I recently realized that, in Spanish, experimentar means both “to experiment” and “to experience.” This is so obvious that I wonder if I’ve known it subconsciously, without ever having paused to process the implications of the verbs in Spanish and English being both true and false friends. The propositions that human experience is always experimental (no single experience can ever be replicated) and that the experimental can only be arrived at through process seem to be implicit in the language. Also, why not, that a person with experience might be a person well versed in the practice of experiencing things with an experimentalist’s curiosity and rigor.

It doesn’t seem random that I’d have this insight when self-translating a series of poems on Luis Barragán’s "emotional architecture" for a project by artist Iñaki Bonillas dealing with the secret life of the iconic Mexican architect. Barragán aimed for his architecture to prompt a range of emotional responses in those inhabiting it, which touches on translation matters. How does a framed view of a garden translate into a sense of serenity? How is it ecstatic to witness the spectacle of trees casting shadows on walls designed as screens for sunlight’s silent projections? Why is it thrilling to travel through narrow, dimly lit corridors to arrive at surprisingly spacious, high-ceilinged rooms? Is emotion generated through contrast and the play with expectations? One thing is certain: the photograph is not this architecture’s métier. A building’s full potential is only achieved when one moves from one room to another, experiencing its narrative—one that unfolds cinematically in the passage from one scene to the next.


If I were to coin a new literary genre in which a text’s fabric is woven around the kind of translation findings that unlock language’s potentialities, I’d put Anna Moschovakis’s They and We Will Get into Trouble for This (2016) in the category. Only by rubbing one language against another might we perceive a differential that charges words with near animistic power. It might be something like Duchamp’s theory of the infrathin, a “sensitivity to difference,” an awareness of its generative potential. In Moschovakis’s book, amid other reflections on lexical equivalence, the French verb entraîner—in psychoanalytic texts not synonymous with the verb it most immediately translates into, “to train,” and instead closer to “to pull” or “to carry away or along,“ or even the notion of contagion—serves as a hinge for an expansive meditation on the transmission of affect, and, consequently, on the conditions of empathy.

They and We Will Get into Trouble for This is a celebration of ongoingness—two of its four long poems (one of them running as a footer across the book’s pages, which is the source of the quotation above) are posited as films composed of a succession of lines either bracketed or between m-dashes, whose montage produces meaning of the type that refuses to settle. The third piece in the book, “Flat White (20/20),” consists of “compromised translations” of poems by the Algerian Francophone poet Samira Negrouche interspersed with Moschovakis’s responses to them, commentary on process, and queries of the originals, of which we get but tiny glimpses. All of these materials are granted equal status, and how corrupt the translations are is impossible to gage since we don’t get the originals or any versions announcing themselves as faithful. Here there is no one-to-one correspondence between original and translation and originals spawn numerous versions. As we know, the term translation means etymologically “to carry across” and comes from the Latin trans + latus, which happens to relate to toleratus, to tolerate. The translation process then, for Moschovakis, in revealing potentialities and providing an opportunity to experience and experiment with empathy is but another form of poetry.

3. If popcorn could speak...

Nina Katchadourian, detail of <em>Kansas Cut-Up</em> (2014) from Sorted Books, 1993–ongoing.

I recently had the opportunity to see Brooklyn­–based artist Nina Katchadourian’s survey exhibition, Curiouser, at the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas. I was happily surprised to realize that a substantial part of the exhibition involved some form of translation or another. I’ve followed her work for many years, but I’d never considered her projects through that lens of translation.

For one of her ongoing series, Sorted Books (begun in 1993), Katchadourian organizes a selection of books in a given person’s library so that their titles form cut-up poems. These poems take the form of photographs of stacked books. Fittingly, there’s a series made with Burroughs’s library in Kansas. Sorting Shark, which appears below, was done at the home of poet Lytle Shaw and artist Emilie Clark (coeditors of the defunct art and poetry journal Shark) in New York in 2001:

A Day at the Beach
The Bathers
Shark 1
Shark 2
Shark 3
Sudden Violence

Nina Katchadourian, view from Talking Popcorn (2001) installation in the exhibition Curiouser at Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, on view through June 11, 2017.

Perhaps the most eloquent of Katchadourian’s experiments with translation is the piece Talking Popcorn (2001), which converts the sounds that kernels make when popping into Morse code through a hidden computer that then emits the decoded text. Occasionally an English-sounding word can be made out amid the incomprehensible sputtering of the machine, as when we hear a foreign language and we start hearing particles of recognizable words. The first discernible English-language word that the machine ever sputtered was we—the pronoun automatically building a bond between the artifact and the listener, turning the utterance into a speech act. That is, the possibility of mutual understanding becomes the basis of the provisional community posited by the first-person plural pronoun. Katchadourian memorializes it by casting the popcorns that produced the word we in bronze and showing them inside an elegant velvet display case. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if visitors speaking a variety of languages assembled to listen to the popcorn machine and transcribed what each of them heard—what might sound like “What a beautiful day” to one of them might be “Kay’s bone eat toe Dia” to another.  The transcriptions could be woven into a polyglot popcorn sound poem.

Judging from records of different instances of the artifact’s talking in some of the transcriptions that Katchadourian displays alongside the popcorn machine in her show, it is likely that all we’d get is grumblings, interjections, and the like. In Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language, scholar Daniel Heller-Roazen reminds us that onomatopoeias, interjections, exclamations, and imitations of animal sounds are utterances in which “the intensity of a language is nowhere as great […] Nowhere is a language more ‘itself’ than at the moment it seems to leave the terrain of sound and sense."

