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Title: Transgenic Deformation: Literary Translation and the Digital Archive

Author(s): Matt Cohen

Publication information: First published on the Whitman Archive. A version of this essay was delivered at the 2006 Modern Language Association convention.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00165

The literary research website the Walt Whitman Archive has recently begun grappling with the problems of representing translations of Whitman's works. I like to think that, like many poets, Whitman theorized many of the issues we face in digitally remediating artistic works back in his own time, and that he encoded those theories in his creations. His poem "Eidólons," for example, might be read as offering a theory about how a poet should handle, or mediate, form and materiality.1 In it, a poet encounters a seer who advises him that it is "the substance of an artist's mood or savan's studies long. . . / To fashion his eidólon" (Whitman 1892, 12). Variously interpreted by previous critics as "images," "souls," or "essences," eidólons are, the seer tells us, "the true realities" (Whitman 1892, 13).

The word "eidólon," from the Greek, seems an odd choice for a poet who built a reputation on common speech.2 But it has two literal meanings, senses that are in tension with each other. It can mean "phantom," or it can mean "an image of an ideal." This tension is something Whitman might have been counting on when he made it the poem's mantra. The word "eidólons" culminates every stanza, constituting a partial description of what Whitman's speaker imagines to be the ideal content of poems. (The poem is heavily rhythmic, atypically regular in being composed completely of quatrains, and consistent in ending all but two stanzas with the word "eidólon.") Looked at this way, we might say that Whitman put an act of translation at the heart of the reading experience of this poem. Indeed, he uses a number of other words in this poem that require some translinguistic parsing: "ostent," "atelier," "exalté," and "savan." In Greek, "eidólon" means "form," and I think it is with all the potential ambiguities of that term that Whitman uses it.3

I choose this poem as an axis for thinking about translation and the digital archive because it treats the central, ongoing question of scholarly editing: What should be the nature and end of our mediation? To someone like me, who has spent perhaps too much time framing such poems with the XML markup tags that are the standard editorial tools of today, there is a moment of vertigo at encountering his line describing eidólons as "the entities of entities" or as "Thy body permanent,/ The body lurking there within thy body" (Whitman 1892, 14–15). Lines that so clearly attempt to establish meta-categories for a variety of objects and beings, or to delineate hierarchical relationships between "bodies," call out for translation into XML—as distinct from marking up in XML. Thus remediated, or thus deformed, they might look something like this:

<!ENTITY eidolon.001 SYSTEM "Eidolon.entity" NDATA entity>

<body type="permanent"><work entity="eidolon.001"/>
<body type="temporary">Thy</body>

Whitman's speaker concludes by explaining to the poet: "Thy very songs not in thy songs. . . /But from the whole resulting, rising at last and floating." This is a strong reminder that any archive is more than its content.

Few scholars have engaged with the formal potential of the digital archive with Jerome McGann's trenchancy and flair. His and Lisa Samuels's notion of deformance has shaped my and many others' approaches to tagging and interface design. Creative digital deformation of imaginative works in all media makes available the unique insights possible through computer processing. At the same time, it addresses aporia in the current critical imagination—and I would argue that such is true of both culturalist arguments and those more rooted in aesthetic analysis. McGann's argument in favor of deformative criticism, after all, while limiting itself to high literary texts and seldom venturing into social historical terrain, is rooted in the politics of the academy. "[T]he general field of humanities education and scholarship," he insists, "will not take the use of digital technology seriously until one demonstrates how its tools improve the ways we explore and explain aesthetic works—until, that is, they expand our interpretational procedures" (xii).

