BEFORE THE TURN of the millennium when the Web was new, I worked in the bowels of Harvard’s Widener Library. There was as yet no Twitter, no Facebook, no YouTube; blogs and wikis were the glamorous spells of a whispering cognoscenti. But a web there was — enough of one to encourage the library to send many books off to storage in dark, refrigerated warehouses, never to be read again. This was my work in the Widener deeps. I was one of Bradbury’s firemen, almost — though instead of heat and flame, we used the cool buzz of networked catalogs to put the books out of reach.
Among the duties with which I had been charged was clearing out the “X-cage.” I wish I had made up this name; I wish I had made it up and then discarded it in embarrassment — alas, the X-cage was real. It was the repository of books, sheaves of paper, and artifacts in odd sizes and formats, of paper too fragile or content too salacious for the open stacks. Some of these I sent away to be stored elsewhere, while others I tried to place in more suitable libraries or museums. And some, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with. My fascination with one such item has lingered through the years. Although it never was listed in the online system, I found it recorded in the card catalog while it still could be browsed in the library’s attic. The card reads as follows:
Benjamin, Walter. Übersetzung Maschine. 1946. Gift of le bibliothèque Orléans, Fr.
The device was housed in a case the size and shape of a largish briefcase, which led me to wonder: could it in fact have been the valise Benjamin carried with him in his flight over the Pyrennees? But the catalogue card contained no further information, and it’s useless now to speculate.
The device itself looked for all the world like an Underwood typewriter, at once sleek and erect. In place of the roller carriage, however, rose a stately glass dome, like that on a ticker tape machine (when inverted, the dome stores cunningly in the cavity of the machine). Peering inside the glass dome, one glimpsed a reservoir of steel ball bearings each of which proved, upon closer inspection, to carry a letter in raised, reverse relief. The bearings appeared to travel through finely-milled grooves in a sleek steel cartridge, which slid out of the base of the machine; a bit of machine oil made the whole operation very smooth. There was one of these machined cartridges for each of the languages represented: German, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
I oiled the parts, fitted to the assembly the carriage marked Deutsch, and began gingerly to type. W—I found that —A— each key went down with a ratchety resistance —L— and would not rebound until —D— the crank on the side of the machine was pulled — at which point the depressed keys all rose like clockwork and the works of the device flung the bearings about like popcorn in the dome, making an unbelievable racket. Finally the bearings settled, several of them having landed in a narrow steel track in the back of the machine. At the press of the RETURN key (on which the word Zurückgehen was marked in a thick fraktur type) the balls were rolled against a narrow paper tape; the tape advanced, the balls rolled down the track to rejoin their fellows, and the machine stood ready for another word. And I found that the paper tape as it clicked its way out of the machine carried the word WOODLAND in plain type.
I wondered, of course, about the machine’s authenticity. I find only circumstantial evidence for it in Benjamin’s own writings. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin famously recognizes the loss of “aura” that attends the mechanical reproduction of art. He hopes, however, that freedom of access to the means of art’s production might ultimately compensate us for this loss. If, furthermore, we can say that the differences among the languages, whatever beauty they may have, are ultimately to be counted among the tools of oppression and division — of Fascism in Benjamin’s own time — then putting the means of effecting their negation into the hands of the masses surely would have appealed to Benjamin.
It was 1998 when I stumbled upon the Übersetzungmaschine; the internet bubble was still on the rise, and new sites and features expanded the Web’s imperium from week to week. The latest “tool” to arrive on the scene was a network-based machine translation service called Babelfish (on the Alta Vista search site, now long defunct). In a Feed magazine review of Babelfish, technoculture critic Julian Dibbell explored the tantalizing and esoteric possibilities of machine translation, noting the uncanny fact that in Babelfish translations “there (was) no flash of mystery that (couldn’t) be traced to a mechanical arithmetic of words made into numbers.” Dibbell recognized that Babelfish at its heart was a mystical enterprise, seeking to smoothe out the postlapserian confusion of the tongues: “We can certainly say that where, throughout its history, translation has veered between the two extremes of license and literalism, seeking at its best a middling compromise, Babelfish manages the unprecedented feat of attaining both ends simultaneously.”
