By Innessa Roosen
John Cayley’s multifaceted electronic-poem has two aims: the visual art of translation – and the literal. Set against a classic, minimalist, black and white background, Cayley’s poem is in tune with an original musical composition by Giles Perring. In a brilliant collection of thoughts on the closeness and distance between languages, this particularly suggestive work is suitably titled “Translation”. Behind the scenes of this work, and what is being viewed on the screen, are a complex set of algorithms fragmented into passages, revealing short blurbs on the process of translation.
Perhaps one of the most enduring and thoughtful works published in the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 1, this piece uncovers the move from language to language and what is lost during the progression. Letter by letter, the movement from German, French and English is displayed and performed visually and literally on the screen. Letters, words and half formed words drift, descend and evolve, into and out of legibility – adding to the overall ambient, elongated feel this piece evokes.
Cayley, a self-proclaimed literal artist, makes use of the digital medium as a surface for literature – electronic literature; that is. And, because “Translation” exists in the digital and programmable form, tendencies to simply watch the piece, versus read the piece arise. But, with a focus on the work as not only a visual poem, but as a work of literal art, Cayley’s mediations on translation and the process of translating come to light.
Throughout the playing time of “Translation”, the legibility varies; for the most part broken words and sentences are constantly changing, only displaying a full statement for a brief period of time. The readability of the piece is also dependent upon what language, or languages the reader may understand and whether or not the reader intervenes with the work, changing the poem to play in one language only; which Cayley provides the option of. However, the work streams in and out of understanding whether or not you are able to understand all three languages, paralleling the impossibility of preserving every last idea when something is translated; as it is impossible to paraphrase a work and not lose some part of it.
Cayley manages to convey, both through illustration and text, the intriguing connection and disconnection between languages through the nature of translation. As letters replace other letters, words begin to form which may or may not lead to the formation of a legible sentence. Words also deconstruct and veer the reader from learned meaning and swept into the process of translating, where some things are bound to be lost.
Every slow and engaging second of Cayley’s poem is an impressive reflection on the progression of translation and moving from language into language, letter by letter. “Translation” provides an affective perspective through an imaginative highway of drowning letters and evolving language – the opposite is also true. And, of course, Cayley offers a heavy, lingering statement on the drawback of translation, as the process will always leave a piece of the puzzle, equation or idea behind.