Translating Walter Benjamin in John Cayley’s Translation

First of all, I had to turn the music off after a while. No offense to Giles Herring, but it was particularly unpleasant (and from checking out some of the other texts mentioned in these posts, I’m realizing that disorienting, disturbing, and downright annoying audio seems to be common occurrence in E-lit, which is interesting in and of itself and raises some questions). Truthfully, I can’t think of any significant way to connect the music to the text at this moment, except that maybe the discordant nature of it mirrors the nature of the text. Am I losing a large part of the reading experience in shutting out the aural experience?

So grating audio aside, the interface of John Cayley’s QuickTime text Translation is a black screen split in half. On the right side, you have white text that is changing, letter by letter, about once every five seconds. Sometimes during a transformation, a bunch of letters change. Other times, only one or two new letters appear. Most of the time, the text is unintelligible, a mere jumble of letterforms that defy semantic recognition. The text eventually will turn into readable passages that slip between English, German, and French randomly. The left side is a bit more confusing, but seems to correspond to the right side in terms of transforming. It has blocks of white, almost like scraps of cut out paper, that sometimes show German text, black lines, or red images, all of which I personally cannot make sense of at all. There is no pause button, nor is there an end. I had left the text running for like, three hours and just kept coming back to check on it intermittently. It never looked much different.


The introduction from the ELC mentions that Translation has some optional interactive components, that pressing Shift + E will elicit transitions that move towards meaningful English, Shift + F for French, Shift + D for German. These options are not intuitive at all, as the work provides no “help me” section or any directions. To get a passage of readable English without just waiting for it to appear randomly, I was holding Shift + E for nearly five minutes. The result of this is that I didn’t really read this work so much as I watched it, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a language and letter combination that I could actually recognize and read. Which is, strangely enough, less frustrating than it is entrancing. But I’m curious about the difference between reading and watching, since this pops up in a lot of digital literature.

Okay, so what does the legible English actually say, when it chooses to say it (or when you stubbornly hold down Shift + E)? While the format of the text looks like a poem broken into four stanzas, the text itself is actually taken from Walter Benjamin’s 1916 essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” (there are also some pieces of text that will surface which are taken from Proust, though I won’t focus on these).


So I read Benjamin’s essay in an attempt to get some context. As a whole, it’s pretty strange, mostly because he proposes that there is a language of man and a language of things (I’m still working this out. At one point he talks about “the language of this lamp.” This idea does correspond to what we were talking about in our last class, though, about the world as a text which is only accessible through language). The portion above comes near the very end of it. The essay proposes a theological origination of language, and basically what I took from it is that language is an entity that exists on a translational continuum. We have the divine word of God (a language of creation), the name-based language of man (a language of knowledge), and the nameless language of objects (a language of materiality). Words, or names, function as “the translation of the language of things into that of man” (“On Language as Such”). So Benjamin isn’t really concerned with moving between the languages of the English, German, and French when he talks about translation. He’s thinking more of language as a whole which moves on a continuum spanning the languages of God, subjects, and objects.

Yet Cayley’s work translates Benjamin’s conception of translation, applying it to domain of national languages. The work digitally enacts exactly what its text, Benjamin’s text, says: “Translation is removal from one language into another through a continuum of transformations / translation passes through continua of transformation[,] not abstract ideas of identity and similarity.” Indeed, a continuum of letter transformations takes us from English to French to Benjamin’s original German. This isn’t how we typically think of translation between languages. If I’m moving from English to French, I translate word by word, discretely rather than continuously, swapping English signifier for French signifier, working through “identity and similarity.” Cayley defies this notion entirely, which is what makes it so unsettling.

Of course, the issue of translation exists in all of these texts that we’ve been focusing on, even the ones written in just one language: code must be translated, by the computer rather than the human, into what the reader sees on the work’s interface. The idea of moving between languages is more prominent in electronic literature than it ever was in print.

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