Friday, 23 October 2009

Translating to Digital

- people used to make records,
as in a record of the event,
the event of people playing music in a room -
ani difranco

Ok, bit of a whirlwind post, I'm off to a translation conference tomorrow morning, and my train's at half 5, so please forgive me the lack of referencing and hyperlinking in this piece, sources are certainly available on request, and I might even get round to it when I get back.

This is, verbatim, what I will be saying tomorrow afternoon. I'm sorry you don't get a handout, but all the quotations are in the text. I've touched on some of these ideas on this blog before, but there's a lot of new content, and I think it reflects the current state of my research pretty well.

- Translating to Digital:
What Changes When Nothing Changes? -

Whenever I say that I’m researching the potential impact of reading digital texts, I always get asked: “so do you think we’re going to stop reading books? Are books going to die out?” I’d like to begin, then, with a quote from Stuart Moulthrop, who says:

“The book is already ‘dead’ (or superseded) if by ‘alive’ you mean that the institution in question is essential to our continued commerce in ideas.”

I very much like that idea, that books are no longer essential. That means that when we do hold on to them, and for dear life, we’ll be doing it because we care, which has to be much better than assuming that they’ll always be around, and that they’ll always be our most effective tool for receiving information. It is in this vein that I would like to ask today why a printed page is so different from its digital counterpart, why so many are so resistant to such change, and why, if we consider this move from page to screen as an act of translation, we might have to rethink the word ‘text’ and its implications, particularly if we delve into the history of our species.

In a short essay from 1932, entitled “The Homeric Versions,” Jorge Luis Borges said of translation, and this is quotation 1, that:

“The model to be imitated is a visible text, not an immeasurable labyrinth of former projects or a submission to the momentary temptation of fluency. Bertrand Russell defines an external object as a circular system radiating possible impressions; the same may be said of a text, given the incalculable repercussions of words. Translations are partial and precious documentation of the changes the text suffers…To assume that every recombination of elements is necessarily inferior to its original form is to assume that draft nine is necessarily inferior to draft H - for there can only be drafts. The concept of the ‘definitive text’ corresponds only to religion or exhaustion”

Over the next twenty minutes I would like to unpick this quote from Borges and take what he says about the act of translation acting as a redrafting and reiterating of always unstable texts, and begin to apply it to the form of translation across media that we are seeing with the increasing digitisation of the book form on computer screens and devices such as the iPhone, the Amazon Kindle, and the SONY Reader.

So what does Borges say first? That translation aims to model a ‘visible text,’ a cohesive object, rather any ‘immeasurable labyrinth of former projects.’

This notion of the original work to be translated being somehow coherent in and of itself, as if no drafting had occurred, and continued to occur, this question plagues translation studies. Exactly what is it that is being translated? The digitisation of written texts, I maintain, is a form of translation because it asks the same question of script, of the written or printed word. What is being translated? As Katherine Hayles states this new formulation of that old question, quotation 2:

“By and large literary critics have been content to see literature as immaterial verbal constructions, relegating to the specialized fields of bibliography, manuscript culture, and book production the rigorous study of the materiality of literary artefacts…It is becoming overwhelmingly clear that we can no longer afford to ignore the material basis of literary production. Materiality of the artefact can no longer be positioned as a subspeciality within literary studies; it must be central, for without it we have little hope of forging a robust and nuanced account of how literature is changing under the impact of information technologies”

As books are scanned or otherwise reproduced for new digital mediums the question of translation, then, becomes a question of embodiment: what does taking, or seeming to take, a text’s body away actually do? This seems, to me, to be at the root of the most commonly heard protest against reading on a computer screen or a dedicated electronic reading device, the but-I-can’t-read-it-on-the-beach/in-bed/in-the-bath argument.

Maybe it’s because we think of texts as implicitly human bodied, that to rob them of such would feel somehow barbaric. Books have chapters, from the Latin for head, caput, whilst pages have feet for their footnotes. The book’s body has a spine, and their contents can have an appendix. Even references to sections being ‘above’ or ‘below’ rather than ‘shallower’ or ‘deeper’ suggest it should be standing on its feet.