Reading this, Benjamin’s Translation Machine suddenly seemed plausible — and not merely plausible; it had been the beginning of a mighty enterprise. After all, the hope for a machine that kabbalistically reproduces language (and with it, the universe) has deep roots, stretching back through Erasmus Darwin’s speech machine, through Jonathan Swift’s “Discourse Concerning the Mechanickal Operation of the Spirit,” to the Mysterium Magnum of the mystic Jacob Boehme. Now I was excited to try the translation machine on a real text, and returned to the X-cage to search for something appropriate. A nearby box proved to be jammed full of pamphlets and chapbooks from Alfred Jarry’s College de ‘Pataphysique; I yanked out the tiny, triangular booklet containing Jarry’s chanson “Tatane“:
Chanson/pour faire/rougir/les negres/et/glorifier/le Pere Ubu
“Ne me chicane
Ce seul cadeau:
Dans le dodo!”
Lors reste en panne
Je ne sais ou
As I entered the above stanzas from the first page of the booklet, my enthusiasm flagged. The technicians of the early machine age were not exactly ergonomically aware, and the energy required to depress the keys took its toll. My carpal tunnels aflame, I pulled the lever one last time and tore out the tape, which read as follows:
Tatane Song to make redden the negres and glorifier the Ubu Father
1. “does not baffle me This only gift: Never trotter-case In the dodo!”
2. At the time broken down remainder I do not know or diaphanous Out of rubber…
The translation that results at first glance appeared as literally word-for-word as could be. But in these provisional gropings, the machine was reaching for the ineffable. It took the broken and inexpressive words in Jarry’s poem and searched out mundane replacements — thereby alienating the text further from the target language than the avant-garde original. As “tatane” becomes “trotter-case,” and “caoutchouc” shifts to “Out of rubber,” we’re brought into contact with the jumble of paradox that plays behind language’s staid, everyday façade. I wasn’t surprised — for to Benjamin, the word itself was the mere ground of the translation, granting entrée to the expansive mystery of the Word itself. As he writes in his “the Task of the Translator”:
A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.
It’s this arcade of literalness through which the user of Bejamin’s translation device ambles, a flâneur gratefully lost in the significatory flux that exists among the languages — which is, in fact, according to Benjamin, the primordial medium that exists prior to language, prior to the cataclysm of Babel:
In this pure language — which no longer means or expresses anything but is, as expressionless and creative Word, that which is meant in all languages — all information, all sense, and all intention finally encounter a stratum in which they are destined to be extinguished.
Determined to use Bejamin’s machine as it had been intended — by extinguishing information, sense, and intention in a pure language — it occurred to me that the operation of Benjamin’s machine could take place any number of times over the same text, exchanging the language cartridges again and again, retranslating cyclically, algorithmically. This might have the effect of putting the languages themselves in dialogue, as it were, about the very nature of this pure language. To test this, I wanted a text that was both richer and more lexically and syntactically coherent than “Tatane“; my eyes seized upon an early, hand-bound Viennese edition of Goethe’s 1789 Schriften, and I began laboriously to enter the first lines of the Dedication:
Der Morgen kam; es scheuchten seine Tritte
Den leisen Schlaf, der mich gelind umfing,
Daß ich, erwacht, aus meiner stillen Hütte
Den Berg hinauf mit frischer Seele ging;
Ich freute mich bei einem jeden Schritte
Der neuen Blume die voll Tropfen hing;
Der junge Tag erhob sich mit Entzücken,
Und alles war erquickt mich zu erquicken… .
which the 1983 Selected Poems, edited by Christopher Middleton, has as follows:
The morning came, away its footfall sent
The gentle sleep that floated lightly o’er me,
So wide awake out of my hut I went
And gaily up the mountain slope before me.
