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Górska-Olesińska, M., Pisarski, M. (2016). Translating Electronic Literature. Multicultural, Multilingual and Cross-Platform Encounters. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 528-529.
Translating Electronic Literature. Multicultural, Multilingual and Cross-Platform Encounters

Translating Electronic Literature. Multicultural, Multilingual and Cross-Platform Encounters

Sea and Spar Between by Stephanie Strickland and Nick Montfort is a poetry generator that repurposes, combines and re-mixes words and phrases from Emily Dickinson’s poems with those taken from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick into an (almost) endless sea of stanzas (the program produces about 225 trillion stanzas arranged on a toroidal surface). In his keynote speech to the U.S. Library of Congress, Stuart Moulthrop defined Sea and Spar Between as both “an immensely long-form computational poem” and “a remarkably compact poem generator.” Transferring such a complex e-literary work into a different language and cultural context raises vital questions regarding the very nature of translation and adaptation in the digital age.

The first Polish version of the program, presented by us in 2013 at Electronic Literature Organization Conference in Paris and published online in 2014 in Techsty (both as a program and as a glossed code with Montfort's and Strickland's comments), greatly multiplied the distributive authorship of the work as a whole, revealing new culturally and linguistically determined aspects of code, grammar and style, and adding a complex layer of interdependencies.

See and Spar Between poses a translational challenge which in some languages might seem impossible to accomplish. Polish, our target language, imposed some serious constraints: one-syllable words became disyllabic or multisyllabic; kennings taken from Melville’s work required a different morphological, lexical and grammatical arrangement; and most of the generative rhetoric of the original (like anaphors) had to take into consideration the grammatical gender of Polish words. As a result, the javascript code, instructions that accompany the javascript file, and arrays of words that the poetry generator draws from, needed to be expanded and rewritten. Moreover, at several crucial points of this rule-driven work, the nature of Polish language forced us to modify the code.

In 2015, we started work on porting the Sea and Spar Between generator from its javascript+html5 web browser context into XBOX 360 Kinect motion-sensing environment, where the input is controlled by user gestures. This adaptation, which will be available both in English and Polish will be semantically oriented. We aim to use Kinect affordances to program various haptic gestures recognized by the sensor in a way that ensures coherence between interactive gestures and the content of the poem, between the user’s haptic activity and their cognitive processes. Moving from one platform to another, from the Web to Kinect, will involve translating mouse and keyboard gestures (point-and-click, numerical input) into a gesture vocabulary of sensor technology. As an adaptation, our work aims at incorporating the dominant themes of Strickland and Montfort’s work into user movements during the multidimensional navigation of the work. If the generated stanzas are compared to fish in the ocean, the screen to an infinite canvas and the reader’s navigation to a sea voyage, then Kinect port transforms these very metaphors from subject of “translation” into a finite set of gestures that are in sync with the work’s semantics and the authorial intentions behind the generator. For this reason alone, the port to Kinect cannot be a translation of a more radical type, in which Dickinson and Melville are replaced with any other poets from any other language.

Once again, the question arises of what we translate/adapt/port when we translate a digital work of art for digitally enhanced venues and for an audience of “digital natives.”

In the course of translation of Sea and Spar Between and its adaptation for different platforms, the process of negotiation between the source language and the target language involves the factors unseen in traditional translation. Strickland and Montfort read Dickinson and Melville and parse their readings into a computer program, which as a translation, or port, from Python to javascript, is already a derivative. This collision of cultures, languages and tools is amplified when transposed into a different language. The transposition involves the original authors of Sea and Spar Between, the original translators of Dickinson and Melville into Polish, and us, turning the process into a multilayered translational challenge, something we propose to call a distributed translation. The forthcoming port to Kinect makes these issues even more challenging and exciting.

  1. Montfort, N., Strickland, S. (2013). Cut to fit the toolspoon course. Digital Humanities Quarterly, 7(1).
  2. Montfort, N., Strickland, S. (2014). Spars of Language Find at Sea. Formules, 18.