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A Read (and re-read) of re/translate

​re/translate

By Stephen Hines

40 pages

Bottle of Smoke Press

2015

Let’s say that language is an abstract, subjective system of signs, with different languages built in different systems. Let’s add that poetry may involve a warmer, more musical system, but one that is still built in an equally subjective way atop the first set of signs. The act of translating verse from one language into another, then, can be like arranging a whole new song in a completely new genre. Or, at least, giving the original an extensive remix.

At first read, re/translate isn’t quite that musically inclined. Poet Stephen Hines suggests he is working in the spirit of the time-honoured kids’ game of “Pass it On”, where a phrase repeated at one end of a line-up comes out the other end processed into linguistic hamburger by the giggly minds of early learners. But playing this game with poetry offers a bit more adventure than spitting a phrase along from one ear to the next can.

Here, the phrase is a full-grown piece of literature, and the processor, an on-line translation system. Hines’ rather unpoetic technique is to run the text of a previously-published poem of his (“revision”) through a translation algorithm numerous times, from English to, say, Russian, then back to English. He reveals the transformation, then moves on to the next language, and the return to English, and the further remix.

Although Hines claims not to have tinkered with or edited the translations, the results have a surprising flow. Through the accretion of idiosyncrasies from each language, the words gather additional meaning from translation to translation, like a well-worn piece of luggage building up a facade of travel stickers. 

And it’s a battered piece. For Hines, language is an almost physical medium, and reading his work becomes a visceral experience. The text takes an anoraphic pounding, such as when, in the initial poem, “these words [become] raw from rereading/raised bloodred from rereading”. Hines’ style is prosaic, direct and merciless.

Translation, though, rips the poem from his grasp. When, a few versions in, the poem returns to English from German, it has been tuned more lyrical: “Rereading these words makes swollen/saturated beads, raw red raised/wounds.” By the time the last version is reached, landing from Bengali as “Format”, the text is a minimalist knot of potential meaning that seems exhausted by all the efforts, gradually collapsing at the end into the infinity of a hanging conjunction:

“Words,

For

Or”

Of course, there are other variables at work in this literary experiment (which translator is used?; which languages are chosen and in which order? etc.). But the satisfaction from the results, the way in which the collection actually hangs together as a piece of literature rather than just the raw products of an experiment, comes from the dramatization of language as a constantly mutable system. Here, meaning is as much layered on as also dug up, with the reader rearranging their approach to the poem with each fresh presentation: a remix and a new genre from each mouth to each ear.

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