As a blogger, looking over the program of offerings for the first day of the American Literary Translators’ Association (ALTA) Conference in October, “Translation and the Digital Age” was a must. Not knowing what to expect, I attended, anticipating some discussion of the benefits or detriments of digital publishing for literature in translation. What I found was much more unexpected and exciting. Moderated by none other than Rainer Schulte, acclaimed translator, co-founder of ALTA, and founder of the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, the illustrious panelists unveiled a demonstration of digital tools they are developing to “assist with understanding and creating new translations,” using Arthur Rimbaud’s “Voyelles” as an example. The tools, all of which operate through a touch-based interface, engage the senses in the interpretation of works in other languages. Frank Dufour, Director of the doctoral program in Arts and Technology at UT Dallas, demonstrated a tool that allows users to create and compare recordings of the poem in English and French, visually mapping the rhythms of the poem and its English translations with sonographs to evaluate the sonic quality of the approximations. [This unprecedented feat provoked questions later on from the audience as to whether it might be possible to engage the senses of smell and touch in the future.] However, in all seriousness, I can see wonderful applications for reviewers who don’t know the sound of the original language, allowing for a comparison of the music achieved by the translation.
The tool I personally found most compelling was one of the more simple, allowing users to compare multiple translations of the poem line by line. In the extract of their slide demonstration, below, you can see the names of nine different translators of Rimbaud appear at the bottom of the screen. The user selects one of the translators and simply drags his name onto the poem, pulling up that translation en face. Then, the user clicks on the word “Golfes”/”Gulfs” to explore further. Other possible translations of “golfes” are suggested by the tool, and the user elects to replace “gulfs” in William John Robertson’s translation with “chasm.” Clearly, for a translator working on a new translation of a classic work, having multiple translations at her fingertips and being able to manipulate them in this way could be invaluable.
Even more fascinating to me was the demonstration of the “Associations” tool by Michele Rosen, Executive Director of ALTA. Selecting the syllable “gla” from the French, she was able to pull up the definition and origins of this French sound, and ten different translations of the line in which it appears. The syllable “gla” is highlighted where it appears in the translations, making for easy visual comparison down the lines of text. Many of the translators used a variation of glacier/glacial, the closest cognate to the French word. The comparison helped to illuminate the unusual choice of “glaives” by Rimbaud’s most recent translator, Christian Bok. Such a tool makes the reviewer’s task of penetrating a translator’s work, even from a language he doesn’t know, infinitely easier.
While the tool is still in development, the team from UT Dallas anticipates launching the module that compares translations to original texts, along with two other features, by May 2014. More details about the other two modules will be available in January at their site Translation & the Digital Age, where you can view the full slide presentation, of which the above is an extract, try your hand at two interactive explorations of the features, and view their excellent handout from the panel, which includes highly practical tips on writing content for digital platforms. In addition, for those who are adept at coding, Cassini Nazir, a Professor in the Arts and Technology program at UT Dallas, who is responsible for the programming aspects of the tool creation, has generously made his codes available here on GitHub. I encourage you to sign up to receive email updates on their tool creation, and to spread the word about this exciting tool and its applications. I’m optimistic that, with this tool in hand, we can expect deeper critical reviews of translations in the near future.