Commentaries - September 2011

“Transtranslation is an excavation of sorts: we brush away the layers of meaning deposited onto a text through time, to reveal the poem beneath the poem – that rift between rising and falling… groundlessness itself.” (Mark Goldstein) Engaging in what he calls transtranslation, Mark Goldstein bridges several methodologies, including homophonic and homolinguistic play, and lexical word-for-word translations, mapping the sound and sense of the languages with which he works. Through this deep engagement with another voice and with his own voices, Goldstein produces poems that are both translated and written, that are both the other’s breath and his own breath.

This is a different sort of writing and a different sort of translating. The poems emerge out of that boundary between the two and are irrevocably connected through a network of sense and sound veins to both. In Tracelanguage: A Shared Breath, Goldstein’s transtranslation of poet Paul Celan’s seminal work, Atemwende, the poems speak this vulnerable “shared breath,” their English risk German, their cadences alert to that “groundless” place beyond the markers of time and place.

I see you, an echo flourishing at the margin of a language.

I see you, a language margining a word I may not speak yet want to know.

I see you, reverberating in the not yet, a parting meeting.

I see you as you collision time.

In the collision, I may listen. In the collision, I may speak. In the collision, we may meet. In the collision, we trace our language.


Mark Goldstein is a Toronto writer. Tracelanguage: A Shared Breath is his second title with BookThug published in 2010. BookThug published his first poetry collection in 2008, After Rilke, a set of letters in homage to late American poet Jack Spicer and a series of homophonic translations based on Rilke’s “The Voices.” An avid small presser, Goldstein issues limited editions under the Beautiful Outlaw imprint. From 1989 to 1999, he played drums in the indie rock band By Divine Right, whose members included Broken Social Scene’s Brendan Canning and Leslie Feist.

In the following essay, "The Mask of the Translator," Mark Goldstein discusses his poetics.

on translation || Michael Kargl
on translation || Michael Kargl

If you are reading this text in a browser window, you are reading it in translation. Right click right here. View Page Source. This is the original text, composed in and of the internet’s native languages. Note the head/body page division, a convention carried over from print. The < head > is primarily preoccupied with the text's contextual issues. It tells the browser what its title is, offers the search engines clues as to its contents, provides a required reading list of other texts it refers to, and outlines instructions on what to do in the unfortunate event of IE. The < body > is more concerned with appearances. It tells the browser what the contents of the text are and how best to present them. Why HyperText Markup Language continues to textually embody the Cartesian mind-body split I do not know.

Walter Benjamin objected to the binary nature of traditional translation methods, advocating for transparency between an original and its translation. In his influential 1923 essay The Task of the Translator, he wrote: “It [the translation] does not cover the original, does not black its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully.” The creators of following three works take the task of translation beyond the binary by creating transparencies between the original language and its original medium through intermediation and the application of what I am calling triple language systems, in reference to the translator of all translators, the Rosetta Stone.

Translation is an ambient time-based work of digital poetry by John Cayley with generative music by Giles Perring (first published in 2004, pictured below). A black screen is gradually replaced by fragments of images of paper pages containing passages from Walter Benjamin’s essay, On Language as Such and on the Language of Man. These passages undergo an iterative algorithmic translation process, moving between computational, visual and textual realms, blurring boundaries between English, French, and German. The translation process is never finished, never fixed. There are currently four separate versions of Translation. Full descriptions and download instructions for each are available on John Cayley’s website

Translation - John Cayley and Giles Perring

Genesis is an interactive installation by Brazilian biotech poet Eduardo Kac (first exhibited at Ars Electronica in 1999). A sentence from an English translation of the biblical book of Genesis is translated into Morse code and then converted into genetic code. Much of what has been written about this well-known work has focused on the fascinating process by which a synthetic "artist's gene", written by the chemical base pairs that make up the DNA molecule mutates under viewer-activated ultraviolet light thereby creating a new translation of the biblical text. Less attention has been paid to the choice of Morse as an encoding language in this piece. The switch controlling the ultraviolet lights in Kac’s installation echoes the on-off states of telegraph transmission. Morse code has a similar binary logic to digital 0s and 1s, but Morse can be read by humans without a decoding device. Telegraph operators translated audible clicks into hand-written dots and dashes. Wireless operators translated the dit-dah sounds of short and long pulses directly into their phonemic, alphabetic equivalencies at speeds so great as to preclude them from being able to read as they wrote. In performing this act of translation their bodies became hybrid creatures, part medium, part scribe; human interfaces, closing the circuit between transmission and reception, signal and static, ear and hand, transcription and meaning.

