Paris 8, Paris, France
11-14 June 2012
The word trans- is a prefix meaning across, beyond, or through. This prefix may be used in combination with an element of origin: transcontinental, transatlantic. This prefix may be used to imply a state of change: transmit, transfer, transport, translate. And, somewhat more abstractly, this prefix may be used to imply a poetics of coming and going. The word “transverse” applies the prefix trans- to the Latin versus, meaning a turning. Every verse has a re-verse, which is to say, verse has direction. In Greek verse, Strophe sets out from east to west across the stage. Antistrophe replies from west to east. Neither voice is in either place. Both are calling: across, beyond, through.
The word “translation” applies the prefix trans- to the word –lation, which comes from the Latin, latio, meaning borne, as in carried or endured. Traditionally, translation from one form to another implies an equivalency between forms. In the translation of a text from one natural language to another one might expect the meaning, the mood, and perhaps the rhythm of the text to endure. In the translation of a born-digital text from one code language to another, what precisely is borne across, beyond, or through?
The word “transmediation” refers to movement across, beyond, and through media. Though we may consider languages – natural, code, or otherwise – to be behaviours rather than media, when dealing with code languages we must consider the media used to create and disseminate these languages as integral to their intelligibility. Python files cannot be read in a web browser, for example, and Flash files cannot be read on an iSO device. The translation of a born digital text from one code language to another is most often prompted by hardware and/or software obsolescence. In the example of Judy Malloy’s ground-breaking hypertext Uncle Roger(Malloy, 1986), Malloy has adapted and altered the work a number of times to suit emerging media environments ranging from early newsgroups to BASIC, UNIX, and the World Wide Web. I term this process “transmediation” rather than “remediation” as, particularly in the case of TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE], this discussion is more concerned with the asynchronous movement of text across, beyond, and through a continuum of forms than with the associative relationship between old and new media forms upon which the discourse surrounding remediation tends to focus.
Structurally, story2.py and The Two strip the traditional literary form of the short story down to its most fundamental elements: beginning, middle, and end. As Montfort explains in a post to the collective blog GrandTextAuto, “A sentence is chosen from a pool of beginnings. A middle is generated by joining ‘He’ or ‘She’ to a verb or other middle section and concluding that with ‘he’ or ‘she’. Then, an ending is chosen from a pool of endings” (Montfort, 2008).
The police officer nears the alleged perpetrator.
She berates her.
Six years later, neither one remembers the incident.
Given the power dynamics set out in the first sentence, we may be surprised to learn in the second sentence that both the police officer and the alleged perpetrator are female. Why wouldn’t we be? Movies staring females in the roles of both protagonist and antagonist are rare indeed. How differently would we interpret the story if instead it read:
The police officer nears the alleged perpetrator.
She berates him.
Six years later, neither one remembers the incident.
The police officer nears the alleged perpetrator.
He berates her.
Six years later, neither one remembers the incident.
The translator conveys her encouragements.
The administrator relays his congratulations.
The pilot broadcasts her explanations.
The receptionist transmits his salutations.
Cybertext theory distinguishes between these two instances of the same text with the terms textons and scriptons. Textons are strings of signs as they are in the text, i.e. the source code. Scriptons are strings of signs as they appear to readers/users. The mechanism by which scriptons are generated from textons is termed a traversal function. In Espen Aarseth’s typology of textual communication, transiency is listed as a variable of traversal functions. “If the mere passing of the user’s time causes scriptons to appear, the text is transient…” (Eskelinen, 2012). TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] is in every sense a transient text. The mere passing of time causes scriptons to appear. These scriptons spell out stories of transmission, of transience, of transit:
Why shouldn't the wanderers dream of clearer manuals?
The passage from Cornwall proved cruel.
Ancient migrants described itineraries. Three were from the Hebrides.
Further underling the traversal function of transiency, the reader can never quite reach the end of this transmission. Mid-way through a reading, a new version is generated. The sentence structures stay the same, but all the variables change. In a very long sentence in The Order of Things, Michel Foucault describes the classical sentence as a signification engine; a mechanical construction which performs the task of linking otherwise disassociated elements together. He writes, “in a single continuous sentence it is possible to indicate relations of time, of consequence, of possession, and of localization” (Foucault, 1994: 100). In TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] these relations shift as time passes, so that we might have immigrants now, where once we had explorers; a persistent tap eclipses a strange whir; a message instead of a passage; Nova Scotia in place of Scotland; a submarine cable replaces a shipping network. If we were to think of translation merely in terms of equivalencies, we would not likely consider a submarine cable a suitable substitute for a shipping network. We might avoid replacing the word passage, with its double implications of a passage across the Atlantic and a passage of a larger text, with the word message and its more singular meaning. But by situating translation within a string of trans- variables we arrive at a somewhat different understanding of how these “otherwise disassociated elements” are indeed linked together.
TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] is a mechanical construction, a sentence engine performing the programmatic function of associating suspended variables with syntactic signification that they might travel through networks and emerge intact as narrative units. The dialogue generated by this engine is both technically and topically inflected with the syntax and grammar of code language. Some variable strings contain nothing but codes. “var receiving=” for example, reproduces shorthand gleaned from logs kept at the Glace Bay Marconi Station, circa 1911 (now kept in the Marconi Archive at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK):
var receiving=['40 words local paper', '30 words local paper', '100 words special news', 'a few scraps of a private message', 'distinguishable dots', 'dots only', 'heavy traffic', 'something again', 'atmospherics', 'last message from ship', 'repeated \"are you there\"', 'repeated \"where are you\"', 'request to repeat', 'several distinct dashes', 'something from another station', 'a weak signal', 'no answers to our enquiries', 'no answer', 'weak readable signals', 'no signals', 'no signals received, probably not sending', 'strong readable signals, sending fast', 'medium strength readable signals', 'some static', 'lightening all around'];
Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin term the representation of one medium in another “remediation” and argue that “remediation is a defining characteristic of the new digital media” (1999: 45). Yet it is of little significance that the above cited variables were once printed text and are now digital textons. Trans- seems a more specific prefix than re- in re-lation to the pre- digital multi-media ecology referred to by this work. TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] performs the transmediation of texts from archival sources, but these “texts” have already have passed across, beyond or through the code mediums of wires, switches, signals, air, ears, hands, paper.
TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] externalises a poetics of technology. Codes, their creators, the modes through which they operate, propagate, and communicate, and the confusion they instigate are one of the main topics of the dialogue TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] generates. Simanowski suggests that, “because absurdity, weirdness, and illogicality are the default modes of text generators, mastery is only proven by overcoming such characteristics” (2011: 91). This generator aims not to overcome but rather to embrace such characteristics. Absurdity, weirdness, and illogicality are the default modes of long-distance communication, migration, displacement, and difference. And so, TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] generates cacophony, liminality, atemporality and asynchronous exchanges of mixed messages pertaining to miscommunications and network failures.
In his critique of “the vagueness of remediation as a concept” Markku Eskelinen argues, “the heuristic question may no longer be what a medium is, but what a medium does and is used for” (2012: 20). Whether read by a network, by a machine, by software, or by a human eye; whether read as textons or as scriptions in either a fixed or generative instantiation, or spoken by the mouth, or experienced by the ear; what TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] does is generate a dialogue about the translation from one place to another, and what it is used for is a script for live poly-vocal performance. TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] has been performed in Amsterdam, NL; Bristol, UK; Banff, CA; and Oxford, OH, USA. Each instance constitutes a new translation, or transmediation, into a new and unique configuration of performers, audience, acoustics, and spatial arrangements. In “Dramaturgy and the Digital,” an article written by Barbara Bridger after having participated in one of these live performance, Bridger comes to a conclusion uncannily close to Eskelinen’s, though couched in very different terms:
One of the central characteristics of this work is its interrogation of its own modes of operation: an approach that is less concerned with deciphering the meaning of a piece of work, and more interested in the structures that allow this meaning to be transmitted.” (2013)
The most basic, most fundamental of these structures is the dialogue. The figures of Strophe and Antistrophe represent the most basic communication network - call and response. TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE]begins with a call: Begin! Followed by a response: How? With a question. What emerges from a question? Distant shores, to lure us. Location, location, location. Jacques Derrida observes, “Site, this land, calling to us from beyond memory, is always elsewhere. The site is not the empirical and national Here of a territory. It is immemorial, and thus also a future” (1978: 66). The act of locating a distant shore provides a context for the fact of our present position, which is always already in the past, already behind us. In her long poem, “The Fall of Rome: A Traveller’s Guide,” Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson writes: “A journey …/ begins with a voice / calling you name out / behind you. / This seems a convenient arrangement. / How else would you know it’s time to go?”(1995: 75).
