SPAM Digest #2 (Oct 2018)
A quick list of the editors’ current favourite critical essays, post-internet think pieces, and literature reviews that have influenced the way we think about contemporary poetics, technology and storytelling.
‘How to Write About a Vanishing World’, by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
Like many others, I’ve spent a week in a state of grief about the recent IPCC report. I’m all over The Guardian like a traumatised fungus, trying to find nourishment in the form of answers, devouring data I don’t understand. I sense the dyspeptic effects of all those figures. Thank goodness for Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), who draws us back to the role of narrative in making sense of our vanishing world. Provocatively she opens with the familiar trope of the ‘stormy night’ and tells of ‘an American herpetologist named Marty Crump’ who, after a neighbourly tip, discovers the emergence of golden toads not far from her home in northwest Costa Rica. This is in the late eighties. These strange and beautiful creatures are part of the biospheric treasure trove whose loss Kolbert then documents across the intervening decades, up to the present. By the turn of the century, she suggests, biology had become a practice of living elegia: ‘A biologist could now choose a species to study and watch it disappear, all within the course of a few field seasons’.
Her article collects numerous other stories of scientists losing their subject — from Arctic ice to Great Barrier corals — until extinction becomes the presiding litany of our times. She notes how researchers find themselves paralysed, unsure of intended outcomes when faced with such scales of ecological loss. Even as scientific projects to assist vulnerable ecosystems gather in nuance and strength, there’s a sense that we’re already fighting a losing game. Science becomes a question of narrative transmission, as much as active intervention; by doing research, you’re sending some sort of message of hope. As Kolbert puts it, ‘Hope and its doleful twin, Hopelessness, might be thought of as the co-muses of the modern eco-narrative’, inspiring nature writers and scientists alike. The central question is ‘how we relate to that loss’: is it a question of elegy and mourning, or sparking a call to arms? Even those writers who urge us to act, who celebrate the potentials of direct intervention, admit that none of this will happen fast enough to make a lasting difference. Ending on the phrase ‘Lalalalalala, can’t hear you!’, Kolbert sardonically evokes that familiar, Trumpian stage of climate denial which has been rearing its all-too-human, deluded head of late. But what persists is the value of keeping on — ‘Narrating the disaster becomes a way to try to avert it’ (and here I am reminded of Maurice Blanchot’s writing of the disaster as a polysemous, irreducible event) — writing, as Kolbert does in this piece, our stories in the face of defeat. An earnest act in the face of inevitable cynicism, a careful digestion of failure. Maybe ecological writing just needs to be more metamodern.
‘Your favorite Twitter bots are about die, thanks to upcoming rule changes’, By Oscar Schwartz, Quartz
Twitter bots fans, you might want to take a seat: there could be some terrible news out there. According to Oscar Schwartz and his article on Quartz, many of our favourite sources of coded linguistic beauty might disappear in the coming months due to what he calls ‘a company-wide attempt to eradicate malicious bots from the platform.’ A couple months ago, Twitter announced that they would start requiring bot developers to undergo a thorough vetting process in order to gain access to Twitter’s programming interface (where the essence of a Twitter bot lies) – an amount of bureaucratic load that prolific bot artists have told Schwartz would simply be too much work to keep up with.
Regardless of the bleak prediction, the think piece reads less like a eulogy for Twitter bots, and more like a defense of them. Schwartz provides us here with a real goldmine for Twitter bots to follow – from Jia Zhang’s @censusAmericans, which composes little biographies of nameless Americans by compiling information provided to the open census database, to Allison Parrish’s @the_ephemerides, which couples images of distant planets from NASA’s archive with computer-generated poetry. In a statement to Schwartz, Parrish (a poet, computer-programmer, and educator as well as a Twitter-botter) states that ‘asking permission to make a bot is like asking someone permission to do graffiti on a wall (…) It undermines everything that is interesting about bot-making.” – a point that is not only rhetorically effective, but possibly a very productive way of conceptualising Twitter-bots as an art form.
‘For these bot-makers, letting their creations die off on Twitter is an act of protest. It’s not so much directed at the new developer rules, but at the platform’s broader ideology. “For me it’s becoming clear that Twitter is driven by a kind of metrics mindset that is antithetical to quality communication,” Parrish says. “These recent changes have nothing to do with limiting violent or racist language on the platform and are all about making it more financially viable.”'
'[Darius] Kazemi [another prominent bot artist] agrees, adding that to continue making creative bots on Twitter is making a bargain with the devil. “We’re being asked to trade in our creative freedom for exposure to a large audience,” he says. “But I am beginning to suspect that once we all leave Twitter, they will realize that we represent a lot of what made Twitter good, and that maybe the platform needs fun bot makers more than we need Twitter.”’