The physical body is re-inserted into the translation process in on translation, a recent work by Vienna-based new media artist Michael Kargl. Two  triple language systems are operating in this work: a translation of a text from German to ASCII to binary, and a translation of this act of translation from a live performance, to a computer program, to an installation art work. During the live performance Kargl began writing a computer program that would translate a passage from Walter Benjamin’s essay The task of the Translator from ASCII-code to binary-code, and then back again. The encoding of the transcription from one sign system to the other, from one language to another, is interrupted by the free will and interpretation embodied in the person of the translator. Throughout the performance, Kargl – the translator, the programmer and the artist – sat hunched intently in a chair at a table over a computer < body class="artist" id="performance" style="position:absolute” > The video-documentation of this portion of on translation is itself a translation. It shows the first step: translating the idea of the translation into a code that could then perform this translation. Once this step is done, it doesn't need to be repeated. The program takes over the process of translation. The installation is a physical manifestation of the program at work. The video translation of the live performance is shown in connection with a machine within which the program written during the performance is live-translating the text from Walter Benjamin.

on translation was included in the group exhibition Übersetzung ist eine Form. | Translation is a mode, curated by Birgit Rinagl and Franz Thalmair of CONT3XT.NET (of which, Kargl is a member), at Kunstraum Niederoesterreich, Vienna, Austria, April 09, 2010 – May 11, 2010. The other artist/writers in the exhibition were: Arend deGryuter-Helfer / Aylor Brown, Gerhard Dirmoser, Aleksandra Domanovic, Jochen Höller, Annja Krautgasser, Miriam Laussegger / Eva Beierheimer, Michail Michailov, MTAA (M. River & T. Whid Art Associates), Jörg Piringer, Arnold Reinthaler, Veronika Schubert, Johanna Tinzl / Stefan Flunger. More information is available on the exhibition website: Übersetzung ist eine Form. | Translation is a mode

The Kora, a twenty-one-stringed harp-lute or bridge-harp,

“On the basis of available evidence,” writes Gregory Nagy, “it appears that rhapsodes did not sing the compositions that they performed but rather recited them without the accompaniment of the lyre” (6). Performers of the Homeric epic, rhapsodes recited epics as a group during festivals, taking turns to perform each part. Neither did rhapsodes compose epics for such occasions; rather, they recited learned poems from memory. Furthermore, rhapsodes did not sing the epics at all; the mode of performance was recitation.

Griots, in contrast, are families of traveling musicians. The existence of Griots, and their roles in society, was first documented in writing in the fourteenth century, according to Thomas A. Hale, and Griots continue to operate within many contemporary communities on the African continent (250). Traditional Griot instruments include the kora, the balafon (or bala), and the nyanyer.  Young Griots study these instruments by going to live with a teacher, such as an uncle. Gambia-born Mandinka Griot Foday Musa Suso describes the kora as a “sweet-sounding, twenty-one-stringed harp-lute” and states that it is the most difficult African instrument to play (50). The body of the kora is made from a calabash gourd and the skin is cowhide (Suso 58). The pole of the kora is made of hardwood, called keno, while fishing line is used for the strings (Suso 59).

The oldest of the Griot instruments, the balafon resembles the xylophone. “The bala are hit with mallets that are made from hard wood. When you hit the key, the sound is amplified by the calabash gourd that lies beneath each note. The membranes, covering the tiny hole in each gourd, are usually made from cigarette papers. The papers give the gourds a buzzing timbre” (Suso 62). The last instrument Suso describes is the nyanyer. “The nyanyer is an instrument of the Fulani people, who migrated from Egypt and now live all over West Africa. It’s made of a small gourd that’s covered by iguana skin. The one-stringed horsetail nyanyer fiddle is played with a horsetail bow” (64).

According to Jali Kunda: Griots of West African & Beyond:

In Mali, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia, the Griot (or Jali) is an itinerant historian, musician and entertainer. For eight hundred years — since the beginning of the Malian Empire — Griots have preserved their region’s history and lore, passing them down orally through arduous apprenticeships, providing a cultural cohesion that endured both colonization and its aftermath (Preface 6).

As Hale points out in his extensive study of Griot cultures, there is great cultural, linguist, and historical variety in how these traditions manifest themselves. For example, the functions performed by Griots and Griottes (female Griots) are numerous, and vary within different cultural contexts and communities.

Often described simply as “praise-singers” because singing praises is the most obvious and audible function they perform, Griots and Griottes actually contribute to their own societies in so many other ways that “praise-singer” becomes a far too limited description. For example, they are also historians, genealogists, advisors, spokespersons, diplomats, interpreters, musicians, composers, poets, teachers, exhorters, town criers, reporters, and masters of or contributors to a variety of ceremonies (naming, initiation, weddings, installations of chiefs, and so on) (Hale 250-51).