McGann's work, as he performs it in Radiant Textuality, suggests that deformance is at some level a self-critical act. I think that self-criticism should be applied not merely to the linguistic and physical, infrastructural components of archives, but to their political contingencies as well. As Michel Foucault insisted, it is important to perceive and to engage with what an archive does in the world, the form it takes and what it excludes or occludes by doing so. To perceive those structures requires, among other things, what McGann calls "aesthetic intelligence" (xi).4

With that in mind, I would like to revisit the status of translation in arguments about the critical potential of the digital archive. My co-editor Rachel Price and I recently edited Álvaro Armando Vasseur's 1912 translation of Whitman's poetry, simply titled Poemas, for the Whitman Archive.5 The issues we encountered—technical, formal, bibliographical, political—reveal some of the assumptions that shape, and potential conflicts that lurk within, digital literary archives. The challenges posed by translation in the digital archive extend into multiple, overlapping domains: the question of authorship and the boundaries of an archive; the question of interface and how to build tools so that users can deform texts; the question of audience and more broadly, of the politics of archival architecture. Presenting texts in multiple languages in open-access archives like the Whitman Archive raises questions about the politics of audience, interface design, and funding that are inextricable from the aesthetics of translations contained within an archive.

Since critical deformation is an aesthetic performance, I begin with the question of translation as interpretation. Literature in translation interprets by deforming a preceding texts or texts. As what might be called linguistically and bibliographically transgenic expressions, translations bear traces of their production in more than one language, often for more than one literary marketplace. Those traces are sometimes hard to find. "Editions and translations," Samuels and McGann tell us, "are by definition performative. Elaborate scholarly editions foreground their performative characteristics, and sometimes translators do the same" (33). The key word here, as I see it, is sometimes. D.G. Rossetti emphasizes that translation involves "the necessity of settling many points without discussion" (Qtd in McGann and Samuels 34). Quite often it is difficult, even if a translator desires it, to reveal the codes behind a translation, to describe a strategy—and sometimes, translators deliberately conceal them.

How, then, might critical deformance function in the case of electronic archival representations of texts in translation, when every critical reconfiguration rests on multiple patterns? McGann and Samuels explain that deformances show how "all interpretation is a function of the poem's systemic intelligibility. Interpreting a poem after it has been deformed clarifies the secondary status of the interpretation" (40). Does interpretation have a tertiary status in the case of translated poems? At this point, seen from a global perspective, Whitman's poetry is probably more often read in translation than in the original. Translations of his work are profoundly influential, shaping aesthetic and political projects all over the world. Deforming translational deformances would seem to be an important part of studying Whitman's work as a worldwide phenomenon. Translation back into the original language might be one kind of deformance appropriate to this situation. But it does not retain systemic intelligibility across versions in, say, Spanish and English. In this case, the poem does not really consist of a system as such; it is more like a heterogeneous network of related systems. There are two or more sets of linguistic protocols, at the least (that is, not just languages but rendering practices as well, about which I will say more in a moment).

Deformance's advantage of revealing "the special inner resources that texts have when they are constituted poetically," seems problematic when we begin to look closely at translations (McGann and Samuels 40). The habits of Whitman's Spanish translator Vasseur offer a reasonably typical expample. Vasseur habitually sutured lines from a writer's different poems together when he translated from any language. Trying to find the etiology of, for example, his translation of a Jean de la Fontaine poem in a preface to one of his editions of Whitman sent us to two different poems and still left one section's origin unexplained. In another case, Vasseur invented a poem title—"La abuela del poeta," or "The Poet's Grandmother"—and affixed it to a few stanzas excerpted from Whitman's poem "Faces," the remainder of which Vasseur left out of the edition. The inner resources of "Faces" alter in Vasseur's truncation, and then in his translation.

Complicating both the analysis and the simple presentation of Vasseur's translation of Whitman is the fact that he apparently based it largely on foregoing Italian and French translations, while occasionally making reference to the 1891–2 edition in English. To present a rich archival environment around Poemas would mean making available those other influences on the text as well. To offer a forum for performative criticism using all of these tools requires building interfaces and tagging schemas that can support nested deformances—both those performed within the texts making up a translation and those possible between them.6

The deformance of Whitman's poem "Eidólons" that Vasseur performed, and some of the tools available to deform it in turn, offer a window on the complexities of translational digital deformance. Certain kinds of computational deformation typical of those currently available for English-language texts work reasonably well, and offer a platform for comparative deformations. Brian Pytlik Zillig, of the University of Nebraska's Humanities/Electronic Text Center, has created a deformance tool called TokenX, that is capable of handling a range of encoded texts. By breaking files down into words and punctuation marks, it is capable of quickly generating useful statistics on word frequency, word context, and a concordance. It can also do basic functions such as highlighting terms. I have recently begun working with him to enhance its ability to manipulate non-English texts.7

