Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics 900429337X, 9789004293373

Experimental Chinese Literature is the first theoretical account of material poetics from the dual perspectives of trans

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Experimental Chinese Literature: Translation, Technology, Poetics
 900429337X, 9789004293373

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Experimental Chinese Literature

Sinica Leidensia Edited by Barend J. ter Haar Maghiel van Crevel In co-operation with P.K. Bol, D.R. Knechtges, E.S. Rawski, W.L. Idema, and H.T. Zurndorfer


The titles published in this series are listed at brill.com/sinl

Experimental Chinese Literature Translation, Technology, Poetics By

Tong King Lee


Cover illustration: Pink Noise. Courtesy of James Kao. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Lee, Tong-King.  Experimental Chinese literature : translation, technology, poetics / by Tong King Lee.   pages cm. — (Sinica Leidensia ; 121)  Includes bibliographical references and index.  ISBN 978-90-04-29337-3 (hardback : acid-free paper) — ISBN 978-90-04-29338-0 (e-book) 1. Literature, Experimental—China—History and criticism. 2. Chinese literature—History and criticism. 3. Poetics. 4. Translating and interpreting—China—History. I. Title.  PL2275.E96L44 2015  895.18’60709—dc23 2015006490

This publication has been typeset in the multilingual ‘Brill’ typeface. With over 5,100 characters covering Latin, ipa, Greek, and Cyrillic, this typeface is especially suitable for use in the humanities. For more information, please see brill.com/brill-typeface. issn 0169-9563 isbn 978-90-04-29337-3 (hardback) isbn 978-90-04-29338-0 (e-book) Copyright 2015 by Koninklijke Brill nv, Leiden, The Netherlands. Koninklijke Brill nv incorporates the imprints Brill, Brill Hes & De Graaf, Brill Nijhoff, Brill Rodopi and Hotei Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, translated, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher. Authorization to photocopy items for internal or personal use is granted by Koninklijke Brill nv provided that the appropriate fees are paid directly to The Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Suite 910, Danvers, ma 01923, usa. Fees are subject to change. This book is printed on acid-free paper.

Contents Acknowledgements vii List of Tables and Figures viii 1 Central Issues 1 Experimental Literature and its Modes of Materiality 1 Multimodality and Intersemioticity 6 Translation and the Translational 9 Technology 15 Chapter Outline 17 2 Machine Translation and Hsia Yü’s Poetics of Deconstruction 21 Death of the Translator 22 Translation and Deconstruction 24 Dichotomies Revisited 27 Pink Noise: Mode of Writing 30 Deconstructing Authorship 31 Romancing the Machine Poet 34 Transparent Meanings: Multimodality and Materiality 38 The Texts: Literary Meaning and its Discontents 41 Disjuncture and Divergence 42 Concretising Images 46 Ungrammaticality: Fetishism with the Word 51 Proliferating Différance: Pink Noise in Multiple MT 56 (Ir)reconciling Text and Machine 59 The Text-Machine as Monster 60 The “Ish-ness” of Language 62 3 The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology 67 The Translingual Sign as Inscription Technology 69 Intermediality: The Printed Text and its Digital “Translation” 76 Interlinguality: Writing Through Translation 80 Intersemioticity: Creative Transpositions 88 Engendering a Material Poetics through Translation and Technology 94



4 Visuality and Translation in Literary Art: Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky and A Book from the Ground 98 The Imagetext in Deconstructed Chinese Characters: A Book from the Sky 100 Icon-Language in Deverbalised Communication: A Book from the Ground 114 Imagetext: Image-In-Text to Image-As-Text 126 5 The Translational: Intersemioticity and Transculturality 130 Case Examples 131 Text Garden 132 Read, Art 138 Evil/Exorcised 145 Translation as Method in Literary Art 157 6 On Chineseness and the Trope of Translation in Experimental Literature 160 Bibliography 169 Index 178

Acknowledgements Part of the research undertaken in this book was funded by The University of Hong Kong under the Seed Funding for Basic Research (Project No.: 201207159003). I am grateful to Chen Li, Xu Bing, Hsia Yü, Cosima Bruno, Chan Lai-kuen, James Kao, and the School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University for allowing me to use their copyrighted texts and/or images. The material in Chapter 2 was published separately in “Translational (De)construction in Contemporary Chinese Poetics” (The Translator 17[1]) and “The Death of the Translator in Machine Translation” (Target 23[1]). An earlier version of Chapter 3 appeared in MCLC 26(1); an earlier version of Chapter 4 in APTIS 1(1); and parts of Chapter 5 in “Performing Multimodality” (Perspectives 21[2]) and “Translation, Materiality, Intersemioticity” (Semiotica 202).

List of Tables and Figures

Tables 1

Modality/mediality, culture, and translation 11

Figures 2.1a Transparency sheets (vinyl) used as printing medium in Pink Noise 39 2.1b Superimposition of texts (and colours, not shown here) in Pink Noise 39 3.1 “18 Touches” 73 3.2 “And the Bees are Singing to You Too” 75 3.3 “A War Symphony” 84 3.4 English translation of “A War Symphony” by Cosima Bruno 87 3.5 Screenshot of YouTube animation of “A War Symphony” 89 3.6 A video snapshot showing a performance of “Gliding Exercises” 92 4.1 Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky 103 4.2 Sample page from A Dictionary of Selected Words from A Book from the Sky 107 4.3 The Word of Heaven by Cosima Bruno 109 4.4 Excerpt from A Book from the Ground 116 4.5a Translating English into icon-language via WordMagick 120 4.5b Translating Chinese into icon-language via WordMagick 120 5.1 Bird-cage installation for “Listening to the Wailing Parrots for as Long as It Takes to Write a Poem” 134 5.2 Aviary installation for “Listening to the Wailing Parrots for as Long as It Takes to Write a Poem” 136 5.3 The transposition of printed words into Braille 139 5.4 The punching of holes into a music card, in line with the patterning of Braille code 139 5.5 The wheeling of the music card through a hand-made music box 140 5.6 Image of a recycled poem in Rub Ineffable 148


Central Issues

Experimental Literature and its Modes of Materiality

As a generic category, “experimental literature” is irredeemably eclectic and plural. This is first and foremost seen in the multitude of contradictory terms that can be used to characterise it. The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature describes this type of literature using several pairs of binary opposites: Unfettered improvisation and the rigorous application of rules, accidental composition and hyper-rational design, free invention and obsessively faithful duplication, extreme conceptualism and extreme materiality, multimediality and media-specificity, being “born digital” and being hand-made—all of these, and many others, are ways of being experimental in literature. Bray, Gibbons and McHale 2012, 1

For the purpose of the present study, such nebulousness as evident in the above passage may well be an advantage. Theoretically speaking, it is neither possible nor desirable to posit a stable set of experimental texts-as-data a priori. The type of literature in question is supposed to be emerging, beyond or against convention, and hence avant-garde; therefore, to precisely delimit the term “experimental literature” is tantamount to killing the concept. Indeed, it is something of a paradox to speak of defining experimental literature, given that definitions are by their nature institutionalised, and hence to some extent, this runs counter to the spirit of experimentalism. That being said, the term cannot escape some form of description and qualification if it is to function as a working concept. To start with, one observes that literary experimentalism is often conflated with the equally categorical notion of literary postmodernism, which generally refers to modes of textual expression that emphasise the materiality—that is, the visual-graphic and aural-acoustic constitution—of language. Thus, one distinctive feature of experimental literature is its raising of “fundamental questions about the very nature and being of verbal art itself” (Bray, Gibbons and McHale 2012, 1). In this connection, it is probably safe to consider such literary movements as

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Language Poetry, Dadaism, Futurism, and other forms of conceptual writing as intrinsically experimental.1 In Chinese literary studies, scholars have attempted to define the idea of experimentalism in a diverse range of contexts. This means that “experimentalism” as a technical term does not evince a singular, essentialist notion. In contemporary Chinese poetry, it has come to refer to the corpus of works that “embodies a conscious departure from the official Communist ideology and a vigorous search for an alternative discourse beyond the pale of the dominant discourse” (Yeh 1992, 379; cf. van Crevel 2008, 1–12). Here the use of “experimental” as a modifier connotes a more or less radical political stance in diametrical opposition to the establishment, and for that reason the term is sometimes associated with such “anti-establishment” writers as Bei Dao 北島. In the fictional realm, post-Cultural Revolution novelists such as Yu Hua 余華, Ma Yuan 馬原, Han Shaogong 韓少功, Can Xue 殘雪, and Ge Fei 格非 have often been touted as xianfeng zuojia 先鋒作家 (‘vanguard writers’) for their rebellion against the dominant realist mode of narration (Yang 2002). In dramatic literature, the plays by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian 高行健 are given the designation shiyan xiju 實驗戲劇 (‘experimental drama’), though in this case experimentalism lies not primarily in the ideological disposition that underpins the works, but in the transculturation of aesthetic themes from Western modernism onto the Chinese stage (Yeung 2008). Despite the many different foci of the term “experimental”, there is nonetheless an underlying thread: to be experimental is to position oneself, and to be positioned, in the liminal space between the familiar, traditional, mainstream and the unfamiliar, (post)modern, iconoclastic. This is a highly politicised space, a site of ideological contention where different epistemologies and modes of theory and praxis interact, intersect, hybridise, and, ultimately, innovate. In contemporary literature, the nexus of tension often surrounds the ontological status of language: it is at once a tangible entity in all its sensuousness and a communicative medium of expression, whose mediating function is all too often perceived as transparent. The former, sensuous perspective is best illustrated in the closing section of Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text, which offers an appraisal of cinematic vocals as an analogy to writing:

1  Hoover (2013) presents a succinct account of these movements in the development of postmodern American poetry. For a more comprehensive view of common threads of experimentation in Anglophone literature, see Bray, Gibbons and McHale (2012).

Central Issues


In fact, it suffices that the cinema capture the sound of speech close up (this is, in fact, the generalized definition of the “grain” of writing) and make us hear in their materiality, their sensuality, the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle (that the voice, that writing, be as fresh, supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant as an animal’s muzzle), to succeed in shifting the signified a great distance and in throwing, so to speak, the anonymous body of the actor into my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss. Barthes 1973/1975, 67; emphasis in original

In describing the qualities of aesthetic speech, Barthes’s approach is clearly synaesthetic and sympathetic: the materiality of speech involves not just the auditory (“it crackles”) but, for the most part, the tactile (“the fleshiness of the lips”, “supple, lubricated, delicately granular and vibrant”). The climax, or “bliss”, deriving from sound (the erotic object) culminates through a series of touch sensations and somatic movements: “it granulates, [. . .] it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes”. The sexual overtones underlying this series of terms, particularly the last one—“it comes” being a slang expression for the attainment of orgasm—bear intensely on the embodied, sensuous-sensual nature of artistic representation and reception. Proponents of conceptual metaphor theory (Kövecses 2010; Lakoff and Johnson 2003) would be inclined to identify a mapping of the source domain of sexual activity onto the target domain of speech production (which in turn is mapped onto textual production, as Barthes’s ultimate concern lies with writing), hence deriving the metaphor Producing Speech Is Making Love. While such a view would not be incorrect from the perspective of cognitive linguistics, it also relegates the erotic dimension in Barthes’s formulation to the figurative domain. One has reason to suspect, however, that Barthes might have been bordering on the literal in suggesting that language and writing are primarily about somatic pleasure. This slippage between the sensuous and the sensual in Barthes’s thinking points to the potential for writing to be physicalised and for physical phenomena to be verbalised. His sexual innuendos draw attention to the material body of the signifier, as opposed to its communicative value—the signified, which is to be shifted “a great distance” away from us. A comparable thesis appears in Susan Sontag’s polemical essay “Against Interpretation”. In this essay Sontag responds radically to what she perceives as the tyranny of interpretation, which “tames the work of art” (1994, 8) by



reducing it to its conceptual content. Resisting the prevailing hermeneutical tendency in literary criticism to impose meaning on texts, Sontag champions instead a privileging of form: What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary—a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary—for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form. Sontag 1994, 12; emphasis in original

Following Sontag’s vision, the task of criticism “is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there”; instead, it is “to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all”, to show “how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means” (Sontag 1994, 14; emphasis in original). To do that, we must “recover our senses” and learn “to see more, to hear more, to feel more” (14; emphasis in original). The sexual metaphor in the coda “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (14) is rather too explicit to be missed: artistic, including literary, form is (the erotic) body. Extending Sontag’s dictum, John Sutherland (2011, 14) quips about the act of interpreting literature: “Don’t read it, make love to it”. These sexual metaphors point to a central theme that underlies this book: the materiality of language and literature. In one of its senses, materiality relates to the sensuous capacities of language itself, that is, the visual and aural stimuli invoked by the linguistic sign. In this respect, the Chinese language is often said to be highly visual thanks to the pictographic roots of many of its radicals and characters. On the aspect of sound, innovative poets are able to exploit the numerous homophones in Chinese as well as onomatopoeia to create sonic effects that play out the malleable space between signifier and signified. A focus on linguistic materiality means the formal qualities of language come to the fore. A corollary of this is that semantic communication often takes a back seat, and it is perhaps for this reason that experimental literature seems readily open to poststructuralist readings. In the Chinese scholarly field, Roland Barthes has proven most popular among critics with his pronouncements on the death of the Author and hence the dissipation of intact, originary “meaning”. This is not to say, however, that meaning in the traditional sense is non-existent in experimental literature. The best exemplars of concrete poetry always infuse thematic content with visual manipulation

Central Issues


(what Sontag describes as “[dissolving] considerations of content into those of form”); conversely, a poet’s play with signifiers can easily become trivialised when divorced from conceptual theme. Yet there is another sense in which materiality is important to a study of experimental writing, and that is the performative nature of literature. Here the emphasis is not so much on the language material that constitutes a text than it is on the dynamics of the design and reception of the text as artefact—and, in the case of the literary installation, artefact as text. To use Espen Aarseth’s term, the experimental text is often, though by no means always, ergodic—a technical jargon borrowed from physics and derived from a Greek word meaning “work” or “path”. This means that “non-trivial” work is required on the part of the reader in making sense of the text, where non-trivial work refers to reading efforts that go beyond “eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages” (Aarseth 1997, 2). Ergodic literature may, for instance, require readers to make certain navigational choices with respect to the text s/he is reading, which may in turn trigger some sequence of textual actions or change the narrative route. As textual artefacts that perform, experimental literary works sometimes need to be operated upon, where readers are lifted from their traditionally passive reading positions and drawn into embodied interaction with the tactile or kinaesthetic nature of the texts in question. There are myriad ways in which this could happen. The reader may be required to walk through an interactive installation, and construct correspondences between the images of a poem text and their instantiation in visual design. S/he may need to physically activate a mechanism that transposes written texts into other medial forms; here the text-artefact unravels itself through the reader’s motion, without which it remains as a piece of inert technology. Or we could have a printed book with the edges of several pages sealed together to obstruct a linear read; the reader in this case needs to tear along the edges of the bound pages to gain access to the texts, or otherwise skip over those pages and miss out on their content. The reader, in other words, makes a choice which determines the content that s/he reads. In each of these examples, the kind of readerly activity involved exceeds mental-cerebral processes and spills into the cognitive-perceptual; it is by definition non-trivial, and should therefore be distinguished from more hermeneutic modes of reader participation, as delineated in reader-response theories (e.g., Iser 1978; Fish 1980; see Aarseth 1997, 1, 4). Materiality, therefore, pertains to the modes in which a piece of literature invites embodied participation from its readers through the manipulation of linguistic resources and/or the corporeal design of the textual artefact as a whole. This turn toward “the material basis of literary production” (Hayles



2002, 19) is a necessary response to the long-abiding focus in literary studies on content and interpretation. Katherine Hayles sums up the importance of this attention to literary materiality in the advent of electronic textuality: Materiality of the artifact can no longer be positioned as a subspecialty 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. Not only electronic literature but virtually all historical periods and genres are affected as print works are increasingly re-produced as electronic documents. Hayles 2002, 19

Multimodality and Intersemioticity

The relevance of technology, including electronic technology, to a material turn in literary studies will be dealt with shortly. For now, let us look at two closely related cousins of materiality: multimodality and intersemioticity. Multimodality, the simultaneous engagement of more than one sense faculty in textual production, is an age-old phenomenon. It has been with us for at least as long as more sophisticated forms of print production, such as Christian gospel manuscripts and historical atlases complete with elaborate illustrations, have existed. Indeed, as far as texts in general are concerned, monomodality does not exist as such. As W.J.T. Mitchell (2013, 7) maintains, “All media are, from the standpoint of sensory modality, ‘mixed media’ ” (cf. Gambier 2006, 6). The study of sign systems beyond the printed word, however, did not receive serious academic attention until the second half of the twentieth century. In early theorisations, the hierarchical order between verbal and non-verbal modes of expression is unequivocal: the former (the text, narrowly defined) is invariably seen as a higher-order entity than the latter (pictures, photographs, etc.). This view exudes a certain fear of the visual—a kind of siege mentality in the face of images—that Mitchell (1986) terms “iconophobia”.2

2  Examples of iconophobic views include those of Gotthold E. Lessing and Edmund Burke, who “treat the image as the sign of the racial, social, and sexual other, an object of both fear and contempt” (Mitchell 1986, 151). See Mitchell (1986, 95–149) for a critical review of these authors. For a shorter account of the anxieties toward visuality as evidenced in modern philosophical discourses in the West, see Shih (2007, 8–10).

Central Issues


Images have therefore been marginalised for the most part in respect to words,3 until the visual turn in critical theory came into action. The 1996 publication of Kress and van Leeuwen’s ground-breaking Reading Images heralded the age of non-verbal signs, which have since been regarded as semiotic entities in their own right. To Kress and van Leeuwen (2006), texts constitute “an ensemble of modes” (41) that includes such non-verbal aspects of textuality as the physical medium of writing (where writing is also designated more materially as “inscription” or “production”), font type, layout, and the spatial orientation of images vis-à-vis the reader. All of these participate in meaning production as interactive elements within the textual artefact. Such a semiotic—or better, intersemiotic—view enables us to see texts as “material objects which result from a variety of representational and production practices that make use of a variety of signifier resources organized as signifying systems” (216). These resource systems or “modes” manifest themselves in concrete representations involving our sensorial capacities (i.e., visual mode, aural mode, tactile mode, kinetic mode, synaesthetic mode, etc.). They make up the materiality of a text together with a range of tangible “signifier materials” 3  An eloquent description of this hegemony of the verbal over the visual appears in Barthes (1977b). Barthes proposes two functional models to explain the relationship between the linguistic text and its visual counterpart in contemporary culture. The first, perceived as less common and hence somewhat less privileged, is the “relay” model, whereby the image and text stand in complementary relation; that is, the image extends or advances the text, and vice versa. The second and more predominant function is that of “anchorage”, whereby the text orientates the reading of an image by elucidating its signs, thus directing and delimiting readers’ perception, comprehension, and interpretation of that image. Of the two, anchorage is central to our understanding of the power relation between images and texts; it dictates that the verbal must reign over the visual in traditional conceptions of communication: “The text is indeed the creator’s (and hence society’s) right of inspection over the image; anchorage is a control, bearing a responsibility—in the face of the projective power of pictures—for the use of the message” (Barthes 1977b, 40). Through anchorage, a verbal message comes to possess a certain “repressive value” (40) as far as the interpretability of images is concerned; it constitutes “a kind of vice which holds the connoted meanings [of images] from proliferating, whether towards excessively individual regions (it limits, that is to say, the projective power of the image) or towards dysphoric values” (39). There is no doubt that ideology is invested in such asymmetrical treatment of text and image, where the latter is perceived as a potentially “dysphoric” force to be “inspected”, “controlled”, “repressed”, and held from proliferation. Anchorage constructs visual phenomena as “a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds” (39) that has to be “fixed” by verbal language through interpretation. It is ultimately the linguistic text that provides a relatively stable basis on which the understanding of denotative messages and interpretation of symbolic ideas can be made, and on which “the terror of uncertain signs” (39) as perpetuated by images may be countered.



collectively known as “media”. These include “the surfaces of production (paper, rock, plastic, textile, wood, etc.)”, “the substances of production (ink, gold, paint, light, etc.)”, and “the tools of production (chisel, pen, brush, pencils, stylus, etc.)” (216). Kress and van Leeuwen’s methodology has opened up multiple avenues of application in a wide range of fields.4 Consequently, the previously held hierarchy between text and image is gradually replaced by a more nuanced model, which sees contemporary communication as a spectrum that ranges from a verbal-oriented position, where meaning is governed primarily by the linguistic text, to a non-verbal-oriented one, where visual-aural stimuli acquire full autonomy in signification. Textual production and reception are, for the most part, intersemiotic processes that fall somewhere between the two endpoints. Meaning, according to this perspective, is not grounded as some concrete and fixated property in verbal signs. Rather, it is an emergent construct that arises from the interplay of various semiotic resources and signifying materials. Applying this view to contemporary literature, we first recognise that the print text is only one out of several platforms of representation; alternative modes/media include the World Wide Web and the mixed-media installation, among others. Even where print works are concerned, the specific materiality of this conventional mode of transmission may see innovations under the most experimental of writers that can extend the semiotic potential of a work beyond the verbal. As already noted above, the materiality of literature often emerges from non-verbal modes of expression, or rather from the interaction between verbal and non-verbal modalities. The visual, aural, tactile, and kinetic dimensions of textuality render the act of “reading” a multimodal experience. It is in this connection that experimental literature is, by and large, synonymous with multimodal literature, defined as a body of literary texts that feature a multitude of semiotic modes in the communication and progression of their narratives. Such works are 4  Examples include applications in literacy studies (Street, Pahl and Rowsell 2009), cognitive science and sensory anthropology (Howes 2009), artefact design (Björkvall 2009), and fine arts (Mavers 2009; West 2009). In textual studies, multimodality has often been researched in relation to the material context of communication (Kress and van Leeuwen 2001, 2006; Scollon and Scollon 2003; Baldry and Thibault 2006; Royce and Bowcher 2007). Both print and multimedia texts have served as sources of data, and more recently, attention has also turned to new media and audiovisual platforms that tap into sophisticated digital technologies, including Internet websites (Jones 2009), mobile devices (Leander and Vasudevan 2009), and video games (Lemke 2009). As a whole, these studies point to the importance of considering multiple modes and media of representation in tandem, thereby decentralising text analysis from exclusively verbal-linguistic concerns.

Central Issues


composed not only of words, type-set on the page in block fashion as has become publishing convention. [. . .] [T]hey experiment with the possibilities of book form, playing with the graphic dimensions of text, incorporating images, and testing the limits of the book as a physical and tactile object. Gibbons 2012, 420

What distinguishes a multimodal perspective on literature is thus its focused attention on the materiality of the literary text, treated as “a physical and tactile object”. When texts are looked upon as artefacts that “encode their message in different meaning-making resources” (González 2014, 120), two consequences arise. First, the distinction between what is conventionally seen as literature (codex-style) and tactile art, specifically what is called mixed-media installation, begins to blur. The text examples used in this study are not exclusively literary in the traditional sense; they often border on the visual or interactive arts, and it is for this reason that the term “literary art” is sometimes used. Second, the conceptual content of a book—the primary concern of traditional reading practices—gives way to “the possibilities of book form” constituted by “a multitude of semiotic modes”. Many of my text examples exhibit this play with the modes and media of representation, engaging with the ergodic, as opposed to the hermeneutic, aspects of reading that demand embodied participation from readers. There are also texts that are concerned with what Clive Scott calls the “linguistic experience of text”: “that sequence of sensations activated in the reader by language and linguistic structure, in the process of reading” (2012, 11). This is not to say that literary content will become defunct; it is rather that content (be it poetic theme, narrative plot, or dramatic tension) is no longer seen as the sole inventory of meaning in literature. Form takes over, but does not eliminate, content; it works in combination with content to create enriched and embodied meanings. A material-multimodal view on literature both revolutionises and complements traditional modes of literary criticism.

Translation and the Translational

What, then, is the relation between multimodality and translation?5 In translation studies, this relation is encapsulated in the term “intersemiotic 5  Recent years have seen numerous studies on multimodal practice across languages and cultures. In the context of advertising translation, Torresi (2008, 68) points out that intersemiotic translation “is a particularly effective instrument when the very image, not only of a



translation”, first proposed by Roman Jakobson as part of his tripartite taxonomy of translation: 1. Intralingual translation or rewording is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of other signs of the same language. 2. Interlingual translation or translation proper is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of some other language. 3. Intersemiotic translation or transmutation is an interpretation of verbal signs by means of signs of nonverbal sign systems. Jakobson 1959/2012, 127; emphasis in original

From the vantage point of contemporary translation studies, Jakobson’s classification runs the risk of isolating the three semiotic operations as if they were discrete processes, when in fact two or more of these may occur in tandem within the same site. The intersemiotic, for instance, can exist alongside the interlingual, as in film subtitling, where translation proper must take into consideration the meaning of non-verbal elements. Furthermore, Jakobson’s taxonomy cannot account for translation-related phenomena such as adaptation, which can take place either intralingually or interlingually. A novel, for example, can be translated into a film in the same language or in a different language. A more nuanced alternative is proposed by Kaindl (2013, 261–62). In this model, translation sits in a matrix that differentiates along the dimensions of mode, media, and culture, which I schematise in Table 1.

given product but of a whole brand and the values it aspires to embody, must be adapted to different target cultures” (cf. Smith 2008). Besides advertising, a range of other genres have been treated from the dual perspectives of multimodality and translation, including illustrated fiction (Oittinen 2003, 2008; Alvstad 2008; Pereira 2008), film (Baumgarten 2008), websites (O’Hagan 2007), and technical documentation (Risku and Pircher 2008), among others. These applications demonstrate how visual data—and in some cases, aural data as well—constantly interact with the verbal text to create an intersemiotic fabric of signs, giving rise to a broader meaning-making process that engages different sensory dimensions simultaneously.


Central Issues table 1  Modality/mediality, culture, and translation. Type




Translating within a culture in the same mode, e.g., translating a German play into Viennese Translating within a culture from one mode to a different mode, e.g., translating a picture manual into a linguistic text Translating within a culture in the same medium, e.g., adapting American music videos for English-speaking and Spanish-speaking audiences in the US Translating within a culture from one medium to a different medium, e.g., adapting a novel into a film in the same language

Translating across cultures in the same mode, e.g., translating Disney comics into Japanese manga Translating across cultures from one mode to a different mode, e.g., translating a Bible text into a comic in a different language Translating across cultures in the same medium, e.g., translating a French opéra comique into a German Romantic opera




Translating across cultures from one medium to a different medium, e.g., transformation of a play into a musical in a different language

Kaindl’s model describes the interfaces between modality/mediality6 and translation. Accordingly, any shift in the mode and/or medium of signification 6  As Kaindl (2013) himself notes, there is a good deal of overlap between mode and media: “text modes are always realized in medial contexts, and therefore they are always related to a medium” (261). In this study, I generally use “mode” to refer to the semiotic forms (verbal, visual, aural, tactile, etc.) featured in text representations, and “media” to refer to the material platforms (codex book, Internet, art installation) on which text representations take place. The terms “intersemioticity” and “multimodality” are used almost interchangeably, although I take the former to mean specific relations among different modes within a text, and the latter to designate the general phenomenon of using multiple modes and media in writing.



registers some form of translation—intracultural in the case where the culture/ language remains constant, and transcultural in the case where it varies. This indicates an inclusive translational spectrum along which textual practices are located according to their specific configuration of mode, medium, and culture/language. Thus, we have conventional textual translation (intramodal-intramedial-transcultural) on the one end and creative transposition (intermodal-intermedial-trans or intracultural) on the other, with other possible combinations falling in between. A close look at Table 1 shows how this model incorporates Jakobson’s categories while allowing for crossings among them. In particular, the intermodal-transcultural and intermedial-transcultural combinations most visibly embody interlingual and intersemiotic processes in tandem. What we usually call adaptation also comes into the picture at various points. In translating Disney comics into Japanese manga (intramodaltranscultural), shifts in image construction will conceivably occur together with the change in language; the same applies to the translation of French opera into German opera (intramedial-transcultural), where possible differences in dramaturgical conventions need to be taken into account. The intramedial-intracultural nexus is somewhat anomalous. Kaindl’s example deals with adjustments in image cuts in popular music videos to suit subcultural viewing habits within the US market. Since there is no transfer of verbal substance nor a shift in mode or medium, this practice cannot be properly described as intralingual, interlingual, or intersemiotic. But the fact that it is included within the matrix also means it can be considered in parallel with other translational phenomena. Although I do not employ Kaindl’s terminology, his model has important implications. It opens up the imaginary of translation to account for a wide range of communicative and aesthetic modalities, including highly experimental ones where mode, medium, and language intersect in unconventional ways, and where translation may border on the metaphorical. By proposing connections among the intralingual, interlingual, and intersemiotic, and extending beyond them, the model challenges the very limits of what translation is, and is not. It accommodates diverse incarnations of the translational, enabling us to think of translation not merely as a textual act but also as a structural concept. One of the premises of this study is that translation as a conceptual theme and as a textual-semiotic event operate at different levels and are not mutually exclusive. An excellent example of how this works is in the field of cultural anthropology, where translation proper takes place as part of ethnographic textual practices, as in the transcription of the linguistic performances of tribal

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peoples. But even here, translation is not all literal, as what ultimately gets translated is “the thinking ‘behind’ language and practices” (Sturge 2007, 5). There is, therefore, a metaphorical dimension to ethnographic translation: “If ‘translation of culture’ can mean the re-framing of meanings from one set of cultural categories to another, the addition of the concept of ‘culture as text’ brings ‘translation of culture’ closer to traditional notions of translation” (7). Yet it is also starkly literal: ethnographers actually need to transcode the speech of the represented community into the language of their target readers, without which no ethnographic accounts can exist. Scholars have acknowledged that the cultures of represented communities are not in stasis; this is where the metaphorical notion of translation comes to invigorate thinking in cultural anthropology by combining with other useful concepts such as hybridity and travel. It is in this sense that translation becomes a conceptual method; it “acts as an anti-essentialist and anti-holistic metaphor that aims to uncover counter-discourses, discursive forms and resistant actions within a culture, heterogeneous discursive spaces within a society” (Bachmann-Medick, in Sturge 2007, 12; emphasis in original). Kate Sturge observes the function of these metaphorical uses of translation as follows: How do these metaphorical reconceptualizations of culture and translation feed into the idea of cultural translation? They certainly don’t push actual translation practices off the stage; on the contrary, it becomes clear that the importation and adaptation of meanings and practices from other places is the very basis of the hybrid cultures we inhabit today. Unpicking the assumed monolingualism and monoculturalism of ‘cultures’ hugely multiples the requirement for and the complexity of translation, abolishing the ‘source’/‘target’ model and bringing translation into almost infinite permutations across a social space. Sturge 2007, 13

Translation as it is figured in experimental literature is analogous to how cultural translation functions in ethnography. Instead of culture and translation, our context comprises mode, media, and translation. Metaphorical reconceptualisations of translation, such as the digital transposition of printed matter into electronic format (Katherine Hayles calls this “media translation”; more in Chapter 3) “certainly don’t push actual translation practices off the stage”. Inhabiting in an age of hybrid media, we are challenged to “unpick” the assumed monomediality and monoculturalism of texts, question traditional conceptual boundaries, and bring “translation into almost infinite permutations across”



an intersemiotic space. In this scheme, translation as practice, which involves both verbal and non-verbal modalities, continues to be relevant; importantly, such practice can incorporate itself into the conceptual principle governing the structuration of a literary text, where translation turns into a methodology. A central aim of this study is to theorise the relation between translation and materiality in experimental literature. This entails thinking translation not primarily as an interpretive act that is externally applied to a text, but as participating within the semiotic operations of a text-object. What is required, then, is a shift in focus from translation as verbal transfer to translation as an embodied event that does not preclude verbal transfer. Clive Scott illustrates this with his idea of the “kinaesthetics of reading”: Translation, for its part, is, equally, a process of phenomenological rather than interpretative recontextualisation. If translation relocates a text from the there and then in the here and now, the crucial question is: what is the here and now, what constitutes it? [. . .] This here and now is a here and now of my body, and translation is about registering the text in my body, and, conversely, inscribing in text my bodily responses. In other words, translation is the process whereby I register the kinaesthetics of reading. By ‘kinaesthetics of reading’ I mean the dynamic of our organism as it is set in motion by the act of reading, and the sensations associated with that dynamic. Scott 2012, 12; emphasis in original

Whereas Scott is primarily interested in how the translator inscribes his or her somatic responses to a text in its translation, my concern lies not so much with translation as a product in itself, as with translation as a trope. This means looking at how translation inheres within the literary artefact as part of its aesthetic concept. In particular, I examine how translation accentuates the materiality of experimental forms of literature through amplifying readers’ sense perception of the word and articulating the multimodal workings of a textual artefact. For example, when machine translation is applied to poetry, the foreignising effects make for an anti-interpretive stance that centres attention on the uneven contours of word sequences rather than on the linear flow of meaning. In the case where translation is a motif or theme that binds the mechanics of a piece of literary-art, it may be said to shape the corporeal form of representation of the work. Both interlingual transfer and intersemiotic transposition are involved; the two are sometimes in tandem, and the boundaries are not always clear. An interlingual translation of a visual-verbal artefact, for instance, is simultaneously intersemiotic, as it is as much, if not more,

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about adapting visual signifiers as it is about transmitting the verbal text. Literary websites are prime spaces for both processes, where verbal translation combines with digitisation, and where texts, audiovisuals, and hyperlinks work together to create a rich fabric of literary experience. An art installation created out of a poem with an accompanying translation is primarily intersemiotic, with an added interlingual dimension. In other words, we may have interlingual translation with intersemiotic functions, or intersemiotic translation supplemented by interlingual operations. In our conception of the relation between translation and materiality in literature, translation takes on a dual-faceted role. On the one hand, the conventional notion of translation as textual transfer still applies, though semantic equivalence is not always of relevance; on the other hand, a premium is placed on the transposition of a text from one semiotic plane to another, and, in particular, on how translation as such enriches the sensuous experience of a text. The former aspect involves texts and their translations as verbal entities, while the latter focuses on the performative potential of translation, not as a tangible textual output, but as a creative method—that is to say, the translational. Technology The word “technology” comes from the Greek techne, which means craft or skill. Technology is a principal force behind various kinds of inscription; it makes available the surfaces, substances, and tools of production. “Technology enters fundamentally into the semiotic process: through the kinds of means which it facilitates or favours, and through the differential access to the means of production and reception which it provides” (Kress and van Leeuwen 2006, 217). Just as technology is often associated with industralisation and modernity in the social sciences and construed as antithetical to nature, so in literary studies it invariably evokes the image of digital—as opposed to print— textuality. From the perspective of landscape studies, Lee and Helphand (2014, 2) point out that “the recalcitrant conception of technology as nature’s opposite has limited our ability to integrate technological systems within even the most materially oriented studies of gardens”; in literature and literary criticism, we could equally say that technology and print books are still conceived of as “radically distinct material regimes” (borrowed from Lee and Helphand [2014, 2]), such that it is not always easy to think about the technological within the discursive-semiotic. By “the technological within the discursive-semiotic” I mean that which exceeds the digital machine. To Aarseth (1997), the text-machine is a central



figure that undergirds the dynamic processes of literary production: the text is a machine insofar as it employs technologies, digital or non-digital, to advance its narrative (or verse, for that matter) in response to readers’ choices. It is evident as much in print as in digital literature. One important theme arising from this is that “paper can hold its own against the computer as a technology of ergodic texts” (10). A corollary of this view is the renewed attention paid to the technologies underlying printed literature, which enables us to see the continuities, not merely the rupture, between digital and print textuality. This is testified in the research literature, where printed literature is reconceptualised in the light of a broadened notion of technology. In her book Writing Machines (the title resonating Aarseth’s motif of textual machinery), which examines experimental literature in print, Hayles (2002) stresses the importance of “inscription technology”. This refers to any technique that goes into foregrounding the materiality of a printed text or book, such as typography, cut-outs, and binding deployed in artists’ books, thus making the literary text a “material-semiotic object” (15). Such inscription technologies produce “technotexts”—discursive products which “strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves as material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic signifiers they instantiate” (25). This resuscitation of the notion of technology in print is also witnessed in Brian Kim Stefans’s definition of cyberpoetry, which delineates the relationship between poetry and technology. To Stefans (in Hoover 2013, li), the rubric of cyberpoetry covers two distinct types of writing: the first is poetry written with the aid of advanced computing technologies, using such multimedia tools as “the internet, or graphics programs such as Illustrator or Photoshop, or animation/audio/interactive programs such as Flash [. . .] in their creation and presentation”; the second is poetry that is not written with the aid of digital media but is nonetheless “informed by new ways of thinking brought about by the way digital technology has impacted our world”. While the first definition pertains to electronic literature, as it is conventionally understood, the second provides insight into the operations of print poetry in line with a notion of technology sans digital mediation. This latter category would include, for instance, “recombinant poetics that can be done without the computer, such as William S. Burroughs’s ‘cut-up’ fictions, concrete poetry, and various Oulipo practices that address the language as replaceable physical matter rather than ‘necessary expression’ ” (Hoover 2013, li; emphasis in original). For writing practices with a postmodern inflection, technology can thus refer to the ways in which one manipulates texts and signifiers more or less physically. We must also not lose sight of the plausibility of regarding linguistic matter itself as an embodiment of technology. John Cayley makes an intriguing

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case for the relation between textual and digital production. He argues that the written text, in the form of transcription systems, conceptually and structurally prefigures what we now understand as the digital: [T]ext was ‘digital’ avant la lettre or rather, because of the letter. Once linguistic inscription had been encoded in a small character set [. . .] an important field of cultural production was already digitized. Literature was transcribed in a medium that is structured in a manageable number of discrete objects. It is divisible into well-understood units down to an elementary level, and so easily editable. Moreover, it is editable in such a way that, after redrafting, the fractures and join[t]s of the editing process may be made invisible. These are all features of so-called ‘digital’ production—now being applied, in particular, to audio-visual material— which are perceived as novel, the ‘new’ of new media. Cayley 2003, 278; emphasis in original

Technology, therefore, is a multifaceted concept; it is a continuum that encompasses both digital and non-digital modalities. Both senses of technology are featured in this book. We have, on the one hand, electronic applications such as the machine translation program and electronic platforms such as the Internet and online chat windows. On the other hand, non-digital technology is manifest in the aforesaid inscription technology as used in print technotexts such as concrete poetry; in the appropriation of linguistic material as a component in visual production; in mechanical gadgets that re-process texts into other semiotic modes; and in innovative procedures of writing that recycle linguistic material to produce new texts. All of this contributes to the materiality of the literary texts in question, achieved by exacerbating the corporeal contours and movement of language, heightening embodied involvement in reading, and delineating the nature of writing not merely as an expression of subjectivity but as a contingent site of migrating signifiers.

Chapter Outline

The rest of this book explores the interconnections among translation, technology, and material poetics, with reference to specific examples from contemporary Chinese literature and art. Machine translation is a privileged site where text, translation, and technology meet. Chapter 2 presents an extraordinary machine translation project that takes the form of a bilingual collection of poems entitled Pink Noise. Machine



translation is typically perceived as an inferior, though more economical, substitute for the human translator. Conventional wisdom has it that automated translation is at its best when applied to genres whose textual predictability is high (such as instruction manuals), and is doomed to failure in the face of more expressive genres such as poetry. Pink Noise wryly subverts this assumption by turning a translation program into a machine poet. It revels in the arbitrariness and materiality of meaning production using a distinctively deconstructionist procedure: first, random English lines are taken off the Internet and put together as an “original” English poem; second, a computer program translates this poem into Chinese; third, the “original” poem is fine-tuned on the basis of new linguistic contexts arising from the automated translation. The modified poem is then run through the program again to produce a new translation, and the cycle continues until a satisfactory set of parallel texts is obtained. This playful, almost frivolous, process of creative writing begets important theoretical questions: what is the implication of this writing procedure for the relative status of source and target texts in a translational equation? How does the linguistics of machine translation, namely its idiosyncratic collocations and aberrant syntax, facilitate a sensuous reception of the Chinese language? What kind of aesthetics emerges from the textuality and materiality of this experimental project? Translation and technology take on several different faces vis-à-vis the text in Chapter 3, which centres on the material poetics of the Taiwanese writer Chen Li. The chapter begins with multilingual concrete poetry, exploring how translation functions within a poetic text to articulate the translingual flows that define the semiotic technology of the text. It then moves on to consider, in the context of web-based technology, the notion of translation as the digital remediation of print texts, as the transference of poetic memes across languages, and as the intersemiotic transposition and performance of poetry. Drawing on Katherine Hayles’s theory of embodied literature, the chapter argues that Chen Li’s works exude a prime concern with materiality. Materiality is borne out of the sensuous interaction between reader and text; more specifically, this takes place at the level of language, where the form of signifiers is foregrounded, and at the level of the platform, where the use of various medial resources gives rise to a multimodal reading experience. Translation and technology participate in these processes in various different guises, triangulating with text to bring forth the complex transactions between languages, between texts, and between media. Chapter 4 turns to the relation between text and image in contemporary literary art, taking a translational angle on how language and visuality interplay to effect signification in experimental aesthetics. The chapter analyses

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two visual works by the renowned installation artist Xu Bing: A Book from the Sky and A Book from the Ground. Each of these pieces is an instantiation of the imagetext, a composite figure combining text and image. However, language is positioned contrastively in respect to the visual component in the two cases: the former is an extravagant display of pseudo-Chinese characters, which are technically visual graphs camouflaged in the frame of the verbal text; in the latter, images are made to function as linguistic signifiers, where texts exist only to be translated into icons, thus becoming a transitional medium that feeds into an exclusively visual communication. Translation serves to tease out the ideology of communication that underlies the two works. A Book from the Sky expresses a solemn pessimism toward the plausibility of verbal communication by undercutting texts with images; in line with this positioning, translation features, in an offshoot of the work, as an ironic device, in the form of a phony dictionary that “defines” pseudo-Chinese characters using an invented pseudo-English. At the same time, since the work is deliberately void of semantics, an actual translation of it into English is possible only by way of creative adaptation. By contrast, the text-to-image translation program used in the installation version of A Book from the Ground indicates the idealistic ambition that icons can in time to come take over completely from words. Chapter 5 advances the notion of the translational text in respect to experimental writing and art. The translational is a rhetorical figure that encapsulates different kinds of semiotic transference and border crossing. It operates as a conceptual method that mediates the intervening space between two texts or media, without there necessarily being any ontological mapping between them. This is where the translational differs from translation: whereas the concept of translation assumes a source-target relation that is largely mappable (even where the source text is subject to all sorts of manipulation, a segment-to-segment mapping must still be possible before deviances in the target text can be identifiable), the translational postulates a derivational relationship between two sites without always insisting on a point-to-point correspondence nor a hierarchy between them. The examples described in the chapter illustrate the translational at work in manifold formations: visual installations structured on the basis of a poem; a system of mechanical gadgets that remediates a poem into Braille code and sound sequences; and a collection of poems recycled from words used in translated texts. Though translation in the conventional sense appears in all of these cases, it is the translational that accounts for the complex semiotic transactions that underscore their creative potential. In lieu of a formal conclusion, Chapter 6 briefly addresses the question of Chineseness. It argues that experimental (Chinese) literature offers a different



epistemology of reading from historicised and culture-oriented criticism, focusing instead on the material context of production and reception. It suggests that a material perspective in literary criticism is central to the appreciation of the fundamental such-ness of the text, and advances it as an alternative paradigm in reading that exists alongside hermeneutical approaches.