At every stride I took, the flowers tender,
Brimming with dew, a pleasure were to see;
The young day sprang to life in all its splendour,
And everything seemed glad to gladden me… .
I continued to feed in the German text, on to the sixty-fourth line. Then I tore out the printed tape, switched cartridges from English to German, and began to type again. My reiterative translation took a week to produce, and I only managed six cycles, German to English and back again, before I became too exhausted to continue. Here’s my last English translation:
The morning came; scheuchten its job paragraph, to which the peace sleep wakes up, which I easily, which I clasped, my calm hut, which the mountain with fresh soul went over; I was fallen with each job paragraph of the new flower, which drops hung completely; The new day rose with Entzuecken, and everything was renews me, in order to renew. And during I rose, from the river of the meadows drew nebula eight out into the strip. It accessories and to the river modified and grew winged me too around over precedes: ‘I not are not to enjoy the beautiful opinion somehow longer, the area covered for me a cloudy Flor; Soon I saw from the clouds, how Bekehrte surrounded and with me, if they dawn at one time seemed the sun into the fog for reached through to the left a clarity longs. Here it sant calmly for diverson; Here ‘ it theilt, which rises around forest and Hoehn. Receive how hopes’ I it the first greeting! She hopes ‘I after the cloudy doubly beautifully. Luft’gekampf for a long time, do not surround a gloss, which I was executed and I dazzled. Soon I for breaking the eyes open innrerantrieb the inside again courageously, i-konnt, for which ‘ it is formed only with fast opinion Trauen, because everything also seemed for burning and gluehn. There goettlich, which forwards central eyes to a swum Mrs, no beautiful figures I in my life overvoltage, you, regard which I saw and remained, to the Swimming of the Remains with the carried clouds. Don’t you know me? she spoke with an opening, this all dear ‘ and Loy
The essential purity of this translation speaks for itself, I think. While the 1983 translation enfolds Goethe’s Romantic German in a nostalgic English — triangulating among inversions and archaisms and the free line of modern prosody — the machine produces a glossolalic howl, a gift of the tongue in a voice at once bacchic and prophetic. Where the 1983 version has “gaily up the mountain slope before me,”— which, despite its faithfulness to the “information” of the original, can’t help being too tritely bucolic — the machine, with concision bordering on impaction, gives us “which the mountain with fresh soul went over.” German words glow here like gems on the ground of a deutschified English. And the English itself often seems pulled from these words like the entrails from a fowl: the sentence “Luft’gekampf for a long time, do not surround a gloss, which I was executed and dazzled” is the ideal example of this phenomenon, and manages to constitute a manifesto of translation in the process. And Goethe’s “Tritte” or footsteps, and “Schritte” or steps — a delicate modulation, which the 1983 version strives to emulate — the machine ruthlessly pares down to an essential unity in the startling phrase “job paragraph.” By resorting to pure language, we can see that Goethe is writing the world with his very strides.
My appetite was whetted. It now occurred to me that if I ran a text through each cartridge in succession, then all the languages could engage in the conversation at once. Exhausted by the Goethe, I chose a shorter text: Milton’s 1633 verse translation of Psalm I:
Bless’d is the man who hath not walk’d astray
In counsel of the wicked, and ith’ way
Of sinners hath not stood, and in the seat
Of scorners hath not sate. But in the great
Jehovah’s Law is ever his delight,
And in his Law he studies day and night.
He shall be as a tree which planted grows
By watry streams, and in his season knows
To yield his fruit, and his leaf shall not fall,
And what he takes in hand shall prosper all.
Not so the wicked, but as chaff which fann’d
The wind drives, so the wicked shall not stand
In jugdment, or abide their tryal then,
Nor sinners in th’assembly of just men.
For the Lord knows th’ upright way of the just,
And the way of bad men to ruine must.