This does not, however, seem enough of a reason for why so many people are aghast at the idea of the translation of works to digital simulations. Perhaps, then, it’s to do with the science of touch, the haptics of reading. The shape of the bound book may have come to pass through mere ergonomic coincidence - thin pages for lightness and compactness, as well as the ability to browse, thick covers for protection, these things make sense -, but the continuation of the form is not an accident. When we learn how to read we are informed by the generations of people who have written, read, and researched before us; we learn to read books as both a medium and a message, whether we are conscious of it or not. And we read them as we think we should, as the pinnacle of humanity’s physical expression of thought. As Florian Brody describes it:

“Our conceptions of text and textuality are so closely linked to the physical object of the book that any paradigmatic change in its form seems to threaten the stability of representations of knowledge.”

That a threat to the body of the book should seem akin to a threat to the acquisition of knowledge is unsurprising for two connected reasons: The first, that we sublimate our tools, is well explained by Walter Ong who documents the notion that

“intelligence is relentlessly reflexive, so that even the external tools that it uses to implement its working become ‘internalised’, that is, part of is own reflexive process.”

Or, if that’s too sedate an appraisal, Marshall McLuhan describes the same effect in quotation 3:

“When the perverse ingenuity of man has outered some part of his being in material technology, his entire sense ratio is altered. He is then compelled to behold this fragment of himself ‘closing itself as in steel’. In beholding this new thing, man is compelled to become it.”

Human beings, then, are natural technicians, and in much the same way as our hominid ancestors became ‘at-one’ with the branches which enabled their transit, each swung from liana becoming an extension of a brachiating arm, so we continue to be able to ‘incorporate’, to borrow neurologist Frank Wilson’s apt term, external tools into our being. This is not as alien a concept as we might imagine - a musician being able to express themselves through music which could only be produced by external means is a familiar figure. A book, then, is much the same, a material artefact onto which we project aspects of ourselves, and which we incorporate as part of ourselves.

A bound book has come to represent knowledge and fixed coherence, completed and separated from the world by its covers, a totemic projection of a definitive truth. Espen Aarseth reveals this in a simple thought experiment, quotation 4:

“Imagine a book in which some of the pages appear to be missing, or the print is unreadable every 16 pages, or some of the pages are repeated while an equal number omitted. Even if this copy is the only one we ever see, we automatically assume that it is not supposed to be this way and that a more correct version exists…In short, we prefer the imagined integrity of a metaphysical object to the stable version that we observe”

The bound book has become sublimated as a form, incorporated within us. The codex is now transcendent, a suitable word, perhaps, for the medium’s biblical roots.

The second, and related process goes back further, that our hands and brains are intimately linked. I have far too little time to explore the notion fully here, but consider our early simian ancestors attempting to make the first tools, a hammer say. In order to create a basic hammer a rock must be tied to a sturdy stick, but in order for this to happen a mental image of the future hammer must be in place, i.e. there must be symbolic thought. There is much evidence to suggest that the evolution of tool use coincides with the evolution of mental imaging, of this symbolic thought, and that the use of our hands has long been tied to thought in general. Contemporary research into gestures and pedagogy seems to support the continued impact of such assertions. Scientists in Norway studied a class performing maths problems such as that in quotation 5: 3+2 +8 = BLANK +8. The students must learn to balance the equation by finding the single digit which is equivalent to 3 + 2 in the first half, they must understand the concept of ‘grouping’ - adding adjacent numbers together to produce a balanced sum. In order to teach this act of ‘grouping’ tutors were getting students to draw a little ‘v’ shape with their finger under the 3 and the 2, physically tying them together. Sure enough students understood the concept significantly faster. But the researchers also found, over the course of the study, that it didn’t matter where the students drew the ‘v’, it was the very act of making the gesture which introduced and sublimated the concept.

