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Keep Yes and No Unsplit: the rise of Internet translation

Last year, I was delighted to be asked by SJ Fowler to be part of his Camaradefest (a continuation of his series of events where two poets collaborate on a project) with Jack Underwood, Faber Poet and lecturer on Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College. We merged recent ideas which we were both interested in. Then, as a writing exercise, I was doing a project about exploring well known similes, without using any metaphor or similes. Jack was doing English to English translations.

Jack’s idea was a concept that I was aware about. There was that recent Paul Legault book, An Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, which condensed the late poet’s work into sentence long summations and abstractions. And there was Robert Lowell’s book Imitations where he loosely translated some of his favourite poets – Rimbaud, Rilke, Dante – with only a handful of knowledge of the languages, often taking much liberty in the work, throwing in his own lines where he saw fit.

Jack’s work feels like a continuation of this tradition but, also a merging of Legault and Lowell’s projects, distillating and setting free poetic character on past poems and poets. As part of this work, Jack would pick apart a text, trying to creatively salvage what he could and make something new out of it.

To be precise – these English to English translations are actually called ‘intralingual translations’. Jack originally called them ‘Transversions’. But, however it is dubbed, it reminded me of the growing use of Internet translation as a writing tool, where writers feed in their (or other people’s) poems through a series of online translation tools – say, from English to Spanish, then to Korean, then Turkish, then French, and finally back to English – and then edit the garbled mess.

With this approach, the poet has something that will throw up strange images or phrasing that was unknown to them. It is an extension of that quote attributed to John Ashbery, though I can’t find a citation, to “write poetry with the TV on in the background”. This approach is writing with the Internet on in the background.

I asked Jack a few questions about his approach and what this meant to him:

Q. How did you first start doing this practice of doing English-English translations?

Jack: When you teach poetry, especially in a seminar situation, a lot of analysis relies on the so-called ‘heresy of paraphrase’; in order to explore and explain what complex poetic language or ideas are up to you tend to have to reconfigure what a poem ‘says’ in new terms. There’s a certain absurdity that so much critical energy is expended discussing ‘what a poem is saying’, but when it’s something like Donne, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Dickinson, it’s a process I feel I have to go through because their syntax or vernacular are so different to mine.

Writing my intralingual translations I found that a lot of older poetry felt inaccessible to me because there was a language barrier even within the shared language, so in part I wanted to overcome that practically.

At the time I was waiting to hear back from Faber about my first collection and in a nervous fug, and not writing. There were also a lot of people around me talking about more experimental poetries at the time and I was beginning to feel that pressure exerting itself on me too. I’m not naturally very experimental in practical terms. The idea of making the Modern world possible in language sounds sort of arrogant, sounds like it doesn’t really understand the relationship between the world and language, as if they can even be separated so easily like that.

Anyway, I like sentences too much. I like the rhetorical shape of sentences, and I like the way they enable a freedom and playfulness for the reader to participate in, without that provisional and connotational relation seeming like an affront. I suppose in that sense I’m a realist about language’s failings, but an optimist in the sense that I think the failed nature of that system actually creates the potential for empathetic exchange; the fact that language is a system based largely on trust and that we are formed of it actually creates its potential for empathetic discourse socially, which for me is a political position.

All this means I’m not going to take a hammer to grammar, or drop the case of my I’s just to make some sort of visual gesture, but I’m also not prepared to feel like a conservative moocher for writing in a sequence, in an arc towards an idea. These intralingual translations seemed like something I could explore and experiment with in a way I felt was genuine to my take on things. The fact that these were historical artefacts from the canon was pleasing too. There was an appealing mischief about rewriting someone so beloved by my historicist colleagues as Donne.

Q. Robert Lowell did something similar in ‘Imitations’ and he seems to be enjoying himself and exerting his poetic character. Did you have a similar effect in your translations?

Jack: Yes, I was enjoying myself and asserting my voice all over the place. Every ‘thou’ I got rid of felt like a liberation, and a step  towards my ability to participate in the poem. I suppose with these intralingual translations I am more of reader than a writer: the poems are a record of my imaginative participation as a reader.