Griots have the power to name the past, as historians and genealogists for example, and to put the future in motion — even helping to determine what shape the future will take — in their roles as advisors, diplomats, and overseers of important rituals. Griots’ songs, then, both encompass and surpass the societal functions of Classical literature, including Greek literature’s focus on the praising of famous deeds. 


Hale, Thomas A. “From the Griot of Roots to the Roots of Griot: A New Look at the Origins of a Controversial African Term for Bard.” Oral Tradition 12.2 (1997): 249-278. Print.

 Nagy, Gregory. “Early Greek Views of Poets and Poetry.” Classical Criticism. Ed. George Kennedy. Cambridge University Press, 1989. Cambridge Histories Online. Cambridge University Press. 17 March 2011.

“Preface.” Matthew Kopka and Iris Brooks, eds. Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond. Roslyn, NY: Ellipsis Arts, 1996. 6. Print.

Suso, Foday Musa. “Jali Kunda: A Memoir.” Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond. Matthew Kopka and Iris Brooks, eds. Roslyn, NY: Ellipsis Arts, 1996. 17-72. Print.

Martha Rhodes, Lawrence Joseph, Cornelius Eady, J. Chester Johnson, Major Jackson, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Lee Briccetti (center, at the dais) and The Rev. Canon Anne Mallonee, Vicar (fourth from left) at yesterday’s Poets House event at Trinity Wall St.: “Ten Years After September 11, 2001, Remembrance and Reconciliation Through Poetry.” Photograph by Lawrence Schwartzwald.

Eileen Myles, "Snakes"

Eileen Myles in October 2008. Photo by Annemarie Poyo Furlong.


Eileen Myles wrote “Snakes” just as she was assigning children in a friend’s Provincetown poetry workshop to write a poem with the following not-so-constraining-seeming constraint: “Be any age and go down the drain with it.” Her poem, then, is something of a pedagogical model, an exercise in teaching by participation. Or perhaps the assignment she gave the students simply felt so alluring to her — befit her own aesthetic so well — that she couldn’t help but try it herself, regardless of her role as young writers’ guide.  This was in 1997 or so. By January 1998 she was reading the poem at the Ear Inn in New York. It was published in The Massachusetts Review also in 1998.

Sarah Dowling, Michelle Taransky, and Charles Alexander (Charles was visiting from the Southwest, and delighted us with a poetry reading the same day) joined Al Filreis in Al’s studio office at the Kelly Writers House to discuss this poem. Charles had spoken with Eileen Myles before the recording and was able to confirm our hunch about the poem’s derivation from the workshop exercise. Then Charles wonders aloud: once we establish that specific motive or origin for the poem, we must ask what does putting something — let alone a poem — down the drain mean, and how does it manifest itself in the writing itself? Charles begins that part of our discussion by suggesting that it might be something akin to going down the rabbit hole.  Memory moving crossways and around — quick-cut fast and time-disordering slow at once.

Some kind of domestic memories (not surprising given the poem’s emergence out of the subject position of a six-year-old). Michelle Taransky hears and identifies domestic details, such that the going-down-the-drainness of the poem seems to connect us with a vortexical memory of the domestic situation in the child. Charles senses that the six-year-old seems mostly unaware of the loss.  Michelle notes the percussiveness of phrases varying from “I was six,” and suggests that the poem is about a collision of perspectives: being the non-six-year-old (an adult teacher-poet “doing” six) and, in the present of the poem’s drained fiction, being persistently just six.

Al asks how much temptation there is to read the poem allegorically. Sarah responds by thinking through the importance of the snake. “I lost my snake,” she quotes. For her, the lost figure casts its curling shadow over the rest of the poem. Does the snake belong to the “I” (as a pet, it seems), the poem’s speaker at the beginning?  Okay, but then the snake seems also to be the “reptile child” we see toward the end. Sarah comes to believe that “Snakes” is about a domestic moment of loss. The loss of self, the loss of a daughter from a mother (the “I” with the husband?), the loss of the reptile-child self.  The group sees evidence in the poem that being six years old can convey a disempowering sensation in extremis. The repetition of “I am six” is at times “silly” (also at times “comic booky”) but creates a sense of entrapped stupidity — a way of feeling in advance what it’s going to be like to be unsuccessful at being an adult. Al several times proffers an historical reading of the situation as specifically a Cold War-era domesticity; this is not so much taken up by the others as accepted as contributing to the overall heightened sense of feared big loss, tramping feet with music blaring at the end of the war, comic-book-sized quasi-allegory about runaway reptiles, domestication gone awry, etc.

James LaMarre was our director and engineer, while Steve McLaughin, as always, edited this episode.