And so Strophe sets out from east to west on a treacherous mission, across high seas and frozen wastes, in search of a Northwest Passage, in hopes of trade routes, and fountains of eternal youth. And Antistrophe returns from west to east with scurvy, captive natives, and furs. Neither ever arrives. Both only just barely finish leaving. Through generations of transatlantic migration, characteristics of one place become trans-posed upon another. Another trans- word, transposition re-places. In the case of the call “choose(place)”, “var place=” refers both literally and figuratively a location in memory.
The furthest sea shores are reminiscent of those of England.
The neighbouring vistas compare to those of Cornwall.
The nearest lands could easily be confused with those of Nova Scotia.
Although the translation of natural languages is not my focus here, the inextricable association between language and nation necessitates the question: Were this work translated into another language, such as French, for example, would the location of memory also be translated, or re-placed, to reflect generations transatlantic migration from France to Nouvelle France? Would Cornwall be replaced with Bretagne, Nova Scotia with Acadie? In the interest of soliciting a response to this question, in April 2012 a single output of TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] was posted to Vertaallab (TranslationLab), an ongoing translation experiment edited by Rozalie Hirs on the Dutch blog Ooteoote, in which, translators are invited to post translations as comments to the featured works (Hirs, 2012). There were two responses to TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE]. The first, posted by Ludy Roumen-Bührs, translated the text from English to Dutch. The English place names were retained. The line: “Eleven were from England.” became “Elf kwamen uit Engeland.” The second response was posted by @netwurker, born Mary-Anne Breeze, aka Netwurker Mez, a pioneering author of digital literature known for developing and writing in the hybrid code-poetry language “mezangelle.” To Vertaallab, Mez posted a portion of TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] translated into mezanglle:
be[en there, done that, a]g[a]in[:out(re)] Transmission.
with a[hhhh] quest.
have ARGs + Augments been[+/or]gone, yet?
y Kant [u.c]?
Eleg[ant]raphic.[s|w]Itches, here. .[knot.....*here*].
Here, the syntax and grammar of the code languages engaged in enacting this born digital literary text have heavily inflected, or, we might say, infected its translation. The resulting text is a transmutation in the order of “un petit d’un petit.” TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] serves as a subtext from which to digress into a systematic punning which echoes and extends my own use, in the title of the work, of square brackets, periods, slashes, plus signs, and other punctuation marks common to programming languages. These devices divide phonetic sequences into complex parenthetical segments, in which, new words appear. The first line – “Begin Transmission” – becomes: “be[en there, done that, a]g[a]in[:out(re)] Transmission.” The second line fuses and confuses all of the possible (w) variables ['why', 'where', 'how'] into one impossible word: “[w]H[y]ow[l]?” Mez’s transmutation reflects generations of migration – not across the Atlantic, but rather, into an online networked game space, in which, in mezanglle, at least, the binarisms of he or she and here or there might collapse, into [s.he] and [t.here]. The potential of the hybrid s[t]he[re] space is proposed in the line: “[Br]Av[e]ian.Gnu.Worlds.in.the.unreadable.maKing[s+divided.Queens].”
In 2013, TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] was translated into French by Ariane Savoie, a PhD student at Université Québec à Montréal, and was published as TRANS.MISSION [UN.DIALOGUE] in a special translation issue of bleuOrange, a Montreal-based online journal of “littérature hypermédiatique,” which launched at the Electronic Literature Organization conference Chercher le texte in Paris 24 September 2013. In personal correspondence, Savoie shared certain thoughts on her process, which I will now synthesise here. A strict translation of all the English variables into French equivalents would have resulted in subject-verb gender disagreements, the resolution of which would require considerable modification to the source code which, Savoie felt, would have diminished the variability of the generator and the structure of the piece. Instead, Savoie elected to respect the structure of the source code. Gender conflicts were avoided by the population of strings with variables from only one gender, letting go of any variables that didn't have the exact equivalent in that gender in French. Initially, this resulted in an eradication of the gender variable altogether. Eventually, a compromise was reached in which two versions of certain variable strings were created, that both masculine and feminine proper nouns might be called at different points in the script.
