pack in any way with such force liquid.

Kur shpuar shi të butë, thatësira prillit nga mars djathtë rreth rrënjës dhe i larë çdo rrjedhë nëpërmjet çdo vesh me lëng e fuqi të tillë.

When perforated soft rain, drought from March to April, right around the roots and wash each flow through each ear with such force juice.


ሚያዝያ የአምላክ የዋሆች ዝናብ ሥር ወደ መጋቢት መብት ድርቅ የወጉትም ያዩታል, እና ከመታጠብ ጊዜ እያንዳንዱ እንዲህ ያለ ኃይል ፈሳሽ ጋር ሁሉ የደም ሥር በኩል ያበቅላል.

April’s rain under mild drought pierced right into March, and bathed each such power to grow through every vein with fluid.

ቀኝ ሥሮች ዙሪያ, ሚያዝያ ከማርች እስከ ለስለስ ያለ ዝናብ, ድርቅ ቀዶ እንዲህ ኃይል ጭማቂ ጋር በእያንዳንዱ ጆሮ በኩል እያንዳንዱ ፍሰት ታጠብ.

Right around the roots, from March to April, soft rain, drought surgery to power wash with juice in each ear through each flow.


عندما الأمطار لطيف في ابريل نيسان قد اخترقت الجفاف من حق مارس إلى الجذر، واستحم كل برعم من خلال كل عرق مع السائل من هذه السلطة

When the rain really nice in April, has penetrated the drought of March to the right of the root, and bathed each bud through every race with the liquid from this authority

الحق حول جذور، في الفترة من مارس إلى أبريل المطر الناعمة، جراحة الجفاف لغسل السلطة مع عصير في كل أذن من خلال كل التدفق.

 Right around the roots, in the period from March to April of soft rain, drought surgery to wash power with juice in each ear through the whole flow.


Երբ ապրիլյան Նուրբ անձրեւները պիրսինգով երաշտի մարտի իրավունքի արմատի, եւ bathed յուրաքանչյուրը բողբոջել միջոցով ամեն երակային հեղուկ նման իշխանության.

When drought root March April Gentle rains pierced right through every vein and bathed each sprout like fluid power.

Ճիշտ է շուրջ արմատներին, ի մարտից մինչեւ ապրիլ փափուկ անձրեւի, երաշտը վիրահատություն է լվանում իշխանությունը հյութի յուրաքանչյուր ականջին ամբողջ հոսքը:

Right around the roots, from March to April in the soft rain, drought surgery to power wash the entire flow of juice in each ear.

I’m not certain why Amharic, the ancient Ethiopian language, would be the one to introduce such modern notions as surgery and power washing, but am certain that the insights gained through such a game are limited.  Obtaining the insights revealed by translation requires a deeper knowledge of language than currently available via machine translation.


Sociologies of Translation

This week’s Penn Humanities seminar stepped away from the usual format (a presentation by a forum fellow followed by a response from another fellow) networkand paused for a bit to consider two important texts for translation theory: Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and Bruno Latour’s “How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations.”  Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the ways the Global Chaucers project realizes some of the claims of Benjamin’s essay, the most important being the way a translation “must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.”[1]  Extending this concept (without necessarily buying into his transcendental inclinations), we can see how multiple translations might provide more fragments of the vessel, and we can expect that studying these multiple translations together will provide a more complex sense of the original than could the study of a single translation.

Latour, too, is interested in making connections among fragments. The associations he looks for would initially seem to be based on similarities; however, as his extensive citations of Gabriel Tarde suggest, the more significant associations are marked by differences.[2] From a sociological perspective, this difference means that in order to make those associations we must translate. Translation, in one form or another, therefore saturates our interactions and structures our relationships.  When we begin to examine multiple translations of The Canterbury Tales, a likely place to start will be at moments of difference, those places where translators found different solutions to a linguistic dilemma.  These points of apparent incommensurability guide us to places where meaning (in both Chaucer’s text and in the translation) threatens (or perhaps even does) fall apart; the translation, then shows us one possible way to re-associate the terms and thereby create meaning. When the translations are separated by significant temporal lengths or geographical spaces, the results can be an especially rich set of associations allowing us also to observe how meanings shift across time and space.