So what are the implications of these twin assertions, that the mind assimilates external objects it uses frequently, and that hands and brains have always worked in close tandem, what are the implications for our problems of translating to digital, of our worries that we might no longer read our books in the bath?

Perhaps processes which have shaped us for hundreds of thousands of years should not be ignored due to the emergence of new technologies whose R&D time is measured, on average, in months, and only rarely in decades. As such it may seem that we are taking our hands out of reading, removing our ‘tactile observation’, as it were, and introducing a uniquely human kind of blindness. Tales of sudden blindness, of Milton, for instance, or of Nietzsche, of Joyce, or even of Borges himself, for all of their ability to shock us with our own fragilty, hold none of the horror of a true loss of touch, not just a numbness of the hands, but a removal of the skin from our sensation. To touch is never in our control - we touch against our will - always forced to maintain at least a point in pressure with something, hence our fascination with acrobatics, zero-gravity, or the weightlessness of floating in a heavily-salted sea, though none of these represent a true, total loss of touch or else they would become grotesque. Touch is never in our control, but for the most part it is controlled, we might think of pain as excessive touching, or the echo of a misplaced touch. We see the most important aspects of our world with our hands, our skin. No wonder that so many avid readers, so many holders of printed books, feel that they must speak out - do they not subconsciously fear that the new technology might make us, if not paralysed, then haptically blind?

We must not ignore these questions of tactility, indeed they are the vital design questions facing this generation of technology, but I also wonder if these arguments aren’t born of privilege, of cultures who have a rich literary heritage, a diversity of cheaply available physical books, and access to this first generation of digital reading devices. When the price point drops to such a degree that the technology is available in the poorest parts of the world, as the One Laptop Per Child Project is already promoting, and these previously silenced heritages are able to be transmitted alongside the work of the rest of the world, the arguments for holding onto paper technology, at least for day to day use, may well seem strange, or, worse, the product of a decadence which has tainted the West over the last several hundred years. That is not to say that paper books will disappear, but the trend towards digitisation is manifestly real, and in many parts of the world, and for the next generations, digitised reading is going to become the norm with bound books found in a niche we are yet to carve.

What might be the effect of reading works translated across mediums in such an environment, where bound books are no longer essential? Let’s return to the Borges’ quotation and what he says of Bertrand Russell, that

“Russell defines an external object as a circular system radiating possible impressions; the same may be said of a text, given the incalculable repercussions of words.”

When we translate from physical to digital we do not preserve the text, we transfer the script, the raw writing. We need to readjust our idea of what ‘text’ means in light of this movement, and Russell’s external objects seem perfect: ‘systems radiating possible impressions’. If the text, to all intents and purposes, has no body - and I’m not so sure that this is wholly true, though I have no time to discuss Kirschenbaum’s forensic studies, Hayles’ ‘material metaphors,’ or even the ridiculousness of suggesting to people who manufacture computer components for a living, that they are making non-physical media - but if we were to assume a lack of corporeality, and see the script as only a part of the textual experience, then we might begin to see text as nothing save the situation which surrounds it. Why isn’t a scan of a book page the same as a printed version? Because the text is the script combined with our time, our place, space, history, artefact sublimation, our phenomenology, the ontology of the apparatus, and so on, and so on. Text emanates outwards to encompass the artefact’s and the reader’s histories which exist in symbiotic feedback loops constantly affecting one another.

At the most basic level we approach a novel in a bound book with a specific history, including our personal history of the book form, and this frames our reception of that novel. We approach that exact same novel on screen with all of that history, plus our history of computing.