Although the string “var heshe=['he','she']” is not carried over into Savoie’s translation, something of the either/or binarism of Wylde and Montfort’s “var heshe=” endures, both through the introduction of gender variables through other means, as cited above, and through the variable string “var place=”, in which, the location of each place named is either on one side of the Atlantic or the other: Canada or England, Acadie or France, the new world or the old, home or away. Through the operation of this variable, here and there become doppelganger of one another. In The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud defines doppelganger as persons who have to be regarded as identical because they look alike (2003: 141). If we re-place the word “persons” with the word “places” in Freud’s definition we arrive at a similarly uncanny conclusion. Between places inextricably linked by generations of immigration “[t]here is the constant recurrence of the same thing, the repetition of the same… features, the same characters, the same destinies, the same misdeeds, even the same names, through successive generations” (id.: 142).
It could be argued that we are not speaking of translation at all here. Perhaps what we are seeing is simply a case of influence, of resemblance – an uncanny recurrence of code processes carried across from one generation of computer-generated text to the next. Perhaps. Text generation is the oldest form of literary experimentation with computers, after all. Etymologically, the word “generation” so heavily implies regeneration that it would be difficult if not impossible for a second, or third, or fourth generation of generator generators to not be influenced by previous generations of generators of generators. But I have framed the process of creating and disseminating TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE] in terms of translation all the same. Translation, transmutation, transmediation, and transmission have played a central role in the creation and dissemination of this text. Traces, phrases, structures and functions form the source codes of story2.py and The Two endure in its textons. The results of the operation of variables such as gender are borne across into its scriptons. The question of what is borne across, beyond, and though each new generation of this text is reposed every 80000 milliseconds.
There is no repose for the questions this text poses. I will close with one of an infinite number of possible endings proposed by TRANS.MISSION [A.DIALOGUE]:
Is the delivery mechanism functioning?
Some of us believe it’s working.
Please try again.
Les systèmes sont-ils présents?
Les autorités imaginent qu'ils sont brisés.
Veuillez s'il vous plait réessayer.
Une erreur système s'est produite, veuillez réessayer, ou contacter l'administrateur.
A system error has occurred, please try again, or contact the administrator.
Une erreur est survenue durant le traitement de votre formulaire, veuillez réessayer ultérieurement.
An error has occurred, please retry later...
Données indisponibles actuellement. Veuillez réessayer dans quelques instants.
Data currently unavailable - please retry in a short while.
Un autre client est déjà en cours d'identification, veuillez réessayer plus tard.
Another client is already authenticating, please try again later.
L'action a échoué : veuillez réessayer. Contactez votre administrateur système si le problème perdure.
Action failed: Please try again. Contact your system administrator if the problem persists.
Désolé, nous éprouvons des problèmes d'enregistrement de votre courriel, veuillez réessayer plus tard.
Sorry, we are having problems registering your email, please try again later.
Saisissez ces numéro n'est pas valide, veuillez réessayer.
Please enter this information.Number invalid, please try again.
Impossible de mettre à jour l'utilisateur, veuillez réessayer.
Unable to update user, please try again.
Si vous souhaitez vendre cet objet au bénéfice d'un organisme sans but lucratif, veuillez réessayer ultérieurement.
If you would like to sell this item to benefit a nonprofit, please try again later.
Le paiement automatique par facture n'a pas pu être activé, veuillez réessayer ou contacter l'assistance.
Automatic Invoice Payment could not be enabled, please try again or contact support.
L'applet n'a pu contacter le serveur, veuillez réessayer plus tard
The applet was not able to contact the server, please try again later
Vous n'êtes pas autorisé à faire des paiements supplémentaires en ce moment; veuillez réessayer plus tard.
Additional payments are not allowed at this time, please try again later.
Nous sommes très occupés pour le moment, mais veuillez réessayer plus tard.
We're pretty busy right now, but please try again.
Pour accéder à vos photos et à leurs URL à partir du Gestionnaire de photos, veuillez réessayer ultérieurement.
To access your pictures and their web links from Picture Manager please try again later.
Photos - Service photos d'eBay (Service temporairement indisponible, veuillez réessayer ultérieurement)
Pictures - eBay Picture Service (It is temporary unavailable, please try again later)
Vos informations sont introuvables. Veuillez réessayer.
We couldn't find your information, please try again.
Veuillez réessayer ou initialiser un autre appel.
Please try again or set up another phone call.
Cette opération peut prendre quelques heures. Veuillez réessayer ultérieurement.
This transition may take up to a few hours, so please try again later.