Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wonders of the Babelfish

Who remembers the Babelfish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which translates every language when inserted into a person's ear? Today's circuitous route of wordplay began when I logged into and read a story about an exchange student who became malnourished while overseas. The boy's father suspected Stockholm syndrom. I didn't know what this was, so I looked it up online. I found a block of text where the content was emotional but the tone very dry and clinical. I wondered about the text's potential for transformation.

When I was in high school, I was friends with a couple of exchange students from Germany and France. I loved listening to them speak because their near fluency caused them to use English words in uncustomary ways that made literal sense but were not colloquial. They seemed to refresh the language.

Juliana Spahr used the Altavista Bablefish while composing her chapbook about Hawaii, things of each possible relation hashing against one another. She wrote poems in English, then translated them into other languages and back into English. Since the translations are literal, word order gets mixed up. Syntax is skewed. Some nuances are lost and others created.

This is a way of using chance to refresh language, one of the many ways a writer can mitigate her tired language assumptions. What I did, after translating my block of text into Russian and then back again, was to pick out the best, most surprising lines and arrange them into a poem. Maybe I didn't completely "write" it, but I did make artisitic decisions in arranging it.

strategies for to remain living

They focus on kindness’s captors. As a result,
victims know much about captors, less about themselves.
An honest reaction to the destructive working,
victims are encouraged to begin
psychological characteristics pleasing to captors.
Both feel the fear also as love in these high anxiety acts.
Victims from the existing versions
know the impossibility to act, decide, think, etc.
Perceiving their victimizers as omnipotent,
victims fasten psychologically to captors.


  1. Ah, the "All your base are belong to us" style of poetry! Cool. Schizophrenics are also good at this kinda thing. Last night there was a rerun of a CSI episode where a schizophrenic character traded a ring for a flashlight and said "Now I can see what the dark looks like."

  2. That's a great quote! It makes me think of an anecdote told by Rachel Pollack: "In the beginning, there was nothing. And God said, 'Let there be light.' There was still nothing, but you could see it."

  3. That was Rachel Pollack? I thought that was Ellen Degeneres.