Machine Translation and Hsia Yü’s Poetics of Deconstruction In his essay “Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2)”, Derrida presents us with an epistemological puzzle: the dilemma of considering in tandem the event and the machine. By virtue of their antithetical qualities—or, more accurately, qualities perceived to be antithetical—the two are often seen as incompatible entities. The event, including a textual one, is an incidental occurrence, something “that happens”, that is “nonprogrammable”, of “incalculable singularity”, and irreducible to mechanical repetition. The machine, on the other hand, is precisely programmed “to reproduce impassively, imperceptibly, without organ or organicity, received commands” (Derrida 2002, 72). The fundamental question is this: how can we reconcile a thinking of the event and that of the machine at the same time, in other words, both what happens/arrives and what is a calculable, machinelike repetition (72, 136)? Assume for the moment that Derrida’s machine takes the form of a computer program that performs interlingual tasks in place of human translators— what is popularly known as MT (Machine Translation). How would we, then, contemplate the relationship between this translation machine, or machine translator, and the textual event of writing? To consider these questions, this chapter looks at the case of a linguistic experimentation that involves an extraordinary writing project in association with MT. The textual event in question is an English-Chinese bilingual poetry collection with the title of Pink Noise (Fenhongse zaoyin 粉红色噪音), “written” (the quotation marks here are critical, for reasons that will become clear in a moment) by the contemporary Taiwanese author Hsia Yü 夏宇. Hsia Yü is one of the most transgressive avant-garde poets in the Chinese literary world. Flagrantly creative and at times controversial, her works display formal traits that challenge prevailing aesthetic sensibilities, such that their peculiar poetics can hardly be appreciated within traditional frames of analysis. In terms of her dominant themes, Hsia Yü is said to have “herald[ed] the beginning of a much-awaited Chinese écriture féminine” (Bradbury 2000, 249), with her “frank and innovative treatment of gender and sexuality” (249) giving rise to a unique brand of feminist poetics (Yeh 1993). She is, therefore, more of a cult writer than a mainstream author (having said that, she is concurrently a popular song lyricist by profession), as evidenced in the fact that she

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is often excluded from canonical anthologies of Chinese literature in Taiwan. Such marginality affords her poetics a sense of the “underground”, one that, in Parry’s (2007, 81) reading, “unsettles institutionalized knowledge formations”.1 My own interest in Hsia’s poetry lies in its formal rather than thematic properties, specifically in its subversion of linguistic conventions and use of intersemiotic modes/media of expression to create a sense of displacement in reading. This chapter sets out to establish Pink Noise (Hsia 2008) as an extremely rich metatext that provides us with fertile ground on which to theorise the relationship among writing/translation, multimodality, and technology. It does so by recourse to poststructuralist thinking on language and writing, with a view to critically examining the implication of automated translation for literary poetics. Three themes come into focus, namely the translator’s agency and subjectivity (or lack thereof); the play of differences in meaning within and across texts and languages; and the unbounded boundary between creative writing and translation. Let us address each of these themes before turning to Pink Noise.

Death of the Translator

In his famous proclamation of the death of the Author, Roland Barthes debunks the long-standing myth in literary criticism that meaning,2 seen as some sacrosanct entity, resides in the originator of an utterance. Paving the epistemological grounds for poststructuralist theories, Barthes proposes the displacement of the author as the source of meaning, positing instead that “it is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality [. . .] to reach that point where only language acts, ‘performs’, 1  More precisely, Parry (2007, 81) sees Hsia Yü’s poetry as “modernist” with regards its “embodiment of and reflection on fragmentation”. The poet’s “attention to the ‘microstructures’ of the everyday [. . .] provides a critique of the structures of knowledge and feeling that constitute the logic and affectivity of precisely those nationalist and other knowledge formations that constitute Taiwan’s narratives of modernity”. Whereas Parry is primarily concerned with the poetic sensibilities in Hsia’s works, and hence the poet’s modernity in terms of thematic treatment, other scholars, most notably Meng Fan (Meng 2003, 225–71; see also Chen 2009), have tended to focus on Hsia’s techniques, which are decidedly postmodern. 2  The word “meaning” used here and throughout the rest of the chapter (and book) does not suggest that the meaning of the word “meaning” is unproblematic. As the primary objective of the following discussion is to illustrate the de(con)struction of literary “meaning” in translation, all instances of the word should be interpreted within quotation marks. Other keywords that should be read likewise are “original”, “source”, and “target”.

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


and not ‘me’ ” (Barthes 1977a, 143). A crucial motif here is that of impersonality. Due to the inherently intertextual nature of all texts, the authority of the author,3 as the origin from where meaning is purportedly derived, dissipates within the interwoven threads from multiple sources (which themselves come from other, multiple sources). It is in this sense that writing is seen as impersonal or depersonalised, since its meaning cannot be attributed to a singular entity: [L]inguistics has recently provided the destruction of the Author with a valuable analytical tool by showing that the whole of the enunciation is an empty process, functioning perfectly without there being any need for it to be filled with the person of the interlocutors. Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together’, suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it. Barthes 1977a, 145; emphasis in original

If every utterance is nothing more than a fundamentally linguistic moment, as opposed to an author/speaker communicating to a reader/listener via the medium of language, subjectivity is in theory detachable from the act of writing itself. Barthes’s theory thus prompts a radical rethinking of the centrality of authorial intention in the determination of literary meaning, and of the extent to which the author may exercise jurisdiction over the interpretive possibilities of a work. Now what if one extends Barthes’s formulation on the dethronement of the Author beyond a single language/text into the discursive space of translation? Can we similarly pronounce the death of the Translator, who is, of course, also an author in his/her own right? And if we are to make such a pronouncement, what theoretical implication might it have for our understanding of literary meaning? The notion of the translator’s demise seems to contradict sociologicallyinfluenced perspectives on translation (Pym et al. 2006; Wolf and Fukari 2007), wherein the “voice” and “agency” of the translator as an active player in the negotiation of meaning are foregrounded and, indeed, celebrated. Yet if the author may be dispossessed of absolute agency in the production of meaning, as the many strands of post-theories in translation studies have 3  The etymological link between “author” (from Old French auctor; Latin auctorem) and “authority” (from Old French auctorité; Latin auctoritatem) is telling of the symbolic prestige accorded to the former.



attested, can the subjectivity of the translator not similarly be called into question? Let us now posit that the metaphorical death of the translator is the direct consequence of the loss of human agency in the execution of interlingual transfer. Following this, the translator’s death would be most clearly exemplified in MT, notwithstanding the fact that humans are ultimately responsible for the intricate programming behind all automated translation. Often seen as a poor substitute for the human translator, and used only for the most mechanical of linguistic tasks (the translation of instruction manuals, for instance) in the interests of cost-efficiency, the machine translator can at times churn out unexpected new meanings through uncanny routes of semantic and syntactic divergences from the source text. What do we make of such unintended meanings produced by the unconscious machine? Since writing is essentially a kind of performance, according to Barthes, translation, as a form of writing, too may be regarded as a discursive activity wherein “only language acts”. If Barthes’s elimination of authorial control over interpretation heralds the death of the Author, an elimination of the translator’s subjectivity through automated translation signals the death of the Translator. This leads us to a theoretical consideration of how MT, as the unconscious agent of linguistic performativity, brings an end to the translator’s conscious intervention, as well as the implication of this for an understanding of how meaning is negotiated in and disseminated through translation.

Translation and Deconstruction

In speaking of the negotiation and dissemination of meaning in writing in general and in translating in particular, we inevitably need to come to terms with ideas from deconstruction, in particular those of Jacques Derrida. Germane to the present inquiry is how deconstruction calls attention to basic attributes of textuality, notably that meaning emerges through a movement, or “play”, of differences among signifiers through a chain of signification in language. Meaning, as it were, cannot exist a priori: it cannot precede differences, but is rather an effect of a movement of differences—différance—within a language. Thus, the meaning of a signifier is not an absolute essence encapsulated in the signifier itself, but a relative “sense” that emerges through contrast with the “senses” of other signifiers within a linguistic system, thereby forming an invisible track or trace of meaning. Meaning should therefore be conceived not as some concrete entity which one can extract from a text and transfer into

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another language, but rather as an on-going process of negotiation in which signs continuously differ from and defer to other signs. The idea of “play of differences” is best illustrated by Davis (2001) with a fine example from Baker (2011) on the cultural construction of semantic fields. English-language speakers think and talk about temperature using a range of terms, namely “cold”, “cool”, “hot”, and “warm” (and one could perhaps add “lukewarm” to this list as well), which together form a more or less stable lexical set. The specific semantic value of each of these items, however, is not cast in stone within the respective signifiers, but rather arises out of contrast with other related items and the contexts in which they occur. This becomes all the more obvious when we compare the English lexical set with its counterpart in Modern Arabic, in which different conceptual sub-categories exist. While English differentiates between “cold” and “cool”, Modern Arabic uses a single superordinate term baarid to cover the semantic fields represented by the two distinct signifiers in English. It is thus not plausible to think of “cool” and “cold” as distinct concepts in Modern Arabic as there are no differentiating features for each of these items in the linguistic, and hence conceptual, system. On the other hand, Modern Arabic distinguishes between the heat of objects (saakhin) and the heat of the weather (haar), a distinction that is not lexically realised in English (Baker 2011, 17). Baker’s example points to the contingent, non-universal nature of semantic categories (since these categories may differ from language to language), and to how semantics is not inherent but emergent, a result of differences between and among linguistic items within a lexical set. The semantic value of “warm” in a particular utterance such as “This room feels warm” thus exists only in relation to the other concepts of heat/coldness which are unmentioned in the given utterance but which are nonetheless inherent within the chain of signification governing the lexical set in question. Or, to put it differently, the meaning of a certain signifier is not actually present (both spatially and temporally) insofar as it relies on other signifiers. It thus follows that “meaning” is not some-thing that we can capture in space and time; it is the deferred/ differing “trace [that] carries within itself the mark of other elements that are, technically, absent” (Davis 2001, 15). This applies not just to texts but also to the contexts in which they occur: For instance, if I say that I am cold, the concept of coldness to which I refer is not an essence in and of itself, but signifies only through its relation to concepts of cool, warm, hot, etc., which are absent from my statement, and are not, of course, presences in their own right. The same



holds true for aspects of context: I could say that I am cold as I come out of the ocean on a cloudy summer day, and I could say that I am cold as I trudge through a mid-winter Canadian snowstorm. Your understanding of these statements in their contexts would partly depend upon your previous experience with the term cold in various other (absent) contexts. In fact, the referential function of language depends upon the possibility of the absence of a referent. Davis 2001, 15; emphasis in original

It thus follows that “meaning” is not a discrete substance that can simply be locked in and tapped into; rather, it is constructed and disseminated through latent intertextual references between a signifier and other signifiers as well as their contexts. Such references point either to past usages of the signifier or to future possibilities of usage, but never to the present (Davis 2001, 16), thus constituting the “retentive” and “protentive” characteristics of meaning (Derrida 1967/1974, 47). In making sense of meaning then, one needs to be conscious that a signifier always produces meaning through an intertextual operation and interweaving of differences through the text and its context; in other words, a signifier does not refer to something within itself, but “is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element” (Derrida 1972c/1982, 13). Language, then, works through the movement of différance, or the play of traces, and language users— writers, speakers, translators, even machines programmed to generate language—always operate with and within this general movement.4 To the extent that all meaning is emergent within a semantic system or, to use Derrida’s famous adage, “there is nothing outside the text” (1967/1974, 158), deconstruction prompts a rethinking of traditional assumptions underlying conventional conceptualisations of translation, as much as translation provides an important resource for deconstruction. Indeed, both enterprises are believed to “share the same stakes”, each having a “thorough implication” in the other (Davis 2001, 1). How, then, are deconstruction and translation specifically related to each other? Edwin Gentzler summarises the basic problematic that deconstruction poses to translation as follows: What if one theoretically reversed the direction of thought and posited the hypothesis that the original text is dependent upon the translation? 4  I am grateful to Kathleen Davis for sharing this formulation, which was communicated to me through her review of an earlier version of this chapter.

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What if one suggested that, without translation, the original text ceased to exist, that the very survival of the original depends not on any particular quality it contains, but upon those qualities its translation contains? What if the very definition of a text’s meaning was determined not by the original, but by the translation? What if the ‘original’ has no fixed identity that can be aesthetically or scientifically determined but rather changes each time it passes into translation? Gentzler 2001, 145

Dichotomies Revisited

Gentzler’s questions have fundamental implications for translation, especially in the context of recent attempts by contemporary scholars to close the divide between writing and translating. Traditionally, an asymmetrical relationship obtains between the two textual practices in respect to their visibility and prestige value. There is an implicit hierarchical order, “an hegemonic distinction [. . .] which has led to translation being seen as the poor relation of writing, often referred to as ‘original’ or ‘creative’ writing, and widely perceived as superior” (Bassnett 2006, 173). It is only in relatively recent years that such a distinction has been exposed as a construct of the literary institution or, as Susan Bassnett puts it, a “popular mythology” (2006, 174). In a bid to increase the visibility of translating practice vis-à-vis creative writing, in effect to challenge the perceived differences between the two kinds of textual activity, Bassnett, among other scholars, has been calling for recognition of the fact that the prerequisite skills for translating and writing are essentially not very different: [I]t is absurd to see translation as anything other than a creative literary activity, for translators are all the time engaging with texts first as readers and then as rewriters, as recreators of that text in another language. Indeed, given the constraint of having to work within the parameters of that source text, it could be argued that translation requires an extraordinary set of literary skills, no whit inferior to the skills required to produce the text in the first instance. Bassnett 2006, 174

While few would disagree with Bassnett’s claim that translating requires skills that are no less demanding than those at the disposal of a creative writer, a simple recognition of this fact would hardly raise the profile of the translator and of translation. There is in fact no necessary and immanent link between



the sophistication of skills involved in a profession and the status which this profession deserves. The translator’s plight, his or her invisibility, would remain the same insofar as translating depends upon writing as its very life source. The root of the issue is an epistemological one, that is, one of how translation is both consciously and unconsciously perceived in respect to writing by scholars and practitioners alike. The critical question is whether there is any theoretical possibility of subverting the binding hierarchical relationship between translating and writing that is so deeply entrenched in translation studies and lay discourse. If, according to Derrida, the interpretive meaning of any text—be it source or target—cannot have an exhaustive and conclusive closure since “meaning” is always disseminated through a play of differences, the supremacy accorded to a source or original text by conventional translation theories will have to be re-examined. The source text for translation loses its integrity, so to speak, since it is itself “already a site of multiple meanings and intertextual crossings, and is only accessible through an act of reading that is in itself a translation” (Davis 2001, 16). Consequently, what translation studies discourse traditionally sees as preexisting barriers between source and target texts that need to be crossed, bridged, and overcome are, in fact, “constructed and institutionalized” (16). Granted that the perceived barriers between original/source and translation/target texts may be broken down, the question then arises as to how we should conceive of a translation vis-à-vis the text from which it originates. If we accept that the act of reading a source text is an act of translation, a translation proper would then have to be a translation of a translation, an extension of the play of the trace between source text signifiers within its system of differences and chain of signification, into a different system and chain. If there is no absolute presence, nor absence, of meaning in a certain source text, where there exist only “traces of traces” (Derrida 1972b/1981, 26), translation virtually becomes a site where such traces stretch themselves further into foreign linguistic grounds. This means that the translation process can be seen as a continuation of the movement of differences already inherent in the interpretation of meaning in the source text. As the source text signifiers differ/defer in respect to other source language signifiers and their contexts, the target language signifiers differ/defer in respect to these source language signifiers—and, in addition to that, in respect to other target language signifiers and their contexts—to create an even more complex interweave. Translation differs from the original, defers the determination of meaning, and disseminates through the target language traces of meaning marked in the “original” text. We thus have a continuous

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


chain of signification in which semantic undecidability is proliferated through dissemination, as opposed to presence, in both the source and destination of meaning (Derrida 1972b/1981, 44–45). Translation participates in this process by creating an interlingual mode of difference, deference, and dissemination in respect to the source text. In so doing it reveals the movement of meaning traces branching out from one set of linguistic signifiers into another set of linguistic signifiers. In this light, the notion of faithfulness of a translation to its original is no longer relevant, for meaning is not the exclusive property of this “original” text any longer, but something (re)constituted in multiplicity through writing, reading, and translating. Gentzler explains this point as follows: Translation, so conceived, puts us in contact not with some sort of original meaning, but with the plurality of languages and meanings. According to Derrida, one never writes in just one language, but is always already writing in multiple languages, composing new meanings while eradicating others. Even ‘correct’ translations conceal, and even exact replication carries different meanings. Originary intactness dissolves as the translator augments and modifies the original. Gray areas between languages— the borderlines—begin to appear. Traces, marks of dissipated meaning, once again become visible—neither intact nor objectified—but still somehow living on, surviving. Gentzler 2001, 164–65

In Derrida’s view, translating becomes an act of “augmenting”, “modifying”, and even “undoing” the source text. The translated text is thus a discursive terrain through which words travel, meander, and negotiate themselves through the signifiers of the target language, and where “marks of dissipated meaning” in the original text resurface and survive.5 In this regard, Derrida’s own writing serves as a metatext. Thus, to Gayatri Spivak, the eminent translator of Derrida’s Of Grammatology, words in a text, which may not have a determinate meaning to start with (or may even contain contradictory senses), undergo an “adventure” in translation which “undoes” their “structure of concealment”, “self-transgression”, and “undecidability”: If in the process of deciphering a text in the traditional way we come across a word that seems to harbor an unresolvable contradiction, and by 5  The dual motifs of life and survival can, of course, be read against Benjamin’s (1923/2012) notion of a text’s translation as its “afterlife”.



virtue of being one word is made sometimes to work in one way and sometimes in another and thus is made to point away from the absence of a unified meaning, we shall catch at that word [. . .] We shall follow its adventures through the text and see the text coming undone as a structure of concealment, revealing its self-transgression, its undecidability. Spivak 1997, lxxv

Spivak is fully aware of the complexities of meaning in writing and in translation, and devises conscious strategies to capture such complexities (“we shall catch at that word [. . .] We shall follow its adventures”). Now let us take one step further and suppose that the task of translation lies in the hands of a machine rather than those of a human translator. How would that change the conceptual relation between a source and a target text, given that the former, as my earlier exposition has shown, is an “original” only insofar as it appears temporally before the translation and not by virtue of any inherent primacy in meaning? In other words, to return to Derrida’s puzzle set out at the beginning of the chapter, how can we think of the textual event (of writing) and the machine (translator) as related entities?

Pink Noise: Mode of Writing

Why Pink Noise? The avant-gardist stance of this poetry project makes it a prime site from where we can observe the above-mentioned theoretical themes at work. Specifically, its disavowal of authorship, appropriation of the machine in literary translation, conscious engagement of intersemiotic modes of expression, and playful subversion of discursive conventions give form to poststructuralist ideas on language and writing, providing a material basis for the symbiosis of theory and practice. The project’s iconoclasm is highlighted by its very title. The term “pink noise” is a jargon taken from audio engineering to denote a particular type of spectral density. It is a filtered variant of “white noise”, which is a kind of random noise encompassing all frequencies perceptible to the human ear. The choice of colour seems arbitrary (“I have a thing for pink”, the poet says; Bradbury 2008, 36). But the term really points to a more basic concept that informs the entire work—that of “lettristic noise” (wenzi zaoyin 文字噪音) (Hsia 2008). Indeed, Hsia’s inspiration for Pink Noise came from listening to noise and low-frequency acoustic art CDs, from which she began to conceive a mode of applying noise aesthetics to the written word. How this actually happens will be illustrated in the rest of this chapter.

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


First self-published by Hsia Yü in 2007 with a subsequent edition in the following year, Pink Noise comprises bilingual poems that are neither written nor translated by the author. The author in this case is therefore also a non-author. In an interview included in the collection, Hsia Yü (2008) provides a run-down of her creative procedure as follows:6 it started with the poet plucking random strings of words from cyberspace (here it is tempting to associate such randomness with the physical property of white noise), specifically from “endless chain[s] of blogs” and “the many websites that popped up” when hyperlinks in spam were clicked. These word strings were assembled in such a way that they fit the conventional visual form of poetry (in the poet’s own words, “to fit them together until they clicked like a music box”), and then fed into an MT program named Sherlock to produce corresponding Chinese versions.7 We might imagine this process as one of filtering random lines through an automated program, just as white noise is filtered to produce its “pink” variant. Next, based on the co-texts emerging from the machine-generated translations, which can turn out to be quite different from those in the “original” poems as a result of collocational shifts, the poet tweaked the “original” texts and ran them through Sherlock again to produce new translations.8 This cycle was repeated a number of times for each pair of parallel texts, culminating in 33 sets of intertwined “pseudo-poems” (as they were not really “written” in the everyday sense of the word) and their machine-generated translations. The outcome is a bilingual volume of what Hsia Yü labels as—always in quotation marks—“translated poetry” ( fanyi shi 翻譯詩).

Deconstructing Authorship

The procedure by which Pink Noise is created places the constructs of authorship and translatorship on the margins. Within its iterative mode of writing/ translating, the poet acts like a mediator, facilitating both linearity and rupture 6  As Pink Noise is unpaginated, quotations from the collection are herein cited without page numbers. 7  Sherlock was a web tool created by Apple Inc. for the Mac OS that included a translation application (or channel). The software was officially retired in 2007, the year Pink Noise appeared. 8  Out of the 33 sets of bilingual poems, one (#27) is in French/Chinese while the rest are in English/Chinese. Only the English/Chinese poems are considered here. For convenience, the source texts are occasionally referred to as “English poems”, “English texts”, or other like expressions.



between parallel texts. She is not the original creator of the English verses, to be sure, since the individual lines were plucked from their myriad contexts as found on the Internet. The origin of each work, as it were, is varied, fractured, and heterogeneous. For that reason alone, when we speak of Hsia as the “writer” or “author” of the English texts, the quotation marks are quite indispensable. Nor is Hsia the translator, since the translations were not executed by her, but by an automated program. The poet is rather the behind-the-scene puppeteer, selecting and concatenating “the most banal and common lines” (Hsia 2008) into semi-coherent English verse forms and then manipulating them based on their translations. In Pink Noise, the way in which the English poems are conceived brings home the fact that they have no fixed identity that “can be aesthetically or scientifically determined” (Gentzler 2001, 145). Here an “original” text is a conglomerate of various text fragments embedded in their respective contexts; it is not an organic whole that can be holistically determined a priori. This patching together of disparate jigsaw-like segments, which eventually do not quite amalgamate into a unity (neither is such unity desired by the poet), is reminiscent of similar techniques used in Hsia’s third project Rub Ineffable (Moca wuyi mingzhuang 摩擦·無以名狀) (Hsia 1995). Rub Ineffable is basically borne out of Hsia’s second poetry collection Ventriloquy (Fuyushu 腹語術) (Hsia 1991) by dismantling (by way of physically cutting out) individual characters from the latter book and permutating (by way of pasting) them to form “new” poems (see Chapter 5 for a more detailed description). This pastiche technique is witnessed again in Pink Noise, except that this time the poet takes a digital turn by appropriating bits and pieces of linguistic material from cyberspace. As an example, the first stanza of the first poem in the collection runs as follows: Brokenhearted time and ordinary daily moment How fucking creepy is that? So different and sweet A promise awaits us At the limits of the mystical glow If we must die We will need those rhyming skills Some people are born with Others develop Hsia 2008

Our horizon of expectation as lay readers probably tells us that this could conceivably pass off as a “poem”. But given our knowledge of its eclectic make-up,

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


can/does/should the poem mean anything to us? The fragmented nature of the source texts has immense implications for the (in)determinacy of literary meaning in Pink Noise. Each line in the English originals bears the trace of an unrecorded past source (which is by no means necessarily literary in nature), and yet differs from its past usage through its recontextualisation in a different linguistic environment. Thus, each line in an English poem may take on a certain tentative “sense” in its source, wherever that may be. However, when uprooted from its original site of occurrence, a phrase or clause can acquire a potentially new sense as it is replanted into the poem’s co-text, this co-text being made up of other phrases that are similarly derived from various digital sources in an almost casual manner. The meaning of each line, then, cannot be pinned down as if it were something discrete and concrete, locked in and accrued across the individual English signifiers. Meaning is instead an emergent entity that is in perpetual movement, always arising as a consequence of an opposition to other (absent) concepts, as opposed to being a presence in and of itself (Davis 2001, 15). Yet there is no final interpretation as such. The text remains open even when seen as a whole, for the juxtaposition of various English lines to form a poem is but an illusory act on the part of the poet to create the formal image of poetry, as it is conventionalised in the literary institution. In the hands of Hsia, strings of words from different sources come together and cohabit, often uneasily, within the space of the poem to form a discursive site where meanings encounter, clash, and coalesce to form new, contingent senses. Critics may suggest that indeterminacy of meaning is characteristic of all poetry as such, and cannot thus be seen as a distinctive feature of Pink Noise. While this is true, one should note that such indeterminacy is deliberately brought to the fore in Pink Noise in a systematic and material way. By originating the individual phrases in her English poems in an unpatterned manner from dispersed sources, Hsia relinquishes her authorial subjectivity and, consequently, much of her control over meaning. She enacts the death of her role as author-poet by adopting a literary procedure that unravels the intertextual network within which language is embedded and meaning disseminated. In so doing, Hsia produces what she has variously called “anti-poems” ( fanshi 反詩), “non-poems” ( feishi 非詩), and “pseudo-poems” (weishi 僞詩) (Hsia 2008), refusing to settle on a fixed identity for her cyber-mediated textual products, hence reminding the reader that “poem” as a generic category must always be understood as a tentative label.



Romancing the Machine Poet

We have seen that the production of the English texts in Pink Noise is more than a simple textual event; it is an intertexual event in the fullest sense, in which the “original” verses not only recall links or traces with their preceding texts and contexts, but also with texts and contexts that follow them, in this case in machine-generated translations. And while this is again true of all texts from a deconstructionist view, Pink Noise exemplifies this fact by way of its innovative bilingual operation. As mentioned earlier, a critical stage in the creation of Pink Noise is the use of the translation application in Sherlock. The poet plays the engineer behind the attempt to undermine, through MT, the integrity of writing as a literary act in and of itself. Indeed, the inter-discursivity between the written word and the translated word cannot be more obvious, for the written word (rather than Word) is not the Almighty “original” or “source” here; it is continually at the mercy of the translator, and a non-human one at that, and subjected to revisions based on the co-text arising from literal, word-for-word renditions. Yet on the other hand, the translations are also bound to their English counterparts, for with each revised English version a new translation is born. Hsia’s iterative mode of writing/translating thus sets into motion a cyclical mechanism that allows the Chinese translations to feed into the English texts and vice versa. In this recursive process, there is a curious kind of machine autonomy and self-reflexivity: it is as if the machine translator (which Hsia affectionately calls her “machine poet”) is revising/reviving the English texts and, reciprocally, is continuously revised/revived by these latter texts. In Pink Noise, the machine translator fulfills the poet’s aesthetic expectations of producing irregular poetry by way of its blatantly literal, often unintelligible, and always non-fluent translations, thus destabilising the meaning of “meaning” by liberating it from the constraints of source language signifiers. The resulting translations often border on the nonsensical, with unexpected new senses emerging occasionally from unconventional or unacceptable collocations in Chinese (cf. Yeh 2008a, 173; see also my examples below). Yet the translation does not break free from its parallel English text with regards its interpretation, for the reader who is confused by the baffling syntax of the Chinese translation often has to refer to the English text in attempting to make some vague sense of the poem, even though the English texts themselves are not meant to make any definite sense either. In a bid to defy the etymological notion of transference in translating (“translate” in modern English comes from Latin translatio, ‘carrying over’), the poet textualises the impossibility of “carrying across” any determinate meaning from some perceived source

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text to some perceived target text by exploiting the openness and flexibility of language through MT. This sense of playing with the unstable signifying potential of language, reminiscent of Derrida’s deconstruction,9 is evident in the mode of composition in Pink Noise. Through this compositional mode, the boundaries of signifiers are re-negotiated, often resulting in the disintegration and unpredictable re-configuration of meaning between two parallel poems. If each English poem in the book is already a “multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”, “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes 1977a, 146), translation then is a site of flux where the multitude of strands from each poem are proliferated into exponentially more strands of meaning in the target language. Rather paradoxically, this play with meaning is enacted through Sher­lock’s painfully literal yet “liberating” translations, as Hsia points to in an interview: [W]hat amazes me most about this automatic translation program is its carefree mindlessness, which is utterly unconscious. This is the absolute liberation of language, a liberation theology of language/language’s theological liberation. It is a kind of consciousness that, outside of insanity or an overdose of some powerful drug, can never be achieved. It ‘translates’ word-for-word, closely following the letter of the text yet the translated version provides no secure meaning. It makes no commitment; it doesn’t flow: words keep coming but it doesn’t move forward. Nor does it take you anywhere; it persists in place even as it relentlessly crumbles, sentence by sentence it crumbles, when suddenly it arrives somewhere. Hsia 2008

The lack of a “secure meaning” in translation also implies a corresponding lack of such meaning in the original text. Meaning, as it were, moves along the trace of signifiers towards an undefined destination, “relentlessly crumbles” into semantic pieces and hence “doesn’t move forward”. But it does arrive “somewhere” eventually, though this “somewhere” cannot be predetermined; it arises from another set of signifiers generated by the unconscious machine in the translating language. Through this process, meaning disseminates from an English source text and digresses, often into thickly foreignised, almost

9  I am not, however, suggesting that “playing” is the only aspect to deconstruction. Here I am highlighting this aspect of the mode of composition in Pink Noise that makes it exemplary among modern and contemporary literary collections in Chinese.



gibberish-sounding Chinese collocations. Yet sometimes, the literal translation can turn out to be uncannily close in spirit to its source text. Hsia gives the following example from one of her early experiments with her machine poet: Sweet eyes that smiled Now wet and wild (Sidney Lanier, ‘A Song of Love’) 微笑的甜眼睛 現在濕和狂放 Back-translation: Smiling sweet eye Now moist and maniacally unleashed Hsia 2008

The poet comments that the machine translator’s rendition of Lanier’s lines is “rhythmic and precise”, with “not a word out of place, and no word superfluous” (Hsia 2008). But the poet also concedes that the machine translator more often than not “favors a violent dismemberment” of the English text, demonstrating “a perfect grasp of poetry’s clandestine mission” (Hsia 2008), albeit inadvertently. This personified image of the machine translator dismembering an “original” text reminds us that “originary intactness dissolves as the translator augments and modifies the original” (Gentzler 2001, 164–65). In Hsia’s ambitious enterprise, the machine translator is superior to the human translator by virtue of its complete disregard of readability and patent breach of the original English text, and it can be as such exactly because it is non-human, and therefore unbound by the ethical constraints imposed on a human translator: “And what really turns me on is that, like any lethal lover, it announces from the very beginning that it is not to be trusted”, Hsia confesses (Hsia 2008), referring to Sherlock’s disclaimer that the accuracy of its translation cannot be guaranteed as human intervention is not involved. The machine translator’s disinterest in accuracy, logicality, and fluency is what enables the dismantling and negotiation of meaning in the poetics of Pink Noise. What is normally seen as a factor behind the fallibility of MT is turned into a weapon with which the poet stretches the boundaries of the Chinese language to its very limit. In the poet’s linguistic experimentation with translation, the familiar criteria of fluency and naturalness in the tar-

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get language have no place. Instead, the viscerality and materiality of literal translating are fully unravelled in creating a new poetics that explores the sensuousness of the Chinese language: The books that illuminated my youth were by and large translations. I’ve always loved those sentences that are rendered with a clumsy fidelity, those adorable literal versions that are virtually indifferent to Chinese grammar [. . .] Chinese writing began as ideograms depicting the traces and tracks of birds and animals, the sound of wind, ripples on water. Even today, when I encounter a sentence pieced together or assembled in some quirky fashion [. . .] my vision is awash with an intuitive pleasure in the ideographic nature of the Chinese writing system, its eccentric liberties, keen as animal instincts, evolving over time as if they knew no limits. Hsia 2008; my emphasis

The mode of composition in Pink Noise must therefore be seen in relation to Hsia’s desire to play with Chinese syntax. Such play is realised in the violation of grammatical or collocational conventions through literal translation, and is premised on the perceived “malleability” of Chinese, the translating language: Chinese can be written in the syntactical order of any language—English, French, Japanese, whatever—and you can still read it and feel it makes sense, whereas none of those languages could be composed according to Chinese syntactical rules and remain intelligible. This is the one thing I’m always after: to test the malleability of the Chinese language in the hope of extending its horizons and drawing the dotted line ever farther. Hsia 2008

In some sense this could be seen as Hsia Yü’s answer to Lawrence Venuti’s call for a foreignising translation that visibly inflects the translating language with traces of the source language, only that her approach to “transparency” is slightly different, and more corporeal as well. Whereas for Venuti (2008), “transparency” refers to the illusory effect created by a fluent discursive strategy, Hsia deliberately seeks out transparency in a material way by printing her poems on vinyl sheets or “transparencies”. In so doing, Hsia is literally creating a transparent volume of poetry that is also opaque in meaning by virtue of the unreadability of its verses (more on this below). This intended irony exposes to readers the machinery of translating, including its capacities to (mis)understand and (trans)create.



Transparent Meanings: Multimodality and Materiality

Hsia’s books have never been traditional in terms of their somatics, such that “reading” Hsia Yü is often as much a sensuous activity as it is a verbal one. Indeed one of the most salient features of Hsia Yü’s works is their overt materiality. This is manifest at two levels: the multimodal interventions that go into making the physical book and the non-signifying potential of the language that constitutes the poetry texts. We shall look at each of these aspects in turn, bearing in mind that the two eventually dovetail into a broader material poetics. In his study of non-verbal communication, Poyatos (2008, 8) alerts us to our “sensorial involvement with a book” that precedes the act of reading proper. This consists of our interaction with books as objects, including our visual per­ception of its size, dimension, colour, as well as our tactile/kinaesthetic perception of its texture, thickness, weight, dimensions, surfaces, and contours (4–8). Pink Noise presents an excellent example of such a prereading multimodal experience. As noted earlier, the collection is printed not on paper but entirely on vinyl (Figure 2.1a). Each set of parallel poems is printed in two colours: the English poems in black, and the Chinese-translated poems in pink. The colour coding here echoes the title-concept: the machine translations, which are stringently literal and therefore highly unreadable, constitute verbal cacophony to the ear of readers who have been inculcated with the doctrine of fluency. They are thus printed in pink to evoke the technical concept of “pink noise”, the title of the book. The poems are also lineated in such a way that the English poems are left-justified, while their Chinese translations are rightjustified. The visual impact of this layout reminds us of Kress and van Leeuwen’s (2006, 215–217) idea of production/inscription, which pertains to the multimodal qualities of a text afforded by the materiality of its medium—such as the thickness and texture of the paper used. In Pink Noise, when the reader collapses and holds together in his/her fingers the transparency pages on which a set of parallel poems is printed, the English and Chinese texts superimpose on and partially overlap each other line-for-line. This allows one to perform a parallel reading of each line in two languages—and two colours as well (Figure 2.1b). In doing so, one is literally reading the Chinese translation “through” the English text, as the transparency sheet on which the translated poem is printed lies underneath that on which the English poem is printed. It is immediately obvious that Pink Noise is designed not to facilitate but to inhibit reading, thanks to its bizarre tactile and visual properties. The transparency material is slippery and the book considerably heavy; the superimposition of texts and colours is confusing to the reader’s eyes. The reader would also

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


figure 2.1a Transparency sheets (vinyl) used as printing medium in Pink Noise.

figure 2.1b

Superimposition of texts (and colours, not shown here) in Pink Noise.



have to insert a piece of paper (preferably white) beneath the Chinese translation, so as to block off interference from the underlying transparency sheets and make reading possible. In line with Hsia’s interest in the physical form of her previous books, the unwieldiness of Pink Noise is part and parcel of the reading process that Hsia wants to put her readers through. This process is aptly summarised by Michelle Yeh: The process [of reading Pink Noise] is constantly interrupted (the reader has to turn to the preceding page to check the English original in order to understand the Chinese translation), prolonged (the reader has to pause to re-read the radically defamiliarized Chinese), delayed (the reader has to insert a sheet of plain paper between pages so as to be able to read the words on the page), and distracted (the reader’s face is reflected on the opposite page when s/he reads a poem and the reader catches the reflection within peripheral vision). Yeh 2008a, 177; my emphasis

But why would any author create such an inhibitive reading experience for his or her readers? We might venture to hypothesise that the motivation for designing a book based on the principle of unreadability is to deconstruct the conventional habits and expectations of reading. It brings out the materiality of the printed word, constructs the literary collection as an artefact, and bears out the sheer kinaesthetics and tactility of literary reading (consider, for instance, the turning of the sticky vinyl pages between fingers and the eyetracking through coloured printed words). It is thus the intention of the poet for the reader to struggle with the slippery material and contrasting visuals of the book to access the poems, which, as we shall see, are intractable in their own ways. This defamiliarisation of the physical conditions of reading creates a sense of alienation, forcing the reader to feel the act of reading, rather than merely execute the act (and taking it for granted) without conscious attention to its somatic operation. The corporeal act of literary reading comes to the fore, whereby the reader is viscerally engaged with the physical material on which literature is inscribed. In other words, through the reader’s attempt to orientate himself or herself in unfamiliar material territory, the embodied nature of reading emerges. The ground is thus set for the reader to confront the mechanics of MT and the epistemological challenges it brings. Formal experimentation does not lead to real innovation unless it ties in with content. In this connection, the “interruption”, “prolongment”, “delay”, and “distraction” that characterise the process of reading Pink Noise foreground différance as the basis upon which meaning is generated. The non-linearity of

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


the reading process is symptomatic of the fact that readers operate—and are made conscious of operating—within the play of differences in deriving tentative and transient interpretations of texts, both source and target. The fact that the reader of Pink Noise needs to “check the English original in order to understand the Chinese translation” points to the inter-reliability and intertextuality of the parallel texts.10 In fact, the differences between parallel texts condition the very possibility of interpreting the Chinese translations, sometimes along alternative directions. Just as the English texts provide an arbitrary reference point for making sense of the quirky Chinese translations, so the Chinese texts reciprocate by opening an avenue where certain verses in the English texts may be re-read and re-interpreted “by accident”. Such accidentality is, in turn, telling of the unpredictable trails that “meaning” can take in the course of translation. Finally, the transparent medium that embodies Pink Noise calls into question the notion of reading a source text through its translation. Does reading through a word-for-word translation give us access to its source text? To what extent is translation “transparent”, semantically speaking? How should we come to terms with the concept of transparency in respect to the meaning of a literary text in translation? Looking at the workings of Hsia’s poetry texts may throw light on some of these questions.