Latour also reassures that there is no urgency, no need to bring all the translations together in one grand Chaucerian vessel.  Instead, the sociologist’s networks of association allow us to consider the numerous combinations and unexpected hybrids, thereby allowing us to trace connections that make visible what is otherwise hidden to the monolingual reader.

My brief reflections touch only tangentially today’s fascinating conversation that explored the associations animating these two essays.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard University Press, 1997), 260.

[2] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford University Press, 2005), 14-16.

Pitfalls of Unidirectional Translation

How are we to understand a project whose primary objective is “to forge in common a memory, an imaginary, a common view of the world that surrounds us”? What does it mean when that same project attempts to create a common culture by simultaneously artebroadcasting television programing to German and French audiences, especially when that broadcasting is developed from a German or French perspective and then (mis)translated into the other language with insufficient concern for the lost context? These transcultural questions were two of many issues raised by Damien Stankiewicz’s “Is Europe Lost in Translation?: Lessons from the Micro-Politics of Meaning at the French-German Television Channel ARTE.” Though ostensibly a series of vignettes drawn from Stankiewicz’s fieldwork at the Strasbourg television channel, the paper becomes a study of the politics of translation when well-meaning cosmopolitanism becomes straitjacketed by nationalism, when polylingual discourse becomes “serial monolingualism” (a term I borrow from Bethan Wiggin). Via Stankiewicz’s dispiriting experiences at ARTE, we watch an admirable (it seems) effort flounder when it focuses too much on telling and too little on listening.  Consequently, the channel’s unidirectional linguistic and cultural translations frequently miss their mark.

For me, ARTE’s efforts and frustrations provide a potent reminder to the pitfalls of a transnational cultural project. It’s good to be reminded that political agendas (whether or not they are self-recognized) can thwart the highest-minded efforts.

When we launched Global Chaucers in 2012, our purposes were limited and certainly felt apolitical to us.  Within months we realized that even our most minimal goals could not be reached without collaborators outside our immediate contacts.  At this point, Global Chaucers became politically inflected. Although the direction of Global Chaucers continued to be primarily determined by our goals and interests, our collaborators’ local concerns also shaped the project.  Global Chaucers couldn’t be about telling members of the scholarly collective how they should appropriate, understand, or interpret Chaucer.  Instead, it had to became a listening campaign, an effort to learn how Chaucer’s non-Anglophone readers understood his work and how they translated that understanding to other non-Anglophone readers.  I think it’s this insistence on listening that has helped us expand our network, bringing in new voices and new perspectives, united not by a common understanding of a single text but by a common delight.

Translating Basic Word Lists


In her lucid exploration of language data collection in the field once known as “lexio-statistic glottochronology,” Judy Kaplan’s “From Lexiostatistics to Lexomics: Basic Vocabulary and the Study of Language Prehistory” traces the persistent hold “Basic Word Lists.” Though the data behind those word lists have gone from being recorded and shared on note cards to being stored and processed on the cloud, they have continued to be presented as the scientific basis for big data theories regarding the prehistory of language.  As new data is brought into linguistic models, she suggests, it is made to fit the models’ theoretical conclusions rather than the new data requiring any adjustments to the model.

I was particularly interested in her discussion of the Basic Word Lists,* ranging from 15-215 items, comprising a basic vocabulary defined by its stability across time and cultures.  Identified as commensurate across all language systems, this stable lexicon includes terms like all, louse, seed, blood, claw, belly, bite, know, sun, yellow, night, new, and round. An essential (and somewhat dubious) premise behind the Basic Word List is the commensurability of these lexemes across languages (and across time).  With these word lists, mid-twentieth-century linguists created absolute chronologies of language development.  Most recently, archaeogeneticists and evolutionists have used this Basic Word List to push back the limits of language prehistory, albeit in less absolute terms.