4. Spanish?

It is as if the Mexican book artist and conceptualist Ulises Carrión wanted to prove the very fact discussed by Heller-Roazen in the sound poems he recorded on a cassette tape for the album The Poet’s Tongue (1977). Take the piece “First Spanish Lesson,” which consists of a recording of Carrión asking and responding to questions meant to determine whether different permutations of the phrase “¿Es español?” (“Is it Spanish?”) constitute proper Spanish or not. A brief excerpt:

¿Es pañol español?
No, pañol no es español.
¿Es paño español español?
Sí, paño español es español.
¿Es paño españoles español?
No, paño españoles no es español.
¿Es paños españoles español?
Sí, paños españoles es español.

Is pañol Spanish?
No, pañol is not Spanish.
Is Spanish lace Spanish?
Yes, Spanish lace is Spanish.
Is Spanishes lace Spanish?
No, Spanishes lace is not Spanish.
Is Spanish laces Spanish?
Yes, Spanish laces is Spanish.

As the sound piece reaches hilarity—imagine listening to all of its seven minutes and four seconds!—the language straddles the line between sense and nonsense. The threat of its descending into utter gibberish when being recombined through a seemingly endless number of possible patterns is precisely what confirms the structures of Spanish grammar and the communicability of Carrión’s piece. In other words, the translation experiment that Carrión undertakes reaffirms the listeners’ grasp of the rules of Spanish grammar and involves an effort on our part to isolate sounds and visualize them on a written register. Yet it’s equally easy to get lost in the poem’s cascading and repeating sounds—either for lack of Spanish or for succumbing to the confusion promoted by the piece—and nearly impossible to actually follow the logic of the Q&A. On one level, whether what we hear “is Spanish or not” becomes irrelevant, since the piece is enjoyable precisely because of the slippages from the proper to the improper and back, which masterfully troubles notions of mastery.

At the time of making the recordings in The Poet’s Tongue, Carrión had relocated to Amsterdam, claimed to have stopped writing in Spanish, and had no intention of returning to Mexico. He’d begun writing manifestos on artists’ books and conceptual poetry in English. The elation coming from not having to master a language in order to be active in it (which Carrión had written to Octavio Paz about in 1972) is at the core of the works in the album.

5. Go Sister

Uljana Wolf’s overdue bilingual volume of selected poems, Subsisters, forthcoming from Belladonna* and translated from the German by Sophie Seita, is a monument to generative slips within and between languages. Or “lengevitchs” I should say, quoting Wolf quoting a poet by the name of Kurt M. Stein who wrote in a German dialect that incorporated English loan words and idiomatic phrases back in the 1920s.

I’m taken by the title of Wolf’s book for its multiple layers, its humor and word play, its intelligence—qualities shared by all the works in the collection, it goes without saying. A few sections of the book deal with hysteria, and an epigraph of Breuer and Freud’s Studies on Hysteria attributes women’s propensity toward it to needlework, which in turn induces daydreaming. Asked to blurb the book, in the compressed and perhaps somewhat didactic manner characteristic of the genre, I wrote this (as well as another paragraph I do not quote):

How fitting that one of this marvelous book’s subtexts (from the Latin subtextere, "to weave under, work in below") be two-fold, twined: Walter Benjamin’s dictum that languages are related in what they seek to express—the kin here being sisters—and that translation is the text’s afterlife. Read, its possibility to subsist.

What the blurb doesn’t mention is that the title “Subsisters” is taken from the poems in the second part of the book, which is framed by an epigraph by Eric Cazdyn that reads: “All subtitles invariably transform the original text…” At first I was puzzled by the contents of the section, which include a series of poems labeled as “original versions,” followed by their subtitled, and thus transformed versions, and then the actual subtitles sometimes combining German and English in white type over black boxes. What perplexed me was that the Seita’s versions of the poems included yet another set of poems labeled “English versions.” So if there are three items in the German originals, in the English there are four. As you’d expect, the subtitles for the German originals and the English versions don’t correspond word for word (just like when you go from one language to another and then back to it through Google translate). Rereading “Subsisters” I earned (I hope) my aha! moment. Rendering the originals into English produces subtitled versions that in turn transform the already transformed poems, and hence the “English versions” are the residue of the process of going from German to English to German again, and then back to English. Or better yet, poems doing without subtitles and now dubbed in English.

If this sounds muddled, it’s because the passage from one version to the next is not so easy to track. That is precisely what is so captivating about the series. The system’s underlying logic seems associative—as if whichever associations prompted by the particular arrangement of words and images in a poem were folded into its subsequent version, and the process kept unfolding. The result is a series of sister texts casting aside hierarchies.

Consider the following lines from the fifth poem in the series, titled “(Marlene)”:

Original version:

marlene is a ventriloquist now. another sings a song: there once was a tailcoat that later turned to dust, and our nieces, too, began to rust, marie, malade, madame.

Original version with subtitles:

suddenly she raises her voice, without a body, to a song, a rumoring dark tailcoat vents drolly another sin, dusting the niches, where our missus is a mirage, mal d’art.


English version:

the mirage suits the doll who sings a song, toll! suddenly praises her choices, those bodies in trellis, tailed and coated, ein rumoren from the venting crowds, her entourage, vielleicht morgen, mal d’aubade, how schade.

The chain could go on if the German poems were to respond to the English version, which probably was composed by both Wolf and Seita. Somewhere in the book this line appears: “Two heads are better than ohne,ohne meaning "without" in German. Given their multilingualism and non-tautological procedural approaches, the poems in Wolf’s Subsisters are hydra-headed, definitively open-ended. Rad.

Down with binaries! Here's to experimental translations that go beyond the, by now, sort of predictable homophonic method.

Originally Published: April 27th, 2017

Poet, translator, and scholar Mónica de la Torre was born and raised in Mexico City. She earned a BA from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and, with the support of a Fulbright scholarship, relocated to New York in 1993 to pursue an MFA and a PhD in Spanish literature...