Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Finnegan's Wake into Latin: The (ultimate) deformed reading of the (ultimate) deformed text? [#DH]

I know that Deformed; a' has been a vile
thief this seven year; a' goes up and down like a
gentleman: I remember his name.
Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
Adam Roberts has teamed up with Google Translate to render Finnegan's Wake into Latin. Sounds crazy, no? And he's written a blog post to explain why and how.
Somebody needs to engage critically/theoretically with Google Translate. It's a fascinating programme in many ways. It doesn't ‘translate’. It compares source text with a triaged selection of already existing online translations and spits out the result. It's the world's most voracious and least discriminating ‘reader’ of texts. Puts professors to shame.

Anyway: at odd moments over a couple of weeks, and depending on my time and inclination, I would prep chapters of the Wake and feed them to the machine. Then I would work through the raw quasi-Latin that came out the other side. This involved sieving the text through various filters: sometimes search-and-replacing specific things throughout the whole text, sometimes going through line by line and altering bits of the finished project. Quite a lot of Latin is included in Joyce's original Wake actually, and in those cases I had to translate into English, obviously. And there were lots of other fiddly things that proved needful, or so it seemed to me. Indeed, I could easily have spent many months going through the text, titivating it in various ways, Latinising the myriad unrefined (or uncontaminated, depending in your point of view) nuggets that had passed through the filter of Google Translate unLatinised. But I had neither the free time, nor anything like the requisite motivation, to do that. Instead I mucked about with the text in various ways and then just walked away, leaving some parts of the Pervigilium Finneganis worked by me, some Latinspattered by unrevised Google Translate, and a few spots of the original Wake-y canvas visible between the application of the paint, like a Pollock painting. I worked quickly, until I reached a point where the book looked texturally interesting when I, as it were, stepped back and squeezed up my eyes. The judgment becomes whether its scribbled and scratchy texture approximates to the scribbled and scratchy texture of the Joycean original.
Still sounds crazy. 

We might want, instead of engaging in the process of making the Wake easier to read, to explore the ways it resists being comprehended, even to the extent of producing a midrash upon it that moves comprehension markedly further away from us. That seems like it might be an interesting thing to do, don't you think? At any rate, that's what I did. My partner G.T. and I rustled up the text.
All of which reminds me of that (perhaps) strangest form of digital humanities, deformative reading, in which one uses a computer to rearrange a text in more or less arbitrary ways in hopes of stimulating the critic to interesting flights of interpretive fancy. It also reminds of the (inspired?) weirdness that ensues when one feeds Google Translate with nonsense strings. Language Logs has a number of posts on this subject. You can find them collected under "Elephant semifics", which gathers in some other nonsense as well.

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