One aspect of my study of Canterbury Tales translations also works with word lists. Unlike the linguists of Kaplan’s study, however, I’m interested in intense moments of incommensurability, those points when the receiving language exceeds the confines established by the source text’s language.  By and large, my terms have been cultural; for instance, I’ve examined the various ways translators express the idea of pilgrimage and salvation.  Additionally, some examples seem so natural that we are surprised when the translations betray their cultural situatedness.  In this category are terms associated with emotions, such as anger and joy.  What if we extend this investigation to include those supposedly stable terms? Would the literary context of multiple translations support my intuition that these terms are not nearly as stable as supposed?

*Thanks to Roger Bilosoly for sharing this fascinating link.  Be prepared to spend many hours tracing linguistic cognates.

Faux Translation


Susie Hatmaker’s “The Radical Abundance of Silica: Potential for a Digital Ethics” is concerned with translation as movement: movement of a natural resource from one locale to another, movement of minerals from their raw state to economic value.  In many ways, though, the story she tells is one of misrepresentation through faux translation (my term). That is, the histories of Silicon Valley and the computer chip industries housed there are not simple stories of taking an abundant resource–sand–and transforming it into abundant forms of digital information with nothing wasted, nothing extracted.  (Nor is it the case with Silicon Valley’s closely related industry, the manufacture and distribution of solar power panels, an industry which claims to transform sunlight into clean, abundant energy.) As Susie’s paper reminds us, the silicon chip and the resulting electronic data industries have never been a pure translation of a natural resource into uncontaminated digital bytes.  In order to see those impurities, Susie suggests we listen to the silica, heed its geologic and economic history. Only in this way, we can begin to approach a digital ethics.

Similarly for literary translations. Because all translations are impure, the only false translations are those that deny their impurity or imperfections.  However, because there seems to be a universal desire for pure translations, these modes of willful (perhaps, sometimes, naïve) misrepresentation are seductive.  Repeatedly, we see Chaucer and his translators resisting the lure of faux translation and importing impurities that mark the ethical integrity of their task.

Translation, ReTranslation


Among the many images Christine Poggi shared in her 27 September presentation, the most arresting for me was this reproduction of Mona Hatoum’s Projection (2006, cotton and abaca paper).  Although Poggi was primarily concerned with translation in its most literal sense, as carrying something over a boundary line, I was struck by how this example of Hatoum’s work queries the process of translation. Through the process of erasure, the artwork exposes the ways maps transmit their prejudices when translating three-dimensional geographical features into two-dimensional representations.  Whereas a map’s standard cartographic images project borders, languages, and landmarks as suitable for understanding geography, Hatoum’s translation of a map removes identifying features that would associate a locale with any agenda, people, or language. By stripping away all those features that would link the map to one purpose or another, Projection reminds us that customary maps are filled with the prejudices of those who make them, the powers that support them, and the eyes that read them. Delivering a washed out recreation that seems to bear little resemblance to the original, Hatoum’s art work would initially seem to declare the impossibility, even undesirability, of translation—whether cartographic or any other mode of translation—without prejudice.

If, however, we think about her projections as translations of translations, then she shows how a translation can sometimes return us to the source text’s original purity, a purity visible only from a distance.  Projection reminds me of the Apollo 17 photos of the earth taken 45,000 km away, the famous “Blue Marble” images. bluemarbleArtificial political demarcations are naturally absent, but also missing are many topographical features that have traditionally established boundaries. Instead, we have the broad outlines of continents and oceans. Hatoum’s image approximates this borderless, god’s-eye view that the Apollo photograph seems to capture, returning us thereby to a cartographic vision unavailable to most us.

When we study Chaucerian translations, either Chaucer’s own translations or subsequent translations of Chaucer’s texts, it can often feel that we’ve moved so far away from the original that we’ve lost sight of what counts.  Perhaps, only perhaps, these translations can bring into relief what we might otherwise miss, those broad outlines obscured by the text’s natural details and the false demarcations we’ve inherited from previous generations of readers.