The Texts: Literary Meaning and its Discontents

Any attempt to analyse the bilingual poems in Pink Noise from an interpretive standpoint will most likely be futile, for each reading of any pair of parallel texts will probably give rise to different versions of meaning. Prior to the event of reading, of course, is the intervention of MT in cross-lingual mediation, which renders the translation an artefact of computing technology. The textual examples that follow should therefore be approached as contingent formations whose meanings are largely dependent on the reader’s ability and willingness to make sense of what are in fact arbitrary textual products. Poststructuralist ideas outlined in the early part of this chapter, in particular those from Derridean deconstruction, prove congenial to—but do not limit— 10  I concede that the need to check a translation against its original text can be true of reading translated texts in general, not necessarily only in cases where there is a radical difference between the original and the translation. Having said that, the processes of inter-reliability and intertextuality are made intentionally obvious in the case of Pink Noise, given the near-unintelligibility of its Chinese translations.



my ensuing discussion. A few interrelated themes run through my reading of the poems, including: collocational and syntactic shifts in MT, unexpected semantic turns resulting from the play of differences, the interaction between writing and translation, and a material poetics that underscores the sensuous contours of the Chinese language. Disjuncture and Divergence The products of MT are invariably characterised by foreignised syntax and disjunctive collocations, which contribute to a high degree of rupture in linguistic flow. Meaning in translation proceeds and stops intermittently, baffling the Chinese reader to the extent that the reader has to consult the corresponding English poem frequently to gain a handle on the Chinese translation. Of interest to us is the fact that a line from an English poem is often reincarnated into something quite different in its MT version. Consider the following example from the collection. In accord with the spirit of MT, a back-translation produced by Google Translate is provided:11 I don’t know when it happened that I came to be so comfortable Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful email Comments and phone calls Hot soup, soft bread, mashed potatoes and— Genius of all genius—stuffing. Love is stuffing No one ever suspects that love’s stuffing Warm, mushy and savory I’m actually anxious about the whole thing The horror stories alone from my Monday Morning meeting were enough to turn my stomach and Make me think that maybe I could live with the headaches 11  In respect to textual comprehension, it would make little sense to include an MT backtranslation here, since it can only effect a double-aberration from the source text. But textual comprehension is really besides the point in the context of Hsia Yü’s project. I would argue that the MT back-translation here exacerbates the distortion of syntax and semantics, enabling my discussion to participate in Hsia’s experimental poetics in a playful way (later in this chapter, I further extend this participation by performing multiple MT on Hsia’s poems). My decision on this is inspired by Yi-Ping Tsou’s translation of her interview with Hsia Yü, “Poetry Interrogation—the Primal Scene of a Linguistic Murder” (Hsia 2008), in which Hsia’s quotations from Sherlock’s Chinese translation were backtranslated into English using Sherlock. Google Translate is chosen to do the task here because, by the time of writing, Sherlock had ceased to be available online. The same process is adopted for the examples hereinafter.

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction

For the rest of my life if it didn’t mean skipping out On this delightful rite of passage Luck and love really are on my side I don’t know when it happened that I came to be so comfortable Being naked in front of strangers. Translation by Sherlock: 我不知道它發生我來是那么舒適 鳴謝:由於大家他們周到的電子郵件 備注和電話 熱的湯,軟的面包,土豆泥 —— 所有天才天才 ——充塞。愛曾經充塞 沒人愛充塞的嫌疑犯 溫暖,糊狀而美味 我對整件事實際上是相當急切的 恐怖故事單獨從我的星期一 早晨會議是足夠轉動我的胃和 使我認為我能與頭疼可能居住 在我有生之年如果它沒有意味跳過 在段落這個令人愉快的禮拜式 運氣和愛真正地是在我的邊 我不知道它發生我來是那么舒適 是赤裸在陌生人前面 Back-translation by Google Translate: I do not know it happened I came to was so comfortable Acknowledgments: As everyone their thoughtful e-mail Notes and phone Hot soup, soft bread, mashed potatoes— All genius genius—fill up. Love has been peppered with Mo Renai full of suspects Warm, mushy and delicious My whole thing is actually quite urgent Horror story separate from my Monday The morning meeting was enough to turn my stomach and So I think I can live with a headache In my lifetime, if it does not mean to skip In the paragraphs of this pleasant Sunday-style




Luck and love really is in my side I do not know it happened I came to was so comfortable Was naked in front of strangers This example shows how the crude syntax of the Chinese translations in Pink Noise makes for delayed comprehension. To start with, the translated title wo bu zhidao ta fasheng wo lai shi name shushi 我不知道它發生我來是那么舒適, which departs significantly from its English counterpart, does not make much sense in Chinese. While the English title reads “I feel so comfortable now, and I don’t know when that happened”, the Chinese title, which collapses two independent clauses, literally reads: “I don’t know it happened; I came here comfortably” (notwithstanding the fact that the second clause is unacceptable in Chinese), where the non-action verb “come” in the English title has to be re-interpreted as a full action verb in the Chinese translation in order for it to make some sense. The unusual collocations in the translation, however, also provide avenues for creative interpretations. The poem makes an interesting shift in the first line, where the rather plain-sounding “Thanks to everyone . . .” is turned into a clause with the head word mingxie 鳴謝 (‘Acknowledgements: . . .’); this infuses the discourse convention of a book preface (or other like genres) into the text, giving it an unexpectedly refreshing structure. The first four lines in the Chinese translation describe a cause-effect relationship that is absent in the English text. Consequently, the “filling up of genius” (a marked verbal construction) becomes a result of the “emails”, “notes (rendered as beizhu 備注 ‘endnotes’ in Chinese)”, “phone calls”, “hot soup”, “soft bread”, and “mashed potatoes” from “everyone”, where the referent of “genius” is unknown. This contrasts with the corresponding English line, where “genius” refers to “stuffing” (“Genius of all genius—stuffing”). Following this, the Chinese translation literally reads: “love has once stuffed/ no one loves a suspect who is stuffed”, which turns the English text around by switching the parts of speech that “suspect” (a verb in the English turned into a noun in the translation) and “love” (a noun in the English turned into a verb in the translation) originally belong to. Now how should we make sense of the English clause “no one suspects that love’s stuffing” and the Chinese clause “no one loves a suspect who is stuffed” as parallel texts? It seems that the words in the English line, when released from the constraints of word class, have permutated into another semantic possibility through MT. The Chinese translation could (and I emphasise the modality of could here), for instance, convey the ironic sense that anyone who is filled (“stuffed”) with love becomes

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


a dubious individual (a “suspect”) in the world of love and hence would not be loved by anyone. This sense arguably does not exist in the original English line which, one might venture to say, has engendered a life of its own in its automated Chinese version. Further down the poem, “Luck and love really are on my side” is translated into Chinese, literally, as “Luck and love really are on my margin [bian 邊]”, which could be interpreted, again notwithstanding the awkward syntax, as meaning “luck and love really are marginalised in my life”. Read alongside each other, the English and Chinese lines generate tension in the form of a semantic contradiction. The bilingual reader is thus potentially exposed to two very different interpretations, evoking de Man’s claim that “reading is an endless process of self-subversion” (Rorty 1995, 196). This contradiction opens up an interpretive space between the two texts, where indeterminate senses reside and meaning negotiations are undertaken, but never closed as such. Such indeterminacy and negotiation foreground the centrality of the signifying process rather than the final signified in the interpretation of poetry. As a further example, the following piece from the same collection shows how the unconscious operations of the machine translator can generate novel meanings in poetry translation through inadvertent shifts. They always liked each other again soon They always liked each other again soon just as they did before This only made them like each other all the more That’s because it often rained without measure They did so only when it poured. Translation by Sherlock: 他們很快再總互相喜歡 他們很快再總互相喜歡如同他們以前做了 這更加只做了他們像彼此 那是因為沒有措施經常下雨 他們如此之當它傾吐了 Back-translation by Google Translate: They liked each other very quickly and then the total They liked each other very quickly and then the total they had previously done as



This is further only did they like each other That is because no measures are frequently rain They are so when it is poured out The verb “like” in the title and in the first line of the English poem is rendered as xihuan 喜歡 (‘to like something or someone’) in the Chinese translation. However, the same verb occurring in the second line becomes xiang 像 (‘to be alike to something or someone’) in Chinese, an effect of the random literalness of the machine translator. If we force our way through the unruly Chinese phrasing, this could change the meaning of the second English line to “this made them resemble each other even more”. The sense of “being alike” in the English word “like” (as in “I am like you in many ways”) has been unexpectedly recovered in the Chinese translation, and the two layers of meaning are now co-present in the Chinese version of the poem. The Chinese translation thus conveys the message that lovers do not only like each other, but are also alike each other, the latter sense not being evident in the English verse. Further down, the third line “That’s because it often rained without measure” reads literally in the MT version as “That’s because no measures are taken, and it often rained”. Here the lexical sense assumed by the word “measure” has shifted in translation, from that of “degree” to that of “ways of doing things”. Finally, the use of qing tu 傾吐 (‘confide’) to translate the English word “pour” in the last line has the added rhetorical effect of personifying the agent “rain”, conjuring the interesting image of the sky confiding in the lovers through its rain. Concretising Images There are several examples from Pink Noise that demonstrate how the machine translator can sometimes turn abstract images in English into concrete ones in Chinese, thus allowing the bilingual reader to interpret the same line from different angles. This, of course, can also happen when a human translator is involved. The point here is that the transformation of an abstract image into a concrete one is effected unconsciously by a translation program. It is this unconscious creative potential of the machine translator that Hsia is tapping into. This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities, since different translation applications may render the same images from an original text in different ways (more on this below). The following is a case in point: Words fail me Words fail me So left to myself Well

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


I want to start my day relaxed and joyful I am confused about almost everything Which merely serves as a backdrop But if I want to connect more with my inner self I’ll take a trip to the drugstore and slowly browse through the aisles for goodies Like facial masks and hair repair stuff Then go home and fill the tub with hot water for an extra-long bath Using all the treats I picked up at the store And with my favorite music playing When the day is done I’m stuck in slow gear Nothing more intangible Nothing more Terrible I’m nearly on my own Translation by Sherlock: 詞未通過我 詞未通過我 那么左對我自己 很好 我想要開始我的日放鬆和快樂 我被混淆關于幾乎一切 那么僅僅擔當背景 但是如果我想要用我的內在自己連接更多 我將採取行程對藥房和慢慢地將瀏覽通過走道為好吃的東西 像面部屏蔽和頭髮維修服務東西 然后回家和用熱水裝載木盆為特長浴 使用所有款待 我整理了的存儲 和以我喜愛音樂演奏 當日是做 我被困在慢齒輪 沒什么更加無形 沒什么更加 可怕 我幾乎是在我自己



Back-translation by Google Translate: Word did not pass me Word did not pass me Then left to myself Good I want to start my day to relax and happy I was confused about almost everything So just play the background But if I want to connect with my inner own more I will take trip to the pharmacy and slowly browse through the aisles for something delicious Such as facial mask and hair maintenance services stuff Then go home and load the tubs with hot water bath for the specialty The use of all hospitality I have compiled the storage And on my favorite music The day is done I am stuck in slow gear Nothing is more intangible Nothing more Terrible I was almost in my own The title of the English poem “Words fail me” becomes concretised as a physical movement in its Chinese translation, ci wei tongguo wo 詞未通過我, literally “words have not passed through me” (as evident in the back-translation). Here the mental state of “being unable to express oneself through language” is unexpectedly metaphorised as a material process by the machine translator. Similarly, “So left to myself” in English translates as name zuodui wo ziji 那么左對我自己 “So left-hand side, facing myself” in Chinese. This is almost unintelligible, unless we read zuodui creatively as a kind of quasi-compound that means “facing [sb.] from the left”. With this contrived reading the directional meaning of the English word “left” is accidentally uncovered in the translation, leading to the strange but curiously poetic image of “words” converging on “my left-hand side” and orientated toward “myself”. In the fifth line, the unmarked passive voice in “I am confused about almost everything” becomes a marked passive in Chinese—wo bei hunxiao 我被混淆, literally “I am subjected to confusion”, an unidiomatic structure that is nonetheless still

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


comprehensible to the Chinese reader. The marked passive highlights the semantic role of the poetic subject as patient and his or her lack of agency and motivation. The use of the passive here also physicalises the abstract emotion of “confusion”, as the passive auxiliary bei is often followed by an action verb in Chinese. (Compare this with an alternative rendition: wo hen hunluan 我很混亂, which renders “I was confused” in a more abstract manner through the use of the adjective hunluan, as opposed to the verb hunxiao.) Further down, “I’m stuck in slow gear” is rendered as wo bei kun zai man chilun 我被困在慢齒輪. The image of chilun (‘toothed wheel’) recalls the metaphorical expression shijian de chilun 時間的齒輪 (‘the wheel of time’), thus evoking the added sense of temporal movement. In the English line, this is at most implied: “stuck in slow gear” could simply mean being in a state of impeded motion. This is an instance of how target language signifiers can interact with other target language signifiers and their attendant contexts to form senses that are not apparent in the source text, thus underscoring the movement of traces across languages. Finally, “I’m nearly on my own”, a perfectly natural expression in English, is translated into the syntactically alien wo jihu shi zai wo ziji 我幾乎是在我自己 in Chinese. The literal rendition of “my own” into the reflexive pronoun ziji unexpectedly causes a split in the subject’s persona. It is thus as if the poetic subject has (nearly) resided in another entity who is paradoxically also him- or herself. In view of the image shifts that have taken place through automated translation, the overall effect of the above English poem on English readers would arguably be quite different from that of its Chinese translation on Chinese readers, thus defying the venerated principle of dynamic equivalence.12 As a result of such divergences in translation, the bilingual reader could potentially face different images within the “same” poem, thus deferring and indeed debilitating any attempt to pin down a singular entity called “meaning”. To take another example, the following is the Chinese translation of the first stanza in “Brokenhearted time and ordinary daily moment”, cited earlier and reproduced below for convenience:

12  The principle of dynamic equivalence prescribes that the relationship between a translated text and its receptor should be the same as that between its source text and its receptor; this means that the effect (rather than form) of a translation on the target language audience should be equivalent to that of its source text on the source language audience (Nida and Taber 1969).



Brokenhearted time and ordinary daily moment How fucking creepy is that? So different and sweet A promise awaits us At the limits of the mystical glow If we must die We will need those rhyming skills Some people are born with Others develop Translation by Sherlock: 令人心碎的時代和普通每日時刻 怎樣性交是蠕動那? 很不同和甜 承諾等候我們 在神秘愛的限額 在明亮,發光,似神的煥發 如果我們必須死 我們將需要那些押韻的技能 某些人是出生與 其他人顯現出 Back-translation by Google Translate: Heartbreaking times and ordinary daily moments What sex is it creeping? Very different and sweet We promised to wait for Limits of love in the mysterious In the bright light, like God’s glow If we must die We will need those skills in rhyme Some people are born with Others showing The title of the English poem contains the phrase “brokenhearted time”, which is rendered as lingren xinsui de shidai 令人心碎的時代, literally “heartbreaking times” (the back-translation by Google being surprisingly faithful in this case), where “times” is roughly synonymous with “age”, “milieu”, or “era”. The

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


machine translator has thus shifted the temporal perspective of the title from a more delimited and discrete frame, suggesting “the time when the event of heartbreaking takes place”, to a broader and more abstract one, suggesting “a(n) age/milieu/era where hearts are broken”. The first line of the English text “How fucking creepy is that?” uses the f-word expletive as an adverb with no particular reference to its denotative sense, i.e. sex. A human translator with a minimal degree of familiarity with low-register English vernacular would have understood and rendered the emotional load of the word, as opposed to its referential meaning. The machine translator, however, plainly disregards such emotional meaning and goes straight for the literal: zenyang xingjiao shi rudong 怎樣性交是蠕動; here the adverb “fucking” is concretised into the Chinese verb xingjiao (‘sexual intercourse’). The adjective “creepy” in the English text undergoes a similar semantic mutation, with its meaning being transformed from that of “scary” to that of “crawling on the ground (caterpillar-style)” (rudong). If one tries to make sense of the barely grammatical Chinese sentence, it could mean something like “what kind of sexual intercourse is a creeping motion?” The literal transfer performed by the machine translator has unexpectedly foregrounded the sexual innuendo in the corresponding English line,13 bringing a curious turn to the interpretive potential of the poem. Ungrammaticality: Fetishism with the Word Ungrammaticality, the linguistic “trademark” of MT, is often seen as a justification as to why machines cannot replace human translators when it comes to translating complex discourses. In Pink Noise, however, this perceived flaw becomes a discursive resource that the poet taps into to embody the materiality of language. The more ungrammatical and nonsensical a translated poem sounds, the greater the extent the reader is compelled to focus on the linguistic sign per se, rather than on the construct of meaning—a very slippery notion in experimental literature of this sort. Sherlock the machine translator produces automated translations that defy syntactical rules to such an extent that the baffled reader cannot but succumb themselves to the mercy of the physical manoeuvres of the signifier itself. Hsia Yü’s ultimate goal is to problematise the reading process and, as a corollary, draw the reader’s attention back to the Chinese script and to the way meaning is refracted rather than reflected across languages. In Pink Noise, the ungrammatical clauses in the translated poems make for a blockaded reading; such blockage is exacerbated by the non-user-friendly 13  For other similar examples, see Yeh (2008a, 174).



interface of the book, which renders the reading experience extraordinarily tedious. It protrudes the signifier as the central, material entity, outside of which there is no referential substance (“there is nothing outside the text” [Derrida 1967/1974, 158]). Consider the following example: Things seem to get worse before they get better When, from a long distant past, nothing subsists After the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered She poised herself on the balance beam gracefully And he waited with his fingers poised over the keys Who’s ready to remind us Amid the ruins of all the rest Everything vanishes around me And works are born as if out of the void Ripe, graphic fruit falls off My hand has become an obedient instrument flying of [sic] a remote will Translation by Sherlock: 事似乎得到壞在它們得到更好 當,從長式遙遠的過去,沒什麽維持生活 在人是死的之後,在事是殘破和驅散之後 她優美地保持了平衡自己在平衡木 他等待了與他的手指保持平衡在關鍵字 誰準備好提醒我們 在所有休息之中廢墟 一切消失在我附近 並且工作是出生好像在無效外面 成熟,圖像果子掉下 我的手成爲了遙控的服從的儀器飛行將 Back-translation by Google Translate: Bad things seem to get better in their When, from the distant past, long-form, no living After the man is dead, the thing is broken and dispersed after the To maintain a balance her own beautiful balance beam He waited with his fingers to maintain a balance in the keyword Who is ready to remind us Among the ruins in all the rest

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


Everything around me disappeared And work as if born outside the valid Mature fruit fall images My hands become a remote control will be subject to the instrument flight If we look closely at Sherlock’s Chinese translation, we find that some clauses manage to cling on to the fringe of logicality, despite being cast in a heavily exotic syntax. For instance, the two clauses in the second line, zai ren shi si de zhihou, zai shi shi canpo he qusan zhihou 在人是死的之後,在事是殘破和驅散之後 are untenable constructions in Chinese, but if the copula shi (translated from “are” in the English original) is dropped, the Chinese clauses do generally correspond to their English counterparts, on the linguistic level that is. Other clauses, however, mutate into unrecognisable chunks of words as if juxtaposed by chance. The fourth line, “And he waited with his fingers poised over the keys” becomes a nonsensical sentence that is impossible to decipher following the logic of Chinese grammar: ta dengdai le yu ta de shouzhi baochi pingheng zai guanjianzi 他等待了與他的手指保持平衡在關鍵字. While the original English line is a hypotactic sentence that hinges around the preposition “with”, the machine translator changes this preposition into the Chinese conjunction yu (‘and’). But as the two clauses cannot be easily interpreted as having any conjunctive relation with each other, the sentence in effect becomes paratactic. If one forces an interpretation out of the ungrammatical sentence, the translated line might read: “He is waiting to keep a balance on the keyword together with his finger(s)”. To the rational reader trying to imbue the sentence with a plausible meaning, this reading would be unsound, not least because it suggests that the subject “he” is waiting to do something together with his own finger(s), as if the finger were a separate entity equipped with its own subjectivity. Such nonsensicality is aggravated by the fact that the machine translator renders “keys” as guanjianzi (‘keywords’) in Chinese. The word “key(s)” is of course polysemous in English; within the co-text of the English poem, it possibly refers to the keys of a piano, considering the conventional collocation “fingers poised over the keys”.14 If we tentatively set down “keys of a piano” as the referent of the English word “keys”, the word undergoes yet another 14  I hasten to add, however, that this meaning is not finalised in and of itself, but a consequence of différance; that is to say, it emerges through the intertextual relationship of the signifier “keys” with other signifiers as well as contexts. It is therefore not possible to pin down the meaning of “keys” with any confidence; any tentative meaning that we ascribe



transformation through MT: the sense of “keywords” in the Chinese text is a figurative extension of the literal meaning of “keys”. We have seen earlier how abstract images are concretised by the machine translator. In this case the process is reversed: the machine translator has accidentally uncovered the metaphorical meaning underlying the word “keys”. The path taken by “keys” in this example demonstrates what Derrida calls the “retentive” and “protentive” characteristics of meaning (Derrida 1967/1974, 47). As explained earlier, a signifier does not refer to something already present and fixated within itself, but (I quote again) “is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element” (Derrida 1972c/1982, 13). Thus, the word “keys” derives its sense from other elements within its co-text as well as from previous uses of the word in other contexts (the retentive aspect); the same word also allows itself, through automated translation in this case, to be extended into its (future) incarnation as guanjianzi or “keyword” in Chinese (the protentive aspect). But what legitimate sense does it make to speak of “poising his fingers over the keywords”, which is what the Chinese translation reads literally? Nonsensicality troubles the translation here as elsewhere in the collection, burdening the reader with the impossible task of interpretation. My argument is that it is exactly this non-sense/nonsense that the poet is trying to force readers to come to terms with. The machine translator, through its adamantly literal translation (or, perhaps more aptly, transmutation) and sheer ignorance of grammaticality and idiomaticity, churns out unintentional imagery, such as that of human fingers poising over abstract “keywords”. This generates an obtrusive aesthetics that challenges the reader’s poetic sensibility and his/her sense of linguistic security as regards how meaning is coherently communicated through his/her native language. Other ungrammatical clauses in the translated poem include zai suoyou xiuxi zhizhong feixu 在所有休息之中廢墟, corresponding to “Amid the ruins of all the rest” (Line 6) and bingqie gongzuo shi chusheng haoxiang zai wuxiao waimian 並且工作是出生好像在無效外面, corresponding to “And works are born as if out of the void” (Line 8). In Line 6, the word “rest” (meaning ‘remainder’) in the English poem is translated into xiuxi (‘to take a rest/break’) by the machine, and the noun feixu (‘ruins’) takes the position of a verb in the Chinese co-text, rendering the translated phrase ungrammatical. It is up to the reader to fill in some other verb, such as biancheng (‘to turn into’), in front to the word is the result of our understanding of how the word is used and what it means in other, previous contexts.

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


of feixu to produce a valid verb-object structure. Literally, this unacceptable Chinese line might read “to become ruined amid taking (all the) rest”, where “rest” refers to a state of inactivity or repose. This reading does not make sense according to our conventional way of looking at meaning, but it is also by virtue of the ungrammaticality that a new image conjures up in the mind of the reader: how does “a state of rest” turn into a site of ruin? How does the translated Chinese line, if at all interpretable, intertextually and interlingually relate to the original English line? Here it is the exoticised syntax of the poem that activates new interpretive possibilities. In a similar vein, Line 8 in the English poem is considered “interpretable” inasmuch as it conforms to established rules of grammar, though this in no way suggests that its meaning is henceforth closed. The Chinese translation, in contrast, distorts the syntax and translates “void” (‘emptiness’) as wuxiao (‘invalid’, as in “null and void”). The grammatical distortion, coupled with the literal rendition of “void”, makes the translated sentence incomprehensible by conventional logic. Once again, if we force-read a coherent sense into the line notwithstanding its ungrammaticality, it is literally “as if work comes about outside the invalid”. Interestingly, the same Chinese line is turned around by Google Translate into “And work as if born outside the valid” (see back-translation). If one juxtaposes the original English line, Sherlock’s Chinese translation and Google’s English back-translation, an interpretive tension is produced. Does this line mean that “work comes out of nowhere” (original English), that “the work that has come about is valid (i.e. outside the invalid)” (Sherlock’s Chinese translation), or that “the work that has come about is invalid (i.e. outside the valid)” (English back-translation)? The answer, if any, could be one, none, or even all of the above. The semantic plurality, resulting partly from the chance translations of the machine, suggests that meaning is a fluid entity that follows a meandering course, especially as it threads through different languages. In a poem collected in her 1991 collection Ventriloquy, Hsia Yü writes of “an erotic desire for characters” (dui zi de rouyu de ai 對字的肉欲的愛). This can well be taken as the poet’s declaration of her own disposition in writing. The sensuality exuded by the word rouyu (‘desire for the flesh’) suggests a fetishistic interest in the material basis of the Chinese language, including its script and sound. Such fetishism has motivated Hsia to expose the skin and flesh of the Chinese language by highlighting its visceral shape, all the while refusing to abide to conventionalised meaning. Seen in this light, the ungrammatical discourse in Pink Noise must be read against Hsia Yü’s attempt to “test the malleability of the Chinese language in the hope of extending its horizons” (Hsia 2008).



This is meant to be something of a sacrilege: to use words for the sake of using them and experimenting with their corporeal qualities, never intending to communicate. Non-intention is the key here, and this is where MT comes strategically into play, creating the illusion of textual meaning through a facade of parallel texts, while announcing from the very start that linguistic meaning is but an incidence of algorithmic programming—impermanent, fragile, totally untrustworthy. Irreverence toward meaning comes about with the death of the (human) translator and deployment of the machine (translator): This [machine] translator is so preoccupied with fidelity, so infinitely faithful, that it radically estranges everything. The original and translation are supposed to complement each other and create a shared meaning, yet all those faithful, declarative fragments often take on a different shape when glued together. Note that every sentence in the source text has a clear structure and is thoroughly translatable, whereas in the adjacent translations, every word and phrase is a linguistic entity, with all the characteristics of language in its totality, each driven to engage in an equivalent exchange and winding up physically united but spiritually apart (or is it spiritually united and physically apart?), cleaving like a shadow yet drifting farther and farther apart, estranged beyond recognition but with every detail infinitely magnified. Hsia 2008; my emphasis

The ungrammatical constructions produced by the machine generate a cacophony of words that estranges readers, jolting them out of their comfort zone of reading and challenging their taken-for-granted beliefs regarding the stability and sensibility of meaning. The paradox of unity in form and disparity in sense embodied in translation—“physically united and spiritually apart”— is Hsia Yü’s desired outcome in her experimental use of MT in writing. By establishing the products of the machine translator as a mirror image of the English poems, Hsia is at once reveling in the logographicity of the Chinese language and mocking the linguistic constructedness of meaning.

Proliferating Différance: Pink Noise in Multiple MT

We have seen how the machine translator can sometimes contort the semantics of a line of poetry, and that a double machine translation (a first translation, followed by a back-translation) can bring the meaning either back to its

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“original” sense or further down the path of deviation. A distinctive feature of MT is hence the variability of its output. This occurs on two levels. Temporally speaking, as MT crawls “live” data resources from cyberspace, the same MT program can offer different translations of the same text at different times. Thus, if we now (i.e. at the time of your reading this chapter) run the English poems in the previous section through Google Translate again, the outcome would be quite different from the given back-translations, which were executed some time ago. The back-translations must, then, always be seen as transient products, temporary re-formations of their source poems that continually unsettle into various morphs as MT is applied repeatedly, given a reasonable stretch of time in-between each application. On the other hand, as different MT programs source their translations in different ways, they produce different versions of the same text, much as human translators do. This prompts us to contemplate the following: what if one were to participate and extend Hsia Yü’s language experiment by proliferating meaning several times over with a number of different translation programs? This section attempts this by running all the English poems in Pink Noise through three online translation applications—Google Translate, Systran, and Reverso—to generate three corresponding Chinese versions of each poem. In each case, the English original, Sherlock’s Chinese translation published in Pink Noise, and the three MT translations are read alongside one another. The results are expectedly haphazard. Many of the translated pieces are highly obscure, with the usual traits of atypical collocations and aberrant syntax. However, the translations should not be too quickly dismissed as a mass of linguistic garbage, an outcome of unconscious “play” by the machine. Some semantic turns enacted by the machine translator are interesting, not because their unconventional forms might offer some kind of language entertainment, but because they have implications for how we think the relationship between meaning and machine. As an example, let us take a look at the several virtual incarnations of the title of Poem 29, “Those misty memories seem awfully good”. While Sherlock and Systran turn “misty” into the concrete image of bowu 薄霧 (‘light mist’) in Chinese, Google Translate “chooses” (as if it had a consciousness of its own) to translate the same word into the abstract mengmeng 濛濛, a duplicative bi-syllabic morpheme that describes a state of cloudiness. Reverso stands out from the rest by simply refusing to translate: the word “misty” is somehow left sticking out like a sore thumb in the translated Chinese title. Next, the word “senses” in the line “To make their senses come alive and feel good” is translated as the serious-sounding daoli 道理 (which



in modern Chinese is ‘sense’ as in “make sense”) by Sherlock and Systran, but as ganguan 感官 (‘sensory organs’) and ganjue 感覺 (‘feeling’) by Google Translate and Reverso respectively. Each of these programs thus seems to be providing its own interpretation of the two words. Their different translations highlight, at the same time as they downplay, different facets of the words—for instance, the concrete and abstract dimensions of the signified—that could be pieced together to form a holistic word-concept image. The intriguing thing about multiple MT is that each machine unpacks a word in its own idiosyncratic way, enabling a word in the source text to extend itself centrifugally into a plethora of senses. Each translated word then enters into combination with other words in the poem to create new collocations and, therefore, other new senses. For example, the title of Poem 9 “In their near-human pleasure” is literally translated by both Sherlock and Systran as zai tamen jinren de lequ 在他們近人的樂趣, where the compound “nearhuman” (‘human-like’) is kept intact as jinren—a conceivable compound word in Chinese whose meaning, though, is ambiguous. Google Translate, however, renders the title as zai tamen jiejin renlei de kuaile 在他們接近人類的快樂, which expands the abstract notion “near-human” into the sense of physical proximity to human beings, as expressed by the phrase jiejin renlei (‘near to humans’). Reverso takes an unexpected path: zai fujin de ren gaoxing di 在附近的人高兴地, a fragment that reads “the people in the vicinity are happy to . . .”. The original English line, which itself has no determinable meaning of course, splits itself into several possible readings in another language through the machine translators. This is a dramatic display of Saussure’s notion of the arbitrariness of the link between signifier and signified, as meaning is left to the devices of the machine, governed by the invisible hands of the computer program. Poem 18 is interesting as it dwells on one of Hsia’s perennial themes: sex. The line “He and I made it our duty to screw as often as possible”, direct and colloquial in English, takes a sharp twist in MT. Sherlock renders “to screw” literally as ningjin (‘to tighten’): women de yiwu ningjin yue jingchang yue hao 我們的義務擰緊越經常越好. The sense of “tightness” here, which is also seen in the Systran version, is drawn from carpentry and unexpectedly conjures up the physicality of sexual intercourse if read imaginatively against the English line. Google Translate and Reverso, on the other hand, transpose the verb “screw” into a noun—respectively, luogan 螺杆 and luosi 螺丝. Both of these words refer to “screw” as a mechanical tool, hence de-metaphorising the English verb “screw”. The erotics of the English line is dismantled, and the poem diverted into a non-sexual trajectory. This technical exercise with multiple MT must not be dismissed as casual play, though “play” in the deconstructionist sense is indeed very much part

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of the way in which meaning operates. What this exercise seeks to evoke is “the sense of [play] which, by the spacing between the pieces of an apparatus, allows for movement and articulation” (Derrida 1992, 64), where “movement” and “articulation” in our case are performed by textual machinery. Through different machine translators, signifiers can potentially assume a range of diverse meanings. At times, this would allow the translation to supplement the source text, while at other times the translation would propel itself into a divergent semantic route. The replicable linguistic experiment outlined in this section demonstrates the contingency and non-singularity of meaning, as well as its slippery relation with linguistic signifiers. This is corroborated by the fact that the machine translations have only a transient existence, as translation programs are being updated and upgraded all the time, and the online data that support these programs are increasing exponentially by the minute. Thus, while the experiment itself is replicable, the results are not: MT evolves, and improves, with time and technology. This is in fact a grave concern of Hsia Yü, who thinks “[i]t’s important that someone do this now [referring to the use of MT in poetry writing] because this technology is only going to get better with each version. One day the translations are going to be so fluent, these cybernetic Sherlocks will turn into mediocre poets” (Bradbury 2008, 38).

(Ir)reconciling Text and Machine

As I hope the preceding examples have illustrated, in her endeavour to “push the boundaries of established modes of signification until new possibilities emerge” (Yeh 2008a, 173), Hsia Yü uses the machine translator to continuously destabilise “original” texts by subjecting them to plainly literal translation, resulting in “incoherence, rupture, verbosity, obfuscation, as well as serendipitous originality, humor, and refreshing expressions” (Yeh 2008a, 173). The poetical aesthetics articulated in Pink Noise hinges on a conscious employment of the unconscious machinery of MT, such that the same project could not have been conceived if a human translator were to take on the task instead. By delegating the work of translation to a computer program, Hsia Yü relinquishes the translator’s—on top of the author’s—subjectivity. The autonomy and anarchy of meaning in translation are hence achieved at the expense of human agency; or, adapting Barthes’s (1977a, 148) formulation, the birth of a “noise aesthetics” must be at the cost of the death of the Translator. The breed of poetics emerging from Hsia’s bilingual project is highly postmodern and deconstructionist (though the author herself rejects such labels). But what are we to do with an understanding of deconstruction at work in Pink Noise? I would not, of course, suggest that translators take a proactive stance



in destructing and mutilating source texts, as Hsia Yü has done in her project. Indeed, deconstruction does not advocate the breaking down of a text for its own sake. Nor should translators take upon themselves the task of undermining source texts for the sake of doing so. To my mind, Hsia’s project serves to highlight certain aspects of text and textuality that do not always come across as obvious, even in the light of contemporary translation theories, which have increasingly questioned the notion of equivalence. In other words, the epistemological implication of Pink Noise is what is at focus here. I would contend that Pink Noise contributes to our understanding of meaning and translation through its performative, as opposed to its discursive, nature. It is not difficult to see Hsia’s project as a textual performance, with its almost ostentatious material form, mode of composition, and pseudo-bilingualism. This performative event challenges the “limit” (cf. Davis 2001, 20–21) of writing and translation; the boundary between the two is shown not to be a clear-cut demarcation, but rather a membrane in constant flux. Within this performance, the machine translator is a central mechanism, hence leading us back to Derrida’s question: how is the machine ultimately related to the textual event that is writing? And in the final analysis, how does Pink Noise dovetail into poststructuralist thinking on writing and, by extension, translation? The Text-Machine as Monster In Typewriter Ribbon, with which we started this chapter, Derrida contemplates, by way of a close reading of de Man, that the eventness of the event requires, if one wants to think it, this insistence on the arbitrary, fortuitous, contingent, aleatory, unforeseeable. An event that one held to be necessary and thus programmed, foreseeable, and so forth, would that be an event? But then this arbitrariness undoes the power and the force of a performative, which [. . .] tends always to neutralize the event it seems to produce. Derrida 2002, 158

The qualities associated with “the eventness of the event” highlighted in this passage (“arbitrary”, “fortuitous”, “contingent”, “aleatory”, “unforeseeable”) are what Derrida calls “machinelike values” (2002, 158). Derrida thus argues that we must think the machine and the (textual) event together, resulting in a novel conceptual form that “would resemble a monster” (73). But since resemblance does not co-exist with monstrosity, which belongs by necessity to the novel and anomalous, the new text-machine figure is also one that would

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resemble nothing: it is a non-figure at the same time. It becomes, “by virtue of this very novelty, an event, the only and the first possible event, because impossible” (73). Pink Noise certainly seems like a monster of sorts, especially to those unaccustomed to the idea of the machine intruding into the processes of writing and translating. But the machine is the raison d’être of Pink Noise, without which the entire textual event, comprising both the writing and the translating, could not be executed as such. The conventional assumption underlying the conceptualisation of an event is that “there must be a living consciousness that, by means of inscription, affects another living consciousness” (Dieterich and Rooney, n.d.). Or, as Derrida puts it, “[i]t is difficult [. . .] to conceive of a living being to whom or through whom something happens without an affection getting inscribed in a sensible, aesthetic manner on some body or some organic matter” (2002, 72; emphasis in original). The machine, on the other hand, is perceived as the antithesis of an event, a programmed operation giving rise to repetitive occurrences, in which no living consciousness is involved. Yet the incorporation of the machine translator in Pink Noise suggests, much in accord with Derrida, that the machine and the writing event are far from incompatible. Recall that in Pink Noise, the source texts originate in a kind of machinery, that is, the Internet, and are in turn translated by a machine translator. But this is not a uni-directional process, as the poet fine-tunes the source texts on the basis of the machine translations; this is where the word “source” immediately loses its grip on us. In Pink Noise, the act of translating is far from a secondary activity subsidiary to writing; it continually intercepts and undermines writing by “undoing” the English poems and “re-doing” them in Chinese, sometimes dismembering and distorting the English lines beyond recognition, and often allowing curious interpretations to creep in. And this is possible only insofar as the kind of translation we are dealing with is generated by the machine. It is important to recognise that the machine translations, by virtue of their unmediated literalism, are not autonomous. As mentioned earlier, in struggling with the Chinese translations, the bilingual reader often has to seek reference from the English texts, though the latter are not necessarily the source of meaning either. This is especially so when the Chinese verses are grammatically or collocationally defamiliarised beyond comprehension. The English-Chinese parallel texts in Pink Noise are therefore in a relation of interweave and reciprocity. They form a continuous feedback loop in terms of their mode of composition and are inextricably bound to each other in the entire process of interpretation.



Yet the English and Chinese poems in Pink Noise are potentially two different entities when meaning diverges between them. Here it might perhaps be apt to borrow Spivak’s words to say that “translation is defined by its difference from the original, straining at identity” (2001, 21). Hsia Yü demonstrates the play of differences by allowing the meaning that emerges from the original English texts to be constantly reinforced, altered, negated, and undercut by their Chinese translations. Consequently, each pair of parallel texts, when considered as a unit, possesses not a final, closed meaning, but a residual sense that undulates between two texts “straining at identity”, and yet constantly differing/deferring from each other. This dialectic between difference and identity is what defines the fundamental relationship between the English and Chinese poems in Pink Noise. Thus, in Hsia’s mode of literary creation, where translations feed into their source texts, which in turn constrain the interpretation of these translations, the epistemic division between translating and writing as hierarchised practices is called into question, and indeed becomes irrelevant. Derrida maintains that “the notion of communication is exceeded or punctured by the intervention of writing” (1972c/1982, 329). We could very well appropriate this formulation and argue that to Hsia Yü, the notion of crosslinguistic communication is “exceeded or punctured by the intervention of” MT. Indeed, Hsia’s experimentation with MT ties in with Derrida’s call for “a rethinking of ‘communication’ that recognizes language not as transmission of information sent, but as performance or event” (Davis 2001, 65). And as the machine is embedded in the entire (mis)communicative event that is Pink Noise, we are but forced to reconcile the irreconcilable characteristics of the machine and of the event. Hsia’s experimentation with the machine (in the guises of the Internet and Sherlock) in writing and translating points to a paradoxical relation, in which the iterative machine and the singular textual event are one, and not the same. In other words, they are very much in a relation in which “machine-like repeatability is internal to irreplaceable singularity and yet the two remain heterogeneous to one another” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2006). The “Ish-ness” of Language On this note, however, one question remains: does or should translation actually communicate? If not, what does it then do? Should it even have a function to begin with? The most common metaphors used to conceptualise translation point to its communicative function, for example, the “bridge” or other cognitive metaphors belonging to what has been called the “communication

Machine Translation and Hsia Yü ’ s Poetics of Deconstruction


model” (see St. André 2010 ad passim).15 What if one were to turn things around and posit translation as a non-communicative, or even mis-communicative, event? Would it perhaps be possible to construe miscommunication as the goal of literary communication through translation, just as misreading, as Harold Bloom (1997, 2003) tells us, is part of the process of reading/writing by which authors play out their anxieties of influence? Accordingly, then, if misreading is a strategy whereby a writer innovates under the influence of previous works, miscommunication, as inherent in MT, could also become the discursive means by which a translation simultaneously derives itself and breaks away from a source text. This, I suggest, is a theoretical point behind the poetics of Pink Noise. It immediately brings to mind Walter Benjamin, who insists that the hallmark of all bad translations is communicability: “a translation that aims to transmit something can transmit nothing other than a message—that is, something inessential” (Benjamin 1923/2012, 75). The hypothesis that translation (dare we say all writing) is noncommunicative also strikes a chord with Roland Barthes, who reminds us that writing is constituted by a multitude of traces, where meaning subsists as a volatile substance in constant movement with linguistic signifiers. Here the temporal continuity of meaning is broken, as the spatiality of writing is “ranged over”, leading to an “evaporation” and “systematic exemption” of meaning: In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, ‘run’ (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning. Barthes 1977a, 147; emphasis in original

Potentially, translation brings the multiplicity inherent in writing to exponential levels by extending the “space of writing” into another linguistic system.

15  Such a model would constitute what Mona Baker critiques as “the master narrative” of “translators as ‘enablers’ of communication and dialogue” (Baker 2010, 153), which Baker argues is misleading in situations of cross-cultural political conflict. I would argue that in the literary realm, specifically in postmodern poetics, the communicative model in translation too needs to be rethought.