It is the baggage of bound book history that we bring which may cause many to view the translation to digital as somehow ‘unnatural’. In much the same way as we might look at a typical countryside image and think that it is ‘natural’, forgetting the centuries of human landscaping that have often gone into its construction, so have many readers consumed printed books and reported that they appear to model their thoughts accurately. My contention is that, perhaps, they should have asked if their thoughts have in fact been modelled to fit the printed page. As Sergio Cicconi puts it, quotation 6:

“[c]hirographic writing, and, later, typographic writing, [has] strongly modelled the organization of our thoughts, so much that now we tend to think of the linear and propositional structures of printed books as the most faithful representations of the way we organize thinking. But in spite of the paradigmatization of the ‘printed-thought’, a printed text is a very vague (and artificial) approximation of the flow of our thoughts”

We think in a ‘print’ way, in a physical-book way, not because that’s our ‘natural’ way to think, but because our society has developed an affinity for codex reading, with structures in place to select for its specific strengths. This has modelled our minds, and also our culture, so that organised, linear thought has long been prided as intellectually superior, as a sign of the brain working at its peak. Research into creativity and play, however, has revealed what has long been appreciated by artists, designers, musicians, and anyone who produces creative work on a regular basis: linear thought is certainly rare, and probably an illusion. There is no doubt that organising one’s thoughts into a cohesive narrative is useful, and often essential, but to suggest that it’s our default, or even most productive state is a folly sustained by the equating of mental efficacy with the inflexible drive forward of the printed word.

This teleology of the printed work is not part of the history of computing we bring with us to the screen. For most of us, digital reading has thus far been performed online in a sea of disparate webpages and hyperlinks. How could we read a novel on such a surface and not be affected? Writing, originating in the mundanities of cattle counting, was never meant to be anything more than functional. Visual art, and varieties of dance, poetry and storytelling, were the abundant forms of expression and preservation of information those few thousand years ago, and to think that they might be usurped by the scratchings of the first Sumerian accountants would have been, initially, untenable. The unpredictable factor, however, was writing media’s ability to affect the ways in which we think. Writing alters the minds with which it interacts because it doesn’t remain apart, it is interiorised; writing spaces are sites where ideas move in both directions: writers are written upon, readers feel themselves read.

Put bluntly, if we suddenly got to watch a film on the pages of a book tomorrow would it really feel like the same film we watched on a television or a cinema screen?

Hyperlinks, which Steven Johnson thinks of as punctuation, “the first significant form of punctuation to emerge in centuries,” have been the next step in changing the way in which our minds read, and they have been so successful that they need no longer be a part of the screen in order to affect us; they too have been sublimated. When a word is a hyperlink, that blue text might as well be the blue of a special effects screen on a Hollywood movie set, a site of infinite possibility for inscription. In the webs of text online, hyperlinks chart an authored path, whilst simultaneously reminding us that with Google only ever a few clicks away we could always break out from the text we’re reading to wash ourselves in information whose connections are of a much more arbitrary, or self-authored variety. That promise of hyperlinks now exists in all digital texts, whether they appear on the screen or not, and that weaves a gentle magic, existing as a fundamental, conscious or unconscious breakdown of the privileging of the author, and the immutability of bound paper text. Even if a digital document appears as ‘closed’ as a printed book we must, then, come to it subconsciously in a different frame of mind; our attitude to the text is often subtly changed, sometimes radically altered.

As Borges’ philosophy of translation encourages us to appreciate each translation of a work as a draft, rather than a corruption of some perfect originary text, so digitisation removes the fear that we might destroy a script object by altering it. If we don’t like the results of our play, then we can always return to previous iterations; we have no physical object to affect, only multiple versions, multiple drafts, multiple translations, with varying degrees of authorial involvement, and the threat of an ur-text reduced to a dull murmur.

Every change that I’ve discussed may well seem small. And when we ask what changes when we attempt to change nothing, when, for instance, we look at the pristine scanned pages of Borges’ Labyrinths and compare them to the bound book version, the exact same script in a different medium, then we can, surely, only talk about fractional amounts of effect upon the reader. But I believe that each element, each effect, is cumulative, and by repeatedly performing acts which question our assumptions about how a work should be received, and by deploying, as linguists and theorists, a more media-specific approach to what makes ‘text’ different from ‘script,’ we might see an incredibly productive shift, allowing us to return to classic, corporeal works with fresh eyes, and start to more fully appreciate what is truly vital to sustain in our reading practices as we continue to translate works into their digital counterparts.

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