Running through all the cartridges in succession, from English to French to German to Portugese to Spanish and back home to English, I produced the following translation:
Bless ‘ d é human beings, em avocats that moinhos you conseils misdirected ‘ athd não vêem or bad and do ith ‘ do innershath não caught and not scornershath do assento, em ordem for não to satisfer itself. But em great Jehovahs to law é never seu to prazer, and em sua law examines or day and prejudica-o. Não will return or seu, of like uma árvore, of which plantem or increase hair atrywuerfe, and em seu branco gives estaÁão, em winch of sua fruit and suas you are gives page, and or that face exame nonregulamento, to prosper all. Bad, but like Flitter that fann ‘ d or vento gives attempt, assim, for manter- bad like nenhuns not jugdment não também ou nele do remains tryal então, sinners imóveis joint do th internal ‘ two homens right. For or cavalheiro vê knows stops to direita or th ‘ of hardly, and to maneira of homens maus na ruína deve.
In this translation the languages weave among each other like dancers around a maypole, exchanging tenses and inflections and making light of homophony. The words themselves fall like angels through the void, swerving in Lucretian, meaning-making trajectories. The “counsels of the wicked” become so many “conseils misdirected,” and then the language pulls back like a curtain to reveal that the Lord Himself is a prancing “cavalheiro.” As Benjamin once wrote, commenting on Genesis 1:27:
God created man from the word, and he did not name him. He did not wish to subject him to language, but in man God set language, which had served him as a medium of creation, free.
But here my investigation broke off. I had hopes to continue the work, putting to the task all the power of the computer technology that, in Benjamin’s time, had not yet disclosed itself. The algorithmic potential of the computer to reiterate these translations thousands, even millions of times, may bring us to the very brink of the territory Benjamin describes:
Translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.
Translation is always an amalgam of hope and nostalgia, combining the yearning for home with the urge to press forward into new territories. William Brenner, writing about the Philosophical Investigations, wonders if Wittgenstein doesn’t come to understand language as a kind of colonial outpost on the edge of a great wilderness. Perhaps there is a harmony here, in the language mysticism of Benjamin and Wittgenstein: the several human languages are so many outposts, and the wildnerness is this inexpressible, pure language about which Benjamin writes.
If my thoughts on these issues are muddled, my enthusiasm was keen; alas, the Übersetzungmaschine was not to remain my plaything for long. Other duties took me from the X-Cage for a time; one day while running an errand, I noticed a familiar case on the library loading dock, stuck with a delivery label that indicated an address in Mountain View, CA. I wanted to spirit the package away — but the dock was busy, and the package was soon on its way.
In the intervening years, Babelfish wriggled deep into the Internet’s ear canal, becoming a virtual engine on the Web and desktops that automatically translates digitally-encoded texts into the increasingly polyglot English of globalization. In his Feed article, Julian Dibbell had wondered if Babelfish wouldn’t expand the horizons of literary creation. In this, I don’t think he was far from an incipient truth — a tantalizing and unnerving prospect, like the “bitistics” of Stanislaw Lem’s fictions — a machine-created literature of the conscious supercomputers, which seeks to complete the incompleteness of human literary works. “For this literature,” Lem wrote, “which has taken nothing from us apart from language, humanity appears not to exist.”
In fact, I don’t fear the prospect; I like to imagine such a literature becoming the vehicle of an avant-garde language mysticism. In Benjamin’s machine — in its reiterative translation, multiplied millions of times in computers —I glimpsed a kind of auto-mystical reading practice erotic in its fixation, masturbatory in its repetitiousness. It seemed something from the dreams of Georges Bataille — who, as keeper of the Library at Orléans, might well have been the librarian who preseved Benjamin’s machine for us during the darkest years of the war. And couldn’t the primordial flux of pure language, modulated and spun for us by our ever-faster computers, someday become the very medium of our own literature? Wherein works will reside simultaneously in all their possible translations, to be plucked spinning from the void, viewed, and thereby determined, like so many quantum particles.
—This piece first appeared at Hermenaut.com on August 16, 2000; it appears here revised and updated.