The use of words like ‘love’ and ‘heart’ being everywhere was also interesting, because they are words I would use, but in the context of a Hank Williams song (‘…Will Tell on You’) or a Dante sonnet, they sounded much more deployed as romantic conventions and tropes. This is probably because the love they talk about is still linked to courtly ideals, or just that the poems sounded more poemy because of the archaism of their phraseology. Anyway, anything that seemed especially tropical felt too grand to go unacknowledged, so I also took to changing things like ‘heart’ to ‘vital organs’ or ‘love’ to a big camp, capitalised ‘LOVE’. So yes, I went to school on them basically.

Most clearly you can see that in intralingual translations where I have chopped out 80% of the source text’s length, or cut whole stanzas, or written entirely new endings. That feels very free, and it’s fun. Like I said, they’re more a record of my reading, and what I felt I wanted to understand and take from that. I’m sure this is well-trodden ground in translation theory. I humbly defer to that academic discipline on these things.


Jack’s method of experiencing the modern world through re-editing and, essentially, altering the ideas and theories in the poetry of Dante and Donne, intrigues me. Whilst reading the intralingual translations, you get as much a sense of the original poet’s work as you do Jack’s poetic sensibilities. Similarly, online translation allows the poet to re-appropriate the long ghosts of poetry – it invites you to play with your most cherished texts and, as Eliot suggested the mature poet should do, to steal.

Jack also told me that he was very interested in what the poet Sophie Collins had been doing with her Ghost Poems, which rely on Internet translation to present different and challenging textual circumstances to work through. Jack had introduced me to Sophie some years ago and she has become one of my favourite poets writing today.

Sophie is now studying towards a PhD in Poetry and Translation at Queen’s University, Belfast, and I was interested to know how her translation education sits alongside her interesting, often experimental, poetical approach.

Q. You come from a creative writing background, what interested you about becoming a translator?

Sophie: My family moved to North Holland when I was three, and I went to the European School there (where I was given lessons in all subjects in French and English) until I was eighteen, so I suppose languages and borders have always been central to my life and thinking.

However, I didn’t think about translation in relation to my own writing practice until the option came up for me to take an experimental translation workshop during my Master’s at UEA. When I began to consider how a text like Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Via’ (a list of forty-seven different English language translations of the opening tercet of Dante’s Inferno) presents translation as a performance of the act of reading, I became interested in the translation process in a way that I hadn’t been before, due to ongoing preconceptions about what translation is and can do. When we speak about translation we often equate it with a word for word substitution of ostensibly equivalent terms between two different languages, but it’s a pretty limiting definition – especially when it comes to poetry – and is based on some questionable assumptions.

I’m interested in innovative redefinitions of translation emerging from a range of strategies. These include projects that work through intertextual connections, as with Ezra Pound’s ‘pre-Elizabethan English’ renderings of Guido Cavalcanti’s poems, to the homophonic approach (where sound is the primary interpretant) of Louis and Celia Zukofsky’s Catullus, to the self-reflexivity of a project like Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. I’m also excited by the experimental methods of Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, which included leaving the source text in a jar of water overnight until the pages began to dissolve, crumbling and rearranging themselves, or the broader act of interpretation behind books like Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>.

Q. I know some of your work has influences in Flarf and other online generated material. Can you say a little bit more how you use online translation tools? What is it that you think writers find attractive about these tools?

Sophie: My main project with online translation generators has been what I called the Ghost Poems, which ended up being these kind of strange effigies of pre-existing texts. Taking poems I’d already written, I began by translating them into a language I was less familiar with (Danish often seemed to give good results), using Google Translate. I then took the translated text and passed it through another, less reliable translation generator, converting it from the translated language back into English. By this point, the text would usually make little to no sense at all, containing garbled symbols as well as residual foreign words which the second generator had failed to recognise and translate. I would then scour the nonsensical blocks of text for words geared towards creating a certain effect, writing through these while automatically post-editing in order to render the final text more or less syntactically correct and legible.

I think the possibility of introducing an external element into your own writing is what is attractive about these methods, and I think that this kind of attraction, for me at least, emerged partly from a sense of frustration at becoming restricted to a particular style. Using the translation generators had the effect of distancing the earlier poems from the individual consciousness, or lyric self of the originals.

The problem is that, as with Flarf, writing that’s made in this way can be pretty homogenous. Also, the translations produced by the online generators are based on translation memory technology, and so aren’t perhaps as ‘random’ or democratic as we’d like to think. It’s the same with Flarf. The internet ‘may be rhizomatic — but search engines are not. They’re selectively hierarchical.’


