By Tony Pizzo
During my first semester retreat to the Atlantic Center for the Arts last January, I attended many eye-opening poetry workshops analyzing the vast selections of form, process, and purpose available to me in this curious expanded field. Among them was a focus on translation, taught by the wonderful John Pluecker. You know those rainbow-colored plastic Hoberman spheres that expand into massive shapes when you pitch and pull them apart? That’s what we did to translation. We exploded the concept, froze time, and inspected every angle of the debris. From this probing, I took away a few cardinal points.
On the surface, translation appears to be a process of A -> B. However, poetic translation is not like baking a cake. For one, you can’t unbake that cake.1 In addition to conversion, a translation process can be intiated and then reversed mid-way to spawn new syntax. It can be generative, creating a third tongue by applying a transmogrifying rule to two parent languages. It can be a filter, erecting thematic firewalls that block or divert certain parts of speech. The modus operandi need not be linear, or even particularly linguistic.
The process of the translation is where the bounds of your medium dissipate. No one said you must translate one language to another. A few of my favorite examples from the workshop include2:
-Homophonic: translate the words into something new based on their sounds, separate from your knowledge of their definitions. Particularly interesting with an unknown language.
-Responsive: Strike up a conversation with the piece. Respond to each word, line, or stanza. Be polite, antagonistic, generous, nosy, absent.
-Interrogative: Consider fragments of the text as questions or answers, create the missing half. You can add additional steps and repeat the method with your new results.
-Structural: Maintain the skeleton (organization, length, breaks, punctuation) of the poem but substitute all new words.
-Audio Filter: Translate your piece through a sonic space. Listen to the poem with one ear, the other open to the audial experience or location of your choosing. Let all the little sonic artifacts you take in from both sources meld to produce an altered piece.
Now on to the cube. In fact, the Rubik’s Cube has its own language: the notation of the moves. There are 6 moveable faces on the cube (Up, Down, Left, Right, Front, Back) and algorithms, or chained sequences of moves, are written in the order of clockwise or counterclockwise rotations of those faces. One of the most ubiquitous algorithms in the speedsolving world is known as “The Sexy Move”, notated like this:
R U R’ U’
Translated to english, that reads: Right face clockwise, Up face clockwise, Right face counterclockwise, Up face counterclockwise. Now, what would happen if we translate something in English into the Rubik’s Cube, using its own alphabet?
F U L2 B U D
Applying this algorithm to the cube causes something magical to occur. In this moment you have transcended time and space, broken at least a couple thermodynamic laws, slapped Einstein right in his goofy face as you alchemized english words into a perfectly unique permutation, or arrangment, of a rubik’s cube. Your words can no longer be read, they cannot be written down, but they are indeed sown into this colorful plastic toy.
At this point I encourage a subtle bending of the rules; an expansion of the alphabet is very possible by repurposing ‘ (the mark to indicate a counterclockwise move) as the letter ‘I’, or the middle layer of the cube as ‘M’. Or instead, throw notation away entirely! Label unique hand movements of your design as words and paint a piece with a cube performance. Scramble the cube while you recite a piece until you reach the end and treasure the undoubtedly unrepeatable translation you’ve landed on. After all, the traditional 3×3 rubik’s cube has 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 unique permutations. Whatever you do, do it with a cube. They are super fun.
2 Antena. How to Write (More).http://antenaantena.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/howtowrite_eng.pdf How to Write (More), Antena, 2012.