Meaning, then, is “ceaselessly posited and evaporated” for yet another series of cycles in another set of linguistic signifiers. This proliferation of meaning is all the more exacerbated by literalism— what Walter Benjamin calls “transparent” translation: True translation is transparent: it does not obscure the original, does not stand in its light, but rather allows pure language, as if strengthened by its own medium, to shine even more fully on the original. This is made possible primarily by conveying the syntax word-for-word; and this demonstrates that the word, not the sentence, is translation’s original element. Benjamin 1923/2012, 81

Benjamin’s light metaphor is illuminating here.16 Literalism, by virtue of its ostensible “transparency”, exposes the original text to all kinds of misreading. In an uncanny way, Hsia Yü’s play with the machine translator reifies this notion of transparency through her use of transparency film as material carrier and of a computer program as linguistic mediator. While the visceral space of Pink Noise brings the reader’s attention back to the written word, MT participates in this by foregrounding the “ish-ness”, the flesh and body, of the Chinese language in all its rustic earthiness. As highlighted throughout this chapter, it is the machine’s tendency to be non-communicative that allows Hsia to stretch the limits of the Chinese language. The result is a foreignising—and to some, quite disconcerting— interlanguage, a misshapen, cross-fertilised hybrid of English and Chinese that carries the aura of Benjamin’s “pure language”. Through the arbitrary and contingent manoeuvres of the machine translator, a new poetical sensibility emerges in Pink Noise, where rupture in sense and syntax is replete throughout. A determinate meaning continually eludes the reader, as “meaning” arrives only at some tentative point, only to be disseminated in-between discordant translated lines, “ranging over the space of writing”, to borrow Barthes’s phrasing. A nuanced reading of MT texts (and to add to that, our earlier experiment with multiple MT) alerts us to how translating for sense may suppress latent senses underlying the signifier. Literalism, practically less useful as a translation 16  Of course, Benjamin and Barthes diverge in respect to the nature of textual originality. In Benjamin’s scheme, the original text is somewhat lofty, reified, even sanctified, on which translation should strive to “shine even more fully”. Barthes, by contrast, repeatedly deconstructs the integrity of the original text, conceptualising it as an entity in perpetual flux.

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strategy than communicative translation, thus has value in unlocking some of the “deferred” meanings by “differing” them from more conventional senses. And extreme literalism of the variety demonstrated in Pink Noise has to come from the machine, the harbinger of the death of the (human) translator. Hsia Yü’s apparent fetishism with the materiality of writing reveals more than just an avant-gardist stance. On the contrary, the concept of transparency created through Pink Noise is theoretically profound. As briefly mentioned earlier, to Venuti (2008), “transparency” points to the naturalisation, and therefore concealment, of a source text, effected by the use of idiomatic prose in the target language. A fluent translation, accordingly, gives target text readers the illusion of having access to a source text directly. Under the regime of fluency, the intervening medium of translation is misleadingly perceived to be as transparent as a glass—or a sheet of vinyl for that matter. However, despite Venuti’s vehement call for translators to adopt a foreignising, non-transparent strategy, fluency persists as a dominant criterion with which translators and critics judge the quality of translated work. The acclaimed Spanish-English translator Edith Grossman, for instance, asserts that [r]epeating the work in any other way—for example, by succumbing to the literalist fallacy and attempting to duplicate the text in another language, following a pattern of word-for-word transcription—would lead not to a translation but to a grotesque variation on Borges’s Pierre Menard, who rewrites his own Don Quixote that coincides word for word with Cervantes’ original, though it is considered superior to the original because of its modernity. Furthermore, a mindless, literalist translation would constitute a serious breach of contract. There isn’t a self-respecting publisher in the world who would not reject a manuscript framed in this way. It is not acceptable, readable, or faithful, as the letters of agreement demand, though it certainly may have its own perverse originality. Grossman 2010, 10–11

It is exactly through “a mindless, literalist translation” that is “not acceptable, readable, or faithful” that Pink Noise explores the notion of transparency with its “own perverse originality”. Juxtaposing Hsia Yü’s motif of transparency with Venuti’s, a difference in focus emerges: for Venuti, transparency is a constructed textual quality that gives readers the false impression that they can access the meaning of a source text through the intervening medium of translation. For Hsia, however, transparency pertains not to the source text, but to the target language. Her machine translations do not allow the reader



to see through the source texts, but instead bring the reader’s attention back to the target language by way of delaying or blocking comprehension and inter­pretation. They are, for the most part, as semantically opaque as they are materially transparent: the physical transparency of the book is therefore an optical paradox, and it is the corporeal body of the Chinese signifier that ultimately becomes “transparent”.


The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology In her book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, Katherine Hayles (2012, 2) pronounces that “the Age of Print is passing”, by which she means not that the printed book has become outmoded as such, but that it has lost its privileged status as “the default medium of communication” (249n1). Literary communication is not exempt from this trend in the development of writing and reading media. The technologisation of literature is perhaps most palpably manifest in the form of multimodal cyberliterature (e.g., Hayles et al. 2006; Borràs et al. 2011), which exploits multiple modes of intermedial and intersemiotic production, and wherein translation sometimes figures as both linguistic act and rhetorical trope.1 Besides literature composed for Internet consumption, digitised print literature is yet another burgeoning form through which writing and reading are revolutionising themselves in this age of e-literacy. Hayles (2003, 263) sees “the transformation of a print document into an electronic text as a form of translation, which is inevitably also an act of interpretation” that involves gains and losses. The production of cyberliterature originating in print is thus a kind of “media translation”, not in the sense of translating for the media, but in the sense of transposing the material platform of texts from print to electronic media. What are the implications of such translation for textual studies in general and literary reception in particular? Hayles (2003) maintains that it gives birth to a distinct breed of textuality that is not only electronic but also embodied. This would conceivably lead to a new form of literary criticism that emphasises the physical embodiment of texts as much as their conceptual content. 1  In John Cayley’s (2004) cyber-poetry project entitled translation, for instance, texts in (and on the subject of) translation are presented in German, French, and English, as dictated by algorithmic programming. The result is a multimodal display of an aural-visual alphabetic flux, where alphabets from different languages morph (‘translate’?) into one another to create jarring and evolving combinations (Lee 2014). This “linguistic technology of alphabetic letters” (Hayles 2003, 284) is also exemplified in Cayley’s (2007) riverIsland, which incorporates the multiple translations of a traditional Chinese poem into a navigable text-movie, with functionalities that enable a reader to toggle among various modalities (Cayley 2003; Hayles 2003, 284–87). © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���5 | doi ��.��63/9789004293380_004



Germane to this is the notion of materiality in/of literature, and of how translating across media, which necessarily entails a shift in the material constitution of a text, sustains or alters the latter’s mode of signification. While media translation, in Hayles’s sense of intermedial transposition, is a relatively new coinage, the practice itself is age-old. The transformation of an ancient scroll text into a modern codex book, for instance, is an instantiation of this type of media translation, which “radically alters how a reader encounters the work; by changing how the work means, such a move alters what it means” (Hayles 2003, 264; emphasis in original). The age has now come for codex books to be translated in a similar way into electronic formats, where “the attempt to define a work as an immaterial verbal construct, already problematic for print, opens a Pandora’s box of additional complexities and contradictions” (268). Hayles’s hypothesis is that changing the media platform of literary representation also changes the way we conceive of textuality and materiality: The issue goes to the heart of what we think a text is, and at the heart of the heart is the belief that work and text are immaterial constructions independent of the substrates in which they are instantiated. We urgently need to rethink this assumption, for as long as it remains intact, efforts to account for the specificities of print and electronic media will be hamstrung. Without nuanced analyses of the differences and similarities of print and electronic media, we will fail to grasp the fuller significance of the momentous changes underway as the Age of Print draws to a close and print—as robust, versatile, and complex as ever—takes its place in the dynamic media ecology of the twenty-first century. Hayles 2003, 270–71

In the Chinese-speaking world, as in elsewhere, the World Wide Web has become a prime site for the proliferation of popular fiction since the turn of the century. An entire generation of best-selling Chinese authors have emerged from and thrived on cyberliterature.2 Poetry is experiencing a similar change 2  Interestingly, many of these writers publish their works in print after they have achieved a certain degree of success in cyberspace (measured in terms of such parameters as the number of website visits and frequency of appearance on online literary forums). This move is motivated by profits as well as the recognition derivable from copyrighted print works. A good example would be the Taiwanese writer known by the pseudonym Jiu Ba Dao 九把刀, who started out as a cyberwriter but is now widely published in print. In the terms used in this chapter, this practice can be seen as a form of back-translation from electronic to print literature, where the reverse direction is assumed to be default, as, for example, in the digi-

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


in its mode of circulation and reception. The Internet has not only enabled the propagation of poetry to a much wider Chinese readership than before, but has also radically transformed the way it is read. Rich interactive modalities offered through social media engender a participatory form of engagement with poetry, such as to revolutionise the personalised act of reading into a highly intertextual and intersubjective social event. This chapter presents the case of Chen Li 陳黎, a prolific Taiwanese poet known for his experimental works. What distinguishes Chen Li as a contemporary poet is his systematic pursuit of a literary presence in cyberspace, while remaining widely published in print form. My interest, however, is not exclusively with Chen Li’s electronic literature. Instead, I focus on a trio of themes in Chen’s writing, namely materiality, translation, and technology, with a view to elucidating the translingual and transmedial modes through which Chen constructs his brand of poetics across a spectrum of works. In particular, I examine how he heightens literary form—both in print and on line—and exploits digital and non-digital media to enrich the fabric of his writing. My central argument is that translation manifests in four different guises in Chen Li’s poetics: translingualism-in-writing, intermedial transposition, interlingual translation, and intersemiotic transcreation. The rest of this chapter is structured along these four vectors. In terms of texts, I begin with two concrete poems from the 2011 collection Me/City (Wo/Cheng 我/城) and then move on to the multimodal aspects of his literary website. In so doing, I seek a broad perspective on how the poet shapes and presents his literature, with an eye on how text, translation, and technology interact and intersect to produce a material poetics in Chinese.

The Translingual Sign as Inscription Technology

As one of the most active practitioners in Chinese experimental writing, Chen Li fully embodies the spirit of the literary avant-garde. This is perhaps best exemplified in his enthusiasm for tuxiang shi 圖像詩 (‘picture-image poetry’) or concrete poetry. Also known as “visual poetry” or “shape poetry”, this subgenre operates on fonts, patterns, and typography, where “the arrangement and properties of the words on the page are integral to the meaning of the work” (Morrison 2010, 152). In the Chinese-language context, this would often involve tised The William Blake Archive (Hayles 2003) and the 3D version of Along the River During the Qingming Festival (Qingming shanghe tu 清明上河圖), a Chinese painting from the Song Dynasty.



a visual play on the architectonics of the Chinese character. The pictographic quality of the Chinese script makes it especially amenable to such manipulation. In the context of translation, the most famous example of this has to be Ezra Pound’s (mis)reading of the visual composition of the Chinese character. In his translation of Confucius’s texts, Pound consciously performs a “reading of Chinese characters as image-texts rather than Chinese signs” (Christie 2012: 81); this is particularly evident in the glossaries to his translations, in which Chinese radicals are often interpreted iconically, such that the semantics of a character as derived by Pound emerges through the creative lineation of concrete images, often deviating from its meaning as known to Chinese readers (Christie 2012). Contemporary Chinese poets have exploited this distinctive feature of their native language in pushing the discursive boundaries of writing.3 Bruno (2012a) identifies three modes of visual poetry in Chinese: first, the “exploitation of the etymo-pictographic function of Chinese characters to construct the poetic theme”; second, the “arrangement of characters to obtain a graphic icon which works in combination with the meaning of the verbal text”; and three, the “use of characters as visual components beyond their lexical semantics” (245–46). With such poetry, the reader interprets “through a semiotic process that favours visual perception, since content is determined by the look of the words. Yet at the same time, these words establish a structure, a form, a relationship that makes them function as the visual equivalent of a linguistic text” (271–72). The production and reception (and, indeed, translation) of concrete poetry therefore involve a perceptual-cognitive process that takes 3  Concrete poetry has been a favourite sub-genre in the Taiwan literary circle, emerging in the mid-1980s and popularised thereafter by Xiao Xiao 蕭蕭, Luo Zhi-cheng 羅智成, Su Shaolian 蘇紹連, Lin Yaode 林耀德, and other contemporaries. Within Chen Li’s oeuvre, concrete poetry has enjoyed such high visibility that it has become something of his hallmark. Critics have highlighted Chen Li’s penchant for breaking down established signifier-signified relations and his fetish for the sensuous qualities of words, associating his techniques with those of the Language Poets in the U.S. in the 1960s (Meng Fan 2003, 247–252, 254–255). More specifically, his techniques include deconstructing Chinese characters (or “glyphomancy”, see Bruno [2012a, 259]), extending the associative resonances of words, punning, and modulating words between different figures of speech, all of which constitute his “linguistic magic” (Xi Mi 2009, 318). And while it is the visuality of Chen’s concrete poetry that is more often emphasised, the aural dimension must not be overlooked. Musical impulses are often played out in Chen’s works through phonetic similarity and lexical repetition (Ho 2007). These sensory aspects are not, of course, distinct from each other, as they often interact with the verbal text and with each other to create a synaesthetic experience. The result of Chen Li’s linguistic improvisation is a strong sense of formal experimentalism that realises his “poetics of play” (Zeng 2009)—a poetics that playfully activates readers’ senses.

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


into account visual, typographical, and phonic elements as well as their relationship to other meaning-making units within the semiotic system. Granting that concrete poetry is easily amenable to perspectives from postmodernist writing, I prefer to see it here as a bearer of “inscription technology”, defined as any discursive device that “initiate[s] material changes that can be read as marks” (Hayles 2002, 24). This would include, among others, the computer, telegraphy, film, video and, of course, the printed word. In this view, the formal properties of a literary text, by virtue of their being an inscription, always point back to their own material mark. The link to technology is especially apt when we consider that concrete poems “anticipate contemporary digital poetics, where letter, font, size, spacing, and color are used to generate complex verbo-visual configurations” (Perloff 2010, 13). If we recognise that “all literary texts, whatever their given generic labels, narrative or otherwise, are encoded in a nonverbal sign system that can be termed graphemic” (Chang 1992, 133), concrete poetry stresses this graphemicity by exploiting the visceral body of the signifier. That is, it seeks to fulfill the sense aesthetics of a literary text by invoking the visual, sonic, and kinaesthetic potentialities of the verbal mark. More pertinent to my thesis is how translation and the translational operate to focus attention on the cognitive-perceptual qualities of a literary text. A literary translator in his own right, Chen Li is sensitive to the space between different languages and language representational systems, and consciously taps into this space in making his aesthetic point. It is this aspect that makes many of his works translational, which means they express themes relating to cultural spaces and employ tropes to perform these themes textually. On the level of linguistic instantiation, the translational often actualises itself in the juxtaposition of codes (i.e. code-mixing) and, as we shall see in Chen Li’s case, the intertextuality and slippage between such codes. Translation proper may be, but is not necessarily, involved here, if only as a translingual trope to be embedded within the text. Our first example is the poem “18 Touches” (Shiba mo 十八摸) (Chen 2011, 222), which illustrates how phonetisation and transliteration work with verbal language to produce translational effects. This is the quintessential concrete poem in Chinese: it bears the shape of Taiwan island (Figure 3.1), and its conceptual content is about the island’s indigenous cultures. Its materiality arises out of the interaction between its shape—that of the physical “body” of Taiwan—and the metaphorisation of the poet’s motherland as female body.4 A central figure in the text is the aural-visual ㄇ. This is the Zhuyin 注音 4  The poem is a parodic adaptation of a Chinese folksong bearing the same title, known for its sleazy images of a man caressing a woman (hence the word mo in the title). Chen’s poem



romanisation5 of the Chinese sound/morpheme mo 摸 (‘touch/caress’); it is also an element of what is popularly recited as ㄅㄆㄇㄈ bo po mo fo, the first four sounds in the Chinese phonological system. In the poem (Line 6), these four sounds are parodied in the phonetic string ㄅㄆㄇㄇ bo po mo mo. The purpose here is to underscore the duplicative verbal construction mo mo 摸摸, a principal leitmotif that recurs throughout the poem with the sense of “caress my . . .”, and that resonates with the sexually suggestive nature of the piece. At the same time, ㄇ is also a pictorial translation of the word for goalmouth, qiumen 球门. Hence Lines 36–39 read: “I give you [a] goalmouth, [I] give you [a] ㄇ/you raise my leg/[to] send it into/ [the] gate. . .”. Within the rhetorical scheme of the poem, the image of a goalmouth is a visual metaphor for a woman’s vagina (Chen, personal communication). The figure ㄇ thus serves both as an icon for the vehicle of the metaphor (vagina as goalmouth) and as an aural sign for the Chinese word meaning “touch/caress”. This allows us to interpret the verbal phrase gei ni ㄇ给你ㄇ in two ways, one pictorial and literal (“give you a goalmouth”), and the other phonetic and sexual (“let you caress [me]”). While the use of a phonetic symbol (an instance of inscription technology) causes slippage between language representational systems, and between pictorial and auditory signification (a translational effect), the use of lexis from indigenous languages creates a translingual text through code-mixing and translation. Here a brief knowledge of indigenous languages would facilitate comprehension of certain segments of the poem. Consider, for instance, the use in Line 29 of Duo Luo Man 哆囉滿 in place of the modern name Hualien 花蓮 for the Taiwanese county inhabited by several indigenous peoples. Lines 13–14 invoke the word e luan 鵝鑾, the Pai Wan 排灣 (the name of an indigenous tribe and its native tongue) equivalent of the Mandarin Chinese fan 帆 (‘sail’). Thus, the line ta zhang kai e luan, wo zhang fan 它張開鵝鑾,我張帆 (“It opens [its] e luan, I open [my] sail”) is both translational and translingual: the second clause describes the same act as the first, albeit with a different agent and with the key noun rendered in Mandarin Chinese rather than the Pai Wan language. In Lines 25–26, the poet shifts to the Ya Mei 雅美 tribe, playing on the phonetic similarity of the lexical items for “yam (plural)” (sosoli) and “breast” (soso) in the indigenous tongue: momo hongtouyu de yutou, mo retains the bawdy character of the original poem, but raises it to a literary level by allegorising the body-land of his beloved country (Chen, personal communication). 5  The Zhuyin fuhao 注音符號 is the official phonetic system invented in early Republican China and is now used exclusively in Taiwan. It is the Taiwanese counterpart to the Hanyu pinyin 漢語拼音 romanisation system, which is used in PRC China and internationally.

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


figure 3.1 “18 Touches”.

liang xia tamen shuo shi / sosoli, kuai mo yi xia, a soso, biancheng wo de rufang 摸摸紅頭嶼的芋頭,摸兩下他們說是 / sosoli ,快摸一下,啊 soso ,變 成我的乳房 (“Caress the yam of Hong Tou Yu, caress it twice [and] they call it sosoli, caress it once quickly, ah soso, [it] becomes my breast”). The comic humour intended here is based on a slippage between the phonetics of two



close-sounding Ya Mei words and between their starkly different equivalents in Mandarin Chinese. Code-mixing reveals the chasm and tension between indigenous and dominant cultures in Taiwan, and therefore the need for translation, which is what happens in this line. This translational interplay between languages with different symbolic power indexes the dialectic between various cultural identities in Taiwan. The translingual sign embodies the translational, though the specific act of translating may or may not have transpired within the text itself. The poem “And the Bees are Singing to You Too” (Er mifeng ye dui ni gechang 而蜜蜂也對你歌唱) (Chen 2011, 120) is a case in point. It is woven round the composite translingual sign 耳/B/Bee, with the three components bound in an uncanny relation inflected with translation and graphemic transposition. The poem is a tribute to the Japanese writer Mimi Hachikai 蜂飼耳, whose first name bears the Kanji character meaning “ear”; this character also serves as a radical in the Chinese script, with a pictographic form derived from the shape of the human ear: 阝. By sheer accident, this radical resembles the Latin letter “B” (upper case), with the sound “bee”, and the word “bee” happens to be the lexical translation of the first morpheme of Mimi Hachikai’s last name in the Kanji/Chinese script: 蜂; hence, the word “bees” in the title. In the body of the text, the Kanji/Chinese character for “ear”, which metonymically evokes the act of listening, is juxtaposed with the English word “bee” with an extended trail of “e”s behind, and duplicated several times along the vertical axis (Figure 3.2). The resulting block-configuration of the letter “e” on the page evokes the image of an army of bees, thanks to the intertextuality and intersemioticity at work among various components: the English word “bee”, the title of the poem, the last name of the Japanese poet, and the sound-image of buzzing produced in the mind of the reader upon looking at repeated strings of the letter “e”. Here the “spatial distribution of the formal components [. . .] generates meaning not by way of language but by perception of an experienced space” (Bruno 2012a, 256). The motivation for the poem’s spatial arrangement becomes even clearer when we come to its last line, which separates itself from the main text—a kind of footer, we might say: “Our Concertgebouw”, where concertgebouw is the Dutch word for “concert hall” and also the name of a famous concert hall in Amsterdam (The Concertgebouw).6 Apparently, the visual constellation of the poem also invokes the structural image of an auditorium or concert hall. In this 6  By invoking the Dutch word here, Chen Li is paying tribute to yet another Japanese author Toshiko Hirata 平田俊子, who uses the word in the first line of her poem “Treasure” (Chen 2011, 234).

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


figure 3.2 “And the Bees are Singing to You Too”.

sense it has features of what Bruno (2012a) calls the “iconotext”, except that whereas an iconotext “performs meaning through the combination between the semantic meaning of the words and their iconic arrangement on the page” (250), the words in Chen’s poem carry very minimal semantic content. The concertgebouw association also ties the piece back to the phonic effect generated by the sonorous “bee” and to the theme of “singing” in the title, yielding



yet another level of interpretation: we (as readers of the text and audience in the virtual concert hall) are listening to a singing performance by bees. It is further possible to read the body text together with this footer, where “Bee” and “Our Concertgebouw” translates into “Be our concert hall”. The co-presence of three languages in the poem (four if we count Kanji Japanese and Chinese separately) further accentuates the cacophonic auralimage that is the poem. Borrowing Hayles’s (2003, 277) terms, we would say that the materiality of this trilingual piece emerges from the interaction between its physical characteristics (its typographical shape) and signifying strategies (the creation of a visual representation of a concert hall and a resounding musical drone through phonetic repetition). Here the composite sign 耳/B/Bee does not refer to an extrinsic signified: it points back to itself, setting up a reflexive chain of translingual/translational signification among the title, body text, and footer. It is essentially a piece of word technology that “mobilizes reflexive loops” between the sound-image conjured up by the poem and “the material apparatus embodying [it] as a physical presence” (Hayles 2002, 25). It is in this sense that the work belongs properly to the special category of “technotexts”: literary texts that “strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves as material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/ semiotic signifiers they instantiate” (25).

Intermediality: The Printed Text and its Digital “Translation”

If Chen Li’s experimentation with the materiality of the Chinese signifier leads to his technologisation of the word, then his interest in cyberspace shows his ambition to engage with some “real” technology. By the poet’s own confession in the epilogue to Me/City, the computer has been a major agent in his writing since the early 1990s. More specifically, the various MS Word functions (copying, pasting, insertion, and page layout adjustment), picture viewer, media player, and automatic translator have all had an impact on the way he writes (Chen 2011, 232). Many of his concrete poems, for instance, are inspired by the ease with which one could manipulate text documents in all sorts of typographical shape with a Word processor. These include the “precise calculation [and] arrangement of the number of rows and columns” (232)—a salient trait in Chen Li’s visually-stunning works, such as the two cited in the earlier section and, above all, his most celebrated poem “A War Symphony” (more below). This confirms concrete poetry’s status as a kind of cyberpoetry: its material structure is “informed by new ways of thinking brought about by the way digital technology has impacted our world” and it “address[es] the language

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


as replaceable physical matter rather than ‘necessary expression’ ” (Stefans, in Hoover 2013, li). In addition, the web-browsing capabilities afforded by the World Wide Web also enable Chen Li to create poems by collaging bits of information culled from cyberspace. In the poet’s own words, digital technology allows him to “quickly ‘assemble’ a poem or the preliminary shape of a poem” (hen kuai ‘weidu’ chu yishou shi, huo shi de chuxing 很快“圍堵”出一首詩,或詩的雛型) (232). It is significant that Chen uses, in this particular context, the verb weidu, which roughly translates as “besiege”. This lexical choice gives us some insight into the conceptual metaphor underlying his spatial-material poetics: POETRY WRITING IS BESIEGING A FORTRESS. This obsession with the spatial-material dimension of writing, which is evident in Chen Li’s concrete poems, also extrapolates into his interest in traversing medial spaces. Chen is no “closet writer”: he has both the intention and the ambition to profile himself beyond conventional print. This explains why many of his works are available first in print and then on the World Wide Web. As mentioned earlier, we see this transposition process as a form of “media translation”, as defined by Hayles (2003). Since 1998, Chen has been managing his own literary website, named Chen Li’s Literary Bank (Chen Li wenxue cangku 陳黎文學倉庫) (Chen 1998), updating it frequently with his latest news as well as digital versions of his published collections. The website is neatly divided into several clusters, devoted to poems, essays, translated poetry, works on Hualien County (the poet’s beloved hometown in Taiwan), scholarly commentary on Chen Li’s works, and audio-visual transcreations of his poems (additionally, there is a section on Chen’s poems translated into foreign languages, which we will come to in a while, and a miscellaneous photo-collection section). The majority of these online materials—less the audio-visual texts, of course—have print-and-paper counterparts,7 only that these are dispersed across many different publications. What is the implication of this intermedial translation from print to digital mode, and how do we read the “parallel texts” constituted by the black-andwhite (source) and online (target) versions of the same literary pieces? In line with Hayles (2002, 2003, 2012), I argue that the different media of representation involved here articulate different kinds of materiality that influence the modes of reception. If “translating the words on a scroll into a codex book” changes the interface between a physical text and its reader, and alters not just how but also what it means (Hayles 2003, 264), that is also the case—even 7  Due to copyright issues, the online versions of Chen Li’s collections are a subset (albeit a rather substantial one) of the print versions.



more so—with print-to-digital translation. From a material-oriented perspective, a literary text includes “such qualities as color, font size and shape, and page placement, not to mention such electronic-specific effects as animation, mouseovers, instantaneous linking, etc.” (267). Following Jerome McGann (in Hayles 2003, 264), these and other similar features are collectively called “bibliographic codes”. These codes exist in a different configuration in the digital version of a text than in its paper version, so that while the two versions are in a parallel-text relation, each offers its own reading dynamics. In the case of Chen Li, his cross-media translation of printed texts adds a multimodal touch to his works. Illustrations and colour codes embellish the electronic versions of several of his collections. In the online version of Me/ City, many of the poems that deal with specific geographical locations in Taiwan are complemented by photos or pictures of the locales in question, or otherwise by thematically-related illustrations. To cite an example: the poem entitled “Little Barbarian Treaty 1731” (Fanzai qi 番仔契 1731),8 whose subject matter is an eighteenth-century treaty signed between an indigenous tribe in Taiwan and the Qing Dynasty of China, comes with a scanned image of the said treaty. Most of these visual complements are absent in the book version, probably due to printing costs (cf. the print version of the same poem in Chen [2011, 71–72]). In terms of aurality, the website features text-sound parallel texts. In the translation section, for example, Chen Li’s Chinese renditions of Neruda’s love poetry come with the Spanish originals and audio readings of these originals by Neruda himself. Many of the online collections, when clicked open, also come with musical accompaniment, an auditory add-on that is obviously exclusive to the digital platform. The most salient feature of a literary website vis-à-vis a hardcopy book has to be the hyperlinking possibilities it offers, which impact on the corporeality of the reading experience. Chen Li’s website allows the reader to navigate his agglomeration of writings along two dimensions. On the vertical plane, that is, within each collection of poetry, prose, or translated works, readers can swiftly shuttle among separate pieces via the menu at the click of hyperlinks. On the lateral plane, intertextual connections are set up among distinct sections within Chen’s website, and also between his website and other related websites. For example, among the webpages displaying his different

8  For convenience I have transliterated the Chinese title using Pinyin romanisation, but the word 番仔 is in fact a Southern Min dialect word with its own pronunciation. It is a derogatory designation used to refer to indigenous peoples in Taiwan.

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


publications are intricate internal links that navigate us from one digital volume to another, functioning much like cross-references in a printed book. Some of his poems and essays are also linked up with their critical introductions, many of which can be read within the website itself. Where intersemiotic translations are available (more on this later), the reader is brought to an embedded YouTube clip at the convenient distance of a mouse click. This network of links serves to activate a virtual dialogue among different pieces of writing, between creative and scholarly discourses, and among different media of representation. And when we push on a “news” item that tells us, for example, that Chen Li has won the 2013 Taiwan Literature Award, we may be brought to an external site, in this case a webpage in the National Museum of Taiwan’s website, which carries a report on the award in question. Clicking on a link featuring his latest books will often lead us to the website of the online mega bookstore Bokelai 博客來, where they can be purchased. External links such as these demonstrate a strong sense of interconnectedness between literature and the cultural and commercial spheres pertaining to literary writing, and indicate Chen Li’s interest in “worldly” engagements. Reading through hyperlinking creates an embodied experience that is vastly distinct from that arising from the flipping of book pages using our fingertips. The visuality, kinaesthetics, and aurality involved in clicking one’s way through several pages within a website as well as across different websites lead to a sensorial experience that differs from conventional book-turning in terms of its physicality. The physiological operations involved in online reading are not better or worse than those associated with reading a paper book; they are simply different, and therefore offer an alternative mode of engaging with literature and potentially a different perspective on the concept of literary reading. More specifically, the routes of travel within and without Chen Li’s website give rise to a layered reading, whereby several texts/languages/ modes/genres engage in dialogue and expound on each other. Although most of these online material were first available in print prior to their digitisation, their cross-media translations, as brought together in Chen Li’s Literary Bank, constitute something of what Hayles (2003, 278) calls Work as Assemblage: “a cluster of related texts that quote, comment upon, amplify, and remediate one another”. Consequently, the overall effect of Chen Li’s electronic conversion of his literary and corollary works is not a sum total of its individual components. Instead, the cross-media translation undertaken here projects a different image of his literature—one that is more intertextual, intersemiotic, and sensorially sophisticated—from the entirety of his works available in print. As it is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.



Interlinguality: Writing Through Translation

The visitor to Chen Li’s virtual archive is made to “travel” not only within a structured, hyperlinked constellation of websites and webpages, but also between different languages; this is where translation proper comes into the picture. Chen’s poems have been translated into no less than five languages, and these are all featured on his website; on the homepage are the national flag icons of England, France, Holland, Germany, and Japan that direct the reader to translations in the languages of those countries. (And to corroborate my point in the previous section on intertextual links: each of the translated poems in turn provides a link that leads the reader straight to the respective Chinese original, located in a separate webpage. The webpage with French translations further offers a link that takes the reader outside and into the website of the academic journal Transtext(e)s, transculture, which carries an article on Chen Li’s visual poetry by the French scholar-translator Marie Laureillard.) In collaboration with his wife Chang Fen-ling, Chen Li has himself translated many works by internationally-renowned poets into Chinese. His source texts span an impressive range of languages: among the numerous writers he has translated include Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Wislawa Szymborska, Slavko Mihalić, Silvia Plath, Cesar Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Harold Pinter, Philip Larkin, Mimi Hachikai, and Toshiko Hirata. By positioning himself as both translated poet and poet-translator, Chen Li effectively weaves an intercultural fabric through his website, providing a layer of multilingual texture to his cyberliterary enterprise. In Chen Li’s literary realm, translation does not manifest merely in the form of parallel texts, but also as a latent impulse in his own writing. To the poet, translation “is a substitute for reading and writing” that compels him “to read more widely or attentively” and obtain “some compensation and stimulation”: “in translating a work, I mistake it for my own, feeling that I’m writing again; during or after the process of translation, I inevitably acquire some inspiration or dynamic for my writing by getting closer to others’ works” (Chen 2010, 238). This dynamic is well illustrated by the mimetic influence that Chen’s translation of Neruda’s “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” has on his own writing. More specifically, a formal technique in Neruda’s work, namely the concatenation of noun phrases, infiltrates and structures three of Chen Li’s poems, which belie an intertextual and translingual mode of creative writing: In 1979 I translated his [Neruda’s] “Alturas de Macchu Picchu” (The Heights of Macchu Picchu), a long poem in Canto General. The theme of death and birth, of oppression and rising, and the idea that poets should

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


be sufferers’ spokesmen have since been deep-rooted in my heart. In this poem Neruda piles up a litany of seventy-two noun phrases, which inspires me to boldly juxtapose thirty-six noun phrases in “The Last Wang Mu-Qi,” a long poem written the next year about a mining calamity. Later, in the poem “Taroko Gorge, 1989,” I appl[ied] the technique of cataloging, listing forty-eight names of places in the Atayal language, and in the poem “Flight over the Island,” I list[ed] ninety-five names of mountains of Taiwan deriving from different languages. All these can be seen as an extension of Neruda’s writing techniques. Chen 2010, 246

Neruda’s influence on the formal characteristics of Chen Li’s poems can of course be seen as just that—a literary influence, of which Chen apparently displays little anxiety. But I prefer to see this as a kind of “writing-astranslation” or “writing-through-translation” at work. Earlier on I cited two examples that show how Chen’s poems are translingual in their incorporation of elements from different linguistic codes; here I wish to point out that some of Chen Li’s most innovative poems may in fact themselves be “translations” of antecedent works written in other languages—translation being understood as formal imitation, where writing is loaded with a sense of transculturality and intertextuality. Such translational processes may either be conscious, as in the above cases involving Neruda, or subconscious. In this scheme, semantic translation takes a back seat; it is the movement of ideas, or poetic “memes”, across languages that constitutes the cross-lingual act here. In Internet studies, the concept of meme refers to “the gene-like propagation of an image and its rapid dispersal” in cyberspace (O’Neill 2014, 44). As in genetic transmission, a poetic meme, which can take the form of a concept, motif, or theme, can be passed down from one textual-media site to another. Meme transference can take place without digital mediation, as in the Neruda example above, though it is often the case in Internet literature that poetic memes work across media platforms. Chen Li’s acclaimed “A War Symphony” (Zhanzheng jiaoxiang qu 戰爭交響曲) is a classic case in point. The poem is a critique of the devastating effects of war, and the poet performs this critique by exploiting the materiality of the Chinese character (Figure 3.3). The text is made up of several (de)formations of the graph 兵 (pronounced bing in Mandarin Chinese), which pictographically represents and semantically denotes a soldier. The first stanza of the poem comprises 16 rows, each comprising 24 units of the same graph, hence conjuring the image of an army of soldiers lined up or marching in neat rows and files. The second stanza is similarly made up of 16 rows, but the graph 兵 now morphs randomly into two variants: 乒 and 乓,



which resemble the original graph, except that each has one stroke removed at the bottom. Etymologically, the two strokes at the bottom half of 兵 represent the soldier’s limbs, specifically hands, though in this specific visual context, they might as well be seen as legs. The top component, on the other hand, represents an axe-like object, so that the graph originally depicts someone holding a weapon.9 In the poem, the iconic 乒 and 乓 represent soldiers with a lost limb, right and left respectively. The two graphs also combine into a bisyllabic morpheme meaning “table-tennis”, but as with many concrete poems, the signified is here dislodged from the signifier, which is “disconnected from [its] lexical semantics, and charged by more sensorial qualities” (Bruno 2012a, 254). Within this vacated space between signifier and signified, phonetics comes into play. 乒 and 乓 are onomatopoeic, pronounced ping and pang respectively in Mandarin Chinese, mimicking the sound of table-tennis balls hitting the bats and table. In the thematic context of this poem, they function to invoke the sound of gunfire, which in Chinese phonetics is represented by similar plosives. As we move down the stanza, the two graphs gradually become sparse and scattered, which indicates a rising death toll. Thus, graphic and sonic imagery are simultaneously activated in this stanza, where the soldiers represented in the first stanza are amputated and killed during the war amidst a cacophony of gunfire. The third and final stanza comprises another 16 rows, this time lined up with the graph 丘, formed by removing the remaining “limb” from 乒 and 乓. 丘 thus iconically represents the image of limbless or slaughtered soldiers; semantically, it is the Chinese word for “mound” or “hill”, which symbolically extends to denote graves (Chinese graves traditionally take the shape of a mound and are located on hills) and, therefore, death. As should be clear from the description above, the design concept of this poem is the metamorphosis of a graph representing “soldier” into one representing “grave”. Despite Chen Li’s innovative use of the Chinese character in the poem, his creative concept might not have originated in Chinese; it could have been a poetic meme transferred from one text, language, and medium to another. In the poet’s own words: I often tell others that I am not the real author of this poem. I was simply possessed by “Chinese characters”: one morning I woke up, turned on the computer, took five minutes to key in and duplicate those four characters, and then it was completed. In my prose “The Delight of Animations,” I mentioned “Konflikt” (Conflict), an animation made by the Russian 9  A visual representation of the graphic evolution of the character can be found at http:// chardb.iis.sinica.edu.tw/evolution.jsp?cid=7530 (accessed 9 Apr. 2014).

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


animator Garry Bardin (b. 1941) in 1983. A green match troop comes into conflict with a blue match troop; they burn each other to death. This animation never crossed my mind when I was writing “A War Symphony.” Not until a female artist in Taiwan re-presented it [“A War Symphony”] in the form of animation did it occur to me [that my poem resembles Konflikt]. You may say my poem translates Bardin’s film. Chen 2010, 243; my emphasis

Is “A War Symphony”, then, a translation of Garry Bardin’s Konflikt? Not obviously so, and certainly not in the conventional sense. To start with, there is no identifiable source text. Konflikt preceded “A War Symphony” to be sure, but was not consciously invoked by Chen Li—“this animation never crossed my mind”, he says. The implication of this statement, however, is that at the point of his writing the poem, Chen might have been aware of the existence of the animation. One might venture to hypothesise that the poet had “translated”, on a subconscious level, the motif that first appeared in the Russian text, hence his concession: “You may say my poem translates Bardin’s film”. This concession is significant: even though Chen Li clearly does not mean translation in the usual sense, he is giving in to the possibility that his original work belies an element of interlingual-intertextual transference. Interestingly, it takes a remediation (Bolter and Grusin 2000) of “A War Symphony” into a YouTube animation for the poet to realise the similarity, that is to say, the interlingual-intertextual relation between his poem and Konflikt.10 The coincidence of media (YouTube and film) contributes to the sense that a transport of poetic memes has taken place; the poem comes full circle, encountering its Russian “original” through its audio-visual adaptation. Let us digress slightly to address an interesting issue, which can throw further light on the translingual and intersemiotic potential of Chen Li’s poetry. If “A War Symphony” is itself the product of the transference of poetic memes across languages and media, could it undergo further translation? At first sight it seems impossible to transfer the design concept of the poem grounded in the pictorial qualities of the Chinese language. This is attested by an early translation, no doubt approved by Chen Li, undertaken by Chang Fen-ling (Chen 1997, 286–89; Yeh and Malmqvist 2001, 358–59; Chen 2014, 138–39). This is basically a non-translation, where the main body of the poem remains fully intact. The target text, however, is given an English title, and that is about the only 10   This animation can be viewed on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=vKJumF5Rdok. Cf. Garry Bardin’s Konflikt, available at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=-5HZggu_zq8 (accessed 10 Apr. 2014).


figure 3.3 “A War Symphony”.