Again, like Jack, Sophie had found that this approach to translation allowed her to write unlike herself. However, this is different to Jack’s approach, as Sophie was working with her own previously written poems to find something unlike itself, different, which is not only resourceful, but endlessly fascinating. It reminds me of an extract from the first translated poem I ever read, Paul Celan’s ‘Speak, you also’:

Speak –

But keep yes and no unsplit.

And give you say this meaning:

Give it the shade.

Sophie, through her Ghost Poems, is also showing the ‘shade’ of her poem, a poem which isn’t the same as its source, the UnPoem (now that’s a word Celan would love). Internet translation can break a poet’s work and show them something they have written, which they don’t recognise.

What Jack said about deferring to the academic discipline made me think about how experimentation with Internet translation tools would be seen from a professional translator’s point-of-view. Is Internet translation just a creative writing tool, or can it be more than this, can it help forge different writing cultures together?

I was very lucky to know a professional translator personally, who is also a damn fine poet. Jen Calleja – whose work was recently published on The Quietus – is the Acting Editor of New Books in German magazine, which recommends German books to be translated to English, and I wanted to get her opinions on the creative ways of using Internet translation.

Q.  As a translator yourself, do you ever find Internet translation tools useful?

Jen: If it wasn’t for Google Translate, search engines and online dictionaries I wouldn’t have been able to become a translator. I’m unashamedly a translator of the Internet age. I didn’t do an undergraduate degree in German, I taught myself advanced German by reading novels and poetry while doing my literature degree and went on to do an MA in German Studies. Online tools meant I could use multiple sources quickly to find words and turns of phrase in context instead of using a dictionary.

Google Translate’s actually a really sophisticated machine (I’m quoting from a lecture on machine translation) that draws on instances where texts appear in translation next to each other on the internet. It’s a great tool for checking texts you’ve written in the foreign language or if you want to see if there’s a standard way of translating a common phrase, but if you don’t know the language you’re translating from or into, the information it gives you back won’t mean anything. You have to use it actively to experiment with structures and phrases. Non-linguists can’t use it for accurate translation.

Q. You run a magazine called Verfreundungseffekt (which, interestingly, can’t be translated in to English through Google Translate – can you provide a suitable translation?) that focuses on the meeting point of German and English cultures. Do you think online translation could potentially build bridges across the cultures?

Jen: Verfreundungseffekt is a neologism – it’s a manipulation of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, which can be translated as ‘a making strange’, ‘alienation’ or commonly as ‘distanciation’, using ‘Freund’ to replace ‘Fremd’ to make a new term meaning ‘a making familiar’ or ‘friendiation’. It basically defines the premise of the magazine – to find how German and Anglo-American culture overlap and permeate one another.

Google Translate’s great for making foreign languages less intimidating. If you want to know what’s going on, pop it in GT. If you want to get the gist and compose your own version with what you get, that’s a great way of engaging with the text. A possible downside could be that this is as far people will get; using the foreign text for word games and ‘creative inspiration’. This is engaging only at the textual level. Obviously the best way of reading foreign-language literature is to learn the language, or failing that, to read translations by excellent literary translators.


All three writers use translation in different ways, but you can argue there is a link.

As Harold Pinter wrote, at the end of his wonderful Nobel Prize lecture Art, Truth and Politics, “When we look into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate. But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.”

Although ‘truth’ in poetry is a slippery concept, Internet translation allows us to hold up a mirror to text – to our own writing, to the writing we admire, to the writing we don’t yet understand. What it reflects, initially, is strange and unknowable. What it displays is new text.

This leaves the writer with an interesting question: do you keep staring in to this mirror, seeing the ever changing text that can be shaped and moulded in to something that we recognise or something that challenges our ideas on writing? Or do we disregard it and smash the mirror?

I would urge you to hold its gaze.


alexmacdonaldAlex MacDonald lives and works in London. He has had his poetry published in The Quietus, Clinic II and English PEN and was shortlisted for the Poetry School / Pig Hog Poetry Pamphlet Competition. He hosted a series of readings at the V&A Museum on independent poetry publishers. He is currently Digital Poet in Residence at the Poetry School.

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Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (Rotterdam)

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