‘Erasing the signs of labour under the signs of happiness: “joy” and “fidelity” as bromides in literary translation’, by Sophie Collins, The Poetry Society
Some of our most significant intellectual epiphanies occur in lecture theatres, often in resistance to the lecture in question. Maybe this is a form of vicarious translation. In her piece, Collins begins with an anecdote about a lecture she was looking forward to leaving her cold. The speaker’s takeaway slogan, the ‘joy of translation’, rang hollow as a company ‘mission statement’. Against this platitude from the corporate happiness factory, Collins explores the affective entanglements of reading translation through various types of negativity, the disciplinary disparities around its process, intentions and attendant critical debates. Drawing upon her own experience in translating literature from the Dutch, Collins explores the value of acknowledging struggle in translation — from ‘uncertainty and self-consciousness’ to ‘breakdown and frustration’. She makes room for the translator’s own vexed identity to be critically recognised in the process, and thus asks for analytic frameworks which keep in mind the theories around hybridity posited by thinkers such as Gayatri Spivak, Homi K. Bhaba and Julia Kristeva.
Working through the negative space of translation, Collins goes on to deconstruct the concept of ‘joy’ itself, upon whose insistence various arms of society’s ideological apparatus are able to keep us in stasis and check: ‘Given that the desire for happiness can cover signs of its negation, a revolutionary politics has to work hard to stay proximate to unhappiness’. Joy becomes less a personal experience than ‘something more like obedience to a collective cause’. Translation might allow us to notice relationality and difference between cultures; but as a creative act in itself, translation also provides a discursive technology for intervention in structures of power. Often denigrated as secondary or indeed ‘women’s work’, translation occupies a precarious position in the ‘creative hierarchy’, and this is reinforced by vacuous proclamations about its joy. Whose joy are we reveering here anyway? What we need, Collins argues, is a more complex set of theories around translation, which bring into play its disruptive, ‘negative’ aspects. Her productive alternative to ‘fidelity’ or ‘faithfulness’ as the goal or logic for translation is that of ‘intimacy’: a translation process that ‘exhibits a heightened contextualisation of its source text for the reader’; one that bears with it the often fraught emotional truths around the act of moving between texts, times, cultural tones and affective states. Emotional truths whose discernment opens a space for seriously ‘affirm[ing] the possibility of change’:
As a proposed ideal for translations, ‘intimacy’ brings with it its own questions, problematics and risks. Ultimately, however, my application of the term is intended to shift the translation relationship from a place of universality, heteronormacy, authority and centralised power, towards a particularised space whose aesthetics are determined by the two or more people involved, in this way amplifying and promoting creativity and deviant aesthetics in translations between national languages.
‘On Translating Human Acts’ by Han Kang – By Deborah Smith in Asymptote
Han Kang plays language with the kind of near-unbearable intensity which Jacqueline du Pré applied to the cello, exploring its sensory possibilities through a continual detailing of the minutely physical—a bead of sweat trickling down the nape of a neck, the rasp of even the softest fabric against skin—which builds to such a pitch that even the slightest physical contact, no matter how intentionally tender or gently performed, is felt as violence, as violation.
As someone who works in the field, I’m always eager to read the translator’s note before commencing my reading of the work. Translators’ introductions, beyond outlining the context of any novel, tend to reveal the hyper-specific difficulties they faced when attempting to replicate linguistic nuances of the source language into the target language. In this case, one example given was the ‘brick-thick Gwangju dialect’, as Korean dialects are distinguished by grammatical differences rather than individual words. Looking to avoid ‘translationese’, Smith identifies that her primary concern was the effect the text had over the reader, rather than specific syntactic structures, aiming for ‘a non specific colloquialism that would carry the warmth Han intended’.
Already intrigued by Smith’s introduction, and after having finished Human Acts, I continued my research of Smith, coming across much of the criticism she received by many academics for her translations of both The Vegetarian (she had been studying Korean for only three years before commencing this work) and Human Acts. In this essay, Smith takes us on a journey through the complexities and challenges she faced as a translator. One that really stuck out to me was the necessity to find as many possible synonyms for the verb ‘to erase’. This word continued to resurface in the original often as a straight repetition. As Smith notes, Korean is ‘far more tolerant’ of this than English. I had once encountered a similar issue myself when translating a memoir based in one Rio de Janeiro’s jails. The prisoners in that text frequently used the word ‘parada’, a local slang that can mean ‘thing’, ‘business’, ‘occurrence’, but is context specific. The heavy repetition of any of these options in English didn’t read well, making the text clunky and awkward. Only through methodically finding specific synonyms to match with each context was I able to resolve this.
Out of all the nuances and subtleties Smith had to work through, none can be more thought-provoking than the title itself, ‘Human Acts’. As Smith notes, a literal translation of the Korean would have resulted in the slightly awkward title ‘The boy is coming’, leaving her with the tricky task of finding a captivating title that retained the neutrality of the original. Read the full article to hear about which elements Smith had to keep in mind when deciding how to translate Kang’s ‘restrained Korean’.