"Eidólons" in TokenX

Other TokenX functions

Other TokenX functions

"Imáenes" in TokenX

At the linguistic level, it is immediately clear that Vasseur's translation of "Eidólons" is an interpretation; throughout, he has translated its ambiguous mantra as "imágenes," or "images." He has also rendered Whitman's other foreign terms in common language. As a result, on the whole, the poem reads less gnostically, perhaps to some tastes less pretentiously, in Vasseur's rendition. Moving to another analytical level, using TokenX's tool to replace words with blocks of corresponding size, we can easily see that Vasseur's Spanish is more prolix, judging by the frequency of hanging line segments. (The age of compact, Borgesian translations still lay in the future.) We can play a little, too, and at least simulate a breakdown of the notorious computational barrier between ASCII words and bitmap images. Here an icon of a bomb has been substituted for the word "imágenes," and the icon of a tree for the word "vidente" (which means seer or prophet). Such visual substitutions might allow us both to accent and to interrogate the kind of terminological unsettling that Whitman exercises on the term "eidólons" in this poem. Used comparatively, they allow us to track how key terms migrate with the space of the page in the course of translation.

Comparison, replace words with blocks

Comparison, replace words with blocks

Image-word substitution in TokenX

Deformation engines allow us to see comparative spatial layouts and emphases, even to compare certain statistical variations related to grammar introduced by going from one language to another. But here several problems also become starkly visible. Substitutions are more complex in Spanish owing to gender and number issues—different search and substitution tools are needed for different syntactical schemes. More significantly, the layout of the poem forced by TokenX reminds us that printed literary texts are also images. Conventions of presentation are different in different languages, and they also undergo complex evolutions and co-evolutions over the course of history.

"Eidólons" is an example of this, because of its unusual layout properties and what happened to them in Vasseur's translation. The poem was first published in the New York Tribune for February 19, 1876, with a layout that departed from his common left-justification. In its other printings, in Two Rivulets and the last two editions of Leaves of Grass published during his lifetime, this shape is retained. (In his manuscript drafts Whitman experimented with the layout, beginning with his usual left-justification and progressively moving towards the shape it would take in print. This poem about form, images, and poetry is laid out to draw attention to its visuality, and to its symmetry, in the original. With a short, centered first line and a centered last line in each quatrain, the stanzas appear circular, like the "round full-orb'd eidólon" of the poem's final line. This more than cute form-content-fusion—it rubs against the grain of the arguably dematerializing tendencies of the poem's linguistic content. In doing so, it calls attention to the material shape of the poem itself as an indispensable partner with ideal forms or concepts in the generation of meaning.

Periodical version of "Eidólons"

1892 Leaves of Grass version

Manuscript versions of "Eidólons"

Manuscript version of "Eidólons"

"Imágenes" is the only poem in Vasseur's translation that exhibits any departure from a standard left-justified, paragraph-indentation layout. He does not even render "O Capitán! Mí Capitán!" with the famous stepped indentations of "O Captain! My Captain!" But this is not Whitman's layout, exactly. Only the centering of the last line of each stanza is retained, not emphasizing the connecting of beginnings and endings, but instead a kind of ultimate equilibrium. The materiality of the poem is still evoked, but does not connect with the poem's thematics in quite the same way, or, as I read it, with the same force. Still, Vasseur attempts here—and in some other places—to translate the visual shape of the poem, across the print formatting conventions of different languages (sometimes those of different nations or continents).