The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


trace of translation proper one can find. A footnote is added to explain the phonetics, semantics, and compositional structure of the graphs in the poem to facilitate comprehension by non-Chinese readers. Chang’s choice of non-translation is informed by her understanding that there are “wide gaps between cultural backgrounds and language symbols” (Chen 1997, 20), such that “any relinquishment of its [the poem’s] Chinese characters would mean the loss of its poetic charm and the significance of its technical form” (Chen 2014, 17). This claim is based on an idea of translation as premised on verbal transfer, but since verbal communication is not at the heart of concrete poetry, it is counter-productive to even think about interlinguality, as well as what might be lost in that process. Importantly, Chang has also assumed that “those Chinese characters [. . .] and the verse form with special visual effects speak for themselves” (Chen 1997, 20; my emphasis), which cancels the need for translation. That is not the case. Even though the nonnative reader might be able to identify the graphical relationship among the four characters in the poem (that is if they look closely enough), the ways in which the characters signify meaning remain rooted in the linguistic peculiarity of Chinese. Rather than “speaking for themselves”, these characters are resolutely opaque in terms of their literary effect, and a footnote in this instance is no doubt more of a remedy and compensation than a solution. As a result, as Bruno (2012a, 266) rightly points out, Chang’s version suffers from a lack of sensorial stimuli to the English reader, who will not be able to appreciate the play with character deformation and the attendant sonic and visual animations in the Chinese poem. There are at least two further attempts to translate “A War Symphony”, both of which circumvent the signifiers in the original poem text to create an equivalent aural-visual impact. These translations prompt us to think about the implications of aural-visual signification for interlingual transfer. The first, attributed to the Polish poet-translator Bohdan Piasecki, replaces the four variant graphs respectively with “A man” (representing a [male] soldier), “Ah-man”, “Ah-men”, and “Amen” (prayer for the dead) (Chen 2010, 243). Here phonetic evolution substitutes graphic transformation in the original text, retaining the sense of regression from life to death. In a more recent English rendition by Cosima Bruno (Figure 3.4), the sensorial stimuli activated in Chen’s poem are translated by tapping into the acoustic affinities and orthographic proximities among the strings “tum”, “bom”, “tomb”, and the like. On the face of it, the outcome of the translation is vastly different, but it is no doubt a translation by virtue of the fact that the structural integrity of the source poem is kept intact, even though it is reproduced by recourse to linguistic resources of a



very different order.11 What Bruno has done, in contradistinction with Chang Fen-ling’s version, is to prioritise the perceptual-cognitive quality of the poem at the expense of semantic equivalence, which has little relevance in this case. What is important to note is that Bruno’s transcreation is based firmly on the semiotic relations that govern the aesthetic logic underlying the source text. In other words, this is not a piece of free writing, but one that seeks to reproduce closely the structure and effect of the Chinese poem in a way that would be discernible and sensible to English-language readers: To give credit to the distinctive visual effect, I have chosen to use structural elements of repetition, serial development, reversal and mirroring, and precise counts of verbal and typographical or phonic components. These are the same kinds of devices I note in the source text. The elements themselves are largely onomatopoeic registrations of sounds of the soldiers marching, or shooting, and the effect is a rhythmic scene of monotonous noise created through the three descriptive phases of the poem. Bruno 2012a, 268–69; my emphasis

I would argue that Bruno’s translation adds value to Chen Li’s original poem by way of exacerbating its dramatic visuality. This is achieved through typographical and orthographical variation in the translation. In the first two stanzas, the font size of the strings “tum” and “bom” gradually expands as one moves down the vertical axis, and these strings are capitalised starting from the fourth line of each of these stanzas (and capitalisation is a resource that the Chinese language does not have). This creates the effect of crescendo, which phonetically evokes deafening gunfire. The reverse process occurs in the final stanza, where the word “tomb” slowly shrinks into oblivion to hint at the endless rows of graves that extend out of sight. In the source poem, by contrast, the font size of the graphs remains constant throughout. The middle stanza of the Chinese poem is broken up into two stanzas in the translation; whereas in Chen’s original, visual play is sought by distinguishing 乒 and 乓 from 兵, the orthography in the third stanza of the translation is much more haphazard, with random juxtapositions of letter-strings which are themselves permutations and combinations of the constituent alphabets in “tum”, “bom”, and “tomb”. The occasional use of bold and italic typography as well as variant fonts further adds to the visual chaos, and the overall sensory stimuli can even be said to have surpassed the original Chinese poem in terms of perceptual intensity. 11  Bruno calls her work a “hypertranslation”, à la Haroldo de Campos, which moves beyond the literal plane and negotiates Chen Li’s poem with Futurist texts (Bruno 2012a, 269n29).

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


figure 3.4 English translation of “A War Symphony” by Cosima Bruno.

In sum, Chen Li’s example demonstrates the idea of writing through translation in two different senses. First, some of the structural motifs in his own poems are initially acquired through his translation of works by other poets, in particular Neruda. And with the example of “A War Symphony”, a poetic meme could have travelled from a Russian animation to Chen Li’s Chinese text, which in turn is adapted into another animation. Translation thus motivates writing, which in turn motivates further translation—itself a form of rewriting. Piasecki’s and Bruno’s English versions of “A War Symphony”, which creatively employ phonetic, alphabetic, and typographical resources peculiar to the English language, show how translation is inflected by an impulse to rewrite. Therefore, writing and translation do not each occupy one isolated



side of the literary equation, where writing leads unidirectionally to translation. Instead, translation can precede creative writing, supplying poetic memes that are capable of travelling across languages and media. These processes create a cline of related works that are connected in a translational relationship, where translation proper may or may not have taken place. The translational is embodied in the visceral signifier in flux, be it a set of morphing Chinese graphs or strings of English letters in shifting combinations. The poetic meme then passes on from one language and/or medium to another, in an incessant and reciprocal process that complicates the dichotomy between writing and translation.

Intersemioticity: Creative Transpositions

It is not always easy to isolate the intersemiotic from the interlingual, as the two processes are often concomitant within the multimodality of Chen Li’s poetry. My preceding discussion of the trajectory of “A War Symphony” already testifies to this. It is safe to say that as far as cyberliterature is concerned, intersemioticity is an indispensable condition. And insofar as we are dealing with literary texts or motifs that are recreated through more than one media, it is not intersemioticity in general but intersemiotic translation in particular that is of interest. As a relatively neglected member in Jakobson’s (1959/2012) tripartite classification of translation, intersemiotic translation, or “transmutation”, deserves special attention in this digitally-mediated age, where modes of literary reception have evolved, and will continue to do so, in line with advancements in inscription technologies. As mentioned earlier, Chen Li’s Literary Bank features a separate section on audio-visual material. It contains several of Chen’s poems intersemiotically transposed and performed in various modes. To use the same example again, “A War Symphony” has an audio-visual version available on YouTube.12 This remediation animates the three graphs in Chen’s poem, coding them in blue and red to represent two armies fighting each other across the screen. The two masses of 兵 graph collide and enmesh, mutilate one another into 乒 and 乓 graphs, and then evolve into a mass grave consisting of several 丘 graphs (Figure 3.5). The sound of rolling drums accompanies the visual animation to create the acoustic atmosphere of warfare.

12  Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vKJumF5Rdok (accessed 14 Apr. 2014).

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


figure 3.5 Screenshot of YouTube animation of “A War Symphony”.

The same poem also has an audio translation, where Chen Li recites the piece, vocalising the rhyme and alliteration in bing, ping, and pang, the respective Mandarin pronunciations of 兵, 乒, and 乓.13 The force of the graphic imagery in the poem is now transposed into a voice dramatisation, which provides an auditory rendition that complements both the written and animation texts. These transpositions of “A War Symphony” exemplify Hayles’s notion of media translation, where a verbal text is instantiated on alternative media platforms beyond print-and-paper, incorporating the technical specificities of those media to generate particular kinds of reading experience. For example, whereas colour and kinetics are two distinctive features of the animated version of “A War Symphony”, Bruno’s verbal translation varies font typography and size, while Chen Li’s vocal enunciation modulates speed and tone. Accordingly, then, the interlingual and intersemiotic versions of the poem we have seen so far are all its translations, each highlighting and downplaying certain aspects (aural imagination, visual dynamics, etc.) of the source text using technologies particular to its medium. The original Chinese poem effectively becomes a proto-text that germinates several media- and language-specific versions of itself. A similar case is the composition of a musical rendition of Chen Li’s “Furniture Music” (Jiaju yinyue 傢俱音樂) by the late Taiwanese composer Lu Yan 盧炎, which consists of (Western) operatic vocals, with the poetic verses constituting the libretto, and piano accompaniment. The webpage in question displays a full range of modalities accruing from the poem, yet another 13  Available at http://www.hgjh.hlc.edu.tw/~chenli/WarSymphony.htm (accessed 14 Apr. 2014).



instance of Hayles’s Work as Assemblage. Here the many instantiations of the same poem make reference to one another to create an intertextualtranslational web. These include an mp3 file, a YouTube video clip with subtitles (i.e. the poem), the Chinese text of the poem (appearing in the layout as it was published in print), a PDF file containing a copy of Lu Yan’s handwritten musical manuscript and notations, and a hyperlink to the electronic version of The Edge of the Island (Daoyu bianyuan 島嶼邊緣), Chen Li’s 1995 book (second edition in 2003) that contains the said poem.14 A translation of the poem by Chang Fen-ling is also available under the English section within the same website. The reader thus simultaneously has access to multiple reception channels crossing both semiotic and linguistic borders. A Chinese poem has in effect proliferated itself into different incarnations on several sensorial planes through intersemiotic translation (to leave aside the interlingual version for now). This multimodal reading experience, as realised in Chen Li’s cyberliterary platform, prompts us to rethink the nature of the literary text and its relationship to technology, translation, and representation. Is a piece of text simply a text in a cross-medial environment? When translated into another media format, does a text still remain a singular, discrete existence, detached from its intersemiotic representation? The semiotic fluidity that characterises a literary reading incorporating the verbal, the visual, and the aural— not to forget the kinaesthetic, if we take into account all the mouse clicking and scrolling involved—puts the boundaries of textuality in question. Due to the porousness among myriad modes of representation, the poem-text does not reside in one semiotic plane but disseminates across different media. Mediated by digital technology, it becomes a virtual entity, emergent rather than fixated, arising as it does from the reader’s reception of it in one or more of its plural modalities (verbal text, music video, visual display). In this view, the notion of text expands into a holistic continuum that weaves through layers of sensorial platforms. Lu Yan’s musical adaptation of “Furniture Music” is a translation inasmuch as it originates in the poem, but it is no longer simply a “target text” that rests upon Chen Li’s “source text”, as these terms are conventionally applied. Instead, the adaptation extends the poem-text into another sensory realm, and supplements the poem to form a compound entity—a textcomplex. The text-complex refracted through intersemiotic translation is that which pervades and coalesces “source” and (multiple) “target(s)”—the combined sensorial effect emanating from myriad manifestations of the poem. 14  The relevant webpage can be viewed at http://www.hgjh.hlc.edu.tw/~chenli/poetrymp3a .htm (accessed 10 Apr. 2014).

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


Take as another example the adaptation of Chen Li’s “Gliding Exercises” (Huaxiang lianxi 滑翔練習) for soprano and the piano by the poet’s daughter Lily Chen.15 The work was inspired by a Spanish poem by the Peruvian author César Vallejo, which Chen Li translated into Chinese (Zai women tong shui guo xuduo yewan de 在我們同睡過許多夜晚的 “Where We Slept Together Many Nights”). Chen Li splits the first line of his translated poem (which is the title of the piece) into its lexical constituents, and then turns each of these into the first word of each stanza in his new poem. The intercultural nature of Chen Li’s creation is again evident here, though our present focus is on how Chen actively pursues a multimodal transposition of his work to stretch its semiotic possibilities. In an explanatory note to the piece, presumably written by Lily Chen, we witness a conscious attempt to re-enact abstract poetic qualities aurally through the use of musical techniques: In the musical composition, an extended chromatic line, moving downward in what seems like a gliding movement, represents [chengxian 呈現] the theme in Vallejo’s original poem. Each of the following stanzas commences with a note whose pitch corresponds to [duiying 對應] the word in the theme sentence, and modulates its pitch, timbre, and emotion according to [suizhe 隨著] the poetic sentiment [shiyi 詩意]. The piece makes extensive use of chromatic scales, major and minor second intervals, inverted intervals, and perfect intervals to create musical alternations that represent the mood [ yijing 意境] and emotion [qinggan 情感] of the poem. Chen 1998; my translation

To the layman, it may sound esoteric that musical pitch, timbre, and intervals can express modulations in poetic mood and emotion. But the technicality of the matter should not stop us from speculating about the implication of the attempted music-poetry symbiosis. Expositions of a similar nature accompany other musical transpositions of Chen Li’s poems by his daughter; they articulate a conscious interplay between a poem text and its performative version, discursively establishing the status of the latter as a piece of translation. A very unconventional kind of equivalence is seen at work here, one that cannot be evaluated on the basis of such criteria as semantic fidelity or formal/ functional correspondence; this is because the source and target texts do not employ the same semiotic resources. It is the discursive act of establishing equivalence itself that defines the musical work as a translation, and 15  Available at http://www.hgjh.hlc.edu.tw/~chenli/poetrymp3c.htm (accessed 10 Apr. 2014).



figure 3.6 A video snapshot showing a performance of “Gliding Exercises”, transposed for soprano and the piano by Lily Chen. The subtitles are Chen Li’s poem and its English translation.

thereby enables it to be understood as such. This is evident in the above explanatory note, where the expressions “represent”, “correspond to”, and “according to” underscore a translational equation between text and music, even though the purported equivalence between the two can hardly be empirically determined. Indeed, when semiotic boundaries dissolve, and the verbal poem and its musical translation fuse into a holistic text-continuum, the very question of equivalence in the sense of source-target correspondence becomes immaterial. Like “Furniture Music”, “Gliding Exercises” is a text-complex comprising multiple discrete but interrelated texts: the Chinese poem, a scanned copy of Lily Chen’s musical score, an mp3 recording of the performance, and a YouTube video of it, subtitled with the Chinese poem and its English translation (Figure 3.6). These primary texts are supplemented by several hyperlinks that give us access to a rich discursive background. Thus, alongside “Gliding Exercises”, we can read Chen Li’s translation of Vallejo’s poem (the source for Chen’s “original” Chinese text), the electronic version of Cat Facing the Mirror (Mao Dui Jing 貓對鏡), the 1999 collection in which “Gliding Exercises” first appears, and an alternative musical transposition by Li Fengxu 李豐旭, a young Taiwanese musician.16 This web of related texts spanning different media is symptomatic of the potential of intersemiotic translation to perpetuate a text beyond the confines of the printed word and spatial boundaries of the page in a book. To borrow from Benjamin (1923/2012), such translation gives birth to multiple “afterlives” of a poetic text; however, each “afterlife” in this case represents not 16  Li Fengxu’s version of “Gliding Exercises” can be found at http://www.hgjh.hlc.edu .tw/~chenli/glidingL.mp3. Cf. Lily Chen’s version at http://www.hgjh.hlc.edu.tw/~chenli/ gliding.mp3 (accessed 10 Apr. 2014).

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


a temporally-bound and culturally-embedded interpretation within “the age of its fame” (77), but an embodied restitution in its semiotic space. The type of translation associated with the above examples clearly cannot be encapsulated by the usual idea of interlingual translation. It involves creative cross-semiotic transposition, more commonly associated with the term “adaptation”, defined as “a set of translative interventions which result in a text that is not generally accepted as a translation but is nevertheless recognized as representing a source text” (Bastin 2009, 3). In Chen Li’s case, a poem-text is represented intersemiotically, with interventions from audio-visual and digital technologies, resulting in a plethora of versions branching out from a single source. In such a multimodal textual (re)production, the multifarious sensory modes that engage the reader/viewer of Chen Li’s website also constitute his/ her literary experience—one that is both visceral and translational. This experience is characterised by the multimodal interface between reader and text, where poetry “reading” is simultaneously reading, watching, and listening, as well as the clicking and scrolling of the mouse—the latter kinaesthetic act enables the flow and shift among the verbal, visual, and aural information. A corollary of this multimodal literary interface is the virtualisation of the text. This means disconnecting the text from the verbal signifiers of the source poem, and spreading it outward to form a new, plural text-cluster. The poetic text is now no longer an entity that is captured and locked within the written script; it is released into flux and manifests itself in a variety of guises. Each manifestation of the poem is essentially metonymic in that it foregrounds certain sensory aspects of the text, be it the visual quality of the poem’s layout or its phonetic play on Chinese characters. Taken together, the different multimedial translations of the poem—verbal, audio, and visual—serve to open up the text to multiple corporeal angles, thereby expanding the semiotic possibilities of the work and compounding its expressive potential. As compared with the original poem, the new textual product is thus polymorphous. It is also much more interactive in the sense that the reader chooses the media platform(s) on which s/he wants to engage the text. In the case of “Gliding Exercises”, for example, I can choose to “read” it via its musical performance on YouTube only—and for that, I have two versions to choose from, which I can listen to either consecutively or in tandem. If I wish to, I could click open the piano score and follow the notes and notations visually at the same time. I can also listen to the musical adaptations at the same time as I read the original poem, or even simultaneously the English translation of the poem in a new window (the YouTube video, of course, conflates all of these). On top of that, I can read the Chinese translation of Vallejo’s poem, so as to see how this poem morphs into Chen Li’s text, which in turn morphs into



other media formations. In this way, a reader can create parallel-text arrangements in flexible constellations, enabling Chen Li’s poem to be received in multiple and shifting modalities.17 The fact that all this is taking place within the time-space of a few mouse-clicks means that the multimodal experience is holistic rather than piece-meal. “Reading” and “text” have therefore come to take on very different senses. The spatiality of text alters as it escapes the confines of the singular poem on the page or screen and diffuses into other semiotic forms, branching out both laterally (different webpages hyperlinked into an intertextual network) and vertically (the different realisations of a single text). With that, the nature and temporality of the act of reading become destabilised.

Engendering a Material Poetics through Translation and Technology

Chen Li’s poetic signature lies in two correlated aspects: the first is a foregrounding of form (the shape of a poem, the graphicity of the Chinese character, etc.) and platform (print and digital) in literary communication; the second is a conscious play on the sensuousness of reading. The latter is achieved by invoking the materiality of the linguistic sign, be it the pictorial qualities of the written script, or the phonetics of indigenous languages, and by exploiting multiple semiotic modes and media of literary production. Chen Li’s poetics exhibits a concern with embodiment, that is, how messages are conveyed not through abstraction but through our visceral senses. There is a perennial sense of virtual movement in his works, from visual scripts to aural sounds, from print to digital media, from one website/page to another and, of course, from one language to another. Such movement allows, and indeed makes it necessary, for the reader to “travel”, that is, to traverse different medial and sensorial dimensions, thereby creating a heterolithic space of reading. In this connection, it is no coincidence that translation in all its manifestations is deeply implicated in Chen Li’s poetics, and, conversely, that Chen as a poet is actively involved in literary translating as well. Translation, to recall its 17  Of course, the printed book offers its own set of interactive modalities, some of which are not accessible or less accessible in digital literature. These include the olfactory (the inkish scent of freshly-printed pages vs. the stale smell of old, yellowish ones) and the tactile (the contrasting textures of book covers and inside pages). For a comprehensive description of the different modes of sensorial interaction between the reader and the codex book, see Poyatos (2008, 1–39).

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


etymological origins, is essentially about movement. This kinaesthetic motif underlying the concept of translation relates it to the corporeality of literature. Movement, as well as the displacement that usually comes with it, generates a sense of spatiality and embodiment. A somatic perspective on literature points to it being not wholly cerebral, but being in and through the body—both the physical body of the reader and the medial body of the communicative platform. Thus, a virtual movement, in effect a translation, between a transliterative sign and the graphological script it marks in a certain linguistic system brings to the fore the embeddedness of signs in aural and visual entities. The displacement of a printed book by its electronic version (media translation, in the sense used in this chapter), by moving the reader from one reception plane to another, both enables a host of digital functionalities and reminds one of the nostalgic texture of the paper on which it was and still is being read in black-and-white.18 A creative transposition (intersemiotic translation) of a poem into a musical performance complete with vocals and piano accompaniment shuttles the reader between the verbal and multimodal planes of reception. In the midst of all these, translating as a textual event (translation proper) sometimes takes place, where semantic content is transported from source to target language. It is far too restrictive to think of translation exclusively in terms of an interlingual process. As I hope my examples have illustrated, the different levels at which virtual movement occurs are also the sites where translation takes place: within the translingual text, between media platforms, between languages, and between semiotic modes of literary communication. Using Tymoczko’s (2007) terms, I suggest that translation in contemporary poetics must be seen as a multifaceted “cluster” concept, “where translation processes and products must be considered in the broadest and most general sense possible” (97). This broadened perspective “allows for the inclusion of widely varied types of translation processes and products, even specific translations that are divergent or eccentric with respect to properties common to most groups of translations” (97). While Tymoczko is generally more concerned with non-Eurocentric models of translation as a cross-cultural concept, I am interested in how translation behaves as a cross-semiotic event, and the notion of “cluster” would allow many of the textual-medial processes described above to be seen as translational, even as they “are divergent or eccentric with respect to properties common to” what is normatively regarded as translation proper.

18  Here I echo Hayles (2002) on her point that understanding electronic textuality will lead to a “renewed appreciation for the specificity of print” (33).



Another theme that emerges from Chen Li’s oeuvre is the role of technology. Chen’s mode of representation is, as my case examples have shown, variegated and layered. It breaches semiotic boundaries and at times lapses into translation. It is interesting to observe how technology figures within this scheme, “technology” being understood here as the “material means of production, such as calligraphing in a scribe culture or typesetting and word-processing utilized by the printing industry” (Chang 1992, 133). Writing, as Han-liang Chang suggests, is “situated in and conditioned by the technologization of” (133) these material means, whose evolution motivates “gesture changes” on the part of the writer. This definition is crucial, for it reminds us of the nondigital side to technology. It is easy to overlook the fact that printed literature as well can incorporate this sense of technology, a fact Hayles (2002) demonstrates in her analysis of the printed “technotext”, which is technological by way of “interrogat[ing] the material properties of the book and mobiliz[ing] them as resources for signification” (78). As a writer who is fully conscious of the materiality of his linguistic resources, Chen Li is exemplary in creating technotexts, ranging from concrete poetry that engages the reader synaesthetically to online textual networks characterised by hyperlinking and multimodal operations. How, then, do text, translation, and technology intersect and interact in literature? This chapter points to a possible approach to thinking the relationship among the three “T”s: translation and technology constitute two moving vectors that combine to form the fluid, discursive entity we call “text”. “Text” can refer to a material artefact of writing, such as a collection of poems or a literary website, but it is not limited to that. It is also a virtualised entity disseminated across a spectrum of concrete forms and media, and at the same time a summation of all of these manifestations, culminating in a larger text-complex or work-as-assemblage. As they are used throughout this chapter, translation and technology are heuristic concepts instantiating themselves in a range of specific contexts. Each of these—translation and technology—is a continuum rather than a static point in the matrix. My analysis of Chen Li’s writing practice shows that translation as a concept actualises itself in a number of different ways: as translingual signs within a single text, as virtual shifts from one representational media to another, as interlingual and meme transfer, and as intersemiotic transposition. Each of these modes of translation is inflected with technology, itself a cline that stretches from inscriptional signs in print texts to sophisticated functionalities in cyberspace. As translation and technology interact in a specific configuration, a material textual artefact obtains, while others remain latent and to be activated. On the two extremes, interlingual translation, coupled with print technology, would give us ­traditional

The Material Poetics of Chen Li: Translation and Technology


parallel texts in two languages; and intersemiotic translation, when paired up with digital technology, would produce multimodal transcreations of the same text. Between these two ends, all sorts of textual possibilities can happen, which means a text is always a potential media-discursive formation. On the sensory front, translation and technology collaborate to produce a visceral poetics that demands not just the reader’s capacity to interpret for meaning, but also his/her sensory attention to the physical word and somatic participation in the generation of literary experience. In the case of Chen Li’s works, the reader actively employs his/her sensory capacities in deciphering the translingual codes of his concrete poetry and in shifting between different languages and semiotic modes on his website. This gives rise to “an aesthetic of textual pleasure” (Barthes 1973/1975, 66) that comes not primarily from the cognitive appreciation of a text but from an embodied involvement in all its corporeal forms and platforms.


Visuality and Translation in Literary Art: Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky and A Book from the Ground What is the relationship between word and image in the context of literature and art? Due to the preeminence of the “logos” (words, speech, ideas) in classical Western philosophy, the former has traditionally been accorded an exclusive status in textual theories. In the recent two decades, with broadened definitions on what makes a text, scholars have come to recognise the primacy of images in the production of meaning. The pictorial turn in critical theory signals this shift from a dominant focus on the verbal to an engaged interest in the complex interactions between word and image, that is, between linguistic and visual texts. At the heart of the issue is representation: the media-specific forms of expression and the ideologies—“the systems of power and canons of value” (Mitchell 1986, 1)—imbricated in such forms. In this iconological age, communicative forms are characterised by hybridity and multiplicity, such that a monomodal approach to representation has become theoretically outmoded. As W.J.T. Mitchell tells us, “the interaction of pictures and texts is constitutive of representation as such: all media are mixed media, and all representations are heterogeneous; there are no ‘purely’ visual or verbal arts, though the impulse to purify media is one of the central utopian gestures of modernism” (Mitchell 1994, 5; see also Mitchell 2013). An antidote to “the impulse to purify media” is to adopt an intersemiotic approach to text. Such an approach gives rise to a composite verbal-visual figure—the imagetext, defined simply as “composite, synthetic works (or concepts) that combine image and text” (Mitchell 1994, 89n1).1 To Mitchell, one of the best exemplifications of this figure in Western literature is William Blake’s illustrated books, which feature different image-text combinations, ranging “from the absolutely disjunctive (‘illustrations’ that have no textual reference) to the absolutely synthetic identification of verbal and visual codes (marks that collapse the distinction between writing and drawing” (91). Such multimodal works exhibit the “flexible, experimental, and ‘high-tension’ relations between words and images” (91), and demand a “double literacy” (89) on the part of the reader. Importantly, imagetexts do not exist in literature for the sake 1  This definition applies to the word as a run-on compound. Cf. definitions of “image/text” and “image-text”, where the oblique and hyphen respectively denote rupture and relation between the two concepts in question (Mitchell 1994, 89n1). © koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���5 | doi ��.��63/9789004293380_005

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


of mere aesthetic innovation; they further carry a political value that responds to prevailing ideological assumptions. It is in this sense that imagetexts are “a site of conflict, a nexus where political, institutional, and social antagonisms play themselves out in the materiality of representation” (91); in certain contexts they can even become “precisely motivated interventions in the semiopolitics” (91) of a particular medium. In the light of the pictorial turn that is still unravelling today, how should we think the relationship between literature and visuality, as embodied in the imagetext? What are the “politics of inscription” (Mitchell 1994, 109) involved in the articulation of imagetexts? This chapter attempts to answer these questions from the Chinese perspective, by examining two works by Xu Bing 徐冰. Xu Bing is one of the most eminent contemporary Chinese artists today, widely celebrated in international art circles for his innovative and often philosophical treatment of linguistic material in visual art installations. To discuss his works under the rubric of literature may seem somewhat anomalous at first, for visual creations are, “by default”, more properly suited to the field of fine arts. But institutionalised boundaries, as we know, are disciplinary straitjackets that often fail to capture the generic fluidities of experimental practices, which constantly strive to negotiate and destabilise these boundaries. The line between the literary and non-literary becomes even less relevant in the case of Xu Bing’s artworks, in which text and textuality are central themes, just as they are in literary criticism. In the following sections, I look at two literary art works by Xu Bing with complementary titles: Tianshu 天書 or A Book from the Sky and Dishu 地書 or A Book from the Ground.2 These works take shape in various material forms, 2  These are the conventional, and rather literal, English translations of the respective Chinese titles, both adopted by the artist himself. In Chinese, tian 天 refers to “sky” or “heaven” and di 地 to “ground” or “earth”; shu 書 means “to write” in classical Chinese and, by metonymy, “book” or “written text”, which is its usual sense in modern Chinese. Alternative translations of Tianshu have been proposed. Bruno (2012a, 269) titles the work The Word of Heaven to highlight her focus on Xu Bing’s “logoclasm” (notice the use of the definite article as opposed to the indefinite article in the conventional English title). Wu (1994) goes for Nonsense Writing, a non-literal rendition which points to the gibberish nature of the language figured in the artwork. Vinograd (2011, 102) suggests the majestic-sounding Heavenly Scriptures. Vinograd’s and Bruno’s translations have the advantage of invoking “the long-duration importance of ‘Heaven’ (tian) in Chinese political cosmology” (Vinograd 2011, 102). This is quite critical, as the Chinese word tianshu has a divine connotation, which makes “heaven” more appropriate than “sky”. For a Chinese-cosmological reading of Tianshu, see Ames (2011). I would have preferred the title Book of Heaven instead to keep the literal meaning of the word shu, dispensing with the choice of articles altogether. And if “heaven” is used in the title of the first work, “earth” has to come in as its antithesis in the title of the second, which may be rendered as



including the physical book, mixed-media installations, and even computer programmes, and are important for several reasons. First, they are cross-generic and intersemiotic sites where literary text interfaces with visual art; this makes them prime examples of how contemporary creative practices extend beyond the verbal plane to engage the reader-viewer on multiple sensory fronts. Second, the two works are a metatextual critique of the nature of language and communication and on our deep-seated assumptions about words and images. Since the “texts” in question are always imagetexts, they are as much metapictures (Mitchell 1994) as they are metatexts, serving as images about images, texts about texts. Third, the two works provide interesting and contrastive examples of intersemiotic translation in art and literature, which adds to the complexity of the artist’s aesthetic-ethical commentary. Previous studies have tended to focus on Xu Bing’s subversive treatment of linguistic signs and the transcultural nature of his artwork. This chapter further complicates the reading of Xu Bing’s works by focusing on translation, as both discursive trope and linguistic act. By looking at a Chinese imagetext in English translation and by exploring the function of translation in the making of an icon-language, we witness how multimodal practice, intersemioticity, and translation interact in an age where images speak at least as loud as, if not louder than, words.

The Imagetext in Deconstructed Chinese Characters: A Book from the Sky

Since its first display in 1988, A Book from the Sky has been highly acclaimed for its innovative appropriation of the Chinese script and the cultural critique that emanates from such appropriation. The title word tianshu is used in Chinese to denote sacred manuscripts, either in the religious sense of “word from heaven’s spirit”, or with the more secular meaning of “word from the emperor” (Link 2006, 51). Importantly, it traditionally connotes authority, and is exploited by both elites and rebels to legitimise their political acts (51). The derived phrase Book of Earth. At one level, the word dishu plays lexically with tianshu, where di and tian are bipolar opposites; on another level, in Daoist cosmology, dishu denotes “images of the phoenix and dragon” (Ames 2011, 37), and hence foregrounds the textual function of images—a point that underlies both the art work Dishu and the concept of the imagetext. Here again, the potential cosmological underpinning of the title justifies the use of “earth” over “ground”. Having said this, since A Book from the Sky and A Book from the Ground have been endorsed by the artist and have been used repeatedly in international exhibitions, I see no strong reason in detracting from past usage in this chapter.

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


wuzi tianshu 無字天書 (‘book of/from heaven without inscription’), refers, albeit sometimes ironically, to an invisible, “wordless” manuscript that is undecipherable to the uninitiated human. A Book from the Sky is far from wordless, of course; on the contrary, it is full of “words” or, as we shall see, graphical constructions that pretend to be words. The connotations of authority and undecipherability are nonetheless pertinent to Xu Bing’s aesthetic intent, which is to create a script that is so apparently and indisputably “Chinese”, yet at the same time so immensely unreadable to even the most educated Chinese person. How is that supposed to happen? The concept behind the work is premised on the logographic quality of the Chinese script, composed of strokes of different styles—horizontal, vertical, oblique (left-to-right and right-to-left), curved, dotted, hooked, as well as various combinations of these into higher-level components, namely the radicals.3 As compared to the alphabetic language, the Chinese script is eminently visual. (However, it would be erroneous to think it is exclusively visual. Many of the building blocks of Chinese writing [primarily radicals, which are themselves characters or proto-characters depicting natural phenomena such as the sun, the moon, trees, mountains, etc.] may have originated from pictographs, but the phonetic element is also present in a good many characters).4 As mentioned briefly in the last chapter, it is such visuality that inspired Ezra Pound to transcreate Chinese classics in the English language, based on Ernest Fenollosa’s notes on the pictographic features of the source language (Christie 2012). Though motivated by the same kind of visuality, Xu Bing’s enterprise is unique in its intra-linguistic concern, where the Chinese script falls back unto its iconographic roots in critique of its modern incarnation—the modern Chinese character. The modern Chinese character is a simplified version of the traditional Chinese script. Initially promulgated to expand literacy in modern China, it reduces the structural complexity of characters by cutting down on the number 3  “Radical” is by far the most common term used to denote the semantic component of the Chinese character, a possible synonym being “signific”. DeFrancis (1984) remarks that the term “radical” is misleading, “since the semantic element is not the basic root but a later accretion to the really basic phonetic” (80). I subscribe to conventional usage here and in the rest of the book. 4  I am referring to the xingsheng zi 形聲字 or semantic-phonetic compounds (or simply “phonetic compounds”), which form the largest category of graphs in Chinese (Norman 1988, 68). Each of these comprises a yifu 意符 or radical, which points to the general semantic field of the character/morpheme, and a shengfu 聲符 or phonetic, which gives an indication of its sound. Pictographs are just one of six ways (known as the liushu 六書) in which Chinese characters are composed.



of strokes, hence also compromising the pictographic quality inherent in many characters. A Book from the Sky attempts to renew our material perception toward the Chinese language by way of defamiliarising its written forms. More specifically, with reference to the canonical classical Chinese dictionary Kangxi zidian 康熙字典, Xu Bing devises over four thousand pseudo-characters by parodying the graphic design of traditional Chinese characters. In doing so, not only does he recall the pictographic origins of the Chinese character, he also exacerbates them by reconfiguring familiar radicals into novel and idiosyncratic (therefore un-institutionalised) graphic-visual formations. The crux of Xu Bing’s art is that these aberrant forms do not look quite different from the orthodox Chinese script at first sight, when seen from a distance, or if glossed over in a cursory manner. The individual components of the concocted pseudo-graphs are valid stroke-styles in Chinese, and yet through creative permutations and combinations, the ensuing graphs are plainly unrecognisable. In the manner of an asymptote, they steer tantalisingly close to traditional Chinese characters in terms of their overall architectonic structure, but never quite touch that line which would qualify them as “Chinese”. There is an element of technology in here, following John Cayley’s notion of the relation between the textual and the digital: Xu Bing’s pseudo-characters “represent programmatic manipulations of the elements of the system of inscription; they are the result of a manner of writing for which the programmatological dimension of inscription is not only an inalienable, but a foregrounded aspect of the work” (Cayley 2003, 280). Yet these pseudo-characters strongly invoke calligraphic modes of writing by virtue of their orthography, typography, and presentation (Harrist 2006, 37). Cast in a classic typeface, assembled in archaic layout (right-to-left, topto-bottom, complete with traditional calligraphic font types), and printed on xuanzhi 宣纸 (a type of calligraphic paper made from bark and rice-straw), they are paratextually and deceptively camouflaged as a proper Chinese manuscript (Figure 4.1). The visual mimicry here is such that a na(t)ive Chinese reader may pause for a while and suspect if these are actual characters that s/he cannot identify. This initial self-suspicion is quite natural; there are, after all, plenty of classical characters recorded in such voluminous megadictionaries as Kangxi zidian and Cihai 辞海 (‘word-ocean’) that are unknown to all but trained specialists. A Book from the Sky is displayed as a gargantuan art installation, demonstrating what Harrist (2006, 29) phrases as the “semiotics of scale”. In a typical exhibition room, book manuscripts and huge scrolls, hand-printed with pseudo-Chinese characters using woodblocks, fill all the space. The scrolls are

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


figure 4.1 Xu Bing’s A Book from the Sky.

suspended in drapes from the ceiling and cover the walls; the manuscripts are spread open across the floor. This creates an overwhelming sensory pressure on the audience that induces them to take a macroscopic perspective initially, thereby enhancing their chances of mistaking the pseudo-characters for authentic ones. Upon closer inspection, the viewer finds out the truth. The perceptual-intellectual impact that derives from this “shock of recognition” is contingent upon his/her prior knowledge of the Chinese script. In other words, the aberrant identity of these non-characters is determined through contrast with the “real” but absent other. As Ames (2011, 36) correctly observes, despite the apparent opacity of A Book from the Sky, “there are familiar formal continuities with contemporary Chinese written culture that give it a logic and coherence”. This is attributed to the visual resemblance to conventional Chinese printing, as earlier mentioned, which “evokes a familiar sense of [the Chinese] language and arouses an anticipation of meaning in the [Chinesereading] observer” (36). Therefore, the installation would arguably not achieve its desired effect on viewers who have zero literacy in Chinese, to whom the Chinese script would merely be “a sign of the exotic” (Leung and Kaplan 1999, 87). Without “an anticipation of meaning” from a script they cannot recognise to



start with, these readers are likely to regard A Book from the Sky as a purely visual artefact. Sinologist Perry Link describes his perceptual-cognitive experience upon first viewing the installation as follows: It was a feeling of being surrounded and consumed. From the ceiling, from the floor, and from the four walls the work engulfed—and began to digest, it seemed—any person who walked inside it. I felt no fear, but do remember that my first sensation was more physical than intellectual. [. . .] Next I looked more closely at the characters and saw that they were unreadable. I felt frustration, bordering even on anger. Other viewers, I could sense, felt similarly. Where did this response come from? Why should one care if meaningless bunches of lines on paper yield no meaning? Link 2006, 47–48

Why, indeed? The initial feelings of frustration and anger felt by Link and possibly other viewers are significant. These feelings point to the orthodox of communicability in textual practices that sustains social relations, and, for the native Chinese viewers in particular, the ensuing “habitus” that they have inculcated through education and other forms of socialisation.5 A temporary rupture in such orthodoxy at first brings about discomfort among viewers, for their intellectual expectations are breached. Specifically, it undermines “feelings of communal solidarity” and “assumed [linguistic] competence”, hence “underscoring the ultimate precariousness of the human experience” (Ames 2011, 61). Indeed, the Chinese viewers would have felt cheated, having first been hoaxed into perceiving the pseudo-characters as characters-proper—and here the material settings of the installation piece play a major role—before conceding that all of this is but a visual scam. The questions “What is there to read here?” and “What meaning does it convey?” inevitably arise, as the viewer searches for traces of Chineseness in the sea of Chinese-looking but indiscernible graphs. There is, of course, not much to read at all, though there is plenty to take into view. The characters themselves do not exude meaning; they are, in short, 5  Following Bourdieu (1991), habitus is defined as “durable and transposable set[s] of principles of perception, appreciation, and action, capable of generating practices and representation that are (usually) adapted to the situation” (29). It is “the product of an individual history, but also, through the formative experiences of earliest infancy, of the whole collective history of family and class” (Bourdieu 1990, 91).

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


“nonsense writing” (Wu 1994). A Book from the Sky encodes its message not semantically but semiotically, and the significance of the work lies beyond the purely aesthetic.6 Political readings abound in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident, especially in light of Xu Bing’s trajectory from China to the West shortly afterward (Abe 1998). Overtly political interpretations do not concern us here, though it is fair to suggest that Xu Bing’s positioning outside the mainstream of the Chinese art establishment in the 1990s (whereas today Xu Bing has a dual identity rooted in both US and China) invites viable extrapolative readings of the pseudo-characters as embodying his disenchantment with the coherence of Chineseness. What interests me, rather, is the semiopolitics of the Chinese script that constitutes the subtext of Xu’s art, and how this is further problematised when we attempt to translate the work—a very wild idea, to say the least, considering its non-referentiality. The invented graphical constructions deliver Xu Bing’s intent to subvert the institution of writing, or more specifically in the artist’s own words, “to achieve communicability through incommunicability” (Lam 2013, 109). This institution of writing, as embodied in Chinese characters, is “conceived as carrying moral as well as historical freight” (Link 2006, 51), possessing “the power [. . .] to symbolize propriety and identity in Chinese culture” (56). Similar claims have been attested by Chinese scholars. The renowned historian Ge Zhaoguang 葛兆光 treats the Chinese pictograph as the first among five institutions that are representative of Han Chinese culture. To Ge (2014, 113), the pictograph, as an ancient and primary method of character formation, underpins an entire mode of thinking among the Chinese people, one that privileges holistic and intuitive imagery. Read within this cultural-psychological context, it is unsurprising that A Book from the Sky elicited cynical responses from the conservative elite when it was showcased in China (Erickson 2001, 41), who attacked it for its blasphemous distortion of venerable Chinese characters beyond recognition. Such distortion is, of course, the whole point about Xu Bing’s work. Individual strokes of each character are written with perfection by even the highest calligraphic standards, yet the wholesome graph is by convention illegal and therefore by definition illegible. These characters can be seen but not read, because their identity as imagetext has displaced their identity as (institutionalised) text. A Book from the Sky reveals what is the Chinese character that is not, and it is this uncanny encounter with what is (not) Chinese, that is, its semiotic ambiguity 6  This is not to downplay the importance of the aesthetic dimension of the work, which can be witnessed in the stylistic flourishes that characterise the pseudo-characters and the grandiose layout of the installation. As we will see later, such aesthetics is taken into consideration in an English translation of the work.



