The goal of our experiment was to examine the process of inter-semiotic translation. Often when we think of translation, we think of it as being limited to a small realm of language scholars and dictionaries. We do not regularly think of translation as occurring constantly inside and around us between different media, such as electrical impulses, sound waves, or light rays. An utterance, for example, manifests as a pattern of neural firings in one person’s brain and translates into the movement of air through vocal chords, sound waves, pressure against another person’s ear drum, and ultimately neural activity in a listener’s brain. We could break this process further down into other intermediary inter-semiotic translations. When a message is translated from one person’s brain to another’s, what exactly is it that gets translated? In trying to answer this question, Katie and I decided we would do our own experiment in which we would use a NASA recording of the sound of Uranus as the background of an improvised story, which we would then translate into a poem and finally adapt into a painting.
In theory, we can translate anything to anything with the right algorithm. Some procedure, or algorithm, that maps objects in one set to objects in another set would be necessary. The algorithm that would relate the two sets could be as complicated as we would need it to be. For example, we use infrared sensors to translate the distribution of heat in the environment into colors of the visible spectrum, viewable on a screen. Indeed, ocean waves are constantly translating the forces of the environment, such as the moon and the wind, that affect their flow. Ocean waves are thus translations of the forces of the moon and wind. If we adopt this disorienting view of reality, in which anything can be translated into anything, we must shift our focus from the product of translation, and instead look at the process, the algorithm that relates the sets.
With this perspective we are free to observe our own impulsive reactions as translation algorithms. We started with the music of distant planets as a source text. This source text, of course, was already a translation to begin with, rather than an “original.” A few of NASA’s circulating satellites captured the radio signals emitted off of several different planets in the solar system, and so translated electromagnetic radiation into music. While listening to the haunting, hollow sounds of Uranus, which are easily accessible on YouTube, we improvised a story and recorded ourselves. The goal was to create the story impulsively, live, collaboratively, and without judgment, in order to maintain a dialogic, improvisational character to our reactionary translations. This was important for blending our voices, both visually and verbally. The planetary music ended up being both a conversation partner and a setting for our story.
Next, we each translated the story we had recorded and improvised into our own poems. We then traded our poems and responded visually to each other’s poem. Not only did we translate our story, which included Uranus as a voice, into poetry, but we also translated it between us in visual form. In this way, the information of the original story was refracted in multiple ways through our improvisational translations. It was no longer possible to delineate our voices even within works that we did independently, or to separate the visual and verbal languages.
I was especially inspired by the visual/verbal collaborative experimentation between Allen Ginsberg and Karel Appel and Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers detailed by Hazel Smith and Roger Dean in Improvisation, Hypermedia, and the Arts Since 1945 (175-189.) In each experiment, improvisation was an important element because it allowed for an immediate reaction between verbal and visual media. The artists could respond to each other as though in a conversation, and the visual and verbal elements were not isolated from each other. In other words, the artists created an inter-semiotic dialogue that began to merge text and image, in part because of the improvisational immediacy of the response. In the first pair, Appel drew while Ginsberg wrote in a color of his choosing. The second pair, O’Hara and Rivers, created a lithograph with image and text that could be read both entirely as text and entirely as image. Images acquired a symbolic, referential capacity, while the visual impact of words was also emphasized. The title of one of O’Hara and River’s collaboration, “US,” merges text and image in this way.
Our visual pieces do have an illustrative relationship with the text we created. In my painting, Katie’s pin that holds the universe together is attempting to pin down the loose, jumbled network. In Katie’s painting, the apple core is visibly moving through the space. The apple core image was something Katie had first uttered in our story. The pin also happened to be an image I had first described with words. We ended up instinctively translating the same metaphors we had created, both verbally and visually, but we passed them between each other.
Neither of us can really claim ownership of any of the elements, since they acquire their full meaning within the context of our entire collaboration. The images are a fitting visual metaphor for the translation process, which is jumbled, messy, knotted, but gets to the chewed-up core of meaning. Or rather, the core is being thrown out, as in Katie’s painting, because it is not really important. There is no core meaning, and there is no original work, but only a series of transformations that take place within a person who is making meaning at a moment in time. Each work is a documentation of a specific transformation in time, and only one of countless possible versions.
In answering the question we started with, “What is translation?” we discovered that there might not be an essential kernel of information, but simply series of reactions. We are free to play with and observe the transformations that take place all around us to uncover the hidden ways we make meaning all the time. We encourage you all to have fun and play!
Uranus is screaming
her siren howl
through a dark hole.
I’m a picture
of a voiceless
gaping scream, forever
falling, a chewed
apple core hurtling
towards a trash
heap of cores.
Drowning in a sea of air that holds us suspended
the sky can’t be pinned down so I gave up trying,
I had been sorting my own shadows refracted on the surface
I hiccuped from lack of oxygen, holding for longer than I needed, lost my footing and fell in to you.
A tingle formed at base of my spine, it caught and ran my back
pulling you in
Pitched together, bobbing in the black water of uncertainty
Expecting to wake, hoping the dream this time would last
As the minnows nibble at the dead skin on my toes
I remember the seeds in my pocket
They shivered, wet against my thigh at the possibility