Vasseur's "O Capitán" from Poemas

Vasseur's "Imágenes"

These layout differences are hard to capture, irrespective of the language used, in TEI-compliant XML, which prioritizes intellectual structures based on textual concepts. The stylesheets that archives create to render XML-encoded texts increasingly bear the burden of hinting to the casual reader the complexities that lie in digital scans of the original pages. Interpretation thus falls to the person considered processually "in between" and, from a readerly standpoint, meant to be "invisible" as a producer of the on-screen text. Making acts of translational deformance visible, searchable, and ultimately deformable themselves requires articulating stylesheets and XML markup, unless we are to leave TEI behind. In turn, translation seems to demand that archives explain their interface designs along with their markup strategies.

To this point I have been speaking in terms of making tools available for users that will indicate the presence of translational deformations and that will allow readers to perform their own manipulations of the text. But there is another layer of complexity involved when a U.S.-based archive built around a single, Anglophone author chooses to bring translations into its fold. Including a Spanish-language text opens the Whitman Archive to new audiences, with different expectations or experiences of computational interfaces. To what degree should this be considered in the development of the Archive as a whole? or in its strategies for acquiring funding? Lawrence Venuti argues that "asymmetries, inequities, relations of domination and dependence exist in every act of translating" (4). This is true of the choices archives make about language as well. Kirsten Gruesz suggests that the "dominance of US English as the international language of business is . . . a discomfiting reality of academia [as well], which likes to see itself as an agent for analysis and critique of globalization rather than as an institution subject to its logic" (88). Rachel Price and I tried to address this at a time when Spanish is commonly (and increasingly) spoken in the US, yet when it receives comparatively little systemic recognition or support. In writing our introduction to Vasseur's translation of Whitman, we described the origins of the translation in the international marketplace. We plan to include a Spanish translation of our critical introduction, and to make the XML markup of the edition freely available for download under a Creative Commons license. And to encourage critical readings across languages, we included a translation of Vasseur's version of "Song of Myself" back into English, stressing its complex translation history.

But the inclusion of such a reformative deformation was controversial. After much discussion among the collaborators in the Whitman Archive, we ended up not linking our back-translation to the body of Vasseur's text; it can only be found as an appendix to our translators' introduction. This step—including a critical deformation in an archive known more for its historical bent than experiments in digital criticism—may be seen as a gesture towards a different way of thinking about archival politics. Academic editorial purpose in a print edition is seldom as unified as it presents itself to be, much less than some ideological deconstructions claim it to be. In the case of the Archive, competing visions of the archive's "argument" often generate agonistic conversations and changes in editorial policy. But often, such visions smolder in one corner or another of the Archive, incubated by issues like translation that present technical, political, and conceptual challenges to digital literary work. When the Archive began its Spanish translation project, it self-consciously declared the edition to be experimental, knowing that its implications might be broad and perhaps at odds with the direction of the rest of the Archive. Translation provoked deformance at the level of the Archive's policy—a strategy that may be as important as aesthetic deformation in building tools that improve how we explore and explain imaginative works.

Works Cited

Gruesz, Kirsten Silva. "Translation: A Key(word) into the Language of America(nists)." American Literary History 16.1 (2004): 85–92.

McGann, Jerome. Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Samuels, Lisa and Jerome McGann. "Deformance and Interpretation." New Literary History 30.1 (1999): 25–56.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892.

———. Poemas. Trans. Álvaro Armando Vasseur. Valencia: F. Sempere, 1912.


1. The term is also used in Whitman's "Sail Out for Good, Eidólon Yacht," first published in Lippincott's (March 1891) and then in the 1891–92 edition of Leaves. [back]

2. Judging by the OED there was something of a rage for the word among lyrical poets of the first half of the nineteenth century, so it may have been more familiar to a nineteenth-century poetry reader than to a twenty-first century one. [back]

3. Other Anglophone critics have identified "eidólons" as indicating "souls" or "essences." See the entry on "Eidólons" in the Walt Whitman Encyclopedia. [back]

4. The full quotation is "a disciplined aesthetic intelligence." [back]

5. See Editions Printed outside the U.S. [back]

6. McGann's most advanced experiments in deformance involve game-playing. These are exciting and potentially evocative; how would games centered around literary texts grapple with multilinguistic frameworks? [back]

7. For a powerful, freely available concordance tool, see TAPoR at the University of Alberta. [back]


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