(Foster 2006, 93), that stirs up Chinese anxieties about the discursive constitution of their cultural identity. What distinguishes Xu Bing’s masterpiece, therefore, is its high degree of multimodality that effects a visual distortion of the verbal, and a highlycharged semioticity that evokes the tension between pseudo- and real Chinese characters. And as A Book from the Sky is not really “written” (the definition of writing becomes very problematic here) to communicate “meaning” in the typical sense, one would not imagine it to be amenable to translation. But it is, only in a creatively unorthodox manner. In 1991, Xu Bing produced A Dictionary of Selected Words from A Book from the Sky, an 8-page folio structured to the format of a Chinese-English dictionary (Figure 4.2). In line with the spirit of its parent work, this is a pseudo-dictionary that attempts to give sound and meaning to selected characters from A Book from the Sky. The assignment of sounds is arbitrary, since there is no readily-discernible phonetic in the pseudo-characters to start with. The semantic definitions are even more outrageous, being composed of random strings of alphabets that appear to form English words at first sight but are in fact plain nonsense. Ingeniously, Xu Bing intersperses a handful of valid English words, mostly articles and prepositions, amidst a mass of malformed “content” words to create the illusion of an authentic dictionary manuscript. Irony is at the heart of this work. As the epitome of literacy, a dictionary is supposed to facilitate interlinguistic communication. Yet Xu Bing’s dictionary flouts this expectation exuberantly by creating a façade of translation without linguistic substance. Dictionary is thus a conceptual extension of A Book from the Sky into the realm of translation, where corrupted Chinese characters are further given corrupted English “definitions”, in a whimsical deconstruction of equivalence. Given its carefully-crafted format—observe the differentiated font types and numbered tiers within each entry—it is an intentional sacrilege of the institution of bilingual lexicography, an unabashed performance of non-translation through the imagetext of translation. It further expounds on the message of A Book from the Sky by offering a negative statement on the plausibility of communication across languages. The concept that underpins Dictionary is recapitulated in Cosima Bruno’s The Word of Heaven, an English translation of a sample page of A Book from the Sky, one that stretches our translational imaginary well beyond the textual dimension.7 Bruno (2012a) places Xu Bing’s work alongside those of other 7  Long before Bruno’s translation, Cayley (2003, 286) contemplated a “speculative” translation of Tianshu comprising illegible “anti-letters”—inscriptional forms that resemble late seventeenth-century Western letters but that cannot be mapped onto the alphabet of the

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


figure 4.2 Sample page from A Dictionary of Selected Words from A Book from the Sky.

avant-garde Chinese poets she translates, including Yang Lian 楊煉 and Chen Li, suggesting that it should be more properly seen as a piece of experimental literature. That is largely unproblematic, refreshing even, as the generic identity of A Book from the Sky is ambiguous, as I noted earlier. Since Xu Bing’s aesthetic thrust has always been to interrogate boundaries, especially that between word and image, it is logical to maintain a certain fluidity between the artistic and the literary in his context. What makes this translation quite exceptional is that it is not so much textbased as it is imagetext-based and, therefore, concept-based, which gives it a closer affinity to advertising translation than to literary translation—indeed, the translated text looks more like a poster (Figure 4.3). Observing that Xu Bing’s original text “engages in [. . .] a sort of mimicry of Chinese classical texts” (Bruno 2012a, 269), Bruno abandons the notion of semantic referentiality in order “to activate meaning mainly through a visual and phonic play with the [English] words” (269). Drawing on Dario Fo’s pseudo-English and Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, Bruno improvises a form of pseudo-English which, like the pseudo-Chinese in A Book from the Sky is to Chinese viewers, looks alien and at the same time familiar to the native English reader. The resulting output is what Vinograd (2011, 98) calls a “liminal lexicon”: “the English or other Roman alphabetic language-using reader enters into a liminal or interlinguistic space, in which the ‘natural,’ relatively automatic, or unconscious process of reading and decoding is made laborious and strange”. Here Vinograd is speaking of another installation piece by Xu Bing, Square Word Calligraphy, but the description is fully applicable to A Book from the Sky. In The Word of Heaven, time. These anti-letters would be combined to form “not only extra-lexical, but extral-literal” words, thus translating the conceptual design of Xu Bing’s work. Both Xu Bing’s Dictionary and Cayley’s remarks prefigure Bruno’s creative translation.



the liminal lexicon is created by way of clever discursive devices that tap into resources from the alphabetic language, which can be grouped as follows: (1) misspelled words that are made to look unproblematic at first glance by inserting an extra letter in-between, deleting a letter, switching the positions of two letters, substituting one letter for another, or through some combination of the above. The problematic letters are often camouflaged in the middle of a string, e.g. althogether, abroutly, excuctions, spingular; (2) non-words formed out of a random juxtaposition of letters, but nonetheless using conceivable combinations of consonants and vowels in English, e.g., besciems, straboed, etc.; and (3) falsely-derived compounds created by attaching unlikely affixes to root words, such as percompatibilities (“per-”+“compatibilities”), linext (“linear”+“text”), linguence (“linguistic”+“-uence”), grammaricity (“grammar”+“-icity”), compressiption (“compress”+“-ipation”), apprehentant (“apprehend”+“tant”), etc. The last category is most evident and also the most crucial, as false compounds, illegal as they are, do conform to the lexical structure of English. They are therefore potential forms—here we are reminded of the numerous portmanteaus that have emerged in the digital age following the same lexical rules, e.g., “netiquette”, “googleability”, “blogosphere”, etc. Furthermore, while most of the content words appearing in the translation do not exist in the dictionary, the grammatical words (prepositions, articles, and conjunctions) are perfectly valid; these are joined by a sprinkling of correctly-used modals (“must”), relative pronouns (“which”), and subordinating words (“although”). The haphazard mixing of actual, potential, and aberrant word forms produces a cacophonous effect—note the sound metaphor here—that confuses the English reader. As a text, the translation acts centripetally, pulling the reader toward a familiar English, and also centrifugally, pushing him/her away from the centre of linguistic gravity and toward a corrupted version of the language. Due to the two opposing impulses emanating from the text, the English reader finds the translation uncanny—s/he feels estranged, but the spectre of English continues to haunt the reading of the text. The effect is similar to that in A Book from the Sky, whereby reader-viewers are bemused by characters that appear to be recognisable but are ultimately not. Like Xu Bing’s Dictionary, the translation pays meticulous attention to paratextual details that make the text ostensibly real. Bruno explains how she produces the visual and semiotic effects of the source text in her translation:

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art

figure 4.3 The Word of Heaven by Cosima Bruno.




The look I tried to create makes clear reference to the visual characteristics of Old English typeface and the traditional layout of old, institutionalised texts, such as the typeface and layout found in the first edition of the King James’s Bible. I complemented this with footnotes and regular paragraphs and sentence division. Although the use of an alphabet does not require the forging of new letters in order to create incomprehensible words or indeed a whole language, I have still decided to retain an element of handcrafting in the translation, by way of incorporating handdrawn decorative elements that re-enforce the visual references evoked. Bruno 2012a, 271

By mimicking the conventions of typography, layout, and decoration in ancient, canonical English manuscripts, the translation succeeds in creating a strong sense of irony. Just as Xu Bing intentionally presents his pseudocharacters within the materiality and technology of traditional Chinese scrolls, calligraphic paper, and string-bound books, Bruno’s translation recalls and immediately subverts the idea of orthodoxy by invoking the visual context of revered manuscripts stored away in prestigious libraries and churches, and at the same time situating Gibberish in it.8 The Word of Heaven, therefore, is not a piece of semantic or communicative translation—an impossibility in this case, since there is neither meaning nor communicative intent in A Book from the Sky. It is rather an intersemiotic one, employing verbal, visual, and paratextual cues to reproduce the overall aesthetic force of the source text. This brings us to the central problematic of this chapter, which is the encounter among the verbal, the visual, and translation in contemporary literature. A Book from the Sky is an illuminating case due to its conscious invocation of the visceral characteristics of the Chinese script, and in this regard, Bruno’s translation is equally brilliant in its mobilisation of textual resources from older versions of English to resonate with the 8  Besides Dictionary (discussed earlier), another possible source of inspiration for, or intertextual counterpart to, Bruno’s translation is Xu Bing’s Post-Testament (1992). This piece presents a Bible look-alike, “beautifully bound in a Western style with dark brown leather, embellished with gold-foil patterns and an insignia impression” (Tomii et al. 2011, 137). The content interweaves two radically different registers and, ultimately, two different culture-worlds: the King James Bible and contemporary pulp fiction. While each individual English word is readable, the collocations of these words create incomprehensible prose (the first line of the text reads: “The baptism decline that of I day am plunging baptized me with: [. . .]”). The elements of interlinguality, hybridity, paratextuality, and pseudo-English, which operate in Dictionary and Post-Testament combined, are also at work in The Word of Heaven.

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


multimodal and intersemiotic functions created by the Chinese imagetext. This shows that an imagetext can only be translated by reproducing neither its content nor its form, but its semiotic structure, or what I call the “genetic code”. Verbal signs become secondary, immaterial even, in this context. Paratextual elements such as classical font style and graphic embellishment, by contrast, gain prominence as they afford the final product a visual aura, which is the focal point of Bruno’s translation. It is significant, though, that the alphabetic signs constituting the English translation give it a phonetic quality that is virtually non-existent in Xu Bing’s work. The misspelled words and pseudo-words are contingent on their being pronounceable (they sound English) but unintelligible, whereas Xu Bing’s pseudo-characters operate by virtue of their physical semblance to Chinese proper. Chinese characters are, of course, pronounceable, and many characters do contain a phonetic component that hints at their sound. Xu Bing’s pseudocharacters can therefore be “pronounced” in the sense that, in several cases, a phonetic component may be identified. But such pronunciations would be no more than contrived phonetic games, as each reader may come up with a different reading. If we were to be given (as we are in The Word of Heaven) strings of alphabets that do not constitute English words, we can nonetheless attempt to pronounce them, and even arrive at a fairly accurate pronunciation at that. Such is not the case for Chinese, where the sounds of characters are not fully bound to the visual script, that is to say, the sound of a word is not installed in the architectonic construction of the word itself (even in the case of semantic-phonetic compounds, the phonetic element in the character does not always indicate the specific sound with precision). In A Book from the Sky, aurality is suppressed by visual simulacra, such that characters are made to seem readable but yet are not. Even though Bruno’s translation too contains prominent visual elements, it is underpinned by the concept of aurality, such that the Chinese imagetext transforms into an English soundtext: the change in code triggers a change in the primary semiotic dimension of the text. How should we begin to understand this type of translation, other than labelling it as a transcreation? What is at stake here is beyond the technicalities of Bruno’s semiotic transposition, which, at any rate, is impeccable. The point is rather how the cultural resonances played out by the two texts—A Book from the Sky and The Word of Heaven—have implications for the ethics of translating Xu Bing’s work. In this connection, it may be apt to position A Book from the Sky as a key cultural text in contemporary Chinese literary art, where “key cultural texts” are defined as “texts of various types and genres and in various forms (textual, audiovisual and visual)” which “play central roles in presenting and representing the culture to itself and in defining its cultural others



(people, places, and customs)”.9 This may seem curious at first, since Xu’s work is apparently more a non-representation than a (re)presentation of Chinese culture. But it is possible to argue that it is through such non-representation that a self-reflexive attitude toward one’s own culture may be engendered. By deconstructing the Chinese character as a sanctified entity, A Book from the Sky exposes the Chinese obsession with visual orthodoxy as the basis of cultural legitimisation. Its ambiguous status as a key (Chinese) cultural text is testified by the initial anxiety and distress felt by native Chinese people as well as non-Chinese people who have mastered the language (such as Perry Link, cited above). Subjecting such a text to translation inevitably raises the question of whether its culture-embeddedness would remain intact or be displaced altogether. Bruno’s rendition falls under the latter case, where semiotic relations are reproduced but also decontextualised, such that English readers would be able to fully appreciate the structural-aesthetic intentions behind the work but not its cultural critique. To use Tymoczko’s (2007) proposed frames of reference in respect to translation, Bruno’s strategy of transplanting the genetic code in A Book from the Sky may qualify as transmission (i.e. the material transfer of [semiotic] elements from one location to another) and transculturation (i.e. the appropriation and “performance of the borrowed cultural forms in the receptor environment” [121; emphasis in original]). It is, however, not a representation, as it re-interprets the Chinese imagetext within a different orthographic system, such that English readers would have little or no awareness that it has originated in another cultural context and has been transculturated into the receiving context. That is, the form may have become so completely naturalized in the receptor culture that it is not seen as “other” or as being representative of the source culture in any way. Tymoczko 2007, 121

In light of the identity of A Book from the Sky as a key Chinese cultural text, Bruno’s translation will have to be viewed as primarily a technical exercise, and nothing more. We could well be more liberal in our use of the term “translation” (as this book is), but this does not preclude us from recognising that The Word of Heaven is formally delinked from the source text and culture, such that there is absolutely no trace of the Chinese other. Indeed Bruno does not purport to represent Chinese culture as such, and this motivates her 9  This definition is extracted from the introduction to a panel theme (“Key cultural texts in translation”) at the 7th EST congress (2013). See http://www.fb06.uni-mainz.de/est/54.php.

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


comprehensive acculturation of the form of the source text. We could even go so far as to claim that no interculturality is involved—apart from the fact, our knowledge, that it is a piece of translation—since the target language signifiers operate self-sufficiently in their own semiotic space.10 This means to say that translational ethics is almost irrelevant: even though a great deal of textual manipulation is involved, we cannot say the Chinese text is distorted or misrepresented, as the translation does not purport to be a representation at the outset. The central attribute that gives Bruno’s text the status of a translation is its semiotic logic—the genetic code, as I have been calling it—which originates in Xu Bing’s work. Rather than a translation in the conventional sense, The Word of Heaven is, more accurately speaking, a “hermeneutical activation that [. . .] does not aim to provide information about the original, but to activate the linguistic performativity of the source poem—that is, the experience of the source poem in the target language” (Bruno 2012b, 114). Which begs a further question: will Bruno’s translation elicit the kind of complex reader responses that A Book from the Sky did and still does, and in particular, provoke the linguistic sensibilities of conservative readers in the Anglophone world? This question is hypothetical but also crucial, considering that the semio-politics of Xu Bing’s work derives not from “a message communicated from the artist to viewer”, but “in the space of encounter between graphs or environments and the viewer’s response, even if it is only one of bewilderment” (Vinograd 2011, 102). Sheer bewilderment, however, will not suffice, if it does not also lead to a deep reflection on the ontological basis of one’s cultural values and assumptions. Would The Word of Heaven evoke a reflexive cultural thinking of this kind among Anglophone readers? Of course, it is not very fruitful to compare A Book from the Sky and The Word of Heaven as they are, if only because they are manifested on different medial platforms. So let us imagine for a moment that Bruno’s translation is expanded into a mixed-media art installation like Xu Bing’s art piece. The same question once more: can it then elicit similar anxieties and distress from Western reader-viewers, as Xu Bing’s work did from its Chinese reader-viewers? If our hypothetical answer is no, it could point to the fact that the word does 10  Cf. an example from Yang Lian’s poem given elsewhere by Bruno (2012b). Bruno suggests that the phrase yi ru yi zhi li 移入一隻梨 (‘enters a pear’) be translated as “enters into leaves”, where “leaves” corresponds in sound to li (‘pear’), and also retains the connotation of “leaving” in the original Chinese text. To Bruno, this hypothetical translation “proves that this specific poetic aspect [the pun] has been reactivated, and that it cannot be called exclusively Chinese anymore, but rather that it has been translated into English” (2012b, 113).



not weigh on Anglo-Saxon culture as much as the character does on Chinese culture. But I suspect it is equally plausible for the answer to be affirmative, given that the Bible (the Word) has an immense significance in the Western cultural imaginary. If The Word of Heaven is transculturated into the Christian realm and construed as the Word of God, its aberrant linguistic forms may activate religious fervour that could well be much more intense than the critical responses toward A Book from the Sky. If that is indeed the case, The Word of Heaven would have broken away from Xu Bing’s source text and truly become a full creative work, as well as a key cultural text, in its own right.

Icon-Language in Deverbalised Communication: A Book from the Ground

More recently, Xu Bing came up with a counterpart to A Book from the Sky, titled Dishu or A Book from the Ground, published in book form in 2012 (Xu 2012); it also takes the form of an interactive exhibit that models on Internet chatting. The inspiration for the project came initially from airline safety manuals and chewing gum wrappers, in which icons take the place of verbal language in what the artist sees as a minimalist and therefore ideal mode of communication. I use the term “icon” here in a general, non-technical sense. In fact, various types of sign are used in A Book from the Ground, including pictographs, logos, insignia, and indexical marks. In the terms of Peircean semiotics, these consist of icons (i.e. depictions of objects in real life), indices (i.e. signs that point to a related situation; in A Book from the Ground, a dark cloud represents cloudy day; a pair of fork and spoon within a house-like structure represents restaurant), and symbols (i.e. signs used for their conventionalised meaning; in the same book, a heart-shape represents love; a kangaroo standing beside the outline of the Sydney Opera House represents Australia; and a series of exclamation marks represent “shock”, while a single exclamation mark indicates “surprise”). In this project, Xu Bing contemplates the idea of a universal language, drawing on the theoretical thinking of Umberto Eco, Michael Evamy, and David Crystal, among others, and the existing use of non-verbal signs across a wide range of disciplines such as mathematics, music, and corporate branding. The outcome of such contemplation is a most unconventional, wordless novel, perhaps an inter-discursive play with the traditional idea of wuzi tianshu, the wordless manuscript from the mythical-divine, mentioned earlier. Using icons for material objects and smartphone emoticons for psychological states, Xu’s self-styled novel narrates the 24-hour routine of an ordinary man, including his

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


physical actions and mental activities. No characters or words are used—the image is text. In this regard, it has an affinity with “emoji-speak”, the contemporary mode of instant electronic communication that uses expressive icons in mobile devices. Curiously, however, the usual punctuations in writing, such as commas, full stops, inverted commas, and parentheses, are applied consistently throughout Xu Bing’s book to segment icon sequences. These are not strictly necessary, and the superfluousness of these marks indicates that they function to dress up the graphical text into a piece of “proper” narrative. Paragraphing conventions are also observed: as with prose narratives, they divide action sequences into “scenes” for easy reading. Figure 4.4 shows the opening lines. In contrast to A Book from the Sky, which puts on the façade of a cryptic code that is ultimately undecipherable, the ascetism and iconicity of A Book from the Ground is such that it is intended for all readers, regardless of his or her language proficiency or educational background. Ironically, it is A Book from the Ground rather than A Book from the Sky that performs the perceived function of language, since the former communicates even as it is starkly non-verbal, whereas the latter is anti-communicative even though it is apparently verbal (Lam 2013, 109). If A Book from the Sky stresses the impasse of linguistic communication, A Book from the Ground, by demonstrating the communicative potential of icons and insignia, seeks to democratise language by releasing it from the monopoly of verbal signs. Xu Bing explains that [i]n certain respects, this [iconic] language transcends our structures of knowledge and the limitations of geographic and cultural specificity; it reflects the logic of real life and objects themselves rather than any preexisting text-based knowledge. Comprehension is not contingent upon the reader’s level of education or knowledge of literature, but instead stems from his/her experiences and way of life. Moreover, this language need not be taught or learned through traditional educational models. Regardless of your cultural background or mother tongue, you will be able to read this book as long as you have experience of contemporary life. The educated and illiterate should be able to enjoy equally the pleasure of what it means to read. Xu 2006, n.p.

The aim of transcending “our structures of knowledge and the limitations of geographic and cultural specificity” comes extremely close to what usually motivates cross-cultural translation. Xu Bing’s enterprise, however, differs from translation in one crucial respect: while translation presupposes literacy on the part of the target reader in at least one language, iconic communication


figure 4.4 Excerpt from A Book from the Ground.


Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


does not. In fact, as stated above, Xu Bing’s icon-language is charged with an egalitarian, if rather idealistic, mission, and that is to achieve communication by bridging not just the gaps between disparate cultures but also—perhaps more importantly—those between the educated/literate and non-educated/ illiterate. In a sense, this places Xu Bing’s semio-politics in opposition to translation (at least translation proper) insofar as it precludes the need for linguistic codes altogether. Theoretically, then, it would be paradoxical to place Xu’s system of icon-language in the context of translation. To probe into this paradox, I venture to ask a seemingly unlikely question, as it also is for A Book from the Sky: is it possible to translate A Book from the Ground? Technically speaking, yes. It takes only elementary skill to transpose those icons depicting the routine lifestyle of a middle-class man into any language. The next question, then, is this: does it make theoretical sense to translate this text? Notwithstanding the fact that the text’s content would be so mundane as to be almost without literary value, the whole spirit of visuality that is the conceptual point of Xu Bing’s work would be lost when verbal signs enter the picture. From this perspective, my two questions above are not as superfluous as they might appear to be, as verbal translation throws light on the discursive limits of an exclusively visual text. To test this claim, let us suppose one performs a verbal translation of the above excerpt from the book. The output might look something like this: A black dot. It enlarges into Earth, then a bigger one, and then bigger still—it’s a Google Map, with a location pin. We see a city, and a building comes into view. That is an apartment building. Then there is a tree, where a bird is singing: [melody]. The sounds enter a man’s bedroom. It’s now 7pm, and the alarm clock rings. The bird keeps singing. Five minutes later, the alarm continues; the bird stops singing and takes off. The man hears the ringing, opens his eyes, and cuts off the alarm. He looks out of the window and, seeing that it’s a rainy day outside, he feels depressed and closes his eyes again. Five minutes later, the alarm rings again. He hears it, opens his eyes, and looks at the time—7:15am. He feels unhappy, and closes his eyes again. His cat, who has been observing him, jumps onto his bed. That startled him. He sulks and sits up, and his cat walks away. He gets off bed, and walks briskly into the bathroom. (He sits on the toilet bowl, and Urrrrg. . . . he tries hard to clean his bowels, but fails. He wonders to himself: “Is there anything wrong with my bowels?”) While on his toilet seat, he browses the web with his smartphone (Twitter, Google, RSS, and Facebook). He was pleased and . . . oops, something’s coming



out; he exerts more strength, and out it comes. He sighed a breath of relief, feeling pleased that this is all done. He cleans himself with toilet paper, takes a look at the poo he has passed out, and flushes it away. With this translation of mine—essentially a verbal interpretation of iconic signs—important questions that may arise from this visual novel are instantly undermined. These include: can such a book even be considered a “Chinese” work (it is marketed as such in bookstores), since it contains no verbal material? If not, what is it that communicates here? How does a narrative operate with icons instead of words? What would it be like to think in terms of icons rather than in terms of words? These questions would be rendered futile if we were to allow a verbal rendition to intercept the eminently visual nature of the text-reader interaction. In simple terms, translation kills the work. Or does it? After all, it is possible to argue that the configurations of icons in the book are themselves already a translation of the mental or mentalverbal images that the author had in mind at the time of creation. On the reception side, readers are required to actively decipher strings of icons both syntagmatically—how several icons combine to denote an action or thought sequence—and paradigmatically—the iconic/indexical/symbolic value carried by the same sign or same class of signs throughout the narrative—in order to arrive at a plausible interpretation of any segment of the text. This interpretive act already entails translation, for in the course of making sense of what the protagonist is doing or thinking, the reader continually maps the icons onto the material objects or abstract concepts that they are supposed to represent in the experiential world. This is analogical to finding an equivalent in the target language (the experiential world of the reader) of a lexical item (an icon) in the source text. The reader then needs to configure the icons and their putative referents into sensible formulations complete with logical connections. The iconic discourse is highly paratactic, that is to say, there is interpretive space as to the relation between icons (causal, conjunctive, linear-temporal, etc.), and it is the reader who has to fill this space to generate a coherent narrative in his/her mind. This is done partly on the basis of the reader’s everyday experience. In the excerpt above, how do we know what is signified when a picture of a rainy cloud encased in a window frame is followed by a sad-face emoticon? The most plausible interpretation is that the protagonist is feeling unhappy about the wet weather (see my translation), but in producing this interpretation, I am in effect constructing a causal link between the two icons. It could well be the case that the unhappiness has nothing to do with the

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


weather. This means that in making sense of the icon sequences, a reader is already imposing an organisational logic in line with prescribed conventions and world-views, which is, analogically speaking, not unlike a translator having to structure lexical items according to the grammar and syntax of the target language. If any act of reading is always already a translation, then the reading of a visual text certainly qualifies it as being translational, as its interpretation normally necessitates visual-to-verbal intervention. My earlier rendition of the excerpt from the book is an instantiation of this translation process. If, indeed, the aim of A Book from the Ground is to interrogate the hegemony of the verbal sign in communication and to advance the possibility of iconic communication across languages and cultures, then translation must be a requisite consideration. Translation in this context, however, does not consist of converting non-verbal signs into verbal signs, which I have attempted above and which is antithetical to the purpose of Xu Bing’s project. It is, rather, the reverse process that is to be of interest. An outgrowth of the project is a computer program called WordMagick, currently still being developed. The software taps into a bank of visual signs and their corresponding lexical equivalents in various languages, enabling it to translate words into icons. This piece of technology gives the work a very different interactive dimension from its codex form, as it allows users from different language backgrounds to create their own narratives based on a pool of visual signifiers. This is illustrated in Figures 4.5a and 4.5b, where the same message is typed into the panel at the bottom of the interface in English and Chinese respectively, generating identical iconic translations on the screen. The software started out as a monolingual interactive modality. In a 2007 exhibition at MoMA, Xu Bing blended the concept of iconic language into the mode of online chatting. His installation consisted of a large glass panel dividing two workstations, each equipped with a PC installed with WordMagick. Participants were seated on two sides of the panel, and held a virtual conversation with each other by typing on a regular keyboard in English. What they were reading off their monitor screens, however, were icons translated from the strings of words they typed and received. On the glass panel between them were projected parallel texts consisting of the icons and the words they corresponded to (Borysevicz 2014, 116–17). The software has since been developed to accommodate Chinese input, so that it acts as an intermediary platform to facilitate interaction between people from different language backgrounds (currently only English and Chinese) (Borysevicz 2014, 114–15). The current version of the software thus performs the function of a translation application, except that the conversion of codes is not from one language into another,



figure 4.5a

Translating English into icon-language via WordMagick.

figure 4.5b

Translating Chinese into icon-language via WordMagick.

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


but from both languages into a visual “language”, based on a common bank of pictorial and indexical icons. It is worth pointing out, though, that this is an idealistic state, as the working of the program is not without its problems, as we shall see later. In this mode of translation, icons constitute the pivot code—an imagetext where image is text—that mediates two languages. From the perspective of translational ethics, this divests the communication code of language-specific values and circumvents the asymmetries that sometimes characterise interlingual and cross-cultural transfer. Asymmetry occurs when source and target languages are in an unequal power relation, the textual consequence of which is that a translating (target) language and culture may “inscribe foreign texts with [their own] values and provide readers with the narcissistic experience of recognizing their own culture in a cultural other” (Venuti 2008, 12). In other words, the “weaker/minor language” becomes acculturated as it is translated out of itself and into the “stronger” language. In history, several languages have played the role of the hegemonic language, including Latin at least until the Renaissance era and French before World War Two. In the present day and in the foreseeable future it is English that assumes this capacity. Karen Bennett observes that “the undisputed dominance of English as lingua franca of academia has resulted in translation strategies that give priority to that language whatever the direction of transmission” (2013, 171). This often results in “the destruction of the entire epistemological infrastructure [of source academic texts] and its replacement with another that is more in keeping with the AngloSaxon worldview” (171). Such ideological manipulations are not restricted to translated academic discourse; they are very much a part of intercultural communication in the contemporary world, and this has raised the ethical concern of many scholars. In conceiving A Book from the Ground, Xu Bing shows a similar ethical bent. He is of the conviction that “English cannot become a ‘global language,’ as its relationship with other languages is one of mutual exclusivity. As the use of English expands, other languages are lost” (Xu Bing 2006, n.p.). This underscores the motivation behind the artist’s linguistic invention—a communal code of sorts. While Venuti’s line of attack is to call for resistant translation strategies in the minority language so as to prevent assimilation into, and “epistemicide” (Bennett 2013) by, the major language (hence the term “minoritising translation”), Xu Bing seeks a semiotic alternative to verbal language altogether. In devising his translation software, he posits the possibility of a mode of communication that is free from the specificities built into the genes of every human language as well as from the axiological discourses and cultural politics surrounding global linguistic exchange. Here, there is neither



domestication nor foreignisation:11 each language in the translation equation is intersemiotically transposed into a mediating, third code which, in Xu Bing’s scheme, represents neutrality and universality. This endeavour to liberate communication from the hegemony of particular languages is highly relevant in light of the widespread use of English as a lingua franca in the globalised world. Theoretically speaking, a neutral and universal pictographic code circumvents the inequitable circulation of symbolic capital that governs knowledge exchanges through language transfer. By prioritising similarities in human experiences over differences in the cultural interpretation of those experiences, Xu Bing’s linguistic vision harks back to a pre-Babelian ideal, where the multiplicity of tongues that signals the fall of Babel is recuperated into a unified system of signification. Consequently, lateral translation between and among specific languages gives way to vertical translation from myriad languages into a shared code, which, according to myth, promised to unite all human beings across the earth. A Book from the Ground emanates nostalgia for this primordial state of communication, which is in agreement with Xu Bing’s abiding interest in the pictographic script: “All written scripts are created on the basis of two systems: phonetic and pictographic. Today’s ‘giant village’ [translator’s note: referring to ‘global village’] seems to be repeating the history of how the written script originally came about, starting all over again with the pictographic model” (Takungpao.com 2012, n.p.; my translation). This “pictographic model” points not only to the Chinese script, but also to several other writing systems based primarily on graphology and visuality, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform. Interestingly, however, this desire to return to the formative roots of the written word is inspired by advanced digital communication. Xu Bing’s enterprise, therefore, delves into etymological origins at the same time as it projects a futuristic linguistic imaginary mediated by computer technology. In an 11  Domestication and foreignisation are two key terms popularised by Venuti (2008) that describe opposing translation strategies. Domestication is closely tied to fluency and refers to a translator’s attempt to smooth out the linguistic or cultural specificities of a source text to accommodate the tastes and expectations of target language readers. Foreignisation, on the other hand, refers to the reverse tendency, where a translator preserves the linguistic or cultural specificities of a source text, such as to defamiliarise the translated text. Venuti links the two strategies to the ideology of the translator (or other agents involved in the translation process, such as the publisher or critical establishment), where a domesticating strategy betrays an assimilationist (Eurocentric in Venuti’s study) stance toward the cultural Other, while a foreignising strategy indicates resistance against cultural power by introducing alterity or difference into the (hegemonic) target language culture.

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


interview, the artist notes the hybridity of cyberlinguistic parole that is emerging among online, virtual communities, citing the example of Marsspeak (huoxing wen 火星文)—a new language combining Taiwanese dialects, Chinese characters, and computer shorthand, equipped with its own system of grammar, set of emoticons, and rules of punctuation. Such a semiotic fusion (or con-fusion for those who are unfamiliar with the discursive conventions of internet talk) indicates the limits of verbal language in expressing modern-day sensibilities, especially among the internet generation (Tomii et al. 2011, 46). Multimodality becomes the rule of the day. On an analogical level, one is reminded of the construct of Third Space (Bhabha 1994)—a site of cultural heterogeneity and identity flux—in postcolonial studies. Just as Bhabha’s Third Space enacts cultural translation through the production of new, hybrid cultures in-between two existing and relatively distinct cultures, so cyberlanguages in effect perform intersemiotic translation by combining several distinct codes, registers, and modalities into novel linguistic formations. The invention of icon-language is well-aligned with this cross-semiotic performance. By positioning itself as a proto-language that both recalls early pictographic writing systems and heralds the future of writing in the digital era, Xu Bing’s icon-language offers an alternative discourse that compels a re-negotiation of boundaries between the verbal and the visual. Visuality is seen as a kind of palliative for the alleged failure of the verbal. Translation participates in this performance by mediating between the two modalities, to facilitate the conversion of codes that is essential to communication through icons. This modal change is supposed to precede and precipitate a future epistemological shift in the way we communicate, and is therefore a temporary phase. Ultimately, it is the obliteration of the need to translate, and hence the disappearance of the verbal text, that marks Xu Bing’s ideal linguistic realm. The next step in Xu’s project is, therefore, to establish an icon-corpus, that is, a virtual store from which readers select, juxtapose, and combine visual signs to express various meanings, and wherein the use of verbal language is minimised. This project is currently at its nascent stage, and the artist’s vision is for us to be able to compose icon-based narratives freely on mobile devices in the near future (Takungpao.com 2012). This latter project is more bohemian than it seems at first. It is a step toward shifting the communicative paradigm of mobile device users closer to a common visual grammar and away from verbal codes. This is where the Babel trope can be illuminating: A Book from the Ground and its derivative projects, including WordMagick and the prospective icon-corpus, are symptomatic of a radical un-doing of the plethora of languages scattered across the earth’s surface today. To be sure, this pre-Babelian ideal can be questioned on its own



terms, for it suppresses the importance of sustaining cultural subjectivities as it foregrounds universality in visual interpretation. The assumption that images can have a universal interpretation is itself problematic: what we take for granted as culturally neutral signification is in fact culturally variable. The associations and connotations emanating from a same set of icons may differ from culture to culture, just as words constructed as dictionary equivalents across languages may evoke different semantic fields and emotive meanings; and when one culture imposes its own conventions in visuality on other cultures, hegemony obtains as with language exchange. This means that nonverbal communication is as much embedded in politics, power, and ideology as is any other form of representation, and the intersemiotic, cross-lingual equivalence (word and image; English and Chinese) that the preliminary version of WordMagick demonstrates in Figures 4.5a and 4.5b can only be illusory. To presuppose that visual images are universal is to take culture out of the equation that is cross-cultural communication. The consequence is that we either remain impossibly idealistic about this, or otherwise restrict ourselves to the basest levels of communication where universality exceeds specificity. I am referring to everyday objects such as tables and chairs and mundane activities such as eating and sleeping, which are featured in abundance in A Book from the Ground. This points to one possible shortcoming in iconic communication, and that is subtle meanings cannot be expressed with nuance, which means communication would be reduced to its pure instrumentality.12 But even at this level of pragmatic, everyday communication, the translation software faces serious technical issues (at the time of this writing). To experience the program firsthand, I visited Xu Bing’s inaugural exhibition in Hong Kong, It Begins with Metamorphosis (8 May–31 Aug 2014, Asia Society Hong Kong Centre) (Koon 2014), where a dual-PC installation similar to the one at MoMA was set up. My research student and I were each seated in front of a PC, and we tried communicating through the icon-language software installed in the computers. One problem I found was that many English words, especially functional words such as prepositions, could not be translated into icons and were hence reproduced on the screen as they were. Even content words may not always elicit iconic equivalents, including common adjectives like “terrible”. Hence, when I typed “I had a terrible day”, the central word “terrible” was left sticking out, while “I” and “day” were translated into corresponding images. The translations were therefore often a mix of icons and 12  This is not to mention that even at those basest levels, cultural differences of all kinds creep in without our being aware of them. A case in point is certain foods that are imbued with symbolic meaning.

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


words, which defeats the purpose of the project writ large, which is to displace verbal communication altogether. Even in the case where there was a complete icon translation, the intended meanings to be expressed were not always unequivocal. First, at the lexical level, not every reader interprets the same icon in the same way. Without an intersemiotic dictionary of some sort to guide readers toward a consensus in word-image equivalence, communication through icons would inevitably lead to miscommunication. But if such a dictionary were to be compiled, the autonomy of the icon as a signifying instrument will be continually undercut by verbal language. Second, at the grammatical and syntactical levels, English is highly hypotactic, where grammatical meanings inhere in lexical inflections and logical connections are overtly expressed with linking words (and modern Chinese has a fair share of such functional words as well); these cannot be reproduced using icon-language. The typical translation by the program is visual-paratactic, formed by a linear concatenation of icons whose syntagmatic relation to each other is not always unambiguous. For instance, when my research student typed the sentence “I’d like to go with you” (in response to my question “I’m going for tea”), the program translated “I” into a human icon pointing to himself, but left the ’d (contraction of “would”) untranslated; “like” was translated into a smiley with a heart shape. Next to this was an icon that shows a figure walking toward the right of the screen (the direction indicated by an arrow sign), followed by another human icon pointing a finger toward the viewer (referring to “you”). Without the benefit of hindsight, the correspondence between this icon sequence and the utterance “I’d like to go with you” is arbitrary and unstable. The main issue lies in the preposition “with”, which plays an important grammatical role but nonetheless cannot be represented visually by the program. Proper nouns also posed difficulties. I typed the phrase “University of Hong Kong”, but what turned out on the screen was an icon of a pillared building supposedly representing a university, followed by the flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which could well be interpreted as “a university in Hong Kong”. During the trial, my research student and I had also to communicate verbally every now and then to determine the meaning of our respective input, an act which itself challenges the feasibility of using icon-language in lieu of verbal talk. Despite the limitations of Xu Bing’s utopian vision, as well as the immense technical difficulties involved in its execution, it is interesting to observe that word-to-image translation is exploited not as a means to an end—crosslinguistic and cross-cultural communication—but as a means to yet another means to an ultimate end: deverbalised communication. A Book from the Ground suggests that linguistic imperialism can be put to an end (though, as



we have noted, visuality can similarly become politicised), and this is done by transitioning words into images through intersemiotic translation. Accordingly, this would lead to the eventual demise of the verbal, so that visuality may gain a monopolistic reign over communication. From this vantage point, my earlier suggestion that “translation kills the work” must be revised: it is translation and, by extension, language in its plural manifestations in multiple tongues, that will eventually be killed by the work.

Imagetext: Image-In-Text to Image-As-Text

The twin works by Xu Bing discussed in this chapter can be said to embody the pictorial turn in the literary arts (conversely, we may speak of a linguistic turn in the visual arts), which revolves around “the embattled boundary between texts and images” (Mitchell 1986, 154). This virtual boundary plays out the ideological struggle between verbality and visuality in literary representation. Mitchell poses the following pertinent questions: How is this struggle manifested in the formal characteristics of texts and images that are designed to confirm or violate the boundaries between space and time, nature and convention, the eye and ear, the iconic and the symbolic? To what extent is the battle of text and image a consciously articulated theme in literature, the visual arts, and the various “composite arts” (film, drama, cartoons, narrative cycles, book illustrations) that combine symbolic modes? Mitchell 1986, 154

These questions help us to map Xu Bing’s works onto a conceptual continuum and to elucidate the relation between signs, images, and translation in his aesthetic world. The text-image tension is no doubt “a consciously articulated theme” in A Book from the Sky and A Book from the Ground. The formal characteristics of these two works interrogate preconceived notions of what language is or is not, and in doing so, “violate the boundaries between [. . .] the eye and ear, the iconic and the symbolic”. Placing the two works alongside each other further reveals a subtle shift in the tension between text and image between them. We have seen that A Book from the Sky is presented as a massive text-complex that exudes authority, and that this authority is derived from the centrality of the character in the Chinese cultural imaginary, and also from the technologies of traditional printing. The irony is that these characters are in fact illegitimate inasmuch as they cannot be read or ­understood;

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


they are non-signifying visual constructions masqueraded as valid textcharacters. The imagetext that is A Book from the Sky is therefore a monstrosity; it wryly vacates the signifying power of text by inflecting it with imagery, but yet creates the illusion of textual orthodoxy. This gives us a case where an image resides within the material structures of a text: an image-in-text. When the discursive pretension of the “Chinese character” is stripped away, the pictorial image reveals itself, always in tension with the expectation that there is some verbal meaning to be drawn. But alas, the medium, in this case the figural body of the imagetext, is the message. The visual image undercuts the semantic potential of the discursive character and debilitates it, striking at the sensitive nerve of the Chinese institution of writing and literacy. The epistemological underpinning of this image-in-text is deconstructionist: every text exists from within the (visual) potential to subvert itself. In other words, the image violently encroaches upon the text that incorporates it: “The presentation of imagistic elements in texts, textual elements in images is, in other words, a familiar practice which might be ‘defamiliarized’ by understanding it as a transgression, an act of (sometimes ritual) violence involving an incorporation of the symbolic Other into the generic Self” (Mitchell 1986, 157). A symptom of this transgressive relation between image and text is untranslatability. As the individual graphs that make up the work are as non-referential as they are visual, they cannot be rendered into anything outside of itself, and other than itself. Indeed they operate by involution, that is, they continually point to the image within the perceived text, severing all links between signifier and signified and defying centrifugal transmission. Untranslatability points to Xu Bing’s intent to uncommunicate; it questions the viability of language, both as instrument and institution, to facilitate intersubjective understanding. And insofar as untranslatability is inscribed in the conceptual mode underlying A Book from the Sky, Bruno’s The Word of Heaven demonstrates that the translation of an image-in-text is at best a structural transposition of semiotic relations residing in the source text. That is to say, to successfully translate the Chinese imagetext—which carries no communicative substance and therefore resists translation proper—one must recreate the intersemiotic tension using target language resources. Bruno’s translation attempts to defy untranslatability and succeeds technically, but it also raises the question of whether such a translation conveys the cultural function of the source text. We have seen that part of the aesthetic force of A Book from the Sky derives from the cultural investment of the Chinese people in their logographic script, hence the ensuing anxieties and critical responses surrounding the work. When transposed into a phonetic script, however, the visuality of the Chinese imagetext is substituted by the aurality of letter-strings, though this is partly compensated by the



creative use of paratextual elements. No trace of Chineseness remains, and in fact the translation could be acculturated into a Biblical context, which means the English reader is facing an autonomous text as far as cultural resonance is concerned. My argument, therefore, is that by virtue of its different orthographic constitution, The Word of Heaven loses much of its connection to Xu Bing’s work and therefore its ontological identity as a translation. Nevertheless, the piece remains an accomplished display of textual feat, and may be more aptly seen as a transcultural work of creative literary-art inspired by A Book from the Sky. In A Book from the Ground, the text-image dynamic is rather different. Here the image does not inhere within the text but displaces it, hence giving us the figure of image-as-text. This displacement process marks an idealised semiotic realm, in which the visual signifier supersedes the linguistic word as an alternative communicative medium. In this process, translation functions as an internal mechanism to lubricate the transition from textual to iconic communication: while language users continue to think verbally, they begin to read and interpret icons; with the aid of digital technology, as in a more advanced version of WordMagick, they could perhaps even compose their ideas in icons in the future. Intersemiotic translation hence opens up a new mode of writing and, more importantly, a new epistemology in intercultural communication. But despite its instrumentality, translation is necessarily ephemeral in the larger scheme of this project, as it paves the way for the eradication of verbal language by visual signs. Once the ideal of a total visual communication is attained (i.e. when people start reading, writing, and thinking with icons), verbal language will become marginalised, if not extinguished; in other words, translation theoretically operates to terminate itself. Xu Bing’s ambitious project will probably remain utopian: as forces of globalisation encroach upon us, there is an ever greater awareness of the importance of sustaining cultural identities, such that any attempt to blanket over cultural differences under the rubric of universality will almost certainly be met with skepticism or outright hostility. But A Book from the Ground is nonetheless intellectually significant for its daring, prophetic vision that human language will one day come full circle, that is to say, it will return to its primordial visuality—the state of linguistic unity and purity reminiscent of Babel before its fall from grace—where translation does not exist. The schemata of image-in-text and image-as-text underline different discourses of communication as articulated in Xu Bing’s works. A Book from the Sky exudes a pessimistic tone; it expresses a negative view of the communicative capacity of language by masking up the verbal signifier as an image and puncturing it of semantic meaning. A Book from the Ground takes up this

Visuality and Translation in Literary Art


thread, but envisions a futuristic realm with a radically different linguistic order, where verbal texts are functionally taken over by visual signs. Seen as a continuum, the language problematic identified in the earlier work finds a resolution or circumvention in the latter, as played out by the different tensions between text and image. In each of these works, translation serves as a litmus indicator of their underlying discourses. Where the legacy of linguistic communication is deemed to fail, translation has absolutely no place within the picture, and an attempt at translating can only produce a transcreation rather than a representation. On the other hand, where an alternative, visual communicative paradigm is envisioned, translation becomes an inherent part of the imagetext programme, even if it is to ultimately eliminate text, and hence be itself eliminated by a code of images that lays claim to universality.


The Translational: Intersemioticity and Transculturality This chapter explores the idea of the translational in experimental forms of literature. What is the translational, and how is it related to translation as we normally conceive it? At the grammatical level, the word “translational” is the adjectival form of “translation”, as in the phrases “translational imaginary” and “translational ethics”, which I used in the previous chapter. Here the al- suffix marks a genitive relation, so that the same phrases can respectively be rewritten as “imaginary of translation” and “ethics of translation”. “Translational”, however, is not merely a lexemic variant on “translation”. It is a site that is closely affiliated to translation, that is, the textual act of translating, but also exceeds the discursive domain, functioning as a semiotic trope that governs a wide range of textual and non-textual aesthetic phenomena. Whereas translation denotes a concrete event, the translational works as an abstraction. A translational process is one that can involve an actual instance of translating, but ultimately it is a site of hybridity that exemplifies the traffic and exchange (or the lack thereof) between linguistic codes, semiotic modes, and/or communicative media. A poem that explores the tensions of intercultural identity in a multilingual city, for example, is translational, even though no interlingual transfer may have taken place. First, the intervening Third Space between cultural identities is a theme at the very heart of translation studies (cf. Bhabha’s [1994] cultural translation). Second, in making its thematic point, such a poem may deploy textual devices such as code-mixing, essentially a translational trope which, through the juxtaposition of codes, embodies the flow or blockage between languages and hence negotiates the sociolinguistic or semio-political relationship between them. In this case, the text is translational by virtue of being translingual and transcultural, not because it entails translating—though it is completely possible for translating to figure in such texts as a rhetorical strategy as well.1 This type of translational text contains cultural-linguistic movements within itself. Chen Li’s “18 Touches” and “And the Bees Are Singing to You Too”, discussed in Chapter 3, 1  For an example from fiction, see Lee (2013, 41–46).

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The Translational


are examples of this. So is Xu Bing’s A Dictionary of Selected Words from A Book from the Sky, mentioned in Chapter 4. In the latter piece, the translational is constituted, and concurrently undercut, by phony translation: non-signifiers in one language pretend to be translated into non-signifiers in another language within the paratextual frame of a dictionary text. The translational does not apply only to the interaction between language and cultural codes, but also to that between different semiotic modes and media. In Chapter 3, we looked at how Chen Li’s poems are intersemiotically represented on audio-visual platforms, forming a text-continuum where trans­ creations perform their source texts across different media. In dealing with the translational in literature, we are interested not so much in the translating of set pieces of text from one language into another, but in how crossings of linguistic, semiotic, and medial boundaries are incorporated into the making of literary artefacts. These crossings may be metaphorical, articulating movement between languages, modes, and media without there necessarily being an empirical set of ontological correspondences between one text and another. In this respect, intersemiotic translations exemplify the translational: they emanate from a particular source and implement some form of material transmission, representation, or transculturation (Tymoczko 2007) of this source, without the obligation, so to speak, to account for the point-topoint equivalences between one text and another. Another case in point is the transcultural text, which here refers to the discursively hybrid text made up of tissues of cited material from a prior, foreign source. In each of these cases, it is important to note that the translational does not preclude translating: the two are in a dynamic relationship, where the latter can figure as part of the former, but may at other times be eluded almost completely.

Case Examples

This chapter examines a number of case examples of the translational in literary art from Taiwan and Hong Kong. My aim is to describe the specific modalities employed in each of these projects and the semiotic operations that transpire in them, as well as analyse their resultant poetics from the perspective of the translational. My overall thesis is that translation is involved in all of these experimental works as a conceptual trope that affords them a trans-element, that is, an immanent quality of inscribing through the traversing, transgressing, and transcending of figurative borders. It is this transelement that gives these works their experimental edge.



Text Garden My first example is a literary-art exhibition hosted in Kowloon Park, Hong Kong, between the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010. Titled Text Garden: An Experiment with Poets and Designers (Hong Kong Polytechnic University 2009–2010) and curated by the design school of a local university, the exhibition seeks to bring about alchemy between Chinese-language poetry and the interactive arts by infusing words and images into installation design. The project’s emphasis on the materiality of literature is encapsulated in its tagline: “Let’s dive into the sea of words, immersing ourselves into the poetics with our bodies in time”. There is a strong sense of experientialism here, where the acts of reading poetry and viewing design installations are metaphorised as the rather more physical acts of “diving” and “immersing”. The corresponding, albeit slightly different, Chinese tagline goes further with the body metaphor: “This time, we literally make our way between the lines, experiencing the works of poets and designers using our bodies and time” Jinhui ni wo zhenzheng di zuanjin le zili hangjian, yong shenti he shijian lai tiwei shiren he shejishi de jiezuo 今回你我真正地鑚進了字裡行間,用身體和時 間來體味詩人和設計師的傑作. We are thus promised at the outset that reading “between the lines” of poems will be a physical (zuan ‘make one’s way into’) and also a sensuous (tiwei ‘to taste with the body’, ‘to experience’) journey. Literary reading is, therefore, an embodied experience. Each of the exhibits on display is an installation piece that weaves a contemporary Chinese poem into the design concept of the artwork. All the poems showcased are by young Hong Kong poets who were commissioned to write about Kowloon Park; their poems therefore contain images relating to the material or natural environment of the park, such as parrots, trees, wooden benches, moonlight, and stars. Kowloon Park thus provides the physical context in which literature and design come together in the hybridised artefacts. The visitor to the exhibition encounters the Chinese poems in two semiotic modes: first, the physical structure of the design installations, into which poems are visually inscribed; second, a display board in front of each installation, on which a Chinese poem and its English translation are printed. This display board functions not merely to provide the poems in two languages; more crucially it establishes the intertextual relationship between text and exhibit, hence guiding visitors to perceive the installations as artefacts arising from and corresponding to the poems. In this important sense, the installations can be said to translate, by way of remediation, the poem-texts into material forms. Take as an example a pair of installations associated with the poem Yong yishou shi de shijian ting yingwu beiming 用一首詩的時間聽鸚鵡悲鳴 by Chan Lai-kuen 陳麗娟, with the translated title “Listening to the Wailing Parrots for as Long as It Takes to Write a Poem” (hereafter “Listening”). The first

The Translational


of these features a large metallic bird cage suspended from a beam in the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre, located in Kowloon Park. The cage concept resonates with the bird theme in the title, and all around the cage are Chinese characters cut from the same metallic material—these are the words used in the Chinese poem (Figure 5.1). The physicality of the cage, where the metallic rods are evocative of jail bars, strikes an intertextual chord with the same motif found in the poem: 關在籠外 聽鸚鵡悲鳴 Locked outside the cage We listened to the wailing parrots There are no actual wailing parrots here, but the reader-viewer can experience, with his/her body orientation, the idea of being “locked outside the cage” (as in the viewer in Figure 5.1). A textual line is thus translated into an embodied state, and as with translations in general, it is possible for a text to be experienced differently in the target language (in this case, the apparatuses of visual design) than in the original language. As poetry reading is transposed into a synaesthetic activity that involves viewing and walking, the dynamics of reception inevitably changes. Whereas the reader of the original Chinese poem reads and imagines, the reader-viewer of the exhibit gets to interact with the spatiality of the setup much more physically. One can, for instance, position one’s body at different points, hence gaining both “inside” and “outside” viewpoints vis-à-vis the cage. Hence, one can either be the parrot watcher (i.e. the We persona in the poem) or be the imaginary parrot, depending on where one chooses to stand. In this way, the reader-viewer is able to extend the perspective of the original poem and obtain a dual interpretation of the above lines. Let us turn to the second installation correlating to the same poem. Strictly speaking, this is not an installation in the sense of an artefact. It is, rather, built into a preexisting aviary within the park, where visible entities in the aviary are intersemiotically linked to specific images in Chan’s poem. These include the “cage”, “wailing parrots”, “black-necked swans”, “flamingos”, “turtles”, and “a lazy mound of water”. The physical setting of the installation is thus in a complementary or “relay” relation (Barthes 1977b) with the poem, reifying the text’s imagery. But one can also claim with equal validity that the two are in a relation of “anchorage” (Barthes 1977b), that it is the poem-text that discursively brings forth the preexisting elements in the aviary and directs the reader-viewer’s interpretation of those elements in a poetic context. This claim is plausible in light of the fact that the poems featured in this event were tailor-made, which



figure 5.1 Bird-cage installation for “Listening to the Wailing Parrots for as Long as It Takes to Write a Poem”.

The Translational


means to say the poet would have first observed the aviary, and the park as a whole, before turning selected elements into textual imagery. Since the choice of certain entities to be written into the text as images necessitates the omission of other entities, the poem in effect orientates the reader-viewer’s gaze in the aviary. A central theme of “Listening” is that of being lost, as expressed in the first stanza of the poem: 我們在公園裡迷路 身上繫著藥引 得在寫一首詩的時間內 找到出口 Lost in the park Each tied to a bomb We must find the way out Within the time it takes to write a poem One way to understand this installation is to see the theme of losing one’s way as being projected from the poem onto the physical structure of the artefact: the aviary is encircled by a walkway that loops around a central viewing area where various species of parrots, among other things, are kept. This spatial setting governs the bodily dynamics of the reader-viewer, who needs to stroll along the circular path as s/he passes through the installation, reads the poem, and observes the landscape in the aviary, all within the same time-space. The Chinese poem is inscribed on overhead beams in fragmented form and trails the circular path, hence forcing the reader-viewer to raise his/her head and to slow down his/her walking pace while trying to make out the individual words. In so doing, the reader-viewer feels an actual sense of “losing one’s way”, as the act of traversing the roundabout aviary is continuously intercepted by, even as it proceeds alongside with, the act of reading. As a consequence, poetry reading becomes quite literally a slow, contemplative journey. Both reading and walking begin and end at roughly the same point, and this spatial coincidence accentuates the theme of “losing one’s way”. Physically, this means walking back to the same point where one started, which also means a return to the beginning of the poem; in other words, a circular kinaesthetic is performed as one completes the reading of the text. Figure 5.2 shows a section of the aviary installation. It is a fragmented image of the lines: “I know not whether time/Goes forward or backward”, from the last stanza of the poem:



figure 5.2 Aviary installation for “Listening to the Wailing Parrots for as Long as It Takes to Write a Poem”.

公園的路永遠繞到同一個地方 不知道時間到底 是往前走還是往回走 迷路的人最後 會否找到 最初的兒童樂園 The paths in the park always lead to the same place I know not whether time Goes forward or backward And whether The lost one Will ever find His very first children’s world The dual images of walking paths leading back to the same place and of time moving “forward or backward” resonate with the circuitousness that characterises the physical setting of the aviary. This interplay of poetic images and

The Translational


abstract language on the one hand, and the spatial orientation of the installation and embodied movement of the reader-viewer on the other, is a kind of intersemiotic correspondence at work. From the text-to-image viewpoint, the words in the poem are translated—in the sense of being imagistically transposed— into visual objects (e.g., the image of parrots in the poem vs. the live parrots in the aviary cage), acoustic effects (e.g., the mention of parrots’ wailing in an earlier part of the poem vs. the audible cries of live parrots), and travel routes (e.g., the image of a path leading to the same point in the poem vs. the roundabout walkway in the aviary). The metaphorical idea of being lost in time (i.e. the metaphorical figure TIME IS SPACE) is also translated, or remapped, into the spatial domain of being lost in a circular route that leads the readerviewer back to where s/he started. The relationship between the aviary and the poem is an intersemiotictranslational one. But unlike the bird-cage installation, where the artefact derives uni-directionally from the poem, what we have here is a bi-directional and dialectic relationship: the aviary, an inherent section in the park doubling as a design installation, materialises the poetic images in tangible forms, just as the poem reinscribes those very forms in writing. The identities of source and target texts are thus rendered unstable, indeed interchangeable. On the one hand, we can choose to see Chan’s poem as the source text and the various elements in the aviary as its representation in the “real” world; on the other hand, since the aviary existed before the poem was conceived, we might instead think of the aviary (itself a copy based on the natural world) as the source text and the textual poem as its translation. This dilemma and fluidity of the identities of “source” and “target” indicate the symbiosis between poem and aviary, text and object. The two installations described above present different versions of interpreting “Listening” in visual design. As with interlingual transfer, where no two translations of a single text are ever the same, the two intersemiotic transpositions of the same poem display contrasting sensorial dynamics. A single poem is, in effect, remediated into two different kinds of reading experience, each with its media-specific constraints. As mentioned earlier, the metallic bird-cage installation caters for a modulating perspective by allowing the reader-viewer to traverse the inside-outside boundary. By contrast, the reader-viewers of the aviary installation lose the privilege of adopting multiple viewpoints: due to physical constraints imposed by the setting, they cannot enter the netted cage and must therefore remain the gazer, with the parrots as the object of their gaze. Their spatial experience neatly translates the line “locked outside the cage” in the poem. They gain, however, in terms of being able to bodily enact the theme of kinesic circularity in the poem. This notion of losses and



gains in the two installations recalls the idea that two (or more) translations of a source text potentially accentuate different aspects of the text while backgrounding others, demonstrating what Tymoczko (1999) calls the metonymics of translation. With all this emphasis on intersemioticity, one must remember that interlingual translation is in the picture as well, though it assumes a relatively peripheral role in the form of English renditions of the Chinese poems on a display board. The principal mode of semiotic operation in Text Garden, therefore, resides in the space between the textual inscription of the poem and its visual-aural-kinetic counterpoints in interactive art. In the case of “Listening”, this culminates in a multimodal experience of viewing (the visual exhibits), reading (the poem and its translation), listening (to parrots in the aviary), and walking (through and around the installations). The result is an enriched site of translational hybridity between the discursive and the sensuous, one that exemplifies poetics in design and design in poetics. Read, Art My second example is a mixed-media installation project by the contemporary Taiwanese artist Shen Bo-cheng 沈柏丞. Read, Art (Du·sheng zi 讀·聲字) is a technological artefact that appropriates the trope of translation to explore how the written word can be transposed into other semiotic formations. The project has its origins in the artist’s reading of texts on photography by Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes. It was through Chinese translations that Shen accessed these writings, and this made him ponder what might happen if these Chinese texts were subject to further translation. However, it was not interlingual transfer that Shen was pursuing, but something more palpable to the senses. First, with the help of his blind friends, he experimented with the idea of turning Chinese poems into the Braille code, hence performing a verbal-to-tactile translation (Figure 5.3). Shen was then struck by the similarity between the material texture of the protruding dots on a typical Braille sheet and that of the teethed revolving cylinder equipped in wind-up music boxes. Thus inspired, he cleverly transferred the Braille patterning encoding the verbal poem onto a music card by means of a punching equipment (Figure 5.4). The processed card was then mechanically wheeled through a hand-made music box. This produced irregular sounds that were, theoretically, the auditory translation of the Chinese poem. We thus have a unique case of “relay translation”, where the Braille code acts as the “pivot language”, connecting the source textual input with the target sonic output. The Chinese poem is, in effect, performed through the mediation of mechanical technology and intersemiotic

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figure 5.3 The transposition of printed words into Braille. (Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eTh2yidkoo)

figure 5.4 The punching of holes into a music card, in line with the patterning of Braille code. (Source: As above)

translation. Figure 5.5 shows a snapshot of the artefact in action. The source text is the poem “Old Photograph” ( Jiu xiangpian 舊相片) by Taiwanese poet Jing Xiang Hai 鯨向海. The figure shows the user (possibly Shen himself) activating the translation device by turning the handle of the music box. In the YouTube video showing this process, the user recites the Chinese poem as the sounds roll out from the device. This creates a set of intersemiotic



figure 5.5 The wheeling of the music card through a hand-made music box. (Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5u4F_8sFygI).

parallel texts consisting of the verbal poem (in two modalities: in the YouTube video it is read aloud, but it is usually displayed alongside the artefact; notice the board display above the music box in the figure, which probably reproduces the source text), the Braille patterning, and the sounds churned out by the box. A creative performance of intersemioticity in literature, Shen’s project extends the conceptual imaginary of translation. The two-tiered multimodal transposition, first from verbal text into Braille and then from Braille into sound, plays out the material-sensorial intersection of literature, translation, and technology. Just as sign interpreters translate verbal messages into institutionalised visual codes for the deaf, so Shen produces tactile versions of modern Chinese poems and other texts for the blind. If we fully accept sign interpreting as a legitimate form of translation,2 the same must of course apply to Braille coding of verbal texts. The conversion of Braille code into strings of irregular sound is, however, a tad trickier. The dot patterns on the music card closely trace those on the Braille sheet, but there is no ontological correspondence between the two, other than a surface-level structural semblance. In what concrete sense is a word encoded in Braille equivalent to a sound, or 2  The institutionalised status of deaf interpreters is recognised by official bodies in translation and interpreting, such as NAATI in Australia. See the NAATI Deaf Interpreter Recognition Information Booklet: http://www.naati.com.au/PDF/Booklets/Deaf_Interpreting_Infor mation_Booklet.pdf (last accessed 29 Nov. 2013).

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sequence of sounds, produced from a hole or sequence of holes in a music card? The alleged equivalence cannot be empirically determined, which indicates that it is a given; it is assumed to be (cf. the example of Chen Li’s poem remediated into a musical performance in Chapter 3). Through punching a music card with reference to a certain Braille configuration, Shen willfully constructs into being a translational relationship between tactile code and aural frequency. The three texts—the poem, the Braille coding, and the sound sequence generated by the music box—are put together in a double and consecutive source-target relationship (i.e. poem and Braille; Braille and sound), and the performance enacted through the machinery of the music box sets this relationship into action. Displaying the original verbal text alongside the installation (or otherwise reading it aloud) further creates the impression of a triad of cross-semiotic parallel texts. It is important to see that these translational processes are at the same time acts of embodiment. The production of Braille involves typing on a Braille machine and feeling the embossed “words” with one’s fingers. To activate the installation device and produce the auditory output, the reader-participant is required to rotate the handle attached to the music box, so as to reel the strip of music card through it. The physicality involved here is crucial, for it distracts the reader and fragments the reception process, thereby preventing “meaning”—if this still means anything at all here—from coming through to0 easily. Intersemiotic translation contributes to this by providing the illusion of reproducing a text in successive modes; yet with each shift in mode the materiality of the text changes, thus raising the poststructuralist question of whether there is a meaning substance to the text that is independent of its material constitution. The installation as a whole is an ergodic text, which, according to Aarseth (1997, 2), differs from the conventional text by inviting “non-trivial action” for its unravelling, in our case the reader’s physical operation of the artefact. Without this intervention, the installation, as well as its latent translational/remediation processes, remains dormant. The translational and the multimodal combine to produce a rich “reading” experience, one that brings together a full range of sensuous modalities: the verbal (the poem text), the visual (the physicality of the artefact itself), the tactile (the Braille sheet and music card), the kinaesthetic (the wheeling of the music box), and the aural (the sound-output). The theoretical motivation of Shen’s project is as intriguing as its mechanical design. Shen was initially inspired by Walter Benjamin’s concept of the aura, espoused in “A Short History of Photography”, subsequently developed in the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. To Benjamin, “aura” represents a sense of authenticity—derived from a work’s “unique



existence” in a certain “domain of tradition”—that resides in the moment of artistic creation: [T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shatter­ing of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Benjamin 1936/1969, 221

Benjamin’s formulations exude a strong nostalgia for authenticity, which is “the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” (1936/1969, 221). A painting, according to this view, would represent authenticity by virtue of its being the artist’s original creation. By contrast, a copy of this painting, being an image of an image, is duplication par excellence, one that can technically be replicated an infinite number of times. A replica is deemed inauthentic because of its displacement from a temporal presence (which poststructuralists would inveigh against), or “historical testimony”, a “testimony to the history which it [a work of art] has experienced” (221). Such displacement in turn compromises “the authority of the object” (221) that is represented. In this scheme, aura, authenticity, and authority form a conceptual tripartite that privileges an original work while relegating its copy to the status of the derivative, the contrived. The above account of the implication of mechanical reproduction sounds uncannily familiar in the translation context, such that the impulse to (mis)read Benjamin’s words from the translational perspective is quite irresistible. After all, translation is conventionally seen and discussed as a “copy” of some original text; on the linguistic level, it is also a form of “reproduction”, albeit always in a different code. Just as “the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition”, so translation removes a source text from its cultural matrix. Similarly, just as the reproduced object is reactivated by “the beholder or listener in his own particular situation”, a translation is read and used within the experiential framework of the target reader. Based on these conceptual parallels between the translation of a literary text

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and the copy of a work of art, it is possible to ask the question: can translation then qualify as a form of mechanical reproduction? To Benjamin, it cannot be. This becomes clear when we read “The Work of Art” against Benjamin’s other essay, “The Task of the Translator”. In the latter essay, Benjamin squarely rejects the notion of the authority of the original text by insisting that the task of the translator is to find the intention toward the language into which the work is to be translated, on the basis of which an echo of the original is awakened in it. Here we encounter a characteristic of translation that decisively distinguishes it from the poetic work, because the latter’s intention is never directed toward language as such, in its totality, but solely and immediately toward certain linguistic ways of structuring content. However, unlike a literary work, a translation does not find itself, so to speak, in the middle of the inner mountain forest of language itself; instead, from outside it, facing it, and without entering it, the translation calls to the original within, at that one point where the echo can produce in its own language a reverberation of the work in the foreign language. Benjamin 1923/2012, 79–80; my emphasis

In order to produce the “echo of the original”, translation is not about the transmission of meaning or informative content which, to Benjamin, is characteristic of “bad translation” (1923/2012, 75). It is rather about foregrounding the form, the “mode of meaning”, of the original text; consequently, “translation must, in large measure, turn its attention away from trying to communicate something, away from the sense; the original is essential to translation only insofar as it has already relieved the translator and his work of the burden and organization of what is communicated” (81). Let us venture to posit the communicative intent or semantic presence of a text as its aura, given that such intent or presence is necessarily grounded in “the domain of tradition” surrounding the production of the source text. As the argument goes, the aura of a source text at the point of its creation is not a privileged property that must but cannot be reproduced in translation; on the contrary, it is to be evaded. With this logic the usual idea of “reproduction” becomes untenable: “the translation’s language can, indeed must, free itself from bondage to the sense, in order to allow its own mode of intentio to resound, not as the intentio to reproduce, but rather as harmony, as a complement to the language in which it is communicated” (81; emphasis in original). Reading the two essays alongside each other: to echo an original text is not to attempt to duplicate its aura—which, theoretically, cannot be done since



a text’s aura is assumed to be lost at the point of its reproduction—but to afford the translating language its own autonomy or voice in “reverberating” the foreign work. To Benjamin, a translated text does not have the same perceived quality of lack or disconnectedness (from some originary source) that he imputes to the product of mechanical reproduction, since a translation does not seek to reproduce but to recreate. The visual and aural metaphors used, respectively, in Benjamin’s theorisation of artistic reproduction and textual translation indicate the separate conceptual realms to which they belong. Translation, which seeks to “give voice” to a target text, is in the final analysis irreconcilable with mechanical reproduction, which inevitably displaces the purported primacy of creation. What, then, if literary translation and mechanical reproduction become implicated in each other? Quite consciously, Shen Bo-cheng attempts a response to this question by playfully experimenting with Benjamin’s theoretical constructs. A YouTube video of Shen’s translation gadget in operation quotes the Chinese translation of Benjamin’s dictum: “The translator’s task is to find the intention toward the language into which the work is to be translated, on the basis of which an echo of the original is awakened in it” (1923/2012, 79). As suggested earlier, the phrase “echo of the original” embodies the metaphor of translation as sound transmission. The concept of aura, on the other hand, is invoked in Shen’s own exposition of his creative process, which states that his installations “are made to complete the story of AURA” (Shen 2012). Exactly how this is done, however, is left unexplained. It seems to me that Shen is trying to incorporate into each other, and hence reconcile, the two irreconcilable sensuous metaphors—echo-sound and aura-image—within a single piece of technology; and in doing so he both appropriates and problematises Benjamin’s scheme. By way of a device that brings forth the physical machinery of semiotic reproduction, Shen reifies what is metaphorical in this scheme. On the one hand, the visual imagery of aura may be said to be encapsulated, somewhat paradoxically, by the Braille code made by and for the blind. Braille translates the semantic aura of an original text for someone who reads the text without seeing it. On the other hand, the sounds reeled out by the music box are an “echo” of this text. By invoking visual and aural imagery in tandem, Shen conflates two contrasting metaphors, thereby suggesting the possibility of seeing translation as mechanical reproduction. The mechanical nature of the installation artefact, together with the conscious invocation of Benjamin’s notion of aura and maxim on translation, is a vivid illustration of this conceptual metaphor at work. As a piece of literary art, Read, Art demonstrates the multimodal potential of translation. It invites the reader to contemplate, by way of interacting with the technological mechanisms, how the body and its senses participate

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in the process of semiotic morphing across languages and media. What we have is a conceptual and technological experiment that interrogates the boundaries of textuality by transforming text into fluid material forms. As suggested earlier, while text-to-Braille conversion follows a codified system of translational equivalence between words and dots, Braille-to-sound transfer requires a leap of imagination on the part of users (a more appropriate term here than “reader-viewer”, since there is more to “do” than to read or see). It is this leap that enables the multimodal and the translational to come together in an aesthetically provocative manner. A translational perspective on multimodal literary art thus allows us to appreciate the ruptures and transactions entailed in cross-semiotic shifts and the different sensuous pleasures they invite. Evil/Exorcised Lastly, we turn to a subversive writing operation in contemporary experimental poetry, with an eye on the relevance of transculturality, both as concept and as textual practice (i.e. translating), in understanding such poetics. The mode of writing in question is premised on text recycling: a poet uses a preexisting text—often of his/her own, which could either be a piece of original writing or a translation of other’s work—to create a “new” text. The putative new text is composed entirely of “used” signifiers accrued by dismantling some antecedent text; this latter text may itself be based on another preceding text (which could in turn be based on yet another preceding text, and the retrogressive cycle continues), as would be the case if it is a piece of translation, adaptation, or summary. By recourse to techniques such as erasure and pastiche, the writer then reorganises those same signifiers into a different textual artefact, effectively displacing their original context and relocating them in a new linguistic environment. This is basically a recombinant poetics executed without the computer, which, recalling Stefans’s definition cited earlier (in Hoover 2013, li), is one of several instantiations of cyberpoetry. It bears intense notes of Dadaism, whose pioneering figure Tristan Tzara famously wrote his 1920 manifesto, “To Make a Dadaist Poem” (in Lewis 2007, 107): Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem. Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently.



Next take out each cutting one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd. To call the product of this process postmodernist poetry is, of course, not to say very much at all. The specific operations that distinguish Dadaist poetry from conventional modes of poetry can be theorised in light of a number of interrelated ideas from post-criticism and deconstruction: collage/montage and citation/grafting. In literary writing, collage/montage3 is a procedure that features “découpage (or severing); preformed or extant messages or materials; assemblage (montage); discontinuity or heterogeneity” (Ulmer 1983, 84). As evident in Tzara’s manifesto, the predominant technique of cut-and-paste is meant to disrupt the organicity of poetic meaning, seen by “the vulgar herd”— readers, writers, and critics who have absolute faith in the wholesomeness of poetry—as some discrete entity captured in, and hence derivable from, a set of concrete signifiers. A poem made, in a most literal sense, in accordance with Tzara’s whimsical instructions is a random conglomerate of words that bear a trace of the original source (they initially constitute a prior piece of discourse), and yet are grossly alienated from that very source as they are reconfigured and replanted into a new formal and generic straitjacket. The new lexical collocations that arise generate new interpretations—always potential rather than actual; and insofar as the Dadaist craftwork can be repeated any number of times, a poem text that emerges after any one round of the exercise as its material outcome can at best be tentative, and its “meaning” can thereby only be ephemeral. Once the cut-up words are thrown back into the bag, jumbled up again, and reassembled into a new formal shape that invokes our generic notion of poetry, that earlier text, together with its attendant set of possible interpretations, vanishes as if it had not existed before, and a new poem ensues. Such writing is therefore marked by a degree of frivolity and temporality, not unlike MT. Thus, to the Dadaist, the “charming sensibility” of poetry comes from rupture and fragmentation, as opposed to flow and holism, and with characteristic irony an author is declared “infinitely original” by acting against the very conception of originality. The aesthetic intent of this poetic movement is, in sum, to “lift a certain number of elements from works, objects, preexisting messages, 3  The two concepts are seen as closely interrelated processes: while collage “is the transfer of materials from one context to another”, montage “is the ‘dissemination’ of these borrowings through the new setting” (Group Mu, in Ulmer 1983, 84).

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and to integrate them in a new creation in order to produce an original totality manifesting ruptures of diverse sorts” (Group Mu, in Ulmer 1983, 84). An early example of poetry recycling in Chinese is Hsia Yü’s Rub Ineffable (Moca wuyi mingzhuang) (Hsia 1995). This is one of those works that established Hsia’s cult status as the enfant terrible of the Taiwanese literary scene. In terms of its experimental method, Rub Ineffable is a precursor to Hsia’s critically acclaimed Pink Noise (see Chapter 2). Like Pink Noise, the work’s polemic force lies in its problematic status as a work of “original” art, for its linguistic substance is borne entirely out of Hsia’s 1991 collection Ventriloquy (Fuyushu). The procedure of production is unmistakably Dadaist: the poet physically cuts up each individual Chinese word or phrase in her 1991 collection, and then playfully recombines them into new poetic formations to create an ostensibly new book of poems that is Rub Ineffable. This game-like process has two poststructuralist bearings. First, it undermines the myth of originality by downplaying authorial intentionality. This myth stems from the horizon of expectation on the part of readers that there is always something in there, within the poetic structure, encapsulated by each individual word and aggregated across the lines and stanzas. When it comes to literary writing, this “something” is invariably perceived to be the product of original creativity. In Rub Ineffable, the poet does not purposefully choose words to express meaning; instead, the words are a given. This means that the poet is not in full control over what is expressed in any line of poetry a priori, since she cannot dispense her vocabulary at will: like pieces of a puzzle, the dismantled Chinese words or phrases come together almost randomly. The poet does exercise some discretion as to which words to collocate together, but she is not guided by a conscious idea of what to say before she combines the words. Rather, she allows the various pieces to coalesce as if naturally and meaning to emerge from the resultant collocations. This meaning is hence arbitrary; it is the effect of the poet’s casual treatment of linguistic signifiers, which are uprooted from one poetic formation and reconstituted in another, in the process of which the poet’s intervention is minimised. If the combination of words in any line shifts, meaning reshapes itself: the initial sense dissipates immediately, and another tentative sense enters to take its place. Poetic meaning, therefore, is not self-evident and self-sufficient, but is rather a transient impression of meaning, always ephemeral and in flux. Metaphorically, then, “the words on the page [. . .] are themselves translations of a sort; the impulses and intentions, the desire to communicate, and the impossibility of the same are all brought visually to the fore” (Manfredi 2014, 110). Second, Hsia’s technique protrudes the materiality of the Chinese word by breaching proprieties of grammar. There is very little by way of grammar in



figure 5.6 Image of a recycled poem in Rub Ineffable. Notice the watershed marks of cutting and pasting made deliberately evident.

Rub Ineffable, where cut-up words and phrases are paratactically juxtaposed. As in Pink Noise, this makes the poems highly cryptic, and has the effect of making the signifier, rather than the signified, visible as linguistic matter. This is highlighted by the fact that the evidence of cut-and-paste is deliberately

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made obvious in the book (Figure 5.6). The faint watershed marks—literally the aura—that surround the characters are a visual reminder of the fact that they come from extant texts, and can potentially be detached again to be recombined into other (yet non-existent) poems. It is indeed interesting to read this paratextual element with reference to Derrida’s statement that meaning “is related to something other than itself, thereby keeping within itself the mark of the past element, and already letting itself be vitiated by the mark of its relation to the future element” (Derrida 1972c/1982, 13; my emphasis). In Rub Ineffable, the mark that links a linguistic segment to its past and future incarnation is a material and visible one. More recently, the technique used in Rub Ineffable finds another application, with an intercultural twist, in Chen Li’s Evil/Exorcised (Yao/Ye 妖/冶) (Chen 2012), which represents one of the most systematic cases of poetry recycling in contemporary Chinese literature. The collection comprises 219 recycled poems produced between March and June of 2012, during which time the poet was inflicted with a disease that semi-paralysed him. Unable to write with a pen or even type on a keyboard, Chen Li turned to previously published texts, many of which are Chinese-language translations (and out of these, mostly of his own). From these texts—hereafter designated as “base texts”—Chen circled out Chinese words with a pencil. With the assistance of his wife, he then rearranged those words into new poems, which I shall call “destination texts”. But this process is not as random as one might think. Just as a translator faces limitations in the form of source language structures, so Chen would set arbitrary parameters to constrain his textual production. In most cases, this occurs as some form of spatial rule, which restricts the poet to using words chosen from certain parts of the base text. He also sets formal and/or generic parameters for the destination texts, deciding, for instance, that a given cluster of poems would consist of a certain number of lines or a certain number of syllables, or be shaped in a certain generic form, such as the Japanese haiku or tanka. The poet’s physical adversity is turned into a creative writing programme, where a specific technique (collage, montage, pastiche) transforms into literary technology (recycling)—a productive discursive mechanism that generates, with a degree of automation,4 an entire book of poems. Chen Li calls his poems in Evil/Exorcised zaisheng shi 再生詩, literally “reborn poems”. In the spirit of a deconstructionist poetics, the derivative status of these pieces is emphasised: the poems do not possess their own titles; 4  In his preface to the book, Chen Li uses the term “semi-automatic writing” (ban zidong xiezuo 半自動寫作) to describe his writing method (Chen 2012, 26), which highlights the author’s diminished subjectivity and intentionality.



instead, they are being referred to as “drawing on” (qucai zi 取材自 or genju 根據) a prior textual source, such as Shakespeare’s sonnets or Neruda’s love poetry in Chinese translation. The image of reincarnation in the word “reborn” also links poetry recycling to translation: the figure of a poem’s second (or third, fourth, etc.) life recalls Walter Benjamin’s thesis that a translation is the “afterlife” of its source text, where the latter text “survives” through its reproduction and dissemination in another spatial-temporal domain (Benjamin 1923/2012, 76). In this scheme, poetry recycling, not unlike translation, sustains the continuation of a text’s life journey over time and space. In Evil/ Exorcised, the trope of rebirth5 is performed through the endnotes that accompany each section, which detail the source of each poem in the collection, as well as the formal or generic restrictions imposed by the poet on himself in the recycling process. This paratextual element enhances the genealogicaltranslational relation that binds the base and destination texts. In Evil/Exorcised, translation provides the base texts for recycling (for all but two sections) and also serves as a conceptual trope for its linguistic operations. To illustrate, let us start with the first cluster of poems in the book, recycled from the Gospel of Matthew. Based on a Chinese translation of the Gospel (a 1967 edition published in Hong Kong), Chen Li composes four new poems based on words he randomly picks out from the translated text. There is a spatial constraint here: the poet uses not the entire Chinese Matthew but only selected pages of it as his base text: the first of his poems comes from p. 8 of the text; the second from p. 15; the third from pp. 20–21; and the fourth from pp. 24–25. In terms of their thematic content, these poems are not overtly religious, but the recycling process dictates that certain words that are “carried over” tend to retain traces of their associative meanings when read against the title of the cluster: Sishou genju Ma Tai Fu Yin de shounan/jiqing shi 四首根據馬太福音的受難/激情詩, which Chen himself translates as “Four Poems of Passion According to Matthew” (2012, 25–26, 38). With knowledge of the evangelical origin in mind, it is possible to develop readings that form a latent bind between Chen’s poems and their textual sources. For example, in Poem 2, the motifs of mortals and magic exude a quasi-religious ambience: 凡人沒有一個有異能/你們吹笛/你們跳舞/也吃,也喝/有耳可聽/ 行坐街上,招呼同伴/有甚麼比這最小的事好呢?

5  I call this a trope despite Benjamin’s insistence that “[t]he notion of the life and continuing life of works of art should be considered with completely unmetaphorical objectivity” (1923/2012, 76).

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[No mortal has magical powers/ You play the flute/ You dance/ You too eat and drink/ You have ears with which to listen/ You sit or stand on the streets, greeting your companions/ What is better than these most trivial of things?] Chen 2012, 35; English translation mine

And the image of the “lost sheep” in Poem 4, too, can have biblical overtones: [. . . . . .] 百隻羊中/那一隻迷路的羊的路/給世上的孩子們歡喜 [. . . Out of the hundred sheep/The road taken by that lost one/Brings joy to earth’s children.] Chen 2012, 37; English translation mine

There is an additional point of interest about the title of the piece. Although Chen Li claims to have translated his Chinese title into English, its key concept seems to have originated in English: notice that the word “passion” is equated to the bifurcated lexical item shounan/jiqing. According to Chen Li, the idea of passion as shounan (‘to undergo disaster or torment’) comes from Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical masterpiece St Matthew’s Passion, usually rendered in Chinese as Ma Tai shounan qu 馬太受難曲. With this, Chen alludes to the suffering he was enduring at the time of his writing due to his illness (Chen 2012, 37–38). But he further inflects the word with a secular dimension, as in jiqing (‘extreme enthusiasm’, ‘fervour’), which complements the evangelical interpretation in shounan. The two Chinese words, separated and conjoined by an oblique, point simultaneously to the poet’s medical condition (hence shounan) and to his love for and perseverance in writing (hence jiqing) despite this condition.6 Hence, while the English title is translated from Chinese, the words shounan and jiqing are in fact generated from a rhetorical reading of the polysemous English word-concept “passion” that splits it into two. This underscores the transculturality at work in the genesis of this cluster of poems. In the second section of the book, Chen Li recycles 14 poems from Chinese translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets by the literary grandmaster Liang Shihchiu 梁實秋. Each piece consists of three lines and a total of 14-characters/ syllables. The play with the number 14 is deliberate (14 poems of 14 syllables each, borne out of Shakespeare’s 14-line verses), and given that there is no apparent literary motivation behind this numeric play, it adds to the spirit 6  According to Chen Li’s preface to the book, it was his author-friend Chuang Yu-an 莊裕安 who suggested this play with the two senses of the English word “passion” (Chen 2012, 24).



of arbitrariness in Chen’s word recycling project. The writing protocols here are the same as with the Bible text above: Chen would circle out words from Liang’s Chinese translations and remold these selected words into new poems. Once again a three-tier relationship obtains, whereby Shakespeare’s originals give rise to Liang’s Chinese translations, which in turn become the “originals” for Chen Li’s recombinant poems. The intertextuality between Chen’s poems and Liang’s translations is explicitly marked: each poem is given a number that corresponds to the sequential location of its base text in Liang’s translated volume. In terms of numbering Chen’s poems are therefore non-sequential (1, 2, 14, 19, 23, 52, etc.), which further points to the deliberately casual and random nature of his composition. An avid translator himself, Chen Li would not miss the opportunity to recycle his own translations. In four out of the nine sections in his book, Chen taps into his translations (all done in collaboration with his translator-wife Chang Fen-ling) of Nobel laureates Pablo Neruda and Wislawa Szymborska, turning these into base texts that in turn bear out a total of 95 new poems.7 What is interesting to note is that although Chen always tries to work directly from the original language (Spanish in the case of Neruda and Polish in the case of Szymborska), he also consults existing English translations (and bilingual dictionaries), which function as intermediary texts to help him tackle linguistic difficulties in a language he is not fully proficient in. A good illustration of this is Chen’s translation of Neruda’s “The Heights of Macchu Picchu”, Mazupizu gaodi 馬祖匹祖高地, first released in Chung-Wai Literary Monthly in July 1980. This translation was based on the text published in two Spanish-English bilingual collections by Penguin: The Penguin Book of Latin American Verse (1971) and Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems (1975). This means that in producing his Chinese translations, Chen Li at least partially relied on the English translations of Neruda’s Spanish originals. Nearly two decades later, based on more recent English translations, Chen Li revised his Mazupizu gaodi, where he made around seven corrections, and published the new version in 1998 (Chen, personal communication). Therefore, although Chen Li’s recycling of translated poetry takes place solely in the Chinese language, the practice always already entails a complex interlingual and transcultural process. His poetics of recycling, based on products of translation, is a reflexive process that is analogous to self-translation: he translates—in other words, rewrites—foreign texts, and then deploys a subset of his own lexicon in the target language to produce a new set of original 7  Another two sections in the book (Sections VI and VII) consist of poetry recycled from Chen Li’s original writings. This is similar to the process at work in Rub Ineffable, described above.

The Translational


poetry in the same language. In a sense nothing is “wasted”; words can be used and reused, yet the ensuing product is never the same, always original. Poetry virtually becomes a text-generating machine, and the act of poetry writing is the mechanical operation of this machinery. As a final, and quite illuminating, example we turn to Section IX, which features a Chinese haiku reworked from Carol Ann Duffy’s “The Love Poem”, taken from the British poet’s well-known collection Rapture. We thus have three cultural elements co-existing in a single discursive space: the English text, the Chinese language, and the Japanese haiku genre; and through poetry recycling these are fused into a transcultural hybrid. The haiku is a quintessentially Japanese genre with a minimalist form, namely a 5-7-5 syllabic structure. With erasurist poetry in mind, Chen Li circles out 13 words containing 17 syllables from Duffy’s 36-line original, hence “trimming down” the base text considerably in accordance with the prosodic structure of a haiku, as follows: My eyes count the live syllables of quotation marks in thy heart—love Chen 2012, 249

With this, by using a small proportion of Duffy’s words, Chen Li effectively churns out a new English poem cast in a generic form originating in Japanese literary culture. He then translates this intermediate product into Chinese, taking care to maintain a corresponding number of syllables in each line, i.e. a 5-7-5 configuration. (I provide a transliteration below so that the non-Chinese reader can appreciate the correspondence in sound units.) 我的眼細數 你心頭引號活蹦 蹦的音節:愛 (wo de yan xishu ni xintou yinhao huobeng beng de yinjie: ai) Chen 2012, 248

Once again, how should we conceptualise this writing process? It involves, first of all, an abridgement of Duffy’s poem into a new piece in the same language, and then a translation of the latter into another language. As far as copyright is concerned, the final work must technically belong to Chen Li, but at the same



time Duffy is explicitly acknowledged as the textual source, which means Chen in effect concedes that his authorship is not absolute. The problem lies in the fact that there is an intermediate product in the form of the abridged poem. If Duffy’s poem were translated directly into Chinese in its entirety, there would have been no contention as to who “owns” the poem, even in translation. But is the abridged poem Duffy’s? Granted that the words do come from Duffy’s poem, the arrangement of those words and the ensuing co-text and semantics are nonetheless changed, which means it has to be a different creature altogether. In addition, the intermediate work assumes a new generic and structural identity—that of a haiku. Intralingually recycled by Chen Li, Duffy’s poem undergoes a transmutation in both form and content; when interlingual translation is applied, the final work is at two removes from Duffy’s original, becoming a Chinese haiku (or haiku-styled Chinese poem) in its own right. This final work, composed through intertextuality and interlinguality, obtains an anomalous and ambiguous status: it curiously is and is not Chen Li’s. How is poetry recycling relevant to translation? Departing from equivalence-based models, contemporary translation theory has formulated new ways of looking at the relationship between a given source text and its corresponding target text. This has gone a long way toward undoing the traditional view of translation as the unmitigated transference of a semantic message from one language into another. Translation is seen instead as the process of reconstructing a message—which originated in a particular source context— in the target linguistic and cultural matrix. Accordingly, then, the translator is more of a creative re-writer than a faithful messenger, and the skills required of a translator are not in any way inferior to or less challenging than those required of a writer (Bassnett 2006, 174). The textual elements from a source text are not simply reproduced, where reproduction implies retention of a core of semantic meaning and even linguistic form; they are very much decontextualised from their place of origin and then recontextualised to participate within a different network of signification. In this process, [t]he significance of the translator’s creative input is not diminished by [. . .] the apparently limiting physical presence of the source text. Rather, the source text offers the starting point for a journey and becomes the space ‘into’ and ‘through’ which the translator is given the opportunity to explore creatively and perform his/her subjectivity. Loffredo and Perteghella 2006, 10

This line of thinking is championed by Octavio Paz, who conceptualises the translator’s task as “dismantling the elements of the [source] text, freeing the

The Translational


signs into circulation, then returning them to language” (Paz 1971/1992, 159; my emphasis). And when the signifying elements dismantled from a source text do “return to language”, they are re-materialised within the structures of a different language, which inevitably leads to linguistic blending. Clive Scott therefore argues that translation is “métissage, interbreeding, hybridization, grafting, creolization” (Scott 2006, 116). The tropes of sign circulation, métissage, and grafting are especially pertinent to poetry recycling, where these become literal acts. As a form of (re)writing, translation produces a new entity that derives from a certain source but which also operates as a full text in its own right. At any one time, it has a double identity: on the one hand, it harks back to an origin, which in turn harks back to further, possibly multiple, origins; on the other hand, it points to and interacts within its new textual environment to generate signification. Even more challenging is this: if translation is indeed a form of creative writing, cannot the reverse be true? The latter possibility arises when we examine the citational nature of writing. Writing, as it were, is not a pristine site of pure originality, but one inflected throughout with cited elements, where [e]ach cited element breaks the continuity or the linearity of the discourse and leads necessarily to a double reading: that of the fragment perceived in relation to its text of origin; that of the same fragment as incorporated into a new whole, a different totality. The trick of collage consists also of never entirely suppressing the alterity of these elements reunited in a temporary composition. Thus the art of collage proves to be one of the most effective strategies in the putting into question of all the illusions of representation. Group Mu, in Ulmer 1983, 88

This formulation of writing-as-citation comes uncannily close to a conception of translation as the transplanting of foreign elements from a source text into a target language. The expressions “text of origin”, “incorporated into a new whole, a different totality”, and “never entirely suppressing the alterity” all read just as well if placed in a piece of discourse on the potential of translation to tranculturate foreign elements into a receiving culture. Maria Tymoczko has argued that besides representation and transmission, translation must also be recognised as a form of transculturation, which entails the performance of the borrowed cultural forms in the receptor environment. When transculturation is operative, forms from one culture are appropriated by another and integrated with previous practices, beliefs,



values, and knowledge. [. . .] In textual domains transculturation often involves transposing elements that constitute the overcodings of a text, including elements of a literary system [. . .] Elements expressed in or carried by language can also be transculturated, such as discourses and worldviews. Such elements then become part of the performative repertory in the receiving culture’s speech, literature, music, politics, economic system, religion, and so forth. Tymoczko 2007, 121; emphasis in original

From this perspective, there is a remarkable degree of correspondence between writing-as-citation and translation-as-transculturation. This correspondence is the effect of theorising writing as that which takes place between two discourses and, therefore, two different contexts. To write, Derrida tells us, “means to graft. It’s the same word” (Derrida 1972a/1981, 355); “[e]ach grafted text continues to radiate back toward the site of its removal, transforming that too, as it affects the new territory” (355). On the other hand, the scope of translation is being re-envisioned, such that its perimeters have broadened beyond semantic transmission to engage with “the interchange and amalgamation of cultural characteristics” (Tymoczko 2007, 123), a process that is also evident in certain literary genres and traditions, such as travel writing and postcolonial writing (Bassnett 2014, 40–44; Pratt 2008). Thus, as a mode of writing, poetry recycling can be described as an operation of citation and grafting. This is evident in Chen Li’s case, where the poet makes his cited sources and grafting procedures clear to readers. As with translation, there are not one but two texts in poetry recycling: a base/source text from which fragments are “castrated” (Derrida 1972a/1981, 301; 1972b/1981, 84), and a subsequent text into which these fragments are inseminated. In a similar vein, a deconstructionist view of writing proposes that elements from one text are “de-motivated”, transferred into a new context that encompasses a second text and, through that process, “re-motivated” (Ulmer 1983, 92). At one level, specifically that of transformational linguistics, this is a perfect analogy for translation, which is technically the analysis of surface structures to derive communicative messages, the conveyance of those messages to the receptor domain, and their reconstruction into the surface structures of the target language (Nida and Taber 1969, 484). We are reminded by Derrida, however, that it is illusory to assume in translation “some ‘transport’ of pure signifieds from one language to another, or within one and the same language, that the signifying instrument would leave virgin and untouched”; instead, translation should more properly be described as “a regulated transformation of one language by another, of one text by

The Translational


another” (1972b/1981, 20). And transformation is, of course, an inherent trait of poetry recycling, where cited elements are removed from their network of reference and insinuated into new collocations and contextualisations. This is where translation interfaces with writing. In Evil/Exorcised, this conceptual interface is given a materiality in having translated texts function as base texts. This facilitates the looping of words from one text into another, and consequently of translation (a form of citation) into writing—itself always an act of citation. Just as translation is a mode of writing, so writing performs as a translational site. Insofar as Chen Li’s base texts mostly originate in a different language and culture, his poems may be characterised as palimpsests—layerings of signifiers that are citational, intertextual, and translational. This is best captured in Marjorie Perloff’s remarks on what she calls “translational poetics”: In the beginning was translation: the layering of languages is one variant of the citational or intertextual poetics I spoke of earlier. From the Eliot of The Waste Land, the Pound of The Cantos, or the Marcel Duchamp who reproduced his early ready-mades and notecards in The Green Box, to Charles Bernstein’s “writing-through” Walter Benjamin in the operalibretto Shadow-time, and the use of appropriated text [. . .] citationality, with its dialectic of removal and graft, disjunction and conjunction, its interpenetration of origin and destruction, is central to twenty-firstcentury poetics”. Perloff 2010, 17; emphasis in original

Translation as Method in Literary Art

Although the examples presented in this chapter are disparate in terms of generic form, subject matter, and mode of production, they commonly actualise the trope of crossover. To crossover means to transgress perceived boundaries, to transmute a certain substance as it travels from one point to another. It is in this connection that translation forms a substratum across the texts discussed, not primarily in the sense of translation proper, but in the sense of the translational. The notion of the translational brings perspectives from translation into an understanding of dynamic modes of literary art. It underscores the semiotic flows, exchanges, and transformations that take place within the unfolding of literary and technological artefacts. Such semiotic movements and modulations may be realised in various visual-discursive formations. Text Garden and Read, Art show how contemporary literary practices can be inflected with



intersemiotic translation, which provides a structure to the modus operandi of the two experimental works. In this light, we would need to revisit Barthes’s (1977b, 38) claim that “it is not very accurate to talk of a civilization of the image—we are still, and more than ever, a civilization of writing, writing and speech continuing to be the full terms of the informational structure”. In an age where we are fully conscious of the multimodal transactions that transpire within a single communicative event, we need to appreciate that verbal forms no longer constitute the “full terms” of meaning production; this is as true of communication in general as of literary communication in particular. The verbal text has inexorably lost some of the “repressive value” it once possessed; indeed, to turn Barthes’s (1997b, 39) words around, images and other modalities have risen to counter the “terror” of ostensibly certain (in the sense of “definite”) signs—the latter being embodied in the written word. Consequently, contemporary literary practices can no longer be seen in terms of a closed, monolithic modality; that is, an exclusively or primarily verbal text. In experimental literary production, a multimodal revolution is underway, such that the text is at once verbal, visual, tactile, even kinaesthetic, and reading becomes an experiential act beyond and alongside the hermeneutic. Here the primary vehicle of translation is transposition, that is, the remediation of aesthetic forms or themes from one sensory portal to another, whereby semiotic transference is mostly of an abstract order. Like the intersemiotic text, the transcultural text, too, comes under the rubric of the translational. For this we have explored the case of poetry recycling in Chen Li’s Evil/Exorcised, where translation and creative writing interfuse each other. Translations are turned into base texts from which textual elements are grafted for new texts; the final outcome is an ostensibly original poem that is, in fact, a translation of a translation. In this method, translation becomes the generative engine—rather than a consequence, offshoot, or subsidiary byproduct—of writing, hence displacing the usual hierarchies associated with source/target and original/translated. In terms of its discursive procedure, text recycling is analogical to translation, especially to poststructuralist conceptions of translation-as-writing. Chen Li’s poems are therefore translational both in the sense of their (mostly) originating in translation, and in terms of their mode of production, which revolves around the dislocation and relocation of material between two textual sites. The translational is thus complementary to and different from translation: whereas translation is extraneous to a text, the translational is intrinsic, working from within the text as an immanent conceptual property residing in its production and reception, and revealing through its operation diverse modes of intertextuality, blending, hybridity, and symbiosis. At the same time the

The Translational


translational can incorporate the mechanics of translation, which materialises the semiotic shifts that constitute dynamic texts. It is through these processes that experimental literature, with the mediation of technology, embodies movement—both the physical movement sometimes required of the reader and the virtual movement between verbal and non-verbal signs. It is this transelement of texts, evoking both transference (of signs) and transcendence (of semiotic boundary), that foregrounds their materiality.


On Chineseness and the Trope of Translation in Experimental Literature This study has set out to survey representative cases of what I have designated as experimental Chinese literature. In the introductory chapter I delimited the term “experimental” to describe works that tap into various technologies in foregrounding their materiality. Such materiality, as we have seen, is manifest in the corporeal substance of the linguistic or other semiotic matter at hand and in the embodied features of literature as artefact. But what about the other keyword—“Chinese”? How Chinese is experimental Chinese literature? How viable is the notion of Chineseness in the context of material poetics? These questions are central to the epistemologies of reading; they are especially pertinent to the articulation of the glocal in contemporary writing practices, in an age where the local and the global are engaged in a perpetual dialectic. Chineseness is a much problematised notion in the study of modern Chinese poetry. With its generic affiliation to classical Chinese poetry—the embodiment of elite culture in imperial China—modern Chinese poetry has since its very beginning been burdened with a perceived loss of authenticity, a “recurrent anxiety about the lack of Chineseness” (Yeh 2008b, 13). This motif of identity “loss” or “lack” stems from a purist perspective on writing as representation, which views such poetry as inherently “Western” in terms of its form (free as opposed to regulated verse), language (vernacular and Europeanised syntax), and imagery (partially imported from the Western poetic repertoire).1 This view exhibits a fetishism with cultural authenticity that hinders 1  See, for example, Li Rui’s 李銳 criticism of avant-garde Chinese writers, discussed in Yeh (2008b). Such reification of Chineseness is not restricted to poetic discourse. Huang (2009) observes that critical commentaries on Shakespearean adaptations for Chinese film and theatre are often premised on an essentialised Chinese culture (and an essentialised Shakespeare as well): “these obsessions with Chineseness that mystify China are as pervasive among the artists as among the critics, both in and beyond the Sinophone world, who participated in the production of China as a mythic Other in Shakespearean performances” (38). Rey Chow argues that this “habitual obsession with ‘Chineseness’ ” is a symptom of a “historically conditioned paranoid reaction to the West”—an effect of “past victimization under Western imperialism”, turned into “a narcissistic, megalomanic affirmation of China” (Chow 2000, 5). For her critique of Chineseness as a self-serving narrative in modern literary and cultural studies, see Chow (2000).

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On Chineseness and the Trope of Translation


productive inquiry into the potential translational space between two or more states of identity, which are themselves not in stasis. It also betrays a definition of Chineseness in the negative: to be Chinese is to be non-Western; this equation renders Chineseness as no more than an empty signifier that continually points back to its phantom self with reference to a negated, yet inexorably pervasive, Other. The obsessive faith in Chinese authenticity in literature can be released or diverted by considering two questions in tandem: first, “Why should poetry written by Chinese people in the Chinese language have to be Chinese beyond these two features?” (van Crevel 2008, 444); and second, “What is modern [rather than Chinese] about Modern Chinese Poetry?” (Yeh 2008b, 16) Let us look at each of these in turn with respect to experimental Chinese literature. Chineseness is not an inescapable notion when it comes to Chinese literature; in the context of experimental writing, even the term “Chinese literature”, depending on how it is defined (based on such criteria as language of composition, ethnicity of the author, cultural resonance, place of publication, etc.) can sometimes turn into a misnomer. How “Chinese”, for example, should we consider Pink Noise to be? Other than the facts that the author is a Taiwanese (albeit one who has spent much of her time in France) and the book was released in Taiwan, one would be stretched to impute much Chineseness to the work. “Bilingual” might work as a tentative descriptor insofar as two languages are involved, but that can also be slightly misleading in suggesting a neat demarcation between the two languages. As discussed in Chapter 2, the mode of production in Pink Noise is conceived to deprive the book of a definitive linguistic affiliation: recall that through machine translation, Hsia Yü’s English source poems generate their corresponding Chinese translations, which in turn become the basis on which the English poems are fine-tuned; the fine-tuned English texts then generate another version of Chinese translations, and so on. This feedback mechanism is the most radical aspect of Pink Noise, as it creates a terrible but perfect linguistic dilemma: for the first time in contemporary “Chinese” poetry, we are reading unreadable Chinese-language poems with reference to their English originals (which by and large make better sense than the Chinese translations), when in fact the two sets of text are already constitutive of each other through intertwining loops of revision. The status of experimental Chinese poetry as a self-contained cultural site is also complicated by Chen Li’s method of writing. Although Chen’s poems are indisputably Chinese-language texts, their presumed Chineseness is mitigated by the poet’s transcultural sensibility. We have seen, for instance, that Chen overtly borrows structural concepts from the poems of authors he translates, notably Neruda, and incorporates these into his own writing. His method of



recycling is an extreme practice that compromises the organicity of Chinese poetry by explicitly acknowledging that his words are taken from translated foreign poetry. All of this makes it difficult for us to imagine Chen Li’s poems as an unadulterated linguistic and cultural fabric. Even more culturally amorphous is Xu Bing, based professionally in both the US and China. A Book from the Sky, as we read in Chapter 4, is premised on the ghost of Chineseness, that is to say, its Chineseness is derived from the spectral presence yet final absence of this assumed quality. It is here that we see Chineseness being deployed in resistance against itself, only to dissipate itself in the no-man’s-land between perceived identities. Yet there are other works whose linguistic-cultural identities are altogether immaterial. With its focused concentration on the graphic icon as the privileged medium of communication, A Book from the Ground pushes (verbal) language to the periphery. And how far can we consider Shen Bo-cheng’s translation machine as a “Chinese” work? After all, the inspiration for the installation piece came from Walter Benjamin. The texts fed into the machine during its Taiwan exhibitions may be Chinese-language or Chinese-translated material, but the mechanics of the artefact remains independent of language. The machine could well be used to process texts from any other languages, as long as there are available Braille transcribers who are proficient in those languages in question. This is not to say that experimental literature is wholly devoid of linguistic and cultural resonance. To start with, the linguistic medium itself is always already an embodiment of some form of tradition; as van Crevel (2008, 443) remarks, “even if Chinese poets look to the West or anywhere beyond an indigenous frame of reference, a considerable measure of Chineseness is guaranteed as long as they write in Chinese. Language [. . .] is rather more than a simple tool for dressing up some kind of independent, unchanging content, and poetry is the art of language”. Experimental writers also tap into cultural localities and historical specificities in formulating their own poetic consciousness. For example, Chen Li’s “The Last Wang Mu-Qi” (Chen 2014, 45–53), briefly mentioned in Chapter 3 in relation to its formal affiliation to Neruda’s poem, is based on a mining calamity that occurred in 1980 in Ruefang, Taiwan. “Little Barbarian Treaty 1731” (Chen 2011, 71–72), discussed in the same chapter, is among many of Chen’s poems that deal sympathetically with the histories and sensibilities of indigenous tribes in Taiwan. These latter poems exude a nebulous Chineseness insofar as they are thematically entrenched in the local Taiwanese tradition, though, of course, there is the complicated question as to what or whose Chineseness is being elicited here. (Can indigenous tribes in Taiwan be subsumed under the term “Chinese”, when the Chineseness of the Han people in Taiwan is itself not unproblematic? Or can they belong instead to

On Chineseness and the Trope of Translation


the Sinophone [Shih 2007]?) Many of Chen Li’s poems mark his “[m]editation on the history of Taiwan” (Chen 2014, 14) and on his Taiwanese consciousness more generally. Here, Chang Fen-ling’s interpretation of the poem “Taroko Gorge 1989” is telling of how Chen’s literary imagination is also an imagination of the local. Taroko Gorge is a geographical site in the Taroko National Park in Taiwan; the name is derived from the (non-Chinese) word taroko, which means magnificence and beauty in the aboriginal language of Truku (Tailuge 太魯閣): In this poem [“Taroko Gorge 1989”] Chen Li describes the various and changeable scenic features of Taroko Gorge to suggest the complexity of the fate of Taiwan; he leads the reader to review Taiwan’s suffering, look back on its lost culture, and acknowledge the fact that it has become a melting pot of different races, different ways of life, and different cultures. With time passing, Taroko may never recover its original indigenous features, but the new life emerging from it brings forth a renewal of energy, vitality, harmony, and sweetness for the human spirit. The poem ends with the Buddhist chanting at the mountaintop temple, suggestive of a realization of life—when the depths of human hearts are as vast and grand as the natural setting of Taroko Gorge, all hatred, sorrow, frustration, and bitterness can be shed, endured, soothed, or even transcended, just as the inhabitants of Taroko Gorge, assimilated to one another, have come to accept racial differences and cultural complexities as part of life’s bitter sweetness. Chen 2014, 10

It is thus fair to say that experimental literature, as does modern poetry, “does not dismiss Tradition as a significant resource, just as it draws freely on other literary traditions of the world” (Yeh 2008b, 25). It is an exemplar of the literary glocal, where local sensibilities can be expressed in the Chinese language, at the same time as they are inflected with linguistic structures, writing techniques, poetic imagery, and cultural influences from other cultures. Through performing hybridity, it eschews cultural essentialism, but does not preclude tradition; as with modern Chinese poets in general, experimental writers “do not write against Tradition but through Tradition” (Yeh 2008b, 25; emphasis in original). The idea of Chineseness need not distract us from the material such-ness of literature—its linguistic texture, physical apparatuses, multimodal planes, as well as the intermedial crossovers and transcultural exchanges that form part of its aesthetic composition. In this connection we ask the question:



what is experimental about experimental Chinese literature (rephrasing Yeh [2008b])? How can experimentalism of the kind pertinent to this study help us negotiate Chineseness as a discourse of legitimation in literary criticism?2 Experimental Chinese literature signals a movement away from culture-centric considerations toward a material consciousness in literary criticism, without discounting any perceived Chineseness that may be attributable to such literature. Literary experimentalism, as delineated in this book, is characterised by the translational. As we have noted, the translational denotes various modalities of continuity and transformation between different linguistic and medial sites; it involves the specific processes of intertextuality, interlingual transfer, intersemiotic transposition, and transcultural creation. As the translational is an immanently hybrid category, it precludes at the outset the possibility of positing a grounded point of reference, be it linguistic/cultural or semiotic/medial. This suspension of reference underscores the aesthetic logic of experimentalism and undermines any attempt to pin down a text using a set of a priori, essentialised criteria, including its putative Chineseness. As a conceptual trope and cluster concept, translation embodies the intermediate space that multimodal, transcultural experimental literature finds itself, and negotiates the passages and impasses between different languages, media, and semiotic dimensions. Dwelling in this site of in-betweenness and flux, the translational marks a locus of resistance against the tendency to extrapolate literary texts toward a historicised reading; instead, it gestures toward an alternative, though by no means contradictory, type of contextual reading, with a focus on the material frames of enunciation. The theoretical value of experimental literature thus lies in its relative cultural dislocation, pulling as it does against the regime of literature as representation. It constitutes, as a whole, a discourse that resists against a precipitous cultural reading that reduces a literary text to a mere expression of subjectivity or a reflection of an extrinsic world. Ultimately, what matters is not the degree of Chineseness that may be attributed to a work, but how its imputed identity 2  Literary criticism has always served as the platform for the legitimation of cultural identities in China. As Lydia Liu observes, in the early part of twentieth-century China, literary criticism “has provided writers and critics with a theoretical language(s) whereby they can work out their troubled relationship to the West and reflect simultaneously on their own condition of existence. [. . .] [I]nstitutionalized criticism evolved into such a strange establishment in twentieth-century China that it frequently becomes the center stage for the polemical unfolding of cultural politics and national politics” (Liu 1995, 184). The act of legitimating Chineseness through literary criticism continues through the present age, where China and Chineseness have become sites of tension in their encounter with cultural globalisation.

On Chineseness and the Trope of Translation


as a work of Chinese literature is continuously subject to negotiation, mitigation, reconstruction, and reimagination under a variety of forces, such as traditional Chinese culture, literary modernity and globalisation, and media and technology. Experimental Chinese literature therefore reveals a dynamic that places it in line with experimental writing in other languages, at the same time as it forms a continuum with other (more conventional) modes of writing in the Chinese language. What arises from this is a trans-ethics—translation, transgression, transformation—which is an ethics of hybridity that operates in the liminal zone. Instead of representing a purported culture or reality, experimental literature renders an experience of the text per se.3 In this scheme, a literary work is a contingent formation of signs that emerges as a nexus—a point of crossing where strands of textual and cultural influences meet, and are given form in a specific medium through the mediation of a particular kind of technology. At the moment when our attention shifts away from an external, reified signified, such as Chineseness, toward the text qua text, the poetic arises from within, in what Jakobson (1960, 356) describes as “the palpability of signs” and “the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects”. Pink Noise illustrates this perfectly. Hsia Yü’s writing procedure turns the text reflexively unto the body of the signifier, its contours and movement within a cul-de-sac of meaning, rejecting any external referent as its stable signified. The same may be said of Xu Bing’s quasi-Chinese invention in A Book from the Sky, which, through its unrecognisability, executes a circuitous recoil in a signifier’s path of signification back to its own inscription. At the same time, the experimental artefact is seldom a closed system composed of “pure”, inward-looking signifiers. As a nexus of converging signs, a literary text can liquidate itself into memes that disseminate across media platforms and linguistic systems, and it is here that the translational offers a divergent reading that goes against the grain of cultural interpretation. As a rubric encompassing different kinds of mediational processes, the translational articulates a model of the travelling text, where a text becomes a formless potential that seeks material consummation through engaging specific languages, media, and technology. A poem may unravel itself through the reader-viewer who traverses the physical body of a design installation built on the poem’s imagery (Text Garden); a printed text can be made to metamorphose itself in different semiotic forms (Read, Art). Chen Li demonstrates that transculturality and intermediality are integral to his art: a Chinese poem may have imported a structural idea (a meme) from a foreign work, or it could be 3  This formulation is inspired by a similar expression in Žižek (2014, 353).



translated into a non-textual format such as a vocal reading, visual animation, or musical performance. In these cases, there exists a virtual text transcending the dimensions of language, culture, and semiotic mode that becomes concretised as various text-instantiations, each with its own unique materiality. Experimental literature is thus characterised by the interplay between the corporeality of the sign (a vertical dimension) and the travel of the text across languages and media (a lateral dimension). In many of my examples, the body of the reader becomes the canvas on which the text unfolds; the non-trivial acts undertaken by this reader constitute part of the artefact. Such acts range from clicking hyperlinks to activating mechanical devices to making one’s way through physical settings. In Pink Noise, even the acts of turning pages and linear reading are made non-trivial thanks to the texture of the vinyl pages and confusing colour and layout schemes. In such cases, the experimental text is also a cybertext (Aarseth 1997), whereby the performance of the text is contingent upon the reader’s sense perception and physical manipulation of it. In each instance of literary experimentalism discussed in the previous chapters, the text emerges through the encounter between the translational and the technological. Like translation, technology takes on a number of different faces in writing according to the specific mode and media involved. The more “obvious” technological platforms are the digital machines, notably translation software and the Internet in our case, as featured in Pink Noise, Chen Li’s Literary Bank, and A Book from the Ground. But our take on technology in the literary arts extends beyond that. Chen Li’s concrete poetry is a fine display of inscription technology. The system of gadgets in Shen Bo-cheng’s Read, Art involves mechanical technology and functions as a text-processing machine. The invention of pseudo-Chinese characters in A Book from the Sky must be seen as the product of a technology of the script, where calligraphic strokes are manipulated as visual resources to create hybrid graphs. As avant-garde procedures in contemporary writing, poetry recycling and the recursive method of text production in Pink Noise are technological inventions, as they represent a system of manufacturing new poems using existing ones as raw material. Through these case examples, we interrogate the role of digital and discursive technology in literature, which enables “the possibility of understanding how deeply literary theory and criticism have been imbued with assumptions specific to print” (Hayles 2002, 33). One must bear in mind that the specific way in which translation and technology combine in the making of a dynamic text is always open to experimentation, and as such should not be theorised into descriptive, replicable models. Instead, what we seek to propose is a general scheme of literary criticism that centres on the text as artefact. As with all artefacts, the textual

On Chineseness and the Trope of Translation


artefact has a physical being that needs to be worked with. Examining literary products through the dual lenses of translation and technology is a step toward this understanding. It draws attention to the non-interpretive aspects of a text—more specifically the flux of its material form as well as the way readers sensuously interact with this form-in-flux. The sense of movement, virtual or embodied, brought forth by translation and technology establishes the text as a discursive-semiotic entity emerging in the interstices of languages, modes, and media. In the final analysis, that is the spirit of the literary avant-garde—to be neither here nor there, but both here and there, its in-betweenness in mode, hybridity in cultural affiliation, and embeddedness in form becoming the very conditions of its existence. For a long time the abiding concern of literary criticism has been with hermeneutics, and until relatively recently only sporadic attention has been paid to how the literariness of a work is as much constituted in its materiality as in its content. As it is now, poetry criticism, particularly in the Chineselanguage context, is lacking in conceptual tools with which we can fully appreciate the materiality of literature. Standard reference texts continue to propagate interpretation and meaning, at the expense of innovative forms that appeal more to the perceptual than the cerebral faculty, thus implicitly relegating such forms to marginal, one-off experimentations that warrant no theorisation. Herein lies a paradox: the condition of marginality is the sine qua non for experimental literature to remain “experimental” in a fundamental sense. Experimental literature must, by its very nature, pull against established conventions and frameworks, which ultimately means it cannot be the establishment, the mainstay in creative enterprise. Being marginal, however, is not a weakness of experimental literature as such; it is an inherent property that also defines its very function within the literary polysystem. A cultural institution achieves equilibrium when it contains at least two counteracting, and mutually-defining, forces, which we may broadly designate as the mainstream and the avant-garde, notwithstanding that there are always cases that defy neat classification on this basis. Within the institution of literature, experimental writing performs in the latter role, and this is a crucial role, for although such writing must remain peripheral in the system, it is an indispensable counterpoint to mainstream writing and criticism, which have long emphasised, and will continue to emphasise, textual content over material form, interpretive reading over embodied perception. To operate in the capacity of a non-conforming force in perennial resistance to dominant literary modes is the raison d’être of experimental literature, without which text-based writing and criticism will sustain their hegemony, hence severely limiting our horizon of possibilities in reading.

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Index Aarseth, Espen J. 5, 15–16, 141 Ames, Roger T. 99, 103 “And the Bees are Singing to You Too” (Er mifeng ye dui ni gechang 而蜜蜂也對你歌唱) (Chen Li)  74–76, 130–131 Bach, Johann Sebastian 151 Baker, Mona 25, 63n Bardin, Garry 83 Barthes, Roland on text and image 7n, 138 on textual originality 64n on writing 2–3, 4, 22–23, 24, 59, 63, 64, 158 Bassnett, Susan 27 Bei Dao 北島 2 Benjamin, Walter on aura 141–142 on text and image 138 on translation 29n, 63, 64, 92–93, 143–144, 150, 162 Bennett, Karen 121  Bhabha, Homi 123 Book from the Ground, A, (Dishu 地書) (Xu Bing) analysis of 19, 99–100, 114–116, 121–126, 128–129, 162, 166 translation of 117–119, 128 See also WordMagick Book from the Sky, A, (Tianshu 天書) (Xu Bing) analysis of 19, 99–106, 126–127, 128–129, 131, 162, 165, 166 translation of  106–114, 127–128 Borges, Jorge Luis 65, 80 Bourdieu, Pierre 104n Bruno, Cosima on “glyphomancy” 70n on “iconotext” 75 on modes of Chinese visual poetry 70 translation of A Book from the Sky 99n, 106–114, 127–128 translation of “A War Symphony” 85–87, 89

Can Xue 殘雪 2 Carroll, Lewis 107 Cayley, John on relation between textual and digital production 16–17, 102 on Translation and riverIsland 67n translation of A Book from the Sky 106n Chang, Fen-ling as a translator 80, 152 on non-translation of “A War Symphony”  83, 85, 86 on the poem “Taroko Gorge 1989” 163 translation of “Furniture Music” 90 Chang, Han-liang 96 Chen Li 陳黎 and his cyberpoetry 18, 70n, 71, 76–77, 78–79, 80, 88–90, 91, 93, 94, 96, 97, 131 as a contemporary poet 69 on translation 80–81 See also “And the Bees are Singing to You Too”; “A War Symphony”; Chen Li’s Literary Bank; concrete poetry; “18 Touches”; Evil/Exorcised; “Furniture Music”; “Gliding Exercises” Chen, Lily 91, 92 See also “Gliding Exercises” Chen Li’s Literary Bank (Chen Li wenxue cangku 陳黎文學倉庫) 77, 79, 80, 88, 166 Chineseness in experimental writing 19–20, 161–163 in modern Chinese poetry 160–161 Chow, Rey 160n Chuang Yu-an 莊裕安 151n concrete poetry as a kind of cyberpoetry 76–77 as an inscription technology 17, 71, 166 features of 4–5, 69–71, 196 Crystal, David 114 cyberpoetry 16, 76, 145 cybertext 166 Davis, Kathleen 25–26 de Campos, Haroldo 86n


Index DeFrancis, John 101n3 de Man, Paul 45, 60 Derrida, Jacques on deconstruction 24–25, 26, 28–29, 35, 54, 149, 156–157 on the event and the machine 21, 30, 60–61, 62 Dictionary of Selected Words from A Book from the Sky, A (Xu Bing) 106–107, 108, 110n, 131 Duffy, Carol Ann 153–154 Eco, Umberto 114 “18 Touches” (Shiba mo 十八摸) (Chen Li) 71–74, 130–131 Evamy, Michael 114 Evil/Exorcised (Chen Li) 149–154, 157, 158 experimental literature  and Chineseness 162–167 and materiality 1–2, 160 as ergodic 5 as multimodal literature 8–9 Fo, Dario 107 “Furniture Music” ( Jiaju yinyue 傢俱音樂) (Chen Li) 89–90, 92 Gao Xingjian 高行健 2 Ge Fei 格非 2 Gentzler, Edwin 26–27, 29 Ge Zhaoguang 葛兆光 105 “Gliding Exercises” (Huaxiang lianxi 滑翔練習) (Chen Li) 91–92, 93–94 Google Translate (a machine translation program) 42, 43, 45, 48, 50, 52, 55, 57, 58 Grossman, Edith 65 Hachikai, Mimi 74, 80 Han Shaogong 韓少功 2 Harrist, Robert E. Jr. 102 Hayles, Katherine on embodied literature 18 on materiality 6, 67–68, 76, 77 on media translation 13, 77, 89, 95n on technology 16, 96 on “Work as Assemblage” 79, 89–90 Hoover, Paul 2n

Hsia Yü 夏宇 and her role in Pink Noise 31, 33, 51, 59–60, 62, 64 as an avant-garde poet 21–22, 38, 55, 65 on machine translation 35, 36–37, 56 See also Pink Noise; Rub Ineffable; Ventriloquy Huang, Alexander C.Y. 160n imagetext definition of 19, 98–99 image-as-text 128 image-in-text 126–128 intersemioticity 7–8, 11n intersemiotic translation  and its relation to translational 131 and multimodality 97, 123 and writing 128 definition of 9n, 10 Jakobson, Roman 10, 12, 88, 165 Jing Xiang Hai 鯨向海 139 Jiu Ba Dao 九把刀 68n Kaindl, Klaus 10–12 Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen 7–8, 38 Lanier, Sidney 36 Larkin, Philip 80 Laureillard, Marie 80 Lee, Michael G. and Kenneth I. Helphand 15 Lee, Tong King 130n Liang Shih-chiu 梁實秋 151–152 Li Fengxu 李豐旭 92 Link, Perry 104, 112 Lin Yaode 林耀德 70n Li Rui 李銳 160n “Listening to the Wailing Parrots for as Long as It Takes to Write a Poem” (用一首詩的時間聽鸚鵡悲鳴) (Chan Lai-kuen 陳麗娟) intersemiotic translation of 137–138 reader-viewer experience of 132–137 Liu, Lydia 164n Luo Zhi-cheng 羅智成 70n Lu Yan 盧炎 89–90

180 machine translation and its role in Pink Noise 34–35, 56, 57–59, 64–65 features of 14, 17, 21, 38, 42, 57, 58, 59 See also Google Translate; Pink Noise; Reverso; Sherlock; Systran materiality and experimental literature 1–2, 5–6, 8, 18 and translation 14–15 definition of 1, 3, 9 Ma Yuan 馬原 2 McGann, Jerome J. 78 Mihalić, Slavko 80 Mitchell, W.J.T. 6, 98–99, 126 multimodality 6, 8n, 9–12 Neruda, Pablo 80–81, 87, 150, 152, 161, 162 Parry, Amie E. 22 Paz, Octavio 80, 154–155 Perloff, Marjorie 157 Piasecki, Bohdan 85, 87 Pink Noise (粉紅色噪音) (Hsia Yü) analysis of 42–59, 61, 65–66, 161 composition of 18, 30–31, 32–33 multimodality of 38–41 See also Hsia Yü; machine translation Pinter, Harold 80 Plath, Silvia 80 poetry recycling and its relation to translation 150, 154–155 features of 156, 157 in Evil/Exorcised 149–154, 156 in Pink Noise 166 in Rub Ineffable 147–149 in “To make a Dadaist Poem” 145–147 Post-Testament (Xu Bing) 110n Pound, Ezra 70, 101 Poyatos, Fernando 38, 94n Read, Art (Du. sheng zi 讀・聲字) (installation by Shen Bo-cheng 沈柏丞) as a text-processing machine 166 aura of 144 Chineseness of 162

Index intersemiotic translation of 138–141, 144–145, 157–158, 165 Reverso (a machine translation program) 57–58 Rub Ineffable (Moca wuyi mingzhuang 摩擦・無以名狀) (Hsia Yü) 32, 152n, 147–149 Scott, Clive on “kinaesthetic of reading” 14 on “linguistic experience of text” 9 on translation 14, 155 Shen Bo-cheng 沈柏丞 138 See also Read, Art Sherlock (a machine translation program) introduction of 31n its role in Pink Noise 31, 34, 35–36, 42n, 59, 62 translation by 43, 45, 47, 50–53, 55, 57–58 Shih, Shu-mei 6n Sontag, Susan 3–4, 5 Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty 29–30, 62 Stefans, Brian Kim 16, 145 Sturge, Kate 13 Su Shao-lian 蘇紹連 70n Sutherland, John 4 Systran (a machine translation program) 57–58 Szymborska, Wislawa 80, 152 technology and its interaction with translation 18, 96–97, 166–167 and translational 166 inscription technology 71, 72 introduced as a concept 15–17 Text Garden: An Experiment with Poets and Designers (a literary-art exhibition) 132–138, 157–158, 165 text recycling and translation 158 definition of 145 “To make a Dadaist Poem” (Tristan Tzara) 145–147 Torresi, Ira 9n


Index Toshiko Hirata 平田俊子 74n, 80 translation and deconstruction 24–27 and iconic language 115–117, 119 and its interaction with technology 18, 96–97, 166–167 and its relation to translational 19, 130, 131, 157–159 and materiality 14–15 and multimodality 9–12 and poetry recycling 150, 154–155 and text recycling 158 and writing 27–30, 60, 87–88, 155–157 as a multifaceted “cluster” concept 95, 164 as mechanical reproduction 142–144 tripartite taxonomy of 10 translational and its relation to intersemiotic translation 131 and its relation to translation 19, 130, 131, 157–159 and technology 166 introduced as a concept 130 Tsou, Yi-Ping 42n tuxiang shi 圖像詩 See concrete poetry Tymoczko, Maria 95, 112, 138, 155–156 Tzara, Tristan 145–147 Vallejo, Cesar 80, 91, 92, 93 van Crevel, Maghiel 162

Ventriloquy (Fuyushu 腹語術) (Hsia Yü) 32, 55, 147 Venuti, Lawrence 37, 65, 121, 122n Vinograd, Richard 99n, 107–108 “War Symphony, A” (Zhanzheng jiaoxiang qu 戰爭交響曲) (Chen Li) analysis of 76, 81–83 translatability of 85 translation of 85–87 intersemiotic translation of 88–89 WordMagick (Xu Bing) 119–121, 124–125, 128  See also A Book from the Ground Wu, Hung 99n Xiao Xiao 蕭蕭 70n Xu Bing 徐冰 as a contemporary Chinese artist  99 linguistic vision of 121–123 on iconic language 115–117, 122–123 See also A Book from the Ground; A Book from the Sky; A Dictionary of Selected Words from A Book from the Sky; Post-Testament; WordMagick Yang Lian 楊煉 107, 113n Yeh, Michelle 40, 51n, 160n, 164  See also Pink Noise